Attacks on teachers’ unions are all over the news, even when a large number of parents do not want their children in classrooms. The policymakers and the experts outside the classroom cannot agree on what is right, but Republican politicians and many media elites believe they can say with confidence that the people who don’t have good ideas are the teachers who do remote or hybrid or struggle have an unholy combination of teaching methods.
Here are just a few of the competing factors in political discussions about personal schooling: Opening schools in person and safely is a priority for President Biden – for many of the right reasons – but he does not have the authority to do so. It is a patchwork of state and local decisions.
A majority of voters say schools should not reopen in person until teachers have been vaccinated, but teachers in many states are not yet eligible for vaccination, and this is another area where Biden has very limited ability to speed up the process. Conveniently, the Biden government does not consider it necessary to vaccinate teachers before schools are opened in person.
In San Francisco, the city sued the school district for forcing it to reopen in person without first promoting teacher vaccination. The teachers are now starting to get vaccinated there, but that wasn’t the first plan. The first plan was brute force. The vaccinations were not available, the teachers were told it was an unchangeable fact, not a matter of priorities. (Food workers are similarly low on the priority list. These are decisions that people make and pass on to the workers who are forced to live them.)
Following the vaccination issue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published school guidelines earlier this month to keep personal education safe. At the time, 90% of school districts had COVID-19 levels that, following the same guidelines, were unsure whether middle or high schools were open in person unless there was any other mitigation practice. Which in most places they weren’t. As virus rates have fallen, more school districts have moved to the safer areas – as of February 18, only 75% of school districts were in unsafe areas.
Some public health experts say the guidelines on COVID-19 levels in the community and reopening middle and high schools are too strict. But here, too, parents and teachers do not necessarily agree. And anyone who talks about what should be true in a perfect world has to deal with the world where many schools are severely underfunded and many state and local governments have virtually no public health restrictions. Few of these experts do this. They’re public health experts, after all, not experts on what US schools actually look like.
On top of that, CDC’s own school policies say practically nothing about what most experts identify as one of the key factors in preventing the spread of the coronavirus: ventilation. “CDC pays lip service to ventilation in its report, and you have to look to find it, ”Joseph Allen, building security expert at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, told the New York Times. The CDC devotes just one paragraph to this and urges schools to “Improve ventilation as much as possible, for example by opening windows and doors to increase the circulation of outside air, increase the supply of clean air, and dilute potential contaminants. “
That advice came at a time when much of the country was really quite cold, resulting in “just open a window if you can” being totally inadequate advice for a virus spreading through the air. This is also hugely problematic because in the economically unequal United States, the schools with the worst ventilation are likely to be the schools for low-income students and black and brown students – children who are already from communities affected by the coronavirus pandemic are disproportionately affected. This is what the ventilation plans in Philadelphia looked like a few weeks ago:
Philadelphia eventually moved to offer school staff vaccinations. The CDC’s inattention to ventilation, however, is consistent: the agency is also looking more broadly into air standards for workplaces, which can have a potentially huge impact on workers in many industries if the OSH agency follows the CDC’s lead and the science on the Ventilation ignored and COVID-19.
In the meantime, consider these anecdotes from schools:
The official plan to return to “face-to-face” teaching at my daughter’s school is even grimmer than what they’re currently doing: using their Chromebooks for the same mediocre online study activities, now they basically can’t leave a desk at one desk all day , not even for lunch.
– Gray “Serial Millennial Myth Debunker” Kimbrough (@graykimbrough) February 22, 2021
and because of the snow, we all have to keep cutouts in the gym that don’t have cleaners. Half of the fitness windows do not open here. those that are not locked open about 6 inches. But we’re in luck because many CPS gyms don’t have windows that open.
– Somestarstuff (@somestarstuff) February 23, 2021
This is the thing: what decision makers and public health experts say about what schools should be like, and what schools actually look like, is often a world of its own. We have to face reality. The majority of voters who say teachers should be vaccinated before going to school tell us something about what people see in their communities. The teachers who are struggling to stay away – although distance learning is miserable for both them and the students – and who are pushing their unions to support them in this struggle, tell us something about what is really going on in their schools not only right now but always.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown us again and again how underfunded schools are, how poorly many buildings are maintained, how little supply even schools in relatively affluent areas can have. This is an alarm bell that you should hear not only during the pandemic but also for the future. Schools should always be adequately ventilated. Windows should be able to open. The bathrooms should have soap and hot water. The sheer disorder in the personal opening discussion is that public education has been so neglected for so long and teachers have been so maligned that their professionalism has been so disregarded. This is a conversation that we need to continue. The forces of privatization are using the closure of COVID-19 schools as an opportunity to attack public education, but the opposite should be the case: the pandemic is showing us what needs to be addressed. We should come out determined to do this.