Things I’m wondering

I’m glad we’re discussing back to school. We’re all ready to have things back to normal. But, I have questions before we jump back in. I’m not making a judgment here or committing to a “yes” or “no”–I’m no medical expert. I’m just asking the questions. I can’t give clear opinions until I have the information.  

As a mom, former teacher, and writer, I’ve spent the better part of last decade thinking about education and education reform. Right now, though,  I think we need area experts to step in and give clear guidance. 

We need doctors, scientists, architects, immunologists, researchers, operations/budget people, grandparents who were alive during the Spanish Influenza pandemic, and cable-tv home makeover experts to step in and give us the real deal. Let’s crowdsource the answers and come up with something good. Then, I’ll put our thoughts in my “education data analysis machine” and spit out a good course of action.  

33 Things I need to know first: 

1. Will the current policy of “unexcused absences” in most schools be reversed? Pre-covid students could be denied credit for unexcused absences. Terrified juniors and seniors coughed on me for 18 years because “I have to be here, I have a test in XXX class and I can’t get a doctor’s note (to be excused).” 

2. Will the state stop rating schools based on student and teacher attendance? Right now it does. That is why you get all those phone calls. “Do you know your kid’s absent?” “Why yes, yes I do. My third-grader has not yet learned to skip school. That’s part of the fourth grade curriculum.” 

3. Will parents be given authority to keep kids home without that doctor’s note? Doctor’s notes are expensive for many families with high deductible plans or no insurance, and for most illnesses, they’re unnecessary.  Last time my son was sick that “doctor’s note” cost me over $300 to hear what I already knew, “rest and drink fluids.” And “he tested negative for flu and strep…” (hmmmm) 

If you have a politician-grade plan, going to the doctor for a note is simple, but for many students, that’s a month of groceries, a car payment, or half of rent. So, they don’t go. And if they should have… they’re contagious. 

4. What about teachers? When I left teaching I had a million unused sick days—this means one of two things. Either I never got sick or I always worked sick. I’ll let you guess which. 

If you’ve ever been a teacher or known one you know this—it’s better to work sick than to make sub plans and deal with the aftermath. 

One time, a sub went through my desk, pulled out my loose herbal tea and said, “I wonder what SHE does in her spare time?” (I drink tea, you $%^Y%^. It’s not weed). Anyway, the point is, coming to school sick is common–a badge of honor even. 

“I gotta get my arm chopped off before my mom takes a shift off to take me to the doctor, Miss,” one student said. 

I’d say “Thanks for coming, put a cup of tea on Sick Kid’s desk (in a fancy paper restaurant cup with a real cafe lid) stir in some local honey and tell them to feel better. 

When I got sick, I’d ask, “Who gave me this plague?” Kids would compare symptoms, point to the infector, and I’d say, “I’m gonna lick your paper and return it!”   

That’s not so funny today.  Point is… when teachers are sick–or think they might be and want to keep students safe–can they stay home? Especially if they’ve run out of sick days. 

5. Are there enough subs? (See number 4) There is a critical shortage of good subs, and we’ll need double. 

6. What about large class sizes? My largest classes were 25-30. In some classes, students didn’t have a desk. They pulled chairs around tables where their friends sat. In an economy where we can’t afford the basics in school and teachers are always paying out of pocket, will schools be buying covid friendly furniture, or will teachers have to charge a classroom set of cubes?

7. What about classes with fixed furniture? (See number 6)

8. Who’s paying for this stuff? My crusade: for teachers to stop spending their paychecks on their jobs. As a recent former-teacher who always had several jobs, I want to see teachers spend money on fancy drinks with drink umbrellas, not supplies for work. Teachers are broke because schools don’t fund them. 

Schools didn’t pay for things on a good day. Who’s going to pay for the extra supplies needed now that students can’t share?  Each kid will need to have (and not forget!) pencils, art supplies, 1:1 computers, a book (no more class sets of Shakespeare)… 

Teachers buy a solid 1,000 pencils a year for “I forgot my pencil.” That number will suddenly be a million because, “They need their own.”  Elementary teachers typically have 10-30 students but high school teachers have more. I had 256 in my record year. That’s a lot of individual sets of everything. Many teachers are already suffering low wages and Everest-sized credit card debt as a result of student loan debt and classroom spending. Covid funds aren’t adequate to meet needs for every classroom and will evaporate faster than the headlines. 

9. What about the bathrooms?  “Miss can I go to the lav?”

“Certainly. You’re number 236.”  Bathrooms have no distancing. Guys rooms don’t even have stalls.  Kids crowd in to use them.

10. Who will supply the bathrooms? To this day, my laundry gets destroyed because I’m forever washing kleenexes. I stuffed one in my pocket each day in case the lav was out of toilet paper. Today, students call each other out of class with cell phones and friends come to the rescue.  But teachers, we’re on our own. We just stuff an “emergency kleenex” in our pockets because you know we’re going to need it. Two years later, I still do that. And there’s never any soap in the bathrooms, either. 

11. Will the hand sanitizers be refilled?  We had a flu scare a bunch of years back. Someone installed Purell dispensers in every classroom. Then it ran out. The end.   

12. What about PE? Physical education seems to be getting the short end of the stick at a time where fitness-related health issues are at an all-time high for students and adults. I’m concerned that Frito Lay stocks have gone up while fitness for many kids has dropped to zero. I want kids to develop a healthy relationship with exercise even during Covid. 

13. What about PPE?  Most teachers can make masks out of recycled canvas bags we can’t use at the grocery store anymore (pro tip: line those with cotton! The canvas has gaps!!). But, who’s going to pay for all the kids who “forget” their masks? Even cheap surgical masks are expensive. 

