From a teacher: What parents should keep in mind about schools reopening | Opinion

July 21, 2020 6:30 am
Teacher and students in a classroom.

(Getty Images)

By Jake Miller

Holiday Inn Express must be doing better than most other hotel chains. How else have folks so seamlessly transitioned from constitutional lawyers, to epidemiologists, and now, to school superintendents in just four months?

As the news cycle and Americans’ attentions turn to the next dogfight, it was only a matter of time until schools became the lightning rod.

For one, our children are our biggest priorities and most important things in our lives. After that is our line of work, and it’s hard to fully commit to priority #2 without knowing what’s happening with priority #1. But there are some obstacles to getting there in schools.

Battling the Sickness

An untold secret in my profession is teachers have the dirtiest jobs in America. A study at the University of Arizona notes are 500 percent more germs in my workspace than any other.  And that includes those who work in banks or even sanitation. Schools have stopped showering after physical education, don’t encourage hand-washing before lunch, and have students who don’t sleep or eat well enough.

All that needs to change right now.

David Christopher, my school superintendent at Cumberland Valley, said on NPR last week, it’s not a matter of “if” we see our first case of COVID-19, but “when.”

To keep schools safe and to truly minimize that risk, there needs to be regimented uniformity in wearing masks. Period. And in the rare circumstance students or staff become sick, there needs to be controlled methods to quickly identify them and keep them at home to support them as they recover.

Dr. Anthony Fauci shared a similar sentiment in an interview last week:  “Paramount to learning is the safety and the health of the children, as well as the safety and health of the teachers. So you’ve really got to make sure that’s a driving force in your decision.”

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Just a few months ago, teachers were hailed as saints as we pivoted and accommodated to meet the needs of our students faster than any other field in the pandemic. Now that as many as 1 in 4 are worried about their own health, they’re seen as selfish. How quickly we forget.

Lastly, we need to figure out how we fill the gap of our already heavy substitute teacher and staff shortages. When the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee asked educators the number one issue affecting daily education, teachers almost universally chose this issue. It’s only going to be compounded by COVID-19. I mean, who would step into my classroom after an outbreak for $90 a day?

Starting School

As districts have begun to slowly share their plans for returning to this fall, there are two things very evident: first, each district’s offerings vary often greatly from its neighbors (starting dates and how much online instruction being the most obvious), and, second, we need to be ready for just about anything to come our way.

Teachers are busy planning for a variety of methods of delivering the best education we can to the nearly 2 million students in the Commonwealth.

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That’s why Rich Askey, president of our Pennsylvania State Education Association, called on Gov. Tom Wolf and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera to require all school districts to have an online instruction model in place for students and staff to use in case they don’t yet feel comfortable returning to the brick-and-mortar classroom.

Failure to do so can be catastrophic for public schools, as online charter schools are ready to pounce on this perfect storm of uncertainty.

All summer they’ve been pumping op-Eds to periodicals to keep their names in the news, even on the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. This is all part of an indirect way to market to worried parents who, admittedly, feel between a rock and a hard place.

But, as parents begin to examine how Pennsylvania’s K-12 students will start the school year, I’m imploring 2 considerations: first, start with your public school.

Push on them to open their lines of communication. To have options. And to offer a robust online component. Know that public schools will offer the most flexibility and the fastest method to eventually return to in-person instruction, where numerous studies show that’s the best way to educate kids. So did your increased use of ibuprofen in April and May.

Second, do not crowdsource your decisions regarding your child’s education. A “so what’s everyone doing with their kids” post on social media is profoundly ignorant. Engage with your district. Attend school board meetings (most are online right now anyway). Make sure your public school meets your child’s needs. Talk to your physician. Control what you can control.

Re-prioritizing Schools

Part of what makes public schools such a lightning rod is schools are now deemed essential to the restarting of the economy, but history has shown it to be continually treated as an afterthought.

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Our Commonwealth is in 46th place in funding schools, and what the state refuses to fund is made up in contentious local property taxes. This has caused districts to operate on the margins, reducing staff, increasing class sizes (social distancing with 35 eighth-grade students in my classroom six times a day is impossible), and stretching most of its staff thin, as exemplary in that, nationwide, 30 percent of schools only have part-time nurses.

And up until last year, most teachers were expected to provide their classroom tissues and hand sanitizer. We need Pennsylvanians to step up and demand better support for our schools – not just now, but in the days to come.

Final Word

I spoke with several of the graduating seniors from this past year. They acknowledge that we are living in a truly historic, bizarre time.

These young adults have experienced an upending unseen any time since World War II; their freshman year of college will also be remarkably different from any other.

But they all had hope, and they all wanted to be part of the solution. May we all find a place on our head for that hat, instead of whatever role we find at the next Holiday Inn Express.

Jake Miller is a social studies teacher in the Cumberland Valley School District in Cumberland County, Pa. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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