What is more normal — and expected — each end of summer than students and teachers to return to school? So far, the coronavirus crisis has killed an estimated 180,000 so far within United States borders. And in some cases, public school teachers have been deemed “essential workers” and told to return to classrooms — even if they’ve been exposed to Covid-19.
On Thursday, August 20th, we gathered six experts — including educators and parents — to discuss their anxieties, hopes, and coping skills for the return to school this fall with the coronavirus pandemic unabated. Some are dealing with quarantine restrictions, others with the logistics of students in rural or urban environments in person or through virtual learning platforms. All of them are attempting to model good hygiene and habits during the pandemic so that they can make sure they all have safe and productive learning environments.
The panelists touched on a wide range of topics — from procuring PPE for themselves, the students, and their classroom, to how to handle attendance and students’ individual progress during the pandemic — that offered a mix of frustration in regards to misinformation, confusion as to how to handle individual students’ needs, and hope for the future.
Meet Our Panelists:
Laura Dow lives in Pawcatuck, CT, and she teaches at Stonington High School. She teaches 9th-12th grades special education in the self-contained setting, as well as transition support for 18-21 year olds with disabilities. She has her BA in Special Education from Hope College and and her M. Ed. in Special Education with an Inclusion Specialist Certificate from University of Michigan Dearborn.
Lynette Guastaferro is the Chief Executive Officer of Teaching Matters, a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing teacher effectiveness to improve student success. Teaching Matters mission is to close the opportunity gap of a radically unequal education system for under-served and historically marginalized children. She has over 25 years of experience in education, non-profit and private industry.
Ashley Graves is a Secondary Self-Contained Special Education Teacher with Uplift Education and is a third year fellow with Urban Teachers at a public charter school in the Dallas, Texas area. Urban Teachers is a teacher preparation program that serves students from diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds to provide an education that specializes in diversity, inclusion, and equity.
Mitch Springer currently serves as principal of Villa Rica Middle School in Villa Rica, Georgia, in the Carroll County School District which is located 40 miles west of Atlanta and serves a population of students from rural and suburban backgrounds.. He’s a graduate of the University of Georgia and has served as a middle grades teacher, elementary assistant principal, and principal before transitioning to the role of a middle school principal.
Christine Tang is the Executive Director of Families of Color Seattle (FOCS), a community-based organization that advocates for racial equity and supports families of color in the Seattle area through equitable parent programs, resource sharing, and fostering meaningful connections. She is a parent of two elementary school-aged children.
Katherine Ann Unsicker, Ed S. Teacher Leadership, is a gifted teacher with Haralson County Schools, which serves the communities of Buchanan, Tallapoosa, and Waco, Georgia. She’s the mother of five and has been teaching both in-person and virtually.
On preparing safer classroom teaching environments
Katherine Anne Unsicker: “We started with a one-week push back to give the teachers more time to prepare for the new settings. How do we arrange our classrooms to give students more space? How do we arrange our day so that classes aren’t passing each other in the hallway using the bathrooms at the same time? Protocols for cleaning where the students are, those kinds of things. … Once we started back, we essentially changed almost every element of the students’ day: how they go to lunch; [how] they go to the restroom; how they interact in the classroom. And the kids just have adapted amazingly well. Children are so incredible with temperature checks, and it’s all become really an easier flow for them.
“But then for me personally, I had a child who was in a classroom where a student tested positive after school. So then we were quarantined until yesterday when her tests came back negative and we were all clear. So it has been a daily challenge as to what’s today going to bring, but it does kind of make you keep the priorities, and you focus on what you need to do and you focus on: OK, these are the three goals; these things that we need to do and some other things just kind of. Their place in the backseat until you can revisit those. So I’ve been I’ve been very pleased with how things have gone. But I’ve had to be very flexible.”
Ashley Graves: “I want to be back in person with them. But what I really want is when we come back, we come back safely and with their health and their family’s health in mine so that once we’re back, we can remain in person. … What are we using to clean the rooms — which is important for me because I have allergies — what different procedures are we going to look at? And, you know, even the benefit of going onto campus, even if it was just this out of my classroom, is we got to see what that would look like, having all of us come in: only two people in the lobby at a time; doing our temperature checks; doing a digital screening; not having to touch a whole lot of materials on our way into the building. So that really encouraged me and made me feel better. And then knowing that even though we are in virtual learning right now, we’re still practicing life skills with the scholars. So, for example, today we did a scavenger hunt and it was fun. … I said, ‘OK, let’s see if we can stay in our masks for five minutes.’ And so they said, ‘OK!’ And they’re really, really focused on it. And they were showing me their different designs, and they were saying that their masks were cool. So the more that the teachers and the campuses are buying in to, you know, using this PPE, the more confident the scholars and the parents feel.”
