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  • Lori Stott

Back to School in COVID-19: THIS IS NOT A DRILL

Are you a parent or know any parents? Do you have children or know any children? Then you’re aware that in the United States 1. We are living in unprecedented times of a pandemic with climbing death rates; and 2. A new school year is fast approaching. You’ve seen the headlines and caught the news. Maybe your son is a middle school teacher in California or your oldest pal on the planet drives a school bus in Illinois or your neighbor’s only granddaughter is an IVF miracle. You know children and you know adults who work in the education system. The point is, the school reopening issue is one that affects us all.

I’m the wife of a high school teacher, mother of a rising high school senior, daughter and sister of public school teachers. People I love teach everything from preschool to elementary, middle and high school, public and private, online, Montessori, Waldorf, college-prep, university. In the nonprofit world, I’ve been surrounded by professional educators for 30 years.

Here in the States, I don’t believe we are anywhere near a New Normal. We haven’t yet reached the In-Between. When I look at COVID-19 charts, I don’t see a wave, do you? It has been a steady increase in cases and deaths since mid-March. No waves, no dips. Forgive this rudimentary assessment (I’m no oceanographer) but it seems to me that waves go up and down, in and out. We haven’t seen the COVID-19 wave go down or out.

What we have seen, however, is a distinct lack of concern for human life. President Trump has essentially silenced top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci—the man more Americans trust than they do the President. And why shouldn’t we trust Fauci? He’s well-educated and seasoned in his field. He is a scientist. He states facts.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sits in front of her bookless bookshelf and threatens to withhold federal funds from schools that don't fully reopen this fall. She says “adults who are fear-mongering and making excuses simply have got to stop doing it and turn their attention on what is right for students and for their families.” Is it fearmongering when we look at the statistics and the science? Is it fearmongering when we hear of another person whose life will be forever impacted by COVID-19? Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia says schools are an essential service, that factories and tattoo shops and hair salons are open. Huh? White House Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow dismisses the challenges we face and says, “just go back to school…come on, it’s not that hard.”

THIS IS NOT A DRILL.


Our school district just announced a hybrid plan that asks my husband to go into the building 4 days a week, 8 hours a day. Our daughter would go 2, which means 4 days of exposure if she wants to participate at some level in sports. The board decided this on a zoom meeting, of course, each member safe in their individual homes.

As a mother I’m deeply grateful that people are thinking through ways to keep children safe.

As a wife/daughter/sister/friend I have to ask, WHAT ABOUT THE TEACHERS?

What about the administrative support staff (we all know these folks run our schools), the bus drivers, the lunch ladies and men, the janitorial staff? This particular plan says that all students and staff must wear a mask…oh, except for those who “cannot wear masks for health or education reasons.” Say what? For younger kids, there will be recess and meals in lunchrooms. I ask you, have you been on a kindergarten playground or in an elementary school lunchroom? Have you seen middle school athletes or high schoolers, or college kids ever maintain anything like 6 feet of distance? I’m not saying it’s impossible. Anything is possible. But it’s not realistic. Most importantly, at this time, it’s just NOT SAFE.

Despite the abhorrent lack of leadership, the appalling and consistent twisting and turning of facts, the mind-numbing moments of utter astonishment at POTUS mutterings, and the outright denial of the seriousness of this moment, I see and hear educators all over the country rising up to be heard. Here’s the prevailing message. Teachers want to go back to school and teachers want to teach kids. Is it safe? NO.

THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

President of the National Education Association (NEA) Lily Eskelen Garcia says reopening schools now is just dangerous, calling out the ‘vacuum of leadership’ with zero credibility in the minds of educators and parents when it comes to this major decision: “Public school educators, students and parents must have a voice in critical conversations and decisions on reopening schools. The president should not be brazenly making these decisions.”

She also double dog dared Trump to sit in a class of 39 sixth graders (as she has) without any preparation for safety. For once, he did not take a dare or try to make a deal.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) says reopening America’s 98,000 public school buildings “doesn’t happen with an all-caps tweet or an ultimatum from the president.” Instead of offering guidance or support to reopen schools safely, the current stance from the White House is that science, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), should not “stand in the way” of reopening schools. Says Weingarten: “This is reckless and wrong.”

Reckless and wrong? Yes. I’ll be a bit more blunt.

Is it SAFE for teachers and staff go back to school? HELL NO.

But what about the children? WHAT ABOUT THE TEACHERS?

What about us parents? WE ALL WANT TO LIVE.

The economy, oh no! WE ALL WANT TO LIVE.

We’ll have to see how it goes. NO. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

On March 12, my daughter stayed after school to attend a play put on by the theater department. Immediately after the applause faded, a girl stood up with her phone, reading a message on the school’s Instagram page. She exclaimed “We aren’t coming back tomorrow, we need to leave!” The next day no one was allowed into the building. Yet, just four months later, teachers and staff and kids are being told to go back, this time with masks and a ridiculous amount of hand sanitizer.

THIS IS NOT A DRILL.


Teachers are now getting pressure from desperate parents who need to go back to work and who want their children at school. Teachers are being asked to save the economy. Teachers in our district have very little time to decide to ask for an exemption, file for unpaid leave, or retire early. Teachers are being asked to plan for their futures. To get their affairs in order. To prepare their wills.


There is absolutely no science behind decisions to reopen school buildings. Nothing has changed since March 12, except the fact that COVID-19 cases are on the rise, the wave is still going up. When the school environment was deemed unsafe, my husband quickly learned online teaching techniques—building the airplane in the sky—which is what a lot of public education is like. Our daughter finished out her junior year of high school from her bedroom, having been both challenged and bored by the new distance learning system.

But. My husband and daughter are ALIVE. They left the building and have been social distancing ever since. How am I supposed to watch them go out the door in a few weeks, armed with masks and hand sanitizer and apprehension, to re-enter an over-crowded building with small classrooms, terrible ventilation and windows that simply don’t open?

This is not like an active shooter drill where teachers lock doors and students huddle under desks. This is not a fire drill, a tornado drill or a mountain lion drill. We are not practicing how to be in a global pandemic, just in case it happens. We are not acting ‘as if’ a virus was coming.

If you are a parent or know any parents…or have children or know any children, please. Demand that your schools are free from new cases of COVID-19 for 14 days before anyone—students and teachers, all staff members—goes back to in-school learning.

Because this is not a drill.

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#NationalEducationAssociation #NationalParentTeacherAssociation #AmericanFederationofTeachers #CouncilofAdministratorsofSpecialEducation #NationalAssociationofSecondarySchoolPrincipals #NationalAssociationofStateDirectorsofSpecialEducation


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