“Deadly Mistake.” School Faculty Speak Out About School Reopenings.

We virtually sat down with four education workers to discuss how they feel about schools potentially reopening amid COVID-19.
Stevens Elementary school shut down amid COVID-19 and yellow tape is placed around the playground to keep people from using it – March 25, 2020. (Buidhe/