Is it possible for schools to reopen safely? Can online education substitute for in-person instruction? As school districts debated those questions and ultimately pushed back in-person reopening to at least November, Labor Press reporter Don McIntosh turned to Madison High School English teacher Elizabeth Thiel, the newly elected president of Portland Association of Teachers (PAT), for answers.
What was PAT members’ reaction to the plan to reopen at half capacity?
The vast majority of our members believe that the best and only option is online, because of safety. Nobody wants to be back in classrooms with students more than teachers. Distance learning is not what we want. It is absolutely not the best educational model. It’s not what we were trained to do, and it’s not how we best connect with our students. But we have a responsibility for our students’ safety as well as our workers’ safety and the safety of all our family members in the community. Talking with our superintendent, it seems more and more clear that the hybrid model would not be sufficient to keep people safe. Part of it is we don’t have answers to basic questions, like so many of our classrooms don’t have good ventilation. We don’t have operable windows in all of our classroom. We don’t have touch-less sinks; in fact most schools have sinks where you have to hold the faucet with one hand in order to put the other hand under the water or it automatically springs back. So even washing hands is tricky in our schools. And then you think about things like fire drills, earthquake drills, and active shooter drills, which are required under state law. And there’s no way to do that under social distancing. And of course the Oregon Department of Education guidelines talks about isolating anybody with COVID symptoms. And any teacher will tell you that on any given day, there are a number of students who have stuffy noses. And what are we actually going to do when the school bus arrives and one or five or 20 kids have runny noses? The logistics of what this mean are just baffling to imagine, when we know COVID is rapidly spreading. There are so many questions that have not been figured out, like how do you move through the hallway maintaining social distancing? How do you eat and serve lunch with kids being apart from one another? How do you have recess when kids aren’t supposed to be touching the same equipment? For teachers that all brings forward some pretty bleak questions about how that kind of classroom environment can be developmentally appropriate for kids, when you’re talking about six year olds being asked to sit at a desk for the entire day without partnering, without sharing manipulatives with other kids, without a teacher coming up right next to them to read their writing. So much of teaching is about relationships and proximity, and partnering and collaboration. So what in-person teaching would look like under those guidelines isn’t the kind of teaching that we’re all dying to get back to.
It’s one thing to expect a high school student to sit in a row and keep to themselves, but how are you going to get kindergarten, first grade second grade students to maintain six feet distance and do everything they’re told?
And what happens when they don’t? That’s another anxiety that teachers have expressed: Is it my job to be the social distancing police? How much of my time will be spent teaching and connecting with kids in positive ways, and how much will be spent telling kids to put their masks back on right, to step away from that kid, not to touch that kid’s book? So many of our teachers have contacted me to say, “I feel like I’m being asked to play Russian roulette with my own life, or my immunocompromised child’s life, or my parent’s life who I’m caretaker for. The stakes are very real.
Teachers unions have resisted widespread adoption of online learning as a replacement for in-person instruction. Now the epidemic has forced the issue. How did you feel about the way it went at the end of the last school year?
We do not believe that online is the best model for kids, and we are forced to use it and figure out how to use it best. There are so many problems with online learning. Some kids don’t have as stable internet access as others, or any internet access. So access to learning is not equitable. There were many students who did not engage or who dropped off after a period of time in distance learning and stopped coming back. The district did provide Chromebooks and hot spots [portable Wi-Fi connection], but there were students who were sharing a hotspot or Chromebook with siblings. Beyond that, some students have a parent at home who was able to help and guide them through learning, and other students did not. Some students have a quiet place to work, dependably. And other students are sharing a crowded living space with many other kids and without adult support at home.
Even in the best of circumstances, what were the limitations you were seeing with online learning?
The lack of relationships. Kids are looking at a screen, they’re listening, but you can’t make friends. You can’t make eye contact with people. Your teacher can’t look over your shoulder to see what you’re working on. The lack of in-person social interactions gets in the way of every aspect of teaching and learning. Teaching is based on relationships. Partner work is a lot harder to organize, face-to-face discussion, all the engagement strategies that we use in classrooms to meet kids’ social and emotional needs don’t work the same way over virtual learning.
