Rushed School Reopenings Endanger Students, Workers

Ripley Butterfield

Teachers, students and parents in Pinellas County, Fla., protest unsafe school reopenings, July 14.

Despite the soaring rate of new coronavirus infections in the United States, a high percentage of students in grades K-12 will be returning to school in the fall. Nearly every state ordered public schools to close in March or April, remaining closed for the end of the 2019-2020 academic year. Here in New York, I and over a million other kids and teens went home one day and never came back, switching a week later to a shaky form of online learning.

Despite the challenges of finishing tenth grade alone over Google Classroom, I acknowledge how crucial this move was for the sake of public health. The height of COVID-19 deaths in my state was devastating. There’s no doubt that we would have surpassed that number many times over had the virus gotten more of a chance to infiltrate our cramped schools.

President Donald Trump is leading the federal government in a massive push to reopen schools, against the will of public health officials, scientists, and teachers’ unions across the country. Not to mention students themselves — many are fearful of what attending school in the midst of a pandemic will mean for their families’ health.

That isn’t to say that keeping schools physically closed is a perfect answer: thousands of workers rely on schools as free daily childcare for their young kids. That’s why it is so frustrating that rather than devoting time and resources to creating safe environments to meet the needs of working families, the U.S. government is pressing for all students to return to unsafe conditions.

The summer months should have brought about new plans for necessary childcare, more accessible online options, and smoothing the many rough patches that remote learning brought about. Instead, we are being told we must go back to school as usual.

Guidelines revised under pressure

The Center for Disease Control initially released a nine-page document outlining what is needed for a safe reopening of schools. It is a detailed checklist meant for schools to use in order to determine readiness to reopen as well as safety on a day-to-day basis.

The document strongly notes that there is substantial risk associated with in-person learning at this time, and promotes either a fully or partially remote model of schooling. However, Trump immediately called the CDC guidelines “tough,” “impractical” and “expensive,” threatening to cut schools’ funding if they do not reopen in full.

Education Secretary Betsy Devos also promoted reopening schools in person. Claiming that a hybrid model (part in school, part at home) would not serve families, she dismissed the CDC guidelines as “flexible,” not to be required of schools.

Soon after, a new set of guidelines was released. The CDC now supports opening schools everywhere, and reports that COVID-19 poses a low risk to children. Essentially, the document says that children are more likely to be harmed by a lack of in-person learning than by being infected by coronavirus. Although the guidelines do suggest use of face masks and implementing social distancing, it is not to be required of schools.

I find this revised statement to be incredibly aggravating. The CDC strongly supported strict health and safety measures for in-person schooling barely a week before. The weak guidelines that followed came under the influence of Trump’s recent announcements, not from a scientific basis. I worry about the validity of the data on COVID-19 spread in schools, as well.

The vast majority of U.S. students did not have ongoing public schooling throughout the pandemic. We do not know how quickly multiple asymptomatic students could lead to an outbreak inside a school. We cannot claim to know, based on evidence from before the height of the pandemic, or from other nations that succeeded in flattening the curve of infection.

Additionally, it seems that much of the support regarding reopening relies upon the idea that young children are not easily infected. I feel there is not enough information on teens and young adults. I know of multiple classmates who have gotten sick, some with long-term consequences, who are under the age of 18. And, of course, this data means nothing for the safety and wellbeing of teachers, other school workers and parents.

CTU: No ‘safe reopening’ possible now

In many states, a specific plan for school reopening has not yet been decided on. Worse, there has been no clarification in most places on how schools plan to fund the purchase of crucial sanitary materials and personal protective equipment (PPE).

The Chicago Teachers Union has stated that there is no “safe reopening,” and has made a list of demands to the mayor and the Chicago Public School system. They say sanitized buildings, widely available PPE, nurses, counselors, social workers, alternatives for immunocompromised students and teachers, as well as increased ventilation in schools to promote airflow, must all be provided and maintained in order for the school year to start.

Mississippi Teachers Unite has called for the postponing of school reopenings in the state until Sept. 1, so that there is time to ensure a safe environment that adheres to health guidelines. Again, the school system must be fully funded so teachers do not have to buy masks and hand sanitizer themselves.

This concern is constant throughout teachers’ unions across the U.S., as it is common for teachers to spend large amounts of their own money throughout the year on things like disinfecting wipes, tissues, paper towels and soap. At my school in Brooklyn, N.Y., students are regularly offered extra credit in classes to buy some of these items ourselves.

It is unacceptable for U.S. states and cities (ones that often spend millions or billions of dollars a year on their police departments, mind you) to not provide their public schools with adequate funding, period. But this isn’t even about the lack of extracurriculars or classroom renovations, as terrible as that is — this is basic hygienic materials.

How are we to reopen schools during a pandemic that cannot even keep bathrooms stocked with paper towels?

High school students speak

I interviewed several New York City high school students on their views regarding education, the pandemic and reopening:

Violet, a Black trans activist who is immunocompromised, stated that she did not feel supported during remote schooling this year. “I am neurodivergent, so learning was difficult,” she wrote. “I felt really overwhelmed with work.” Violet caught COVID-19 as well, which led to breathing issues and lasting numbness in her body. She suggests beginning the new school year “with a delayed start, or learning online until it is safe to come back.”

