It wouldn’t be education if Covid didn’t bring a new front in the wars of reform and conquest, namely whether the reopening of school buildings and campuses are safe for children and employees or whether that should even be a consideration as employers look to schools as taxpayer-funded childcare, whether remote learning is detrimental to student mental health such that the lives of teachers must be risked or whether it represents an opportunity for businesses and entrepreneurs to take over the job of teaching with ed tech products of varying quality.
We are told to follow the science and a new front opens on what, exactly, is that science? Self-designated experts argue, the CDC changes its advice (again! sigh …), and the meme mills go into overtime to produce new propaganda that can best be described as a fortune from a Chinese-restaurant cookie that comes with a picture.
Let’s talk about Covid and the elephant in the room. While states in shutdown argue over when, how, and whether to reopen schools, other states like Florida forced their schools to open in August. Grumpy Old Teacher’s (GOT) district reopened under a hybrid model and then went to full-time face-to-face learning October 1.
Quarantining for students exposed to positive cases in the classroom disrupted learning. There were days in November when half of a face-to-face class was home due to Department of Health orders. As we moved into the winter holidays, GOT was sure that when we returned in January, it would only take two weeks before the system would have to shut down due to students and teachers being sick or in quarantine.
It didn’t happen. In fact, after two high schools had to close for a week in October due to careless teen parties, GOT’s district did not close a school again until this week when a middle school closed (meaning the entire school went into remote learning/teaching from home like the spring) for five days including a weekend.
Do not clapback about how unsafe you think opening campus is. It’s a painful debate for those personally involved, teachers, parents, and students, and GOT believes in erring on the side of caution, in this case, only coming into classroom contact when the school environment has been made safe. But it must be acknowledged that his district’s experience suggests that opening the buildings does not have to be a disaster if, the emphasis on IF, effective mitigation of the risk takes place.
CDC guidance resembles more or less the approach to Florida educational standards; everything anyone can think of is put on the list without considering how much can possibly be done in the time given and whether the resources are available to accomplish the task.
We read that safe reopening is possible with social distancing, reduced class sizes, scheduling secondary students (including high school) into small groups that stay together all day long, mask wearing, well-ventilated classrooms, vaccination of employees, physical barriers like sneeze guards on the desks, frequent cleaning of surfaces such as door knobs and desks during the day, microbial barriers sprayed that theoretically shred viral particles upon contact, etc.
Not all of this is possible for many reasons, chief among them that few want to fund school systems to be able to afford all of this. For schools to establish social distancing, they must reduce class sizes that in turn means they must hire more people. Many, many more people. They don’t have the money. They are not going to get the money.
We ought to ask what CAN be done? Let’s start with what is being done and then consider how effective it is.
In GOT’s district, they supply PPE for frequent cleaning of surfaces. Classrooms receive wipes, spray, and towels to clean surfaces like the desks between classes. Because teachers don’t have the time to do this, students are told to do the job when they go into a new class. (GOT teaches in high school.) Gallon jugs of hand sanitizer are provided every quarter. Students are told to sanitize their hands upon leaving a class and entering a new class even if all they did was walk down the hall for 60 seconds. Teachers receive disposable gloves.
GOT doesn’t force students to do any of these things. It’s hard to raise children and teachers, whether they like it or not, play their part. Too much hand-sanitizing done too frequently will dry out the skin. With only two face-to-face classes, first and second periods, GOT deems it unnecessary for the first class to sanitize desks when the custodians already did it the night before. It may seem shocking, but GOT trusts his students to make the right decisions for themselves even though they may need frequent reminding, which he provides.
It has worked. No student has caught Covid from a classroom exposure, the few cases GOT knows about that did and did not result in quarantine, there was no secondary transmission. Without frequent surface cleaning, we are okay.
Generals always fight the last war. One of the reasons that the Civil War had the highest casualties in our history is that the generals on both sides were fighting the war with the tactics of Napoleon. But fifty years had passed. In Napoleon’s day, soldiers had muskets that had a low rate of accuracy. Two opposing lines of soldiers could march within 100 yards of one another and fire. The bullets mostly missed. So the innovation was not to bother with shooting, but to run into each other and fight in close quarters.
By the 1860s, gun technology had moved to rifles that had great accuracy. Then, rifles could be loaded from the breech, not the muzzle (reloading became faster) and that was followed by ‘repeating’ rifles–what we today would call semi-automatic weapons. Running at the opposing line was deadly as they waited, aimed, and fired.
From GOT’s view, that is much of the Covid advice. It is based upon what works with influenza, but they are two different viruses. Flu is big and heavy. A sick person breathes it out, it doesn’t travel far before it drops onto a surface. Flu spreads through people touching contaminated surfaces and then introducing the virus into their bodies.
Covid is different. It is much smaller and light. It lingers in the air and travels on air currents. When people stay a reasonable distance apart outside, the viral particles dissipate and the risk is low. When people congregate in a room with little ventilation, the risk is high because we breathe the air of others repeatedly. What one has, we all get.
It’s not a bad thing to clean surfaces frequently, sanitizing hands throughout the day, and wiping commonly-touched objects like doorknobs. But that’s fighting the last war, the flu. GOT doubts that was the key to keeping his classroom healthy and safe. Rather, he has focused on minimizing the risk from breathing in contaminated air.
From the first day, masks are required and GOT repeatedly tells students to pull them up and keep the nose covered, not only in the classroom and the hallway, but throughout the entire campus. Most of the time, he has only to look at someone not in compliance and they correct the problem. (There is an advantage to being a Grumpy Old Teacher.)
Masks trap viral particles so we don’t breathe them into our lungs. It’s not a coincidence that teachers are experiencing the healthiest cold-and-flu season ever. Children are not spreading those diseases like they normally do. Masks play a big part in reducing the airborne risk of infection.
Physical distancing is not possible, but GOT makes the students conform to the seating chart and not move around the room. This impacts the ability to form and reform groups as well as the ability to provide remediation to targeted groups that need it. It’s not a perfect world. In a pandemic, staying healthy is paramount and alternate learning strategies have to be used.
And that’s it … as far as district-enabled mitigation goes. But the O in GOT is real. In his sixties, GOT understands his risk and goes beyond to provide his classroom with extra equipment. Add to the mitigation strategies an appliance with a HEPA filter (medical grade) that cleans all the classroom air every 30 minutes and a UVC-light appliance that zaps viral particles (think what hospitals do.) While not as efficient, the UVC-light can treat the air every 90 minutes or so.
These were personal purchases. In fact, GOT has spent about $1,000 purchasing pandemic-related equipment to be able to do his job. The HEPA-appliance cost about $270 and the UVC ran $200. But GOT thinks his life is worth more than that.
The sneeze guards don’t do much. They are one factor in the mitigation strategy, but they don’t add much because the students are not showing up sick. The sneeze guards would catch the snot and saliva expelled from coughs and sneezes if students were suffering from a cold or the flu.
Wait, even if a student sneezes, the masks catch the mess. The district spent between two and three million to buy those barriers.
Sigh, we’re always fighting the last war, the last disease. What if, instead, the district had spent the money on HEPA-filter appliances? Hmmm, 7500 classrooms (more or less) at $300 apiece, that’s $2,250,000. Wouldn’t the CARES act money used to buy the sneeze guards have been better spent on air-filtering appliances for the classroom?
But it wasn’t on the CDC checklist. The last war, you know? Meanwhile, the G.I.s in the trenches, we know who we are, are doing what we can to stay alive.
Veni, vidi, vici? Perhaps. Check on me in June.