On learning to adapt to a “new normal”
Mitch Springer: “Well, I know for me, it’s totally changed the preparation process because I’m sure many of you seeing the Paulding County incident where the students were standing in the hallway. Well, that’s really only about three miles from my school — although it’s in a different district and we’ve not started yet. So from learning from other schools that have started, it’s kind of made us revisit the procedures that we thought we had in place. And it made us kind of think of different things that could take place that we’ve not thought about. For example, the student drop-off: We thought, ‘Well, they’re dropping off, they’re coming at the school.’ But then we had to really go back and develop a plan for every action that comes into the school, things that we take it for granted in years past. That’s just how school kind of operates, that we’d have to go back and say, ‘No, we really need a procedure for this.’ For all these different things to really be able to articulate to parents, but then to students when they come back, because it’s going to be a change.
“For example, buses: Our district is still going to run the buses. But we had to come up with a plan for the safety on the bus as best we could be on a bus. So our students now are going to sit from back to front as we have a monitor on the bus to make sure that those due to get picked up first are in the back, so they don’t have to walk by other students as they go forward. That’s something in the past, you know, we’ve never thought about it and we thought about, well, the procedure of maybe having the windows that we are in the south. So it’s still kind of warm. So we can’t run the air conditioning on the bus; we’ll have to ride with windows down. So what does that entail and how do we really articulate that to the students in terms of something being different? So schools that have opened, we’re trying to ask questions from them to find out different things that we can learn in order to make our procedures a little better.”
On whether teachers are leaving the profession over fears and health risks
Lynette Guastaferro: “I’ve seen teachers [leave]; and in New York, principals and APs. I have a close friend, the superintendent, and she has just lost two principals and two APs. … I do think it really is that staff are returning but people have health concerns. … I think that there’s been a feeling that teachers don’t know enough about what’s going to happen. [That lack of communication] has caused a lot of fear in some schools. But the majority are going back and they’re going to make it work. …
“I totally agree that teachers are essential workers. But I also think that the work of education in terms of essential work, the complexity is … it’s not just you work here, it’s your work with 30-plus children and the work of planning for this with children. So some of the concerns that I think the teachers have rightly expressed is that they want to go back safely and to plan for all the children, plus the work is a little bit different than what many other essential workers have had to plan for — or with the kind of organizations, like whether it’s grocery stores or even hospitals, schools are way more complex. And so they need the time to plan and they need and teachers need to be felt to feel safe.”
On what some parents are hoping for this school year
Christine Tang: “I think that the key answer is that every parent would love for the schools to open and for the children to go to school, but they want that safely. And that’s the key word: safely. And especially for us being in an urban area [like Seattle]. The concerns are higher because the risks of contagion are much higher where there’s population density in higher numbers. So that’s that’s where a lot of parents draw the line. Unfortunately, when we talk about many families of color who are socioeconomically in a position where they might have to choose between their livelihood, their jobs and the ability to support students at home, that’s a really tough choice and that’s a choice that no parent, no family, should have to make in our society.
“…Of course, communities of color are not a monolith. And anyone who claims to speak for everyone and communities of color is not is not telling the whole story. But overall, we know that families of color have much less wealth than than white families, and much less institutional inherited wealth and a lower salary. So they are closer to financial instability just, like, a matter of a paycheck. Whether that means they they can lose their home or that means they don’t have enough money for their utilities. So that’s a really, really tough decision. And I would say parents would like to send their children to school safely and, unfortunately, in our school district and the nearby school districts, that could not be happening. So the decisions were made to have online learning this year.”
On how to look to the future with so much uncertainty
Laura Dow: “We don’t know if there’s a vaccine coming any time soon, so how are we going to equip kids to deal with that? How are we going to set them up in case we have to go back into full distance learning? We’re opening a hybrid model. And just how can we be good role models? So, like, how could we model hygiene? … I plan to model a lot of hand-washing, a lot of sanitizing, a lot of accountability for your own space. So working in those things that will help kids to feel a sense of security and to control the things that they can and I think is going to be really important. And just remembering the whole nation has been through a trauma on so many levels and putting aside our curriculum for the first, you know, we would usually run through routines and setting up your classroom and all of those things, you kind of stand in line and then we kind of phase into the academic stuff. And I think this year, we really need to focus on taking care of the kids first and the academics will come, but the academics will not come if we don’t take care of the kids needs first.”