Education Essay

Teacher Wisdom: K-12 Students Cannot Return to Campus This Fall

Physical distancing at schools is impossible. Now is the time to prepare robust distance learning and close the technology gap.

By Harley Litzelman / Excerpts from The Bold Italic with author permission / Full version

“This is what a room of 21 desks looks like with desks physically separated by 1.5 meters,” one teacher tweeted on April 28, referring to a photo of a classroom showing 14 student desks, each with a detached chair tucked tightly underneath.

“To have kids back, we can make this work,” the teacher, based in Laos, continued. “USA, Canadian, European, African, South American teachers, get ready.”

I felt some kinship with this optimistic educator. He sounded like every teacher who knows how to make it work despite roadblocks. This, it seemed, was the spirit of a teacher who spent hours composing the perfect graphic organizer for a week-long lesson only to find both copiers out of toner on Monday morning. This was the spirit of a teacher ready to start a month-long argumentative writing unit, only for the school Wi-Fi to collapse for days. This was the spirit of a teacher struggling to deliver the best instruction they could in a system unequipped to give students what they deserve.

This is the spirit parents, politicians, and administrators have always depended on to bridge the gap between what our education should deliver and how little governments are willing to invest in it. Of course, this gap is greatest for working-class communities of color, whose states and school districts demand the most from teachers with the fewest resources.

But now, in the middle of a pandemic, people are about to ask teachers to do more than ever. As this academic year winds down after months of students staying home and anxieties about next year begin to fester, teachers are already sighing in disbelief as people removed from the reality of classrooms recklessly speculate about what teachers and school staff will need to do to reopen schools in the fall.

I’ve often heard teachers respond to suggestions on how to reopen with a common phrase: Have you ever met children?

I hope this article leads you to ask the same question in response to politicians’ claims that schools could safely reopen this fall if they implement physical distancing and adequate sanitation.

A class set-up for social distancing. / Photo courtesy of Lisa Shafer, an Oakland Unified teacher.

Here in California, Governor Gavin Newsom outlined a four-stage process for reopening the state. . . . To determine when California is ready to move from one stage to the next, Newsom is using six indicators. Along with measures like capacity for testing and contact tracing, Newsom includes the ability of businesses, schools, and childcare facilities to support physical distancing.

This four-stage framework sits upon a flawed foundation that allows for reckless speculation about when to reopen schools. Newsom’s administration views schools as a “lower-risk workplace” that simply requires modifications to allow a safe reopening. Nowhere does he articulate why a nail salon is riskier than a school when nail technicians regularly use masks and gloves and usually see fewer than 50 clients per week. Meanwhile, my contract with the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) allows schools to assign secondary teachers a caseload of 160 to 260 students per day depending on the subject with no promise of basic cleaning supplies, much less medically adequate PPE.

That’s not to say nail salons don’t carry a high risk of disease transmission; the problem is Newsom’s cavalier underestimation of the risk of schools.

What protocols does the state recommend? At Newsom’s April 14 press conference, Newsom set the education headlines buzzing: “We can conceivably stagger the individual students to come in as cohorts. Some in the morning, some in the afternoon… assemblies, PE, recess, looking at how you provide meals to our kids, all of those things would have to be reconsidered. Deep sanitization, massive deep cleaning, a predicate, by the way not just in our schools, but disinfecting our parks, our streets…”

So begins the spatial, logistical, pedagogical, disciplinary, and epidemiological nightmare into which nonteaching decision-makers are welcoming your children.

Where I work, Oakland’s Skyline High School, more than 1,000 of its 1,500 students pay $2.75 every day to pack themselves onto county buses to and from school. . . . What would physical distancing, sanitation, and PPE look like on a bus? To guarantee the physical distance Newsom imagines, AC Transit would need to double, if not triple, the number of buses servicing not just Skyline, but the 121 schools it services throughout Alameda County. . . .

