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Jersey Jazzman: How Schools Work: A Practical Guide for Policymakers During a Pandemic

This post, unlike most of the others on this blog, does not rely on data analysis or research reviews. It is, instead, the observations of someone who has spent decades working in PreK-12 schools.

I'm offering it because I've read and heard a lot of commentary from a lot of people who seem to think we can quickly prepare for reopening schools in the fall, as long as we have some flexibility and maybe some extra resources. I'll be the first to say (along with others) that more funding is absolutely required if we're going to have any chance of reopening schools.

But even if schools get all of the money they need, and staff show remarkable ingenuity and creativity, there are some basic, inconvenient truths we need to face about how schools work before we claim we can reopen safely this fall. So, in no particular order:

- Children, especially young children, cannot be expected to stay six feet away from everyone else during an entire school day. Sorry, even if a school has the room, it's just not going to happen. One adult can't keep eyes on a couple/few dozen children every second of every hour of every day to ensure they don't drift into each others' spaces. You certainly can't do that and teach. And you can't expect children to self-police. Young children are simply not developmentally able to remind themselves over seven hours not to get near each other.

- Children cannot be expected to wear masks of any kind for the duration of a school day. At some point, the mask has to come off; even adult medical professionals take breaks. And anyone who's worked with young children knows they will play with their masks and not even realize they're doing it. It's simply unrealistic to expect otherwise.

- The typical American school cannot accommodate social distancing of their student population for the duration of the school day. Schools were designed for efficiency, which means crowded hallways and tight classrooms. Schools are expected to foster student and teacher interactions, which means close quarters. Expecting every students and staff member to maintain a 3 foot bubble* around themselves is not realistic given the way most school buildings are laid out.

- School staff do not generally have isolated spaces in their workplaces where they can stay when not working with children. I don't have an office; I have a classroom. I'm only by myself when the kids leave... but everything they breathed on and touched and coughed on stays. I'm not an epidemiologist so I don't know exactly what the consequences of this are, but I suspect it matters.

- School buses cannot easily accommodate social distancing, nor can they easily adjust to accommodate staggered school sessions. School buses aren't as big as you remember (when's the last time you were on one?). Social distancing is the last thing school bus engineers had in mind when designing the things. In addition: school districts often stagger the times of bus routes, usually by grade level, to get all the kids to school (this is why high school often starts much earlier than elementary school). If you go to split shifts, you are conceivably expanding a bus's routes from, say, 6 to 12.** Unless you greatly expand the school day and pay a lot more for busing staff, it's not going to work.

- Like every other workforce, school staff have many people who have preconditions that make them susceptible to becoming critically ill when exposed to Covid-19. The big worry I keep reading about is age -- but that's just the start. Three-fourths of the school workforce are women, and many are in their childbearing years; are we prepared to have pregnant teachers working? What about teachers who think they might be pregnant? And then all the pre-existing conditions...

- Schools are only one part of the childcare system in this country. The big worry seems to be that if we don't get kids to school, parents can't get back to work. But for many (most?) parents, the school day only covers part of the work day. Before- and after-school programs are a big part of the childcare system. Are we going to be able to enforce all the same restrictions on children during these hours that we will during the school day?

- Unsupervised adolescents cannot be expected to socially distance outside of the school day if schools are reopened. If we've got adults showing up at bars without masks in the middle of a frightening peak in Covid-19 cases, what do you think teenagers are going to do when school's done for the day? Especially if we leave them at home, unsupervised, learning remotely while their parents work?

- Teachers are trained and experienced within an area of certification; moving them out of that area will lead to less effective instruction. When you become a teacher, you get a certification -- maybe even two or three -- in a particular area. Each certification requires coursework, and often a placement as a student teacher, in that area. A secondary math teacher, for example, has to study math at a certain level, and then learn how to teach it. You can't expect a kindergartner teacher who's been trained in early childhood education to do that job -- and vice versa.***

- Even within an area of certification, moving teachers on short notice to a new subject or grade will lead to less effective instruction. How hard can it be to move from teaching 4th Grade to 3rd? More than you'd think. Every grade has its own curriculum, materials, assessments, etc. Teachers spend years developing lessons that often can't be transferred to another grade level or subject; a choir teacher, for example, can't just take her lessons over to the school band, even if she is a great music teacher. Expecting teachers to move quickly between grades or within areas and not face a learning curve defies common sense.

- Moving a teacher to another school building is often difficult. First, there's the stuff: the materials, the equipment, and so on. Then there are the relationships, often built over years. These things matter; they are the foundation that builds a school into a community of learning. Breaking them apart has real consequences.

- Many schools had a hard time getting qualified people to become substitute teachers before the pandemic. It doesn't pay particularly well, has little to no job security, and requires at least some college credit (in many states). Now districts have to find workers who are willing to do the job in a school full of potential virus transmitters.

I'm leaving out a lot, but this should be enough to at least give everyone pause. Operating schools during a pandemic will not be easy. I'm not at the point yet where I'm saying we shouldn't try, but we have got to think carefully and challenge assumptions before we open the schoolhouse doors this fall.

And we shouldn't even consider opening without substantially more money. More on that in a bit.

* It's already become a source of confusion: if each kid has a 3 foot bubble, and two bubbles bump against each other, the kids are 6 feet away from each other. Right?

** Say a bus does an elementary, middle and high school route every day; that's 6 trips, because there's pick up and drop off. Now double that.

*** In fact -- and I say this as someone who has taught at all grade levels from Pre-K to 12 -- it is, in my opinion, more difficult for a secondary teacher to learn how to teach young children than the other way around.

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Jersey Jazzman

Jersey Jazzman is the pseudonym for Mark Weber, a New Jersey public school teacher and parent. Weber is also a doctoral student at Rutgers University in Education...