Less than six months ago, Georgia reported the first positive cases of Covid-19. Since those first two cases on February 29, over 250,000 people have been infected, and over 5,000 deaths have occurred here in Georgia. For those of us who have not yet been personally impacted, the numbers are increasingly abstract, and the risk seems low that it will be our loved one who becomes ill or dies.
During the past month as the school reopening debate has continued, educators have heard your concerns for your children and their academic progress during virtual learning. We have heard your concerns about the emotional and mental health impacts of the continued lack of social interaction on your children. We have heard your concerns about life returning to normal as other businesses – even Disney World – have reopened. We have listened.
Now, we ask you to please listen to us -- the educators who you are asking to enter the school buildings in the midst of a pandemic. Our concerns are based on our reality, our lived experiences as educators. Our understanding of this pandemics’ effects on the classroom is not abstract; it is based on what we have experienced as educators, many of us for twenty years or more.
While the risk for your individual child may be low, the same cannot be said for our large groups of children within educational arenas such as our classrooms, hallways, buses, and cafeterias. If the risk is 1 percent that any individual child will become sick, that means that in a group of 100 the chance that one of our students will become sick is 100percent. Just as it is objectionable to you knowingly to put your children in a situation that will bring them harm, for any of our students to be harmed is unacceptable to us.
We have heard again and again that young children do not spread Covid-19, and they are less likely to become seriously ill. This information concerning the spread of Covid-19 is preliminary and based on the time when our students have been away from our school buildings. “Less likely to become seriously ill” means that a risk that one of our students will become seriously ill or die still exists. No information concerning the long-term impacts of Covid-19 exists, but it is becoming clear that there can be long-lasting effects. For educators to take this risk when there clearly are options to avoid that risk is unthinkable.
As you contemplate your child returning to a physical classroom, you probably envision a return to the classroom experience that was the norm before the pandemic began. That expectation could not be further from the reality that students will now experience. The adaptations necessary to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 will result in a classroom experience absent of the interactions that your child is missing now. Possible now-missing interactions include a teacher conferencing one on one with a student about an assignment, students working collaboratively in a group to complete a project, students sharing their ideas with a partner and working together to write a poem or build a model. All these experiences fit the definition of close contact (within 6 feet for 15 minutes) that is being used to determine who must quarantine and will be now limited or non-existent.
Lunchtime is one of the main times our students previously had to socialize with their friends. The current plans for meals vary from system to system, but all include either smaller groups and social distancing in the cafeteria or meals being consumed in the classroom. The social-distanced cafeteria will, by necessity, be a mostly quiet space. Cafeterias are normally noisy even with students speaking quietly to their friends. Increase the distance, and the volume of each individual voice will have to increase in order to be heard. Multiply that increase by the large number of students, and the noise level being so loud that silent lunch rules would be instituted quickly is apparent.
The routine tasks included in the reopening plan that seem so basic when you consider one child become time consuming and complicated when viewed through the lens of a classroom of twenty-five or thirty students. Frequent handwashing for just one child means an interruption of perhaps one minute in preparation for lunch. With a single sink in the classroom, that interruption becomes at least thirty minutes. With no sink in the classroom, the additional time necessary to walk to the restroom adds another ten to fifteen minutes to that time.
Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces is a task now being given to classroom teachers throughout the day. The instructions for many cleaning products indicate that the cleaning products should be sprayed on surfaces, left untouched for a period of time, and then removed with a cloth or paper towel. Consider what this looks like when students are changing classes. The teacher must choose between cleaning the desks or monitoring students in the hallways.
As much as we all wish returning to in-person instruction would allow us to engage with our students as we have always done, doing so is simply not possible. The mode of instruction is not the issue we must solve. The realities of the virus and the continued high rates of transmission in our communities dictate that we must err on the side of caution and safety. While we all can agree that virtual instruction is not optimal, unusual times call for unusual measures that include sacrifice on everyone’s part. Educators have been making and will continue to make every effort to ensure all children are provided every opportunity to grow, learn, and develop academically, socially, and emotionally. Recovery from educational issues arising during this time will not be easy, but together we can rise to that challenge. We greatly appreciate the time, effort and sacrifice parents are making now to help ensure we reach the point of necessary recovery.
Our main goal as educators is the education, safety, and well-being of our students. COVID-19 has not changed that desire, but it has introduced the dynamic of sickness, injury, and, God forbid, death not only to our students but also to their families, ourselves, and our families. Working together to ensure that everyone is first and foremost safe and healthy will allow us to then work together to ensure everyone recovers academically, socially, and emotionally.
The pandemic will not last forever. The partnership between parents and educators should.
Lisa Morgan is president of the Georgia Association of Educators.