The first wave of buses arrives at Skyline between 7:25 and 7:30 a.m. Students gather in hallways, open spaces, and classrooms. A dozen or so kids play pickup basketball on the outdoor court by the gym, and a couple others rally a volleyball. They gather to talk shit and laugh and hug and shake hands and play music and enjoy the 30 minutes or so they have before they have to sit quietly and listen to instructions and read 1984 or think-pair-share or cross-multiply matrices.

These communal spaces are the settings in which a school’s culture and community thrives or dies. No matter how engaging the curricula, or how much teachers may try activities that relax the mind (icebreakers, brain breaks, stand-and-stretches), the sum total of what teachers ask students to do is drainingExhausting. Somehow, an inspiring proportion of our students do it. But without huddling in those hallways and open spaces — libraries, cafeterias, student centers, and senior lawns — where students find the strength to do what their teachers ask of them, they couldn’t. You wouldn’t either.

Fast forward to August 10, 2020, to what would be the first day of school at Skyline. Students have not enjoyed one another’s company since Friday, March 13 — the last day of school before the shutdown. A lot of kids are wearing masks, some of them bedazzled and stylish, but some of them aren’t covering their mouths and noses, some are strapped under their chins, and plenty aren’t wearing any mask at all. At first, the joy is palpable . . .

But now there’s something new. Before school started, the principals presented a new policy, decreed by the state and relayed by the district: All campus staff must help enforce physical distancing before school, during passing periods, lunch, and after school. They also must enforce the new mask policy, demanding that every student wear their mask at all times. The district has already authorized administrators to breach our contract and infringe upon our 30-minute duty-free lunches, betting that the union’s grievance will take months to process.

Abrasive echoes of “Six feet please! Six feet please!” and “Mask please, wear your mask!” fill the air. Never mind the fact that people can transmit the virus much farther than six feet depending on a variety of factors: whether they are speaking loudly, running, coughing, sneezing, or simply breathing in an enclosed space or a space with circulated air. Six feet is enough to pretend we’re doing something. Pickup volleyball and basketball are banned. Skyline staff zig-zag through campus to break up noncompliant cliques of friends and teenage couples, good kids doing nothing wrong aside from finding camaraderie in a crisis they did not cause. Some oblige; others migrate and regroup out of sight. . . .

Lunch is miserable. The line to the cafeteria now wraps around several buildings as campus supervisors demand at least six feet of distance between students. Lunch is either 30 or 35 minutes long depending on the day, and it previously took about 25 minutes for all students to get their meal. With more parents out of work and less money in their pockets, more kids line up for their daily infusion of bland carbohydrates and protein. Now more kids than ever are guaranteed to miss their meal, which may have been the only meal offered to them that day. . . .

STR Partners published a guide for schools on implementing physical distancing between students.

Rumors about students’ and staff’s contact with Covid-19 are multiplying if they haven’t been confirmed, especially in Oakland. We’re already Alameda County’s hardest-hit city, and our two largest private employers are Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health. Under the guise of emergency action, district officials escalate police presence on school campuses to enforce physical distancing and mask policies. Overwhelmed administrators get tempted to lend more and more disciplinary duties to on-campus police, reversing the progress that the Black Organizing Project and other groups have made toward eliminating police presence and improving restorative justice in Oakland schools. As they do already, students of color and students with disabilities then bear the disproportional burden of the police’s pandemic harassment.

Despite what your children may say about the thrill of the classroom, we’re living in an exciting age of innovation in teaching. Sure, lots of classrooms still look like snapshots from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; students lose consciousness in rigid rows of desk-chairs while Ben Stein stands and delivers a fill-in-the-blank lecture on FDR’s New Deal. But there are thousands of teachers, both new and old, learning new tricks in the classroom. They are leading a paradigm grounded in facilitating academic discourseproject-based learning, career-based linked learning pathways like Skyline’s, and other curriculum projects and pedagogical frameworks that shift attention away from what the teacher does to what the students do. . . .

