Should Schools Reopen During the COVID-19 Pandemic? An Educator’s Perspective (Part Three)

By Kristin Germinario Mongelli — Knowles Senior Fellow

Originally published by the Knowles Teacher Initiative

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The opinions expressed in this piece are solely my own, based on my own science and health background and experiences as a classroom teacher and instructional coach, and do not express the views or opinions of my school district or the Knowles Teacher Initiative. However, I do hope my words resonate with you by providing an educator’s perspective. I do not claim to have the same experience as every educator, but believe my thoughts will be shared by many educators.

Part 3: Pedagogical (Classroom Instruction) and SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) Concerns About Reopening Schools In-Person

In the first two parts of this three-part series (part one and part two), I shared my concerns as an educator about reopening schools, and I provided a detailed argument for NOT reopening schools, focusing on public health concerns. Here I make an argument for NOT reopening schools focused on my concerns about pedagogical and social and emotional learning issues.

My Argument: Even if schools meet all of the public health concerns I outlined in part two of this post (which still does not completely remove COVID-19 risk), the new classroom structure in a socially distanced environment will present many difficulties to our teaching staff, and will not lead to effective learning experiences for our students due to the nature of social distancing. Any of the traditionally successful learning experiences could be replicated more effectively in the remote environment than in the socially distanced environment, and would better protect student and staff health. Consider the following questions:

1. Will there be enough support for the mental health of staff members and students?: Coming to a work and school environment each day where there is risk of contracting COVID-19 would make me fearful to go to work every day. What choice will teachers who are in high risk groups (because of their age or health conditions) be given? Will all teachers be mandated to attend work in person? If so, we would be asking teachers to choose between their jobs and their health.

In addition to the stress that comes with risking one’s health to attend work, teachers are responsible for the safety of their students. I am sure teachers will feel an immense pressure to ensure they are properly modeling for their students how to utilize face coverings, sanitize hands, and social distance, on top of having to modify instruction for this uncharted territory of socially-distanced teaching. How will this impact teachers’ mental and physical well-being over an extended period of time by being exposed to this chronic stress? On a flight, adults are always told to put on their oxygen masks first and then assist children, because if you are not taken care of first, you cannot care for others. I think we are asking too much of our teachers. They will be put under so much stress every day, will be made to risk their health to go to work, and will then be asked to protect their students’ health and create engaging lessons despite many restrictions. Will every school provide enough support to their teachers? What would this support even look like? Additionally, I would imagine many students would feel immense stress and fear as well, and we will need to provide increased mental health support for our students.

2. Will there be enough time and resources for school staff training and support for new policies and procedures?: Professional development and training would need to be provided to teaching staff and support staff to properly train them to communicate to their students about the new rules of social distancing, face coverings, hand washing and sanitizing, etc. School staff (including administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, and counselors) have never had to train students in these protocols before, and students have never had to follow these protocols before. As an educator, I know that with learning something new, everyone makes mistakes and will have failures (failure is an important part of growth and is a good thing!). However, can we afford to have failures where students may accidentally not put on their mask when they are supposed to, or may not maintain social distancing when required to? In a normal non-COVID learning environment this is perfectly fine, but from a public health standpoint, in this new normal, I do not believe we can afford to have any missteps that put others at risk of contracting COVID. It is not fair to assume that everyone will implement the health regulations perfectly, and this adds another layer of risk to the in-person school environment. Teachers will need time and training to become well-versed in the new safety procedures, and should have a voice in developing procedures that are feasible to implement and best suited for the safety of staff and students.

3. Will there be enough time and resources for school staff training and support for new instructional strategies and implementation? In addition to the new responsibility of training students in new procedures, teachers will be tasked with designing and implementing meaningful and engaging instruction in a socially-distanced environment, which is new territory for all educators, regardless of experience level. In a hybrid model, teachers would be required to plan two sets of lessons for each class, both virtual and in-person versions, while also preparing to teach in a socially-distanced classroom for the first time. As teachers, we develop teaching strategies and lessons over time that impact student growth the most, and share these best practices within our teaching community. The lessons that we previously taught may no longer be effective or feasible in the socially distanced classroom, and there is little time left this summer for teachers to prepare for and plan for how this new classroom would look. Teachers will need ample time, resources, and support to collaborate on and develop lessons for the socially distanced classroom.

4. Is it worth it to still have in-person school if quality instruction is nearly impossible for teachers to implement under the new conditions?: My opinion as an educator is that socially distanced in-person instruction will not be as effective as traditional in-person instruction due to social distancing restrictions. The most meaningful instruction prepares students to be future-ready, allowing them to develop skills (e.g., communication, empathy, collaboration, problem solving, etc.) that employers look for in candidates. In the classroom, learning experiences that are authentic and involve peer group collaboration and problem-solving are most effective in helping students to develop these skills. These effective instructional strategies will be nearly impossible to achieve, or will be completely ineffective, in the socially distanced classroom. Students will not be able to collaborate in groups. Class discussions will be less meaningful, since face masks and social distancing will hamper effective communication, which relies on being able to read non-verbal cues like facial expression and tone. I am a strong proponent of following the precautions including mask-wearing and social distancing, so I believe that has to be the top priority. Therefore, if we are to follow precautions, it will negatively impact the benefits of in-person instruction.

In the table below are more detailed scenarios where I explain the issues with socially-distanced instruction. After reading this, my hope is that you will see how much thought and effort teachers would have to put in to modify these strategies for a socially-distanced classroom to ensure student safety while also trying to make this instruction meaningful and engaging. Most importantly, my hope is that you decide whether you think it is worth it to risk the health and safety of our students and staff in order to have this in-person, socially-distanced type of instruction. I have also provided a virtual version for each strategy so you can see how this strategy would occur remotely. I believe the virtual version will be either more effective for learning, or safer than the socially distant version.

Scenarios: How traditionally effective teaching strategies would look in a classroom with social distancing or during remote learning

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These are just three strategies, but I think the same roadblocks apply to many of the strategies that I, and the teachers I coach, have found to be effective. The only exceptions I can see are:

1. Lecture: The teacher explains concepts to the class while students are seated and take notes. Lecture is an important part of teaching, but it cannot be the only way we teach, or students lose out on solving problems, applying their knowledge to tasks, and taking risks as part of their learning. I think that in a socially distant classroom though, lecture is the safest way of teaching in terms of reducing COVID-19 risk. Also, can teachers lecture while wearing a mask? I would imagine it will be difficult for students to understand the teacher because of the mask, especially if students need accommodations to support their learning. If the teacher takes off the mask, their airborne droplets could circulate the classroom, putting students at higher risk of exposure if the teacher is an asymptomatic carrier. Do we want our students only learning from lectures? The key pieces of collaborative learning will be extremely difficult to make authentic if we are in a socially-distanced classroom. Is it worth it to risk health and safety for extremely modified learning experiences that lose their authenticity?

2. Class Relationship Building: I also think the virtual environment would be less effective than the socially-distant, in-person environment when teachers meet their students at the beginning of the school year to set expectations and form relationships. It is difficult to do this virtually, so perhaps there can be periodic times where students visit the school in small groups to meet their teachers in person (similar to a “back to school night,” but in smaller groups).

Should we risk the potential of our children or our teachers getting sick or dying from COVID-19 when this is what learning would look like in a socially-distant classroom? In my opinion, it is not worth it.

Conclusions:

I do not disagree with how important it is for students to interact with others as part of their learning, and I understand that the American Pediatrics Association promotes schools returning in-person in the fall. I also understand that for some students, school is their only safe space, where they receive food, shelter, and the care they need. However, as an educator, I disagree with the APA’s recommendation to have the goal of returning in-person unless the benefit of in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic outweighs the risk of students and staff members falling ill. In my opinion, the risk is too great to our staff and students, and in-person school under social distancing restrictions will not be more effective than remote learning. I completely understand that social interaction is an important part of adolescent development, but I also feel that in this new normal, the benefits of social interaction as we knew them have changed and will remain that way until we have a vaccine for COVID-19.

In my opinion, it is better to focus on virtual learning as our primary mode of instruction, where students can be safe in their homes and isolated from COVID-19 exposure, and to have limited in-person interactions with others at school (for select activities or to meet their teachers) that follow the safety guidelines and reduce the risk as much as possible. I acknowledge that remote learning is far from perfect, and it can lead to issues around equity of access for all students, potential loss of engagement and decrease in learning progression, or difficulties for parents who must balance working and childcare. However, I feel that even one student or staff member contracting COVID-19 from being in the school building is a far worse scenario than the issues that come with remote learning. Also, instead of focusing our efforts on reopening schools in person, we could instead focus on improving remote learning. We have had three months of remote learning experience, and can focus our efforts on refining and enhancing this type of schooling to make it better. School districts could make plans that can mitigate the issues and inequities involved with remote learning to best support their students during this time.

I completely understand that we also need to focus on equity of access, which has been made so difficult during this time. However, I feel there are ways that we can address equity in a primarily virtual learning environment. Although not ideal, districts can provide devices and meals to students in need through curbside drop-offs, and communities can come together to support this cause. We can restructure schedules to help parents who are juggling work and childcare responsibilities. We can focus our efforts on providing in-person interactions first to those students who need it most, in an environment that reduces the COVID-19 risk as much as possible to protect the health of our students and staff members. It is not an ideal situation, but during these times, nothing is ideal. In short, I feel we should choose the path that protects the health and well-being of our students and school staff first.

The Knowles Teacher Initiative supports the efforts of high school mathematics and science teachers to improve education in their classrooms and beyond​.

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