Have you ever met children?

We Cannot Return to Campus this Fall

Harley Litzelman, Oakland public high school teacher and union organizer, has written a piece for Medium that likely echoes the thoughts of the majority of America’s public school teachers.

We cannot and dare not return to school this fall.

Read the whole post.

The “reimagining” of public education by non-educators now taking place in board rooms and government offices throughout the country fails to take into account the fact that children are not adults. Trying to force students into social distancing while on the bus, in the classroom, in the cafeteria, and on the playground will result in the very worst kind of educational practices.

Litzelman, a high school teacher, tries his hand at explaining how social distancing would likely fail in elementary schools.

No more group seating. No story time on the carpet. No small group stations. Coloring must be strictly monitored to eliminate sharing, probably requiring children to keep their own personal sets of crayons and markers, revealing stark class differences within classrooms and between schools. No fingers in the mouth or nose, and several minutes spent washing their hands after they inevitably forget. They, too, cannot get out of their seats during class, and no longer can they enjoy the couches and bean bag chairs that their teachers have acquired. Again is the time to ask: Have you ever met children?

The preceding paragraph follows a description of how difficult — and costly — it will be to double or triple the number of buses needed to transport the kids to school, rearrange classrooms and attendance days, and serve lunches. Young children are physical. Young children cannot keep their hands away from their faces. They cannot keep from touching other people and objects and teachers can’t force them to no matter how hard they try and no matter how many times their teachers tell them to. How much time will need to be spent washing hands? To assume that 5-8-year-olds can “social distance” is to 1) assume that their classroom teachers have magical powers and 2) exhibit extreme ignorance about the nature of children.

Where will the supplies come from that high school teachers need to disinfect the desks and chairs between classes? It’s insanity to assume that school districts will pay for disinfectant spray or wipes when states are going bankrupt, legislatures have been cutting school budgets, and teachers are already spending their own money on supplies and food for their students. And what about those states that support public funding of three different school systems — public schools, charter schools, and private/parochial schools?

And then there are the high school students. They won’t all comply with all the new pandemic rules of social distancing because teenagers are a non-compliant bunch. They will expose themselves, their classmates, their teachers, and their families to possible illness.

…it won’t happen. It won’t happen because teachers already spend an average of $479 per year on classroom expenses without reimbursement, and there’s no reason to believe that every school will suddenly be able to provide their staff with millions of antimicrobial wipes and thousands of gallons of disinfectant spray. It won’t happen because students will recognize the ample contradictions between the rules they’re asked to follow and the enclosed spaces they’re expected to fill. They’ll balk at administrators demanding that they separate from their friends while asking them to go to class and sit just as close to their peers. They’ll pinpoint the differences in enforcement, identifying teachers who are “cool” with eating in class and who are not. It won’t happen because the children of shelter-in-place protesters won’t reject their parents’ politics, and they will find teachers and principals who agree with them. It won’t happen because it is a regime that demands students to leave their authentic selves at home, selves that students are prohibited from nurturing in bombastic conversations at lunch and quiet moments of intimacy with their first romantic partners. It demands that teachers forfeit the interactions that brought them into teaching in the first place: working side-by-side with kids until that light bulb goes off, giving queer kids the only space to be themselves. It is a regime that cannot survive, and throughout its rise and fall, the virus will spread…

Adults are fighting about who to believe. Do you believe the President? The doctors? The armed protesters pushing their way into the statehouse? How can we expect students of all ages to trust the school system to keep them safe?

How will the school system treat the parent who doesn’t believe that it’s safe for their child to come back to school? How will the school system treat the parent who doesn’t believe that the pandemic is real?

How can we expect teachers, parents, and students to agree on how to structure our “reimagined” schools when the government and medical communities can’t agree on when to open stores, how many people need to wear masks, and how much social distancing is necessary?

We cannot return to campus this fall. We cannot return until the public health community has reached a consensus that physical distancing and constant, obsessive sanitation at schools are no longer necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. If this means that we cannot return until an effective vaccine has been widely disseminated, then that is what it means…

Instead, we need to wait until there is a preventative treatment for the pandemic. We need to wait until there is a treatment for those who become ill.

In the meantime teachers need time to adjust to internet teaching…and we must make sure that all students have access to their internet-based teachers.

This summer, we can give teachers time to do what they do best, but did not have the time to do before: Plan. Collaborate. Share tricks and best practices. Finally figure out how to work Zoom. Debate the ethics of grading and acceptable volumes of work. Fight tooth-and-nail for universal Internet and 1:1 computer access for all students, as Oakland teachers are already doing. We can build the best learning experiences we can under the awful circumstances we are handed because that is what we do anyway.

We must also not give up the concept of live, face-to-face interaction in a classroom. That’s where relationships between students and teachers begin. And good relationships between students and teachers is where good teaching begins.

…we must remember that nearly 75 percent of online charter school students are enrolled in programs that graduate less than half of their students within four years. We must learn the lesson of Hurricane Katrina, which Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan called “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans,” when Louisiana illegally fired more than 7,000 predominantly Black teachers and remade the city into a charter school paradise. We must make it clear that we teachers want nothing more than to see our kids on campus again, but that we simply cannot return until it is safe. Until then, we resist all attempts to exploit this crisis and profit from its misery.

Or we take the other road; we reopen. We begin this grand experiment of bad teaching. We can hope that student rebellion, adult intransigence, institutional failure, and political cowardice aren’t enough to restart the exponential spread of the disease. We can hope that the daily lapses in judgment made every day on every campus, at scale across more than 56 million students herded into 132,000 K-12 schools in the United States, aren’t enough to derail the public health outcomes we desire. We can pretend that school-age children are too young to suffer the worst of this pandemic…

Does anyone honestly think that politicians, especially the pro-privatization politicians who overwhelmingly inhabit state legislatures, will allocate enough money to pay for all the supplies, schedule adjustments, and training needed to accommodate teachers and students in socially distancing classrooms?

The health and safety of our children and the adults who work in their schools depend on our using reason and facts when deciding how to attack the problem of how to educate children during a global pandemic. The politicians, policy-makers, and pundits have already done enough damage to public education because they assume that since they were once students, they “know education.”

This would be a good point to mention that any plans we have for the beginning of the next school year must include plans for students who have unique needs. What do we do for students who need translators? How do we include students who might have special learning needs? Public schools are more than just distributors of information.

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