Reopening schools will be a matter of trust

Plenty of ground for concerns about getting things right  

TEACHERS, STUDENTS, AND FAMILIES are facing a back-to-school season unlike any other in our nation’s history. As policymakers push more strenuously for a return to in-person instruction, more teachers and a number of parents are expressing skepticism on the health, safety, and practicality of doing so. Any return to schools this fall will require a tremendous reliance on trust, though trust seems to be in short supply.

As I approach my 18th year in the classroom, I’ve been watching the progress of this nightmare pandemic as it rages across the country, particularly in the South and West. Here in Massachusetts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has asked all districts to prepare and submit three models of planning: in-person instruction, remote instruction, and a hybrid model that includes both in-person and remote instruction. Meanwhile, local districts have been struggling with assuring staff and families that health and safety protocols will be in place that adhere to CDC and state guidelines. Districts are asking teachers to trust that they will ensure proper safety measures, have appropriate PPE and sanitizing procedures, that buildings will have healthful ventilation, and that districts will address positive cases and exposures to COVID swiftly, even if it means returning to remote instruction.

In the past few days, I have been attending information sessions for my local teacher’s union in my role as an officer, and I’ve heard from many staff members who are unsure about what lies ahead for the school year, worried about potential exposure to COVID, and skepticism as to the workability of distancing protocols when it comes to children as young as pre-K. Because so much of the planning and decision making is happening in real time, in response to changing facts and data, teachers are being asked to trust their schools and districts. Teachers recognize that remote learning is not ideal for students and includes many drawbacks, but they also know that stopping this pandemic means minimizing risk of exposure, and remote learning is the only option that does this.

Parents, too, are being asked to trust that teachers and administrators are using all of their expertise and best judgments to make plans that are safe and effective, all while keeping in mind the academic and social-emotional impacts of all three models of instruction. Parents and teachers both struggled to quickly negotiate the transition from in-person to remote learning back in March, and both know firsthand how challenging it would be to return to that model.

Parents must also be concerned about the health and safety of their kids. Although it seems that COVID sickens children at a lower rate than older adults, there is clear evidence that kids can have moderate to severe reactions, and may also be asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus. This means that students aren’t just exposed themselves, but may unwittingly expose adults in their home, their teachers, or older and more vulnerable family members. Districts are asking parents to trust that their plans will work to minimize exposure, and that if the change is made to include remote learning as a part or the exclusive form of instruction at any point in the school year, that it will be done only in response to solid data and the best science. Nobody in the educational system prefers remote learning, but we know that it might be necessary for all of our safety.

Finally, schools and teachers are trusting parents to help keep kids and staff safe. In a normal flu season, it’s not uncommon for a student of mine to come to school sniffly, or to manifest symptoms or fever as the “breakfast Tylenol” wears off. For many parents, it’s preferable to send kids to school to “tough it out” through mild to moderate symptoms, and try to avoid the real and consequential childcare worries that come with keeping a child home from school.

In this pandemic, though, we teachers will need parents and families to make sure kids with any symptoms, or even asymptomatic exposure, stay home. The stakes are too high for families to take chances that their child may be infected or potentially exposed to COVID and send them into school. Kids will need their parents to instruct and model proper masking, handwashing, and other precautions. Any in-school instructional model that I’ve seen includes significant amounts of handwashing, no sharing of classroom materials, 3- or 6-foot distancing, even during recess and lunch. All of these behaviors will be tough for kids, and especially for our youngest students. I feel for our kindergarten teachers who have to tell their 5-year-old students that they cannot share, or even come near classmates or teachers.

I don’t know what the coming school year will look like — my district, like most others, is still in the planning stages and this pandemic is anything but predictable. What I do know is that trust will be the most important factor if any plan is to be successful. I have a colleague that often references the “triangle of success” — home, student, school — in which all three sides need to be there for it to work. Families do their part, the student does theirs, and the schools do ours.

This school year the triangle of success hinges on trust, and it’s not there yet, not on any side. Right now there’s only uncertainty, worry, and trepidation, and yet we only have a few more weeks to get this right. I hope we do. There are some good signs, though. The district and our local association are well along in negotiating terms of a safe return to buildings, including air quality standards and PPE for all staff. In fact, on Friday our superintendent made the tough but brave decision to delay in person instruction by two weeks to give the district time to make needed refurbishments that would ensure schools will be as safe as possible for kids and teachers.

I hope the parent community trusts him, and us, to get this right.

Meet the Author

Stephen Guerriero is a social studies teacher at High Rock Middle School in Needham and a Teach Plus Commonwealth Teaching Policy Fellow.