Teachers ask kids to do a lot to build this environment. Teachers ask kids to pick up the new handout on the way in, get the old handout from yesterday, get an extra if you lost it or if you were absent, get out your pencil, get an extra pencil off my desk if you need one, find your seat, and sit down on your seat that several other students have already sat on. We ask them to find a partner, find a new partner, go to the corner of the room that corresponds with the character you most agree with, film a video outside, form a circle, two circles, now switch. We ask them to get a Chromebook from the class’s Chromecart that four classes have already touched that day. They’ll need to line up to put away the Chromebooks and make sure to plug them in. Sometimes they need to go to the back and get the markers, crayons, paintbrushes, tissues, paper towels, bandages (so many bandages), and textbooks, and they’ll do this a dozen times in a class period. As they weave in between the desks, they nudge and bump their peers and step on their backpacks, breathing one another’s air and smelling one another’s stink.

Students share posters, markers, notes, pens, journals, thoughts, phones, gum, Hydroflasks, Takis, and baby carrots coated in Tajín. They stand up, sit down, chat, text, scroll, FaceTime, talk shit, take calls, walk outside, peer out the window, and crumple papers into three-point shots into my garbage can that they inevitably miss while shouting “Kobe!” . . .

They do all of this whether you’re okay with it or not, whenever they want, though some kids more than others. And this is what they do to keep themselves from hating you because they’d rather not. They want to like you; they want to learn. But they need to bring their full selves into the classroom, the selves they built on the playgrounds, blacktops, senior lawns, JV swim teams, homecoming games, proms, and every other place they’re no longer allowed to enjoy.

Back to August 10: Students file into my new classroom. This year, I’ll be teaching seniors who I’ve already taught as sophomores, some as freshmen, too. Except this year, they won’t sit in pairs or two-by-twos. They’ll find their individual desks in rows, each desk chair painfully isolated from their neighbors. However, my desks are not six feet apart. Like the teacher I mentioned at the top of this article, I can only fit 1.5 meters between them, about 4 feet, 11 inches. The small group table is gone. I can’t greet them at the door on the first day of their last year in high school. They’ll find me standing at the front, masked and gloved. Since I had taught these kids before, I was hoping to speed through my class norms and expectations, but now I teach new norms for a new normal.

They must wait outside before I allow them to enter because I must wipe every desk, chair, and counter between every class. I would rather delegate this to my 17- and 18-year-old students, but only I am legally allowed to handle disinfecting wipes and sprays according to an amendment to California’s Health School Act of 2000 — that is, after taking a one-hour training on proper disinfectant use. This takes at least 10 minutes, eating at least five minutes of the next 51 minute period. If I want to use disinfectant wipes to clean these surfaces well, I’ll need to use a few dozen wipes between each class because their efficacy significantly drops after wiping more than two square feet. If I had to make any other adjustment between classes — change or fix slides, sort handouts, print a résumé for a student, or God forbid, go to the bathroom — it will take longer, or it won’t happen. If I’m rushing back to my class after enforcing physical distancing during passing period, it will take longer. . . .

I continue. They shall not stand up during class. If they need something, anything, they must ask me for it. Almost anything I give them is theirs to keep; I no longer ask them to return borrowed pens or pencils. I’ll still need to monitor any borrowing of rulers, scissors, markers, or glue, while my colleagues in math and science monitor any borrowing of calculators, protractors, beakers, test tubes, goggles, Bunsen burners, and the like. They may not touch each other, for any reason. If they do so, they must wash their hands and sanitize anything they shared. They may not eat in class; one lick of cheese dust off their fingers wiped across a shared surface becomes a reservoir of disease. It doesn’t matter if they barely had time to pick up their free school breakfast before heading to first period.

As I teach, they must not turn and talk about something I want them to discuss because they would likely compromise the minimal distance between them. They will not take a position on a controversial question by moving to one side of the room or the other. We will not have Socratic seminars because I cannot maintain distance between students sitting in a large circle. Most work will be individual: no group posters, mock trials, skits, funny videos, or partner reading. If they need my help with anything, I will no longer kneel beside their desk to give their question privacy. They will need the bravery to raise their hand in front of everyone and ask their question. Otherwise, they will need to email or text me their question in class.