Madeline Boccone, a 16-year-old Brooklyn student, said she would like to return to school in person, but feels necessary safety precautions will not be possible. “My school has a huge class population,” she wrote. “The halls are often overcrowded, and the cafeteria and library are always at capacity.” Her ideal beginning for the school year is “a blended situation, with at-home instruction for core subjects and in-school instruction for specialty/enrichment classes.”

Jani G., an Indo-Caribbean student, stated that she feels a blended learning model is the best way to go. “Because New York has been reopening without a spike in cases, and most students my age are more adamant about wearing PPE, I’d be confident returning to school if we remain socially distant,” she wrote. Jani also became very ill with COVID-19; however, it was before the virus was visibly rampant in the U.S.

Eva Melchior, who attends high school in Manhattan, is uncomfortable with the prospect of returning to school this fall. She stated, “If we are still going to have remote learning in place, why not bring the risk of getting the virus at school down to zero by simply not having the in-person classes? It just seems like it would be unnecessarily dangerous.” Eva believes the best course of action is to “continue to learn remotely until there is a COVID-19 vaccine available, or a very low infection rate.”

Mona Shaab, a self-described “mixed teen activist,” said the quality of her education decreased significantly during remote learning. However, she questions the safety of returning to school in person. She wrote, “My school has 4,000 students — not to mention staff — and we already don’t have the room or resources to lessen our class sizes from the standard 30-plus students. In an environment that’s already difficult to keep up with, I think expecting more from students and staff without additional resources, staff and training is just unrealistic.”

P.R., a 16-year-old student, found it hard to remain motivated with school work throughout the past few months. She wrote, “I stopped putting as much effort into my work as I usually did, and almost failed a class. My experience hasn’t really been a result of learning online, as much as it has been the result of isolation and repetition.”

Her family was also impacted significantly by the pandemic. “Before the pandemic, my mother worked as a freelance photographer, mostly working weddings and parties, basically large gatherings of people. Obviously, no one was having these huge events anymore, so my mother became unemployed. However, because she’s a freelancer she couldn’t receive unemployment.”

She also wrote, “I think there have been some positive things to come out of the pandemic, though it’s bittersweet. More and more people are becoming disillusioned with capitalism, seeing the negative impact it has had on us. The disgustingly large wage gap became hard to ignore. … The extremely wealthy easily could’ve helped pay for masks, but the majority of people who helped were the ones who needed help as well. In addition, I don’t think the Black Lives Matter movement would be getting the new support that it has if things were normal. I think being quarantined has made it harder to ignore police brutality and racism, as everyone is constantly alone with their thoughts. I hope that they’ll keep the same energy when things go back to normal.”

Brianna Blue, a Black visual artist, doesn’t believe returning to school in person this year is worth it. “I would love to go back for my senior year,” she wrote, “but most people in my household are immunocompromised. My mom and my siblings have asthma. Also, my dad is an essential worker and as he has not had the privilege of being able to stay somewhere else after conducting the trains all day, so my family is already taking a risk.” She does not believe her high school will be able to successfully follow recommended safety guidelines due to the large student body.

As for proceeding with the school year, she stated: “I’m being optimistic and striving for a delayed start. I would say if we could go back by January that would be great. This is if cases are low and contained regionally — it is not enough for just New York to have a low number of cases.”

Vivaluz Austin, a student from Brooklyn, has mixed feelings about returning to school in person. “On one hand, I want to protect myself and my peers, but on the other, I’m worried about how a full year of remote learning will affect my education,” she wrote. “I already struggled immensely in 3 to 4 months of remote learning this semester, and I’m worried that I’ll repeat the same patterns next year. Especially because junior year is supposed to be the most significant of the high school experience, I’m worried that I’ll do poorly and lower my chances of getting into a ‘good’ school. Also, the lack of in-person resources that we’ll have, such as meeting with guidance counselors.”

The pandemic has affected her in multiple ways, she says. “A family member of mine recently passed due to COVID-19 and I think that has only heightened the fear around the disease in my family. My parents have both been trying to make due while working remotely, but it has put a strain on the finances a bit. My mental health has also been impacted by quarantine. Being isolated isn’t good for anyone under any circumstances, and being inside all the time has definitely messed with my head.”

E.G., a rising senior who goes to school in Brooklyn, wrote, “I am perfectly okay returning to school in person, as long as precautions are mandated.” E.G. also wrote, on the experience of being in quarantine, “I’ve always lived with my grandparents and my grandfather has Alzheimer’s that’s at stage 7. Before COVID-19 was ever a part of my life, I had school to keep some distance from work and my personal life at home. However, ever since the stay-at-home order was issued, I couldn’t leave my house for a full two months. In that time I’ve watched a man who’s like a father-figure to me slowly get worse and worse. It really messed with my mental health and forced me to see everything happening. Plus, I’m not the kind of person who can stay indoors for more than two days, so cabin fever was real. Thankfully, I can say the pandemic hasn’t negatively affected my life financially or physical health.”

Leah Solomon, a student from Brooklyn, said the pandemic has been detrimental to her education. “I stopped really learning, and was more just submitting things to make my teachers happy,” she wrote. “The switch to remote learning was very sudden, could have been handled better, and should have been done sooner. Teachers seemed confused and deserved more training and experimental time to figure out what worked with their students.” As for reopening schools, Leah thinks “a delayed start would be a good idea to begin with.”