Braden Bell, 49, Ashland City, Tenn.: I am a middle school teacher with nearly 20 years of experience. I teach in a small private school, which has opened. As I have followed the national debate about if and when and how schools should reopen this fall, I am reminded of a basic dynamic in American life: Whenever society has a problem and those in charge can’t resolve it, the problem gets punted to the schools, which simply must deal with it as best they can.
Hunger. Lack of reliable child care. Gun violence. Pregnancies and STDs. Students who are abused or vulnerable in any number of ways. I could go on, but you get the idea. In all these cases, society is conflicted or at an impasse. As politicians and ideologues argue, schools have to address the problems encountered by the students who show up each day. Schools can’t punt. And because this exceeds what schools were designed for, they are often not well equipped to take on these challenges.
This virus is the same situation, a new verse of this old song.
Schools will almost certainly get things wrong because they are not set up for this, but they are in the position of having to do something, of figuring out how to make it work — moment by moment, day by day.
So schools muddle through and make a patchwork of local decisions. If they go remote, they are lambasted, even though there are legitimate reasons for concern in a pandemic we don’t fully understand. If they go live, people are angry. If teachers express concern, they are called cowards and accused of all kinds of bad faith. No matter what the decision, the worst motives are presumed.
The failures of everyone else, from the president to public health leaders to governors, all get passed to the schools.
That doesn’t mean schools should get a pass when they get it wrong. But missing in so much of the discussion and criticism seems to be this simple truth: The buck stops here, and somehow schools are expected to do what no one else has been able to do — even though it’s vastly beyond their expertise, their experience and their mission.
Angie Mintzer, 33, Phoenix: Sending my daughter back to school or keeping her home for virtual learning has been an impossible decision. I’m 32 weeks pregnant with a weakened immune system. She is 9 years old and craving some form of normalcy. She misses her teachers, her classrooms and her friends. I’m not fond of the idea of her sitting in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day.
How do we choose between our children? Maybe my 9-year-old goes back to school and nothing bad happens. Or maybe a disease is brought home that is deadly to me or the newborn baby. We really don’t know what to do. Should we deprive one daughter of her childhood to protect the other?
Mandy Wood, 24, Hollywood, Fla.: It was late August. As I attempted to access my email, I looked up to see the flimsy partitions that will house my students in the coming week. The dividers, composed of plastic and cardboard, were designed to prevent covid-19 from infecting my students, and hopefully me as well. I scanned over to the sanitizer station, remembering last year’s senior prank, when all of the 12th-grade students received a three-day silent lunch for vandalizing the bathrooms.
The students will be back at school in person on an amended schedule, with required temperature checks and masks. I want to believe that the county is trying to keep us safe; however, I worry about non-instructional time. Will hallways be distanced or packed to the gills? Does that refute the other precautions we’re taking? Just recently, our local mall had an incident in which two teenage boys got into an altercation after one jokingly coughed on the other.
Upon our return to the school, there was talk of raises, with the buzzwords “hazard pay” and “essential worker” floating about. There’s been no change in salary for me at least. Maybe next month. Tucked away among the madness of my inbox was an email from the principal. It was a friendly reminder that while covid-19 is scary for everyone, the school would like us to refrain from speaking out in a way that would upset parents or students.
Everyone wants things to go back to the way they were before the virus, but at what cost? The emergency order issued for Florida appears to be using schools as a catchall in an attempt to jump-start the economy. Things do need to reopen. People do need to return to work. However, the present situation is leaving educators as well as kids apprehensive about what the future will hold.
Deborah Gorman, 66, Westbrook, Maine: As grandparents, my husband and I try to help with our youngest grandson. He is entering third grade this fall. His mother found a new, very good job, but she will be working from 8 to 5 every workday. The question came up that if he goes to school in person, he may get covid-19 and then bring it back to us. We are over 65 and have preexisting conditions, so getting covid would be especially dangerous for us.
We decided with his mother to go the virtual route. He will be here with us on school days, and we will help him with his lessons. It’s the only way that made sense to keep us safe and to continue our grandson’s education. We are both college graduates, so we are capable of home-schooling. It’s not ideal for our grandson since he won’t get the necessary companionship from his peers. It will work out because we will make it work — to keep all three of us safe.
Caitlin Rogers, 34, New York: I’m a public school teacher in Brooklyn. Recently, one of my colleagues pressed us via text message: “What if one of us dies? Are we still going to come into work?” The blue bubble in the chat stared back at me. We all had the same fears, and we all pushed them down the same way. Most of the time, we masked ourselves in a sort of bravado, a pride in our devotion to teaching and our inherent social capital. We wanted to matter, but we also wanted to live. Our conversations oscillated between moments of fear and outrage and playful teasing.
During virtual meetings, we had persistent questions. We were patient with each other. Most of our questions could not be answered, and this fact in itself was at the heart of our frustration with the city’s reopening plan.
I feel eager to return to teaching, and I’m terrified that an outbreak will spread, potentially causing someone I love to die.
As my colleagues and I continue to navigate the reopening of our schools, I am forced to wrestle with two opposing messages: One suggests that my work is invaluable; the other suggests that my life is dispensable.
Ruben Reyes Jr., 23, Iowa City, Iowa: Despite the rising number of covid-19 cases in Iowa, I harbored a secret hope that I’d spend time in a classroom this fall, even if it’d be behind a face mask and plastic visor. When I surveyed my students in the week leading up to the first day of the semester, I understood why about half of them wanted our discussion seminars to occur in person.
But less than a full week into a semester, three of my students have self-reported covid-19 symptoms. One returned with a positive test. The Thursday after classes started, Iowa broke its one-day record for cases. On Friday, 79 percent of tests from the previous day were positive. Iowa City feels alive again, but with it comes the impending threat of widespread illness. That feeling has squashed my desire to return to the classroom. The shortcomings of online instruction simply don’t outweigh the risks. The University of Iowa is going into its third week of in-person classes, despite reporting 1,142 new positive cases among students. Now I just hope that I make it through the semester without getting sick.