14. How do we do medical self reporting and who’s responsible?  I’ve seen plans that ask parents to take their kids’ temps and report it daily. Then, I’ve also seen mandates for schools to have kids line up (six feet apart in a ten mile line) to have someone do it at school. What if a kid forgets or refuses. And, how about HIPPA laws? Privacy is a legal matter, and if someone says, “No, I’m not passing over medical info,” there’s not a thing (currently) anyone can do. 

15. Do we add an hour or two to the school day to account for all this temperature taking and spacing? Prior regs mandated “instructional time” down to the millisecond. Can we change that to “temperature taking and triage” time? Or, for early grades rename “recess” “thermometer hour?”

16. How do I know what “the temp” is? Personally, when I’m sick my temp dips down a degree. Every person is different. And, some don’t get fevers or are contagious before symptoms show. How do we know? 

17. What happens if a kid says “no” to testing, temp taking, sharing private medical info, or mask wearing? Kids don’t always follow the rules. This is a zero-sum game. In the Old Days, a kid who broke the rule got a stern talking to or a detention. If a kid swore too much, I had that kid think of “fifty good F-words instead.” If a kid breaks a Covid rule, that kid just exposed 20-200 classmates and teachers–and their families. 

18. Is this a workers comp claim? If a teacher gets hurt on the job they can make a claim. What if they get coughed on, sneezed on, a Covid booger from a cute little kid giving a pre-Covid style hug, or worse–high fived by a kid who didn’t sanitize? Can they collect?

19. What about parents who are in denial?  We all feel differently about how dangerous Covid is or is not, so there may be people who send their kids to school anyway. 

20. What about those days when we all think we feel fine then realize… “Uggg, I’m getting sick… I thought I was just overtired.” (see “working sick”). 

21. What about people who aren’t ready for the vaccine when it’s released? I’ll tell you this–I’m not running to be in the front of the line. I want to be number two.  “After you,” is my mantra here.  If you don’t turn green, I’m next. But there will be some who will wait longer. Do we have a plan for them?

22. What about working parents?  I know school’s not a babysitter, but we’ve had  the same school schedule since the Industrial Revolution which makes it easy for parents to plan their jobs. If school’s on again, off again, parents will panic. We can’t tell working parents or teachers with younger kids to “just get daycare.” Daycare slots are rarer than gold nuggets in the middle of my zucchini patch. Can we set up Ring cameras and leave a bowl of cereal and a workbook for everyone older than 5, or do we need Soviet-style state daycares set up in the gyms kids no longer use?

23. Can we finally get rid of The Test? It costs too much and I’d rather see that cash spent on…teachers so they don’t have to fund Covid School with their own cash.  

24. What about teacher evaluation? Will the principals put on haz mat suits and pop into teacher’s cellar offices while they’re on Zoom with class and rate them, “Mrs. X, your kids didn’t go to your Zoom, meaning you’re not a very engaging teacher.  That kid was double-screening on Minecraft. You’re ‘low-performing.’  And will schools blame parents for kids who skip Google Meets?

25. What about detentions? Is there a virtual detention hall?

26. How about remediation and acceleration? Going to school half time is half the education unless you’re Sal Khan. For kids who need services or kids with parents who don’t know a certain subject well it might be less. I know if I have to teach my kid AP Chem or Calc, he’s going to live at home until he’s 45–which might well be the norm post-Covid but still…

What are the plans to remediate the kids who need it, accelerate the kids who knocked this out of the park, and assess the learning (without–see #17–I hope, The Test)?

27. How does the budget for this play out over the long haul? This thing’s stretching out way longer than the two weeks estimate we got in the “don’t worry” beginning.  Will there be tax hikes to pay for hand sanitizer? Will teachers have “Go Fund Me” campaigns for bleach sprays? Will Lysol partner with Gates to get wipes in the hands of every student and teacher in America?

28. What are the inefficiencies in the system and how can we remove them? Right now we have 66 “LEAs” (Local Education Agencies) and 32 school districts in Rhode Island, the smallest state in the nation. Each district is doing something different. How do we become a well-oiled learning machine?

29. When will decide what we’re doing here? As a teacher, I used to get my schedule a week or two before school every year.  When can we expect a solid decision so teachers can prepare?  

30. How about The Bus? I’ve seen bussess so (illegally) overcrowded that it was three skinny kids to a seat with kids hiding in the aisle. “Sorry kid, you can’t eat those chips (Frito Lay’s stock’s up–see number 11). The bus weight is at capacity. Bus drivers are running around as it is (because…that’s their job). They don’t have time to spray before every run. 

31. Could we use paraprofessionals and bus monitors to support Covid measures? First, we’d have to take back all the layoffs and pay them more but if we did, could they help sanitize, move lines along, spray clean seats, or monitor “learning pods?” What about the students they are often assigned to?

32. What happens if the nurse gets sick? Who tells the rest of the school they’re sick?

33. Finally, what about the cafeteria? Will the peanut-exile table be the new Covid-spacing table? If a kid throws one of those lunch carrots nobody wants,, would teachers write him up for a food fight, assault, or bioterrorism? 

These are just a few questions I have about the start of school. I need to know as a parent (and on behalf of my teacher friends)  before I know if I should support “return to school” or let my child wait a while. 

Thanks to his teachers, Declan had a great experience this spring–as good as can be expected. But, September will be different because these will be new classes with teachers and students who have not yet developed a relationship to plow through this as a team. 

But, if we can work together to answer some of these questions, I’m hoping to get my son back to school soon–at least by Halloween or Black Friday at the latest. 

What say you, parents, students, and teachers, doctors, and plague-surviving grandparents? Can we do it?