Editor’s note: The protocol among districts varies widely; if you have questions, please check with your local school administrators.
Parents are not okay. Even if your kids are relatively easy and self motivated, you’re watching them become less social, less active, and you’re scared for them. It’s exponentially harder for parents whose children have significant social, emotional, intellectual, or developmental needs — parents and children in these situations can feel completely lost and abandoned. It’s even harder still for parents who don’t have the ability to work from home or to access free or low-cost childcare. None of us thought we’d ever be here when we became parents, and we are desperate for any relief. This is totally understandable.
Cue school administrators who are also desperate. They want to look good in the eyes of parents. Their jobs are on the line if they can’t appease you, and they know it. As a result, they are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at planning for the next school year. They’re trying to respond to every parent concern, trying to accommodate all stakeholders, and trying to be flexible for a constantly changing disease environment. They feel compelled to offer a live instruction model due to all of this pressure, and so even if it’s not logical, that’s the product they’re attempting to assemble and sell.
For parents who are struggling without in-person school, any solution that puts their kid in a classroom seems like a welcome reprieve. And because administrators want to please you, they’re dressing their in-person plans up in their Sunday best, marketing them as spectacularly as they can in emails and at board meetings. But here’s the unfortunate truth, the reality that superintendents aren’t bragging about on social media, and parents really need to hear it as soon as possible: you’re being lied to. This is a bait and switch.
Here’s the truth about what is about to happen, as a teacher who has sat in on her own district’s planning meetings throughout July and who has been teaching for over a decade:
1. There will be no socialization.
Kids have to be six feet away from each other, have to be masked, can’t share supplies, can’t walk through the hallways except in a distanced line, can’t play together, can’t even sit facing each other without a shield, can’t play contact sports, can’t move freely around the classroom, etc. If what your kid is missing is other kids, in-person learning will not meet that need this fall. Forming a bubble with one or two other local families and playing masked at the park a few times a week is a far better solution than in-person school at this point if socializing is what you’re after. Even if a district says that “social emotional learning is the priority” upon return, I have yet to see a single district give actionable guidance about how that happens in a masked, distanced classroom.
2. Your kids are going to be unhappy.
Kids want school, but they really don’t understand what school is going to be like this fall. How many children have really worn a mask for seven straight hours? Or had to sit in a desk for hours at a time without the opportunity for a movement break? Kids who struggle to follow rules are going to really suffer in this model, as breaking distance and masking protocol will be a matter of life and death and won’t be handled with the same level of patience and understanding that kids are used to from their teachers. As an English teacher, I know that while some kids like my class, far more kids would say gym or theater or science is their favorite subject. Kids like school best when the work is active and hands on — and all that learning is out of the picture until this pandemic is quashed. Instead, it’s going to be a lot of reading and desk work. This isn’t what kids are missing. They will be heartbroken when they see what school has become.
3. Your kids will likely be taught by someone who is unqualified.
Many districts are having to grapple with the chaos caused by teachers who are medically unable to return to the in-person classroom or teachers who are resigning or retiring early. Other teachers, such as librarians or choir teachers, are unable to teach their subjects at all due to health and safety concerns. So what are districts doing about that? They’re treating teachers as a uniform group of people, ignoring their certifications and specializations, and plugging them in wherever they have a hole. That means that you might have someone who has taught Spanish for over a decade now helping to run a math classroom. If the English teacher is sick and must self-quarantine for a two week period, the physical education teacher might be teaching grammar. Obviously, this is not what best practice looks like in terms of ensuring that our students receive high level academic instruction, but it is absolutely a reality that is happening in districts across this country. As a parent, you might not hear about it, but it will most certainly happen to your kid at some point. Ask your administrators about this and press for a specific answer — I don’t know a single teacher who isn’t seeing this happening in their district if in-person learning is still on the table.
4. If your school doesn’t have air conditioning, your kids are going to cook.
Many schools are old buildings with terrible HVAC systems. Even when buildings do have AC, it’s usually not entirely functional. In a pre-COVID world, that means teachers had fans going almost constantly in the fall and spring. But not anymore. In COVID school, there will be no fans. They’re not allowed. Windows will be open, but without fans, that air won’t really circulate. Many school buildings have very small windows that don’t open wide in the first place due to safety concerns. Add in masks and face shields, and it’s going to get very uncomfortable very fast for both kids and teachers.
5. Your kid is still going to be staring at a screen all day.
One of the biggest, and most understandable, complaints about remote learning is that it was far too much screen time for kids. I agree. That said, in-person learning will be a lot of the same. Because we can’t safely do group or hands on work, and because I won’t be collecting paper assignments from kids due to concerns about disease transmission, there’s not much left except work on the iPad. Sure, there will be an occasional read aloud, book discussion, or lecture with hand written notes, but for the most part, kids will still be glued to the same apps they would be on if they were learning from home because teachers don’t have a whole lot of safe alternatives.
6. You’re about to have a teacher shortage.
Teachers across the country are reevaluating their chosen profession. Even those who will stay in the field are taking a long look at which districts made which decision right now. If your district decides to stay open despite rising case numbers, and if the teachers feel that the entire process was handled in an unsafe or disrespectful manner, your best and brightest teachers will walk to other districts and communities that were more respectful of their staff during this difficult time. Teachers talk to each other — we know which districts are being teacher and student focused and which are not. This problem is also going to be one that persists long after this pandemic is under control. College students considering entering the education field are watching how communities, administration, and politicians are treating teachers. Some of them will conclude that their creativity and passion are better spent in areas where they will be better protected, compensated, and respected. Hiring a teacher in five years might be a hell of a lot harder than it was in the fall of 2019.
7. The teachers aren’t on board.
Administrators like to use terms like “teachers were involved in this process” when selling an idea to the public. All that means is that I, a teacher, was at a meeting where they presented the plan. It doesn’t mean I agreed with it or had a hand in creating it or was allowed to raise concerns about it. I see parents buy in to this in my community. They’ll say, “Well the superintendent said this plan was agreed to by the staff.” I don’t know the nice way to say this — it’s almost always a lie.
8. This isn’t going to last.
In every single board meeting, planning meeting, and staff meeting I’ve attended in multiple districts this July, the administration concedes that we will end up having to default to remote at some point. When asked questions about how we will deal with open windows and outdoor space in the winter, administrators will literally admit that they don’t want to cross that bridge yet because there’s a good chance that we won’t make it that long. I hear a lot of parents saying that they “get to choose which option to do” or “are going to be in person for the full year.” No one — not your administrator, not your school board, not your teachers — knows that or can promise it. Hell, they don’t even believe it. The truth is that you will likely end up remote at some point, regardless of whatever snake oil you’re being sold in parent emails.
I realize that none of this is what you want to hear. Administrators realize that, too, which is why they aren’t telling you about it. But as a fellow parent, I feel that you deserve to know what your kid is about to walk into. Parents feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, and none of these decisions are easy, but it’s important that we have all the information when making tough calls for our children, our families, and our communities.
If anything here gives you pause, follow up with teachers and administrators in your district. Push them to be honest — even if the truth isn’t comfortable for any of us to hear.