In science, my students will not have lab partners. In theater, no contact between actors or shared costumes between classes. In English, no class sets of books because the disinfectant would soak the pages. In PE, no sports that bring students within six feet of one another: basketball, football, soccer, swimming, handball, field hockey, lacrosse, and weightlifting (and that doesn’t even consider the nightmare of disinfecting all the equipment). No sports, so no coaches to call when the star power forward on varsity basketball needs that extra kick of motivation. Any day we use Chromebooks in class, I’ll probably need to end those classes 10 minutes early to disinfect every single computer and put them away. . . .

“I think we all know that kindergarteners and first graders will have a really hard time staying six feet away from each other,” Deputy Superintendent of the California Department of Education Stephanie Gregson told CNBC with a chuckle, “So we really have to think through what that would look like in order for them to be safe at school, and for their teachers as well.” Except they won’t have to really think that through, because five- and six-year-olds will not storm the Sacramento offices of the CDE in a few months, spraying their snot and saliva in all directions. Like every other impossible task, it will fall to thousands of elementary school teachers and staff to make it work. There’s no way I could do justice to the experience of elementary school teachers, whose skill sets and challenges often mystify us high school teachers. But I will take the liberty to give you a taste.

No more group seating. No story time on the carpet. No small group stations. Coloring must be strictly monitored to eliminate sharing, probably requiring children to keep their own personal sets of crayons and markers, revealing stark class differences within classrooms and between schools. No fingers in the mouth or nose, and several minutes spent washing their hands after they inevitably forget. They, too, cannot get out of their seats during class, and no longer can they enjoy the couches and bean bag chairs that their teachers have acquired.

Again is the time to ask: Have you ever met children?

Recess becomes a huge source of contention . . .

Everything I have predicted is both a best-case and worst-case scenario. In terms of pandemic control, I have described the best-case scenario: complete and total social control in and out of the classroom. At the same time, in terms of educational best practice, it is a worst-case scenario. And as any teacher can tell you, bad teaching makes bad behavior. Hell, good teaching doesn’t eliminate misbehavior, but it certainly reduces it to manageable levels. Under new restrictions that fly in the face of good teaching, kids will “act up” . . .

Eventually they can’t take it anymore, but not just the kids who are “acting up.” The shy kid two reading levels behind refuses to raise her hand to ask her question out loud, so she gives up. She sits on her phone to text a friend she can’t talk to because they attend different school shifts, and the teacher demands three times to put her phone away. She storms out of class. Now the teacher has to stop class and call the office to make sure this kid doesn’t violate physical distancing, so the secretary sends a police officer who normally doesn’t supervise schools to go find her. . . .

Eight days later, the grandfather she lives with exhibits Covid-19 symptoms. How? Maybe it was the cop who grabbed his granddaughter by the elbow. Maybe it was the teacher who stomped toward her and pulled down his mask to demand that she put her phone away. Or maybe it was one of the 40 kids on the bus she takes to school every day and the essential workers who put food on their tables.

Like I said, though, this is still a best-case scenario in terms of disease control. Like any best-case scenario in U.S. education, it won’t happen. It won’t happen because teachers already spend an average of $479 per year on classroom expenses without reimbursement, and there’s no reason to believe that every school will suddenly be able to provide their staff with millions of antimicrobial wipes and thousands of gallons of disinfectant spray. It won’t happen because students will recognize the ample contradictions between the rules they’re asked to follow and the enclosed spaces they’re expected to fill. They’ll balk at administrators demanding that they separate from their friends while asking them to go to class and sit just as close to their peers. They’ll pinpoint the differences in enforcement, identifying teachers who are “cool” with eating in class and who are not. It won’t happen because the children of shelter-in-place protesters won’t reject their parents’ politics, and they will find teachers and principals who agree with them.

. . .

Grandiose ideas of staggered schedules and drastically cut class sizes won’t happen because states and districts have refused to repair teacher shortages, making hopes of halving or quartering class sizes pipe dreams. It won’t happen because California is facing the largest budget deficit in its history, and education finance experts anticipate that the escalating recession will reduce education funding in California by $2,000 per student per year. . .

Where did those eight students go? Your guess is as good as mine. Credit: STR Partners

. . .

The regime will last longer in some schools than others, mirroring the vastly unequal terrain of education funding and student needs. Schools serving the working-class Black and Brown communities suffering most from Covid-19 will be the schools expected to meet the greatest need with the fewest resources. They will do what they can, as teachers always have. They may have some success, discovering practices and protocols that preserve some student and staff dignity. But there will also be failures, “areas of growth” as educators love to call them, and it is within those areas that the virus will spread.

I almost forgot to mention. Newsom wants this regime ready by late July, echoing a similar suggestion by Mississippi State Superintendent Carey Wright. “We are considering the prospect of an even earlier school year into the fall, as early as late July, early August…” Newsom announced at his April 28 press conference. Schools would become California’s only public institutions opening earlier than they would without a global pandemic. In fact, under this plan, schools could open during Los Angeles County’s extended stay-at-home order.

. . .

We cannot return to campus this fall. We cannot return until the public health community has reached a consensus that physical distancing and constant, obsessive sanitation at schools are no longer necessary to stop the spread of Covid-19. If this means that we cannot return until an effective vaccine has been widely disseminated, then that is what it means.

Today, we stand at a crossroads. One road takes us toward another semester or more of digital learning. We can use the time and collective expertise we have now to build a robust distance learning regime. We can develop comprehensive, multilingual communication protocols that keep school staff in close contact with all families. We can assure families that everything they are doing to help their child with school is enough, and that it’s our job to meet them where they are. We can reallocate money usually reserved for on-campus activities toward community services that directly help families meet basic needs like food pantries, health clinics, financial assistance, free laundries, and others. Teachers need to carefully coordinate their students’ online learning experience, staying vigilantly sensitive to the added stress and responsibilities students are dealing with during the pandemic.

This summer, we can give teachers time to do what they do best, but did not have the time to do before: Plan. Collaborate. Share tricks and best practices. Finally figure out how to work Zoom. Debate the ethics of grading and acceptable volumes of work. Fight tooth-and-nail for universal internet and 1:1 computer access for all students, as Oakland teachers are already doing. We can build the best learning experiences we can under the awful circumstances we are handed because that is what we do anyway.

If we take this road, we cannot allow extended distance learning to become an opportunity for disaster capitalists to seize the future of public education, typically veiled by the lofty branding of “reimagining” or “reforming” education. New York teachers are leading the way as they fight Gov. Cuomo’s backhanded attempts to “reimagine” (read: privatize, union-bust, defund) public education with the help of failed education “reformer” Bill Gates. . . .

Or we take the other road; we reopen. We begin this grand experiment of bad teaching. We can hope that student rebellion, adult intransigence, institutional failure, and political cowardice aren’t enough to restart the exponential spread of the disease. We can hope that the daily lapses in judgment made every day on every campus, at scale across more than 56 million students herded into 132,000 K-12 schools in the United States, aren’t enough to derail the public health outcomes we desire. We can pretend that school-age children are too young to suffer the worst of this disease, even as researchers clarify the link between Covid-19 and symptoms comparable to Kawasaki disease in children. We can hope that these cascading factors, along with the general likelihood that Covid-19 will ravage the U.S. again in fall, don’t force us to close schools again, without the public infrastructure or professional preparation needed to resume distance learning.

Maybe the pandemic miraculously collapses, allowing us to return to campus and teach our kids how they’re supposed to be taught. When we reduce the technology gap, guaranteeing universal computer and internet access for all students and families, will we consider that a waste? When we face the next crisis that keeps kids from school — the next pandemic, the greater consequences of climate change — will our readiness to switch to distance learning be for nothing? We risk exerting a lot of effort to learn the craft of distance learning, only for us to return to campus and do the jobs we’ve always done. Which road are you willing to take?

Harley Litzelman
Harley Litzelman

Oakland public high school teacher and union organizer.