After my more than 20 years as a teacher, it’s not hard to sell me on the benefits of in-person education. But as political leaders push districts to reopen schools, and as various academic and education organizations stress the virtues of in-school instruction, I worry. Reopening recommendations seem to assume that schools will function the way they did before the pandemic and, critically, that they’ll yield the same benefits. They won’t. Reading through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that most districts are (and should be) using to plan for the new school year, it’s clear that even if school is held in person, it’ll be unlike anything we’ve seen before — a model that goes against my decades of professional experience and training. Your children will not recognize it. Neither will most teachers.
If you’re over 40 or so, you may not recognize the modern classroom. Here’s what my fifth-grade classroom “normally” looks like — a word I use advisedly, because no two days are the same. Some days, I’m meeting with small groups for literature discussions while other students explore the room on a scavenger hunt; on other days, kids might be knocking heads with their classmates to determine the best way to measure the dimensions of the room or working to complete a lab on erosion. Many opt to work while sprawled on the floor or cuddled up in pillows; some simply pace in the back of the room. There is constant movement, close interactions and cooperative learning — all of which are developmentally appropriate and encouraged by educators and researchers.
If students are in the classroom at all this fall, though, the CDC guidelines recommend that everyone stay “at least 6 feet apart” at all times. The free-flowing classroom will become fixed: Students will remain in rows of isolated desks, each one facing forward. They will no longer have the flexibility to sprawl, cuddle or pace. For students who struggle to sit still, especially those with ADHD, the lack of movement may have adverse academic and behavioral effects. Small-group instruction — vital for individualized learning, collaboration and building relationships — will be impossible. The rituals of circling up for a morning meeting, completing science labs or even reading quietly with a friend in a library nook will disappear. In the pandemic model, students who want to privately confer with the teacher can do so only if they stand two yardsticks away. Teachers who normally circulate in the room, sidle up to a struggling child, celebrate successes with high-fives and console upset students will need to fight our deepest instincts and simply try to engage from a distance.
Students and staff also will be expected to wear masks. No one disputes the importance of masks for reducing transmission of the virus, but most of us have not donned a mask for much longer than a quick trip to the grocery store. Students and teachers need to be prepared to wear theirs for seven hours a day with minimal touching, adjusting or removal. This spring, my students complained during our video chats about having to wear masks whenever they ventured out, saying they are uncomfortable; they make breathing hard and heated; they are claustrophobic. And while I usually encourage creative play and lateral thinking, I expect to spend much of my time reminding students that masks are not blindfolds, pirate hats, knee pads, slingshots or rocket ships.
Many classes will have to make adjustments to accommodate a world where everyone’s faces must be covered: Music teachers are removing singing from their curriculums, and many physical-education classes are prioritizing health instruction over physical activities to reduce the amount of time students spend maskless. (So much for those opportunities to get the wiggles out.) Masks also pose challenges because, to do their job, they block most of a speaker’s face. Elementary students, especially at-risk pupils such as English-language learners and special-education students, need to see the faces of their teachers and peers to best understand words, read expressions and interpret social cues. Masks will make that so much harder.
Then there are the recommendations about avoiding “communal spaces” and “identifying small groups and keeping them together.” The CDC suggests closing cafeterias and playgrounds and restricting students to the same classroom all day to reduce movement and exposure. Students will probably have art, music and PE while staying at their desks; teachers will come to them. They will also eat lunch at those same desks. Recess will be a lonely affair — playing alone (yes, at their desks) or, if allowed outside, with their homeroom class only. For elementary students, social interactions with kids in other classes will be minimal or nonexistent.
Try this at home: Put yourself and your child in the same room, wearing masks, for seven hours straight. You may not leave the room for any reason other than to escort your child to the bathroom. How did it go? Now imagine doing this for 180 days. If you want to imagine being a teacher, multiply by 24 children — at least. What does this mean for all the extracurriculars students thrive in, including band, sports and other clubs? I can’t say for sure; many of them have been canceled for the fall. I also wonder how districts will keep students and staff safe, distant and flowing during the busiest times in the hallways, during arrival, dismissal and fire drills.
Then there’s the guideline that students should “avoid sharing electronic devices, toys, books, and other games or learning aids.” That has implications that I still haven’t wrapped my head around. Here are just a few of those shared classroom items that students typically use in a single day: computers and chargers, dry-erase markers, staplers, tools for math (base-10 blocks, rulers, etc.), novels, reference books, rock samples, Play-Doh, board games, scissors, tape and a hole-puncher. How will I teach in a world where my students can’t touch anything, unless they provide the object themselves (unlikely, even in my affluent district) or I thoroughly disinfect it between users? Realistically, I can spend my day trying to teach or clean, but not both. I can use computers to fill in some of these instructional setbacks — but how ironic that we’d send students to school just to put them back on electronic devices.
Of course, community and state leaders have to weigh many factors when deciding whether and how to reopen schools. I understand that schools provide vital services beyond education, such as subsidized meals, and I am not an expert in the economy or medicine. But with more than 20 years of experience and an advanced degree in the subject, I am an expert in elementary education. I know that the pandemic forecloses many best practices and that the CDC guidelines, necessary as they are, are at odds with how we can best do our jobs and teach our students.
I understand why parents and policymakers have identified our education system as essential if we want daily life to go “back to normal” — but parents should prepare themselves, and their kids, for a school year that’s anything but. Quarantine yourselves as much as possible when your kids are home from school, minimizing playdates or trips out of the area. Have an honest conversation with your children about their new realities, and make sure they understand the restrictions and expectations that will be placed upon them. Plan for how to help your child deal with the illness or death of a classmate or a teacher. Most of all: Temper expectations. Reckon with what the classroom is really going to look like in the fall, and make decisions based on that reality.
Teachers like me want the same thing you do: for everyone in schools to go back to an environment where students feel physically and emotionally safe while thriving academically and socially. That simply isn’t going to happen this year.