With reopening deadlines fast approaching, school districts across America are scrambling to release their safety plans. Some districts are already announcing that they’ll be doing remote learning this fall, and opening their facilities only when the coronavirus pandemic has been contained (if not totally vanquished). Others have boldly vowed to reopen, with a new program of masking and/or social distancing aimed at preventing transmission of the virus.
We’ve been talking a lot about how the kids need to get back to normal, to come out of quarantine and resume socializing, and these are certainly valid concerns, but let’s be honest: one of the major factors driving the decision to reopen schools is the parents’ need to get back to normal. For the economy to reopen, people need to get back to work; for folks to go to work, they need someplace to drop off their kids. Besides being an education system, schools in America are also something like a national public childcare program.
What parents need to realize is that, just as schools are going to look a little (or a lot) different in the era of COVID, there will be a new normal for families too. Teachers are preparing for every eventuality, whether it means going to work wearing scrubs and an N95 mask, learning new interactive online tools to enhance remote learning—or wearing the Hazmat suit on Days A and C, Zooming on Days B and D.
Parents, you have some new responsibilities too.
Education is not just academic learning. As teachers, we’ve always accepted that part of our role is to model good hygiene for the students (especially the little ones). Kindergarten and Pre-K teachers had their hand-washing songs long before we were all scrubbing to the tunes of Queen or Beyonce. So yes, we will be talking about hand hygiene, this year more than ever.
What’s changed is that the instruction won’t be hands-on, and there’s less room for error. We can’t always stand right there at the sink with your child and demonstrate how to soap up, how to scrub and rinse. And, while of course we were never big fans of germy hands, now it matters more than ever. The safety of our reopening plan literally depends on the students being able to take care of this stuff.
That means you need to train them, and the training starts now.
Same goes for mask use. We’ll be at the front of the classroom, modeling proper use of masks, but we can’t go walking up and down rows of desks adjusting each kid. Students need to come in already knowing how the mask works—and how it doesn’t work (I’m looking at the folks with their masks tucked under their noses). They need to know how to put it on, when to put it on, when to take it off, when to change the mask, how to clean it after each use (unless it is disposable), what to do if there’s a broken strap or other malfunction.
Above all, though, they need to know that this is serious business.
More often than not, a kid’s philosophy on school rules is that the rule only counts if you get caught. “No chewing gum” means that you chew it until you’re told to spit it out; “No phones” means you hide it in your lap or behind your textbook. It can’t be that way with masks. Despite teachers’ best efforts to enforce the rules, a student who is really intent on “cheating” will find a way.
The children must understand that this is something we do, not just for ourselves, but for the sake of our friends and our community. It’s not a joke or a game. You may think you’re invincible (you’re not), but the people around you may not feel that way, and in any case, any funny business with the masks is a real potential danger to everyone.
A lot of adults seem to be struggling to understand this, so we have to assume it will be a tough one for the kids. Nevertheless, it is vitally important. You can have the safest plan in the world, on paper, but all that planning is useless if we don’t have actual compliance on the ground.
It should go without saying that kids should only wear their own masks—no sharing or trading!—and they need to bring extra masks in case a mask gets soiled or damaged. And while we’re on that subject…
For the most part, students are good about coming in on Day 1 with all their required school supplies. By Day 2, they’re asking to borrow pencils. No one knows exactly what happens to the 96 sharpened number-two pencils their parents dutifully purchased, but they’re gone now, and it’s a school supply free-for-all.
This year can’t be like that. Though coronavirus seems to spread mainly through respiratory droplets, the virus can stay on surfaces and be passed around that way too. So no, we’re not sharing pencils or post-its, looseleaf paper, rulers, protractors, or calculators. Students need to bring their own, they need to notice when they’re running low, and restock as needed. If you’re accustomed to doing all your school supply shopping in August, be aware that you may need to do it again in December or January (or October?).
There may be new school supplies too. Some things that used to be community property—like a stapler or a three-hole punch on the teacher’s desk—are no longer safe to pass around. Students should bring their own.
If buying school supplies is a financial hardship for your family, reach out to your school district and find out what assistance is available. In my experience, the school is always prepared to help out a family in need—even when the school itself is strapped for cash.
In any case, however, these arrangements should be made ahead of time. We can’t just spontaneously pass around a pair of scissors or a compass, as we would have in years past. No more communal box of Kleenex: bring your own tissues—and use them in the restroom, not the classroom.
And Be Prepared to Stay Home Again
But if your kid needs to go to the bathroom and blow her nose, maybe she shouldn’t come in in the first place.
In the past, when a child showed very mild symptoms of illness—a cough, a sneeze, a runny nose—it was basically the parent’s choice whether to send the kid to school. Some parents err on the side of keeping the child home for safety; others just put a hand on the kid’s forehead, say “No fever!” and hurry him onto the school bus.
This year—and maybe every year, going forward—you should expect schools to be much more assertive about asking you to keep your sick kid home. Children will be sent home for showing even the mildest symptoms, and that means parents need to be ready to pick them up (or make arrangements) on very short notice.
Even if it’s not your kid who is sick, there’s a very real possibility that the whole class gets sent home for weeks at a time. Read your school district’s plan for details on what specifically would trigger a quarantine or a shutdown, but you can bet that if anyone in your child’s class tests positive for COVID, the whole class will be learning remotely for at least ten days (or two weeks). If there are cases in more than one class, it’s likely the whole school will shut down.
If there are outbreaks in the schools—and a reopening gone wrong could easily turn into a “super-spreader” event—then this fall will end up looking a lot like this past spring: universal stay-at-home orders, with only the most essential services running, and school happening remotely again. If you’re going back to work, and relying on the schools for childcare, that’s great but you need to be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice—again—and rearrange your plans.
This would be a huge disappointment for everyone—and for some families, it would be absolutely devastating. Staying home with your child means losing income, and potentially even losing a job, and not every family can afford that. Nevertheless, we need to understand that every school’s reopening plan includes this as one of the possible outcomes. As much as we want to avoid this, we need to be prepared for it.
It’s also possible that there will be no more major outbreaks, the school year will go swimmingly, and the COVID-19 crisis will just fade into the past. Of course this is what we’re all hoping for, but the bottom line is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We need to go into this school year with our eyes open, prepared for every possibility, and all do our part to ensure the best possible outcome.