And that leads me to the worst case scenario: How on earth do kindergarten, first and second grade students get something out of online learning?
It is a huge challenge. It’s not developmentally appropriate for a five or six or seven year old to be sitting in front of a computer receiving screen instruction. Educators have had to be creative in figuring out how to support kids in developmentally appropriate activities while not being able to be there with them. A lot of teachers are figuring out the best thing they could do, which maybe would be small group meetings with fewer kids, meeting one-on-one to read with kids over the Internet and providing activities and projects that kids can do independently at home and then report back or email in. But all these things are a huge challenge with our little kids especially. We want to be there with them. We want to show them how to hold a pencil, how to socialize with a large group of people, how to wait their turn. How to ask someone to play. All these things, goals of early education, are not there over distance learning.
Were teachers consulted when the district was making plans about whether and how to reopen?
Teachers have been part of some committees going through what it would take to get kids back in schools. I’ve been going to all those committee meetings. Whats’ becoming clearer and clearer and what myself and others have been saying at those meetings, is as we’ve seen outbreaks in Kindercares and sports teams, as the numbers of COVID cases and hospitalizations have gone up, teachers increasingly reached the conclusion that it’s not going to be safe to go back to the schools. Going through this process of planning out how it would look, the logistical difficulties, its just crystal clear there’s not a way to run schools at 50% capacity that wouldn’t continue spreading the virus. [Given that governor is saying no gatherings more than 10] the notion that schools should have a totally separate set of safety standards is insulting and wrong headed. The research is more and more clear that students do spread COVID. And the adults who care for them—their teachers and their family members— are vulnerable to catching it from kids. When you apply the same safety standards that are being applied to other public places, libraries, stores, there’s no way to rationalize having 15 students stay in a classroom for six hours out of the day.
With parents relying on schools to be a safe place for kids while they can go to work, if education is taking place online at home, how does that work for parents who can’t be there or are forced to stay home and can’t work?
We are failing as a society right now to meet these needs. In order to open schools safely, we need to control the spread of COVID 19. And what we have seen is an absolute failure to do that in our country. If opening schools is the objective, then number one, we need to be seriously looking to stop the spread as other countries have done with greater success. We absolutely have the means and the resources to do it. We have to be able to support families to stay home without fear of losing their housing, for the period of time that it takes to stop the spread. We failed to do that. So in the Spring, when we were looking towards Fall reopening, it was imagining that we had followed the advice of the World Health Organization and stopped the spread of the disease. Since we haven’t, we’re in a position where opening up schools puts people’s lives at risk. Further, if opening up school is the goal, and is important for the economy, which I absolutely understand that it is, then it merits the investment of what it would cost to open up schools in a safe way. And that would include quite a bit more funding to allow for much smaller classes. It would look like doubling or more the number of teachers we have so that kids could be in small groups. Not to mention funding PPE and bigger investments, like HVAC systems, to make sure we have air flow in our rooms. Small class sizes will always benefit our kids, and this epidemic is definitely highlighting how far away we are from that. Having classroom spaces that have adequate ventilation is always something that we’ve needed. Right now it is particularly unsafe to be in spaces that don’t have adequate ventilation, but that’s been the case in our schools for a long time.
As you mention, one of the solutions that may be needed is class sizes of the sort that teachers and parents have been advocating for a long time. Is this an opportunity to rethink how we school our children? If we had to develop all this from scratch would we do it the same way?
This is a phoenix rising moment. We have a crisis in how we run public schools. We need to come out of this better, and smaller class sizes is one of those things. Meeting students’ social and emotional needs has always been crucial, and right now it is front and center because as a country we are living through a historic trauma. We need to reimagine schools so they better serve our students’ needs around racial equity and better serving all of our students. We see that racial inequities are being highlighted by the COVID epidemic itself and by the inequities in how distance learning is impacting students and families. Our school system needs to put the funding and the thought into serving all of our students better. Special education has really come up as a huge need. Our special educators really found themselves with the impossible task of offering individualized instruction to kids who now they can’t see in person and can’t work with in groups, and can’t use the specialized instructional models they have developed for those kids.