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Answer Sheet: Going Back to School: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Going back to school during the coronavirus pandemic has elicited a jumble of emotions for teachers, students and parents, who have both wanted to see kids back in school buildings but also have feared the risk of contracting covid-19.

This post reports on the experiences of people who have returned to school for the 2020-2021 school year in various school districts. It was written by Carol Burris, an award-winning former principal and now executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy organization that supports traditional public school districts.

The organization has been tracking 37 school districts in Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, representing more than 195,000 students plus thousands of staff in areas with county covid-19 rates ranging from 0 percent to 5.9 percent. All school districts require the wearing of masks, and Pennsylvania schools have active sports programs. The districts studied were in counties that had low coronavirus rates and required wearing masks.

Burris was the long-serving principal of South Side High School in New York’s Rockville Centre School District; the high school is mentioned in her report below. In 2010, she was recognized by the School Administrators Association of New York State as its outstanding educator of the year, and in 2013, she was recognized as the New York state high school principal of the year.

By Carol Burris

No one could have been happier than Cooper Knorr when he returned to school this September. Cooper, who bravely battles osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly known as brittle bone disease, had just recovered from his 10th major surgery following his 90th broken bone when his school shut down last spring. “My eyes would hurt from looking at the computer screen,” he said. “In school, it is so much easier to learn.”

“School is his life,” his mother told me. “He is so excited to be back.”

At the same time that she was delighted for him, however, Christine Brown was battling anxiety about returning to the high school where she teaches English. “I was worried. I wished I could stay home,” she said. … I’m not a frontline worker. But seeing the excitement of my own children going back and how grateful they are, my opinion shifted.”

Brown and Cooper Knorr were among the 15 teachers, administrators, parents and students I interviewed about returning to in-person schooling. Their school districts were in New York or Pennsylvania in areas where covid-19 is low, and as one superintendent told me, “We have a fighting chance.”

Unsurprisingly, feelings about the return to in-person teaching are complicated. Tamara Sommers teaches third-graders in Long Beach, New York. She and her special education co-teacher are back five days a week.

“I am normally a germaphobe. The rest of the world is now catching up to me,” she said with a laugh, admitting that she was initially frightened by the thought of return. “We began the week feeling nervous, but every day got better and better. We are solving the problems that arise.”

In rural New York, a middle school principal who requested anonymity opened his school in Columbia County, where there have been few cases. Nevertheless, a few of his teachers were terrified to come back. That changed, he told me, when the students arrived.

“Everyone was relieved. The kids are great at masks, although I sometimes need to remind the adults after school ends to keep them on,” he said. “We just have to work on our social distancing.”

Thom Hessel, a physics teacher at Rockville Centre’s South Side High School, is married to an intensive care doctor who worked through covid-19′s darkest days in New York this past spring. “I saw amazing ICU [intensive care unit] doctors nearly broken last spring,” he said.

Still, Hessel said, he felt cautiously optimistic about sending his own children back, as well as returning to his high school classroom. “I don’t trust the federal government right now, but I trust the state and the county. The other alternative is to hide under your bed.”

The kids are great

The educators in New York and Pennsylvania with whom I spoke reported that students were cooperative regarding wearing masks and following other safety rules. “The kids are really well behaved and excited to be in school,” Sommers told me. All attributed it to the appreciation that students feel for the chance to learn in person once again.

One of those grateful students is Kirill Kilfoyle, a senior at Wellington C. Mepham High School in Bellmore, N.Y. Although he could have remained on remote learning, he said, he wanted to return to school, and his parents agreed.

Kirill’s mother, Marla, was initially frightened at the thought of sending her son back but decided that the district, whose leaders and teachers she trusted, would make sure that safety measures were followed.

“My son has been back to work since July and has been wearing a face mask and understanding and following the safety protocols I put in place,” she said. “As time went on and the district began to share the protocols they plan to follow, I became more comfortable sending him back. I trust the teachers and the district.”

Being with friends was important to Kirill; however, he primarily based his decision on his remote learning experience last spring. “I don’t like online learning,” he said. “When I need it, I can get help in class. When I am home, it is too easy to get distracted.” Although he began with a hybrid schedule, he jumped at the chance when he was allowed to go back full time. “I am trying to have a normal day.”

Cristi Tursi, science director of the Long Beach School District, said she chose to send her two daughters back to their local parochial school full time. She told me she did so despite “twangs of fear and concern.” “Long Beach has guidelines for districtwide administrators, but I will still be in every school, so it didn’t make sense to keep my own children home,” she said. “We are a healthy family. We have confidence that if we were to get the virus, in the end, we would be fine.”

Not every parent feels as secure.

There are differences among the confidence levels of parents among districts, as reflected in the percentages of students who return. In the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District, an affluent and overwhelmingly white district on Long Island, 93 percent of the students made the same decision as Kirill. In Long Beach, where 36 percent of the students are Black or Latinx, and 37 percent of all students receive free or reduced-price lunch, 83 percent decided to return.

The Network for Public Education is following 37 districts in New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut that reopened — either hybrid or full time. Of the 23 districts that responded to our inquiry regarding remote learners, the average rate of students who opted to not attend in person was 21 percent. Percentages ranged from 6 percent of the school population to 50 percent. Larger percentages of students of color are associated with higher remote rates.

Superintendent Joe Roy said he has been carefully examining patterns among the 25 percent of students whose families chose remote learning in his district in Bethlehem, Pa.

For the most part, they are students from affluent families who have academic supports for learning at home, or conversely, are from the least affluent homes. The families of his district’s students of color, many of whom work in local warehouses, were hit harder by the pandemic and, therefore, are more reticent to send their children back to school.

Roy’s neighboring district, Allentown, where 86 percent of the students are Black or Latinx, decided to go all virtual after a parent survey showed a majority were not ready for in-person learning. One middle school teacher with whom I spoke, who requested anonymity, said he hopes that the schools open soon. Technology for remote learning has been an issue he told me — from hardware to poor connections.

“We are losing kids,” he said. “Our kindergarten enrollment is much lower than it has been in previous years. Of a class of 19, maybe 17 of my students log on to my early morning class. When I meet them later in the day, 12 or fewer show up. A 6½-hour day on Zoom is brutal. Some are keeping their cameras off, and others don’t respond. Many of my students can’t work independently.”

The challenges of in-person learning

Over half of the 37 districts we are following now bring some or all students back full time. Those schools that are using hybrid typically split students into two small cohorts that share the same teacher. Some bring those cohorts back three days one week and two days the following week. Others bring the cohorts back only two days a week — on consecutive days or staggered days with a fifth day when all stay home.

Although those I spoke with are glad to be back, school is certainly not the same as before the pandemic.

Kirill said he finds it difficult to see through the plexiglass barrier surrounding his desk, and Cooper said he misses sitting and talking with his friends. Sommers told me how her first day of school jokes fell flat because her mask hid her facial expressions. Other teachers told me how tiring it was to speak while wearing a mask.

Teaching students on their at-home days is challenging as well. Some schools are live-streaming classes to students at home, while others provide instruction asynchronously via worksheets, videos and assignments.

Jenn Wolfe, the 2021 New York state teacher of the year, teaches social studies in Oceanside High School. She teaches students in class while streaming instruction to those at home — and it can be difficult, she said.

For one thing, she said, it takes time to get all students logged in, and Internet connections sometimes drop. And it is difficult to pay enough attention to students in the class while dealing with distracting noises or behaviors arising from students at home.

“For me, the time I have with kids in the class is golden and I want to maximize that time,” she said. Because her district permits teachers to alternate between streaming and asynchronous instruction, she said she plans to experiment with having students log in for a few moments and then move to asynchronous, posted instruction to see which is more effective.

Educator Christine Brown in neighboring Rockville Centre also described the difficulties of teaching in-person and remote students simultaneously. “The work would be easier if I were staying home and only teaching remotely,” she admitted. She described the experience of teaching in-person and remote as “plates spinning in the air.”

“Reaching the kids at home is especially hard,” she said. “Some are school-ready, sitting up and ready to work. Others have hoodies up, or they are in their bedrooms.”

Brown’s colleague, math teacher Mary Coleman, agreed. “It’s a lot. I use my iPad to take attendance, my desktop computer to project the lesson and my laptop to keep an eye on the kids at home,” she said. Nevertheless, Coleman said she likes the idea of streaming. “I am learning how to use breakout rooms for real and virtual learners to help them socialize and be a part of the class.”

Even with her best streaming efforts, however, her students find it more challenging when at home. Coleman asked her students for feedback on how it was going. “Two-thirds reported that on the days they are home learning virtually, it is harder to learn. It is harder to focus and more difficult to process new material,” she said. Coleman concluded that there is “something about that body-to-body connection that somehow helps learning.”

And then there is the question of the teacher’s willingness to make the remote student a part of the class. One Port Washington, N.Y., parent, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, chose full-time remote instruction for her elementary school son. He is streamed into a class in a district where teachers had strongly objected to cameras in the class. “I am not sure I made the right decision,” she said. “He is like a fly on the wall in his class.”

Streamed instruction raises additional complications. Teachers acknowledged the inhibiting effect of teaching when others in the household might listen in. As a social studies teacher, Wolfe would naturally include discussions of the presidential election as part of her classes. She said she now worries that the robust discussions and debates she usually includes might lead to parent complaints.

“Sensitive topics like the election require preestablishing class norms and relationships with students in order to build the skills necessary for living in a democracy,” Wolfe said. “As parents walk through rooms, however, they might hear something they do not agree with and mistake healthy debate for electioneering.”

Brown said that this past spring, a parent in the district where she lives recorded and posted a class on social media.

As a high school English teacher, she said she knows literature can bring up sensitive issues in class discussions. “I teach Romeo and Juliet. In many ways, it is a play about bad parenting. … It ends with teenage suicide. We grapple with young people who hate because they are taught by adults to hate. For adolescents, school is a safe place where they can freely express their ideas. That dynamic changes when parents are listening in.”

Still, the other option, asynchronous learning on at-home days, has its drawbacks as well.

Lori Rusack, a fifth-grade teacher in Pennsylvania, told me that she is thrilled to be back in the classroom.

“I felt I lost so many kids in the spring,” she said. “I am much happier to be with children. I like our workflow of every other day in person-instruction. We call those days onstage days. The difficulty occurs on the offstage days, when students must independently do the work. It is hard to get all of the assignments in.”

Rusack said there were haves and have-nots in terms of parental supervision and support, depending upon family resources and work. She has resorted to giving out certificates for hybrid heroes, even giving one boy a quarter every time he hands in his work.

Discussing the pros and cons of all of the hybrid models, Superintendent Roy commented, “none of this is our preferred model.” However, he believes that hybrid learning with small groups of students has helped the contact tracing needed in order to keep everyone safe.

What we know so far about safety

The Bethlehem Area School District, which opened in August, serves 13,600 students educated in 22 schools. Over half are Black or Latinx, and 60 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. The district has a website that keeps the public up to date on coronavirus data. There have been 19 students or staff members who have tested positive, but no outbreaks in the schools.

The city of Bethlehem, which has its own health department, advises the superintendent how to proceed. Some cases require no action — such as second-shift workers who had no contact with others. In other cases, there has been contact tracing and small group quarantine.

So far, infections have resulted from activities outside the school, including carpools, flag football and a Bible study class. “Because we know that the cases are not coming from in-school spread, we can quarantine small groups but not shut down,” Roy said.

To date, we have not seen reports of in-school spread in any of the districts we are following. While some have experienced cases of covid-19 that resulted in short closures for contact tracing and cleaning, most cases have resulted in small group quarantine. All of the schools we are following require students and staff to wear masks.

That, however, is not always the case. A southern Illinois teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, told me of the absolute terror she feels each day because some of her colleagues are casual about wearing their masks and even allow students to take them off, despite a state mandate that masks must be worn except when students are eating or playing an instrument. “I teach in Trump country,” she said. “Some teachers don’t think masks are needed.”

Red states can be especially problematic. In Florida, there is no state mandate for masks. Other Republican-led states, however, are more responsible when it comes to safety measures. Despite pushback from the state’s attorney general, masks in schools were mandated in the state of Louisiana by the Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards.

That mandate makes all the difference to teacher Mercedes Schneider. “I teach in a red state with a blue governor, and let me tell you, the presence of that blue governor has given me confidence that I would not be sacrificed to a politically rushed return to a packed classroom of non-masked high school students,” she said. “Three weeks in, both mask-wearing and hybrid-schedule-enabled social distancing have been critical factors in stabilizing our in-person learning at my school.”

Silver linings

Despite all of the challenges of teaching in the time of covid-19, teachers found some silver linings. Tamara Sommers said she believes that many families are now more involved. Fifth-grade teacher Lori Rusack told me she enjoys working with some of the new technology options she now has.

Thom Hessel hopes there will be long-term benefits for children. “Maybe it’s building a level of resilience in kids. Perhaps they will have a greater appreciation of everything they have when this is over.”

And Jenn Wolfe said she saw long-term benefits for teachers as well. “Everyone has to rethink their teaching,” she said. “Old lesson plans are out the window. There is much more talk about instruction, and teacher-to-teacher collaboration has become the norm in the faculty room. We are constantly reevaluating what we do and how we do it and then enhancing what we do.”

Forty-year veteran teacher Mary Coleman could have applied for a medical exemption but declined. For her, coming back was itself the silver lining.

“With masks, social distancing, staggered class dismissal and hand sanitizer in class, I feel very safe, safer than in some other places I have been,” she said. “Frankly, I needed to be back for my own psyche. I need the kids as much as they need me.”

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Carol C. Burris

Carol Corbett Burris became Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Foundation in August 2015, after serving as principal of South Side High School...