The CDC's New Guidelines Look Like A Lot Of Folks Will Keep Homeschooling

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
Close up of a yellow school bus with the red STOP sign
Natalia Ganelin/Getty

The CDC finally released suggested guidelines for reopening schools. The guidelines go into a fair amount of detail that was missing in the very earliest guidelines released by the Trump administration last week, but, after reading them, I can’t help but wonder whether anyone at the CDC ever actually met a kid? Or consulted with a teacher? Or stepped inside the bathroom of an elementary school? (Or middle school or high school, for that matter.)

I’m not seeking to discredit the CDC. I place tremendous value on peer-reviewed research and science, and I know they put these recommendations out there to protect our kids, teachers, school staff, and our communities.

But, these guidelines range from confusing or unrealistic to logistically impossible to, in some cases, seemingly clueless about the reality of children and school life. And based on these guidelines, it looks like a whole lot of folks will keep homeschooling their kids.

Let’s start with the obvious. The CDC recommends maintaining social distancing at school. Six feet between desks. All desks facing in the same direction. Seems easy enough, right? Except, six feet is a lot of space. It’s been a good nine weeks since I’ve seen the inside of my children’s classroom, but I’m pretty sure the room is not big enough for twenty-two desks to be spaced six feet apart from each other. Everything else aside, logistically speaking, in most classrooms, it can’t happen.

Then there’s the recommendation to keep the window open to circulate “outdoor air as much as possible.” Great idea. Ventilation and airflow could dilute the virus. Only, the windows shouldn’t be open if they pose a health risk (allowing in pollen or exacerbating asthma symptoms). Which sounds to me like, “Open the window only if it’s safe to open the window, because opening the window is safe, unless it’s not.”

Is it just me, or is there something circular there? And also, logistics, again. My daughter had the most beautiful classroom two years ago, everything was labeled and color-coded and everything I could ever ask for in a second grade classroom. The one thing missing: a window. Regardless of the pollen or asthma in that classroom—outdoor air isn’t an option.

The CDC recommends schools “ensure adequate supplies to minimize sharing of high touch materials to the extent possible (art supplies, equipment etc. assigned to a single student/camper) or limit use of supplies and equipment by one group of children at a time and clean and disinfect between use.” I wouldn’t say this was logistically impossible, like the spaced apart desks, but it’s borderline clueless.

Schools are unfortunately perpetually short on supplies, constantly asking parents to fill in the spaces left by underfunded school budgets, including cleaning and disinfecting supplies—which, by the way, are still fairly impossible to find. I’ve been trying to find Lysol wipes for the better part of this pandemic. Happy to donate them, simply can’t find them.

In addition, the CDC recommends keeping children with the same small group and teacher throughout the school day. I guess that’s theoretically possible in elementary school. Except…it seems almost like the CDC forgot about special needs and teenagers. My son is pulled out for speech therapy. My daughter gets extra help for math. How exactly do kids with special needs get the assistance they need, and without making it a giant production that gets them singled out? And what about middle school and high school, where the entire school model is kids switching from class to class, teacher to teacher, and group of kids to group of kids? The entire system would need to be revamped—and fast.

There are a handful of other guidelines that make me fairly certain a whole lot of folks are going to choose to keep homeschooling their kids. The recommendation to social distance on school buses—one child per seat, every other row—for example. Again. Space. Those irrefutable logistics, again. And second—who is enforcing that rule on a bus full of kids? Has anyone talked to the bus drivers about this?

I give bus drivers a lot of credit in a non-pandemic situation, but attempting to safely get kids to and from school while monitoring that they aren’t sliding into their friend’s seat to chat just seems like a superhuman ask. Not every parent can drive kids to and from school…especially if schools employ the suggested staggered drop-off and pick-up times. And do we expect bus drivers, in between groups of kids, to have time to thoroughly sanitize?

We haven’t even gotten to the teachers. The CDC is asking teachers to be constantly disinfecting and monitoring students for symptoms. It’s asking them to teach students who aren’t allowed to move around and burn off energy. It’s assuming they aren’t high risk, or too afraid for themselves or someone in their home. The guidelines suggest those teachers can teach virtually…but a virtual teacher isn’t going to keep the attention of a classroom full of kids. Does that mean those kids distance learn? Does that mean that teacher forfeits her classroom?

The guidelines slide past all the hard questions, but those questions can’t go unanswered if we’re going to have a safe, practical re-opening with happy teachers—because make no mistake, teachers aren’t machines. They can’t effectively teach and nurture our children unless they feel safe themselves. Homeschool comes with its challenges, but teachers feeling unsafe isn’t one of them.

And also, arguably most importantly, the guidelines have essentially stripped away the very essence of school. The fun and laughter and socialization. No field trips, no spirit nights, no tag at recess or school assemblies or walking in line next to your best friend to the cafeteria. Not seeing your friends smile (because they will all be wearing masks, which is necessary, but pretty scary for kids) as they sit around a table to work on a group project, or throwing a note to your crush, or doing any of things that are at the heart of what we really mean when we say we want schools to reopen.

Homeschool is taking a mental toll on our kids (and parents and teachers and everybody), but returning to school with these guidelines in place will just require students, teachers, and parents to pay a different toll. The choice parents are going to have to make is to continue paying the same toll they’ve already paid, or to pay a new toll, on top of the one already paid. Isn’t one toll enough?!

Yes, homeschool is difficult. Yes, I’m about ready to lose my mind every day after about three minutes of clicking on twelve different links to get to a document that won’t load because the system is bogged down by a million parents doing the same. And yes, I know the choice to homeschool comes with privilege—which is a complicated, nuanced conversation that every district will have to have with parents, teachers, and staff. Not every family has the resources to homeschool, or someone to oversee it while the caregivers are working.

But unrealistic guidelines that simply aren’t possible, aren’t helpful to anyone. And chances are, a lot of folks won’t be sending their kids to school in the fall. And maybe instead of creating unhelpful guidelines, we should be focusing on finding creative ways to help schools and teachers and parents manage it all.

I LOVE my kids’ school and teachers. Love them. I cannot wait to send my kids to them for six and a one half-hours five days a week. That sounds like heaven and joy wrapped in a bow made of glitter and sunshine. But it has to be safe—for my kids, for the teachers, for the community. And if these are the guidelines we’re working with, I’m not sure we’re there yet—not in terms of safety, or logistics, or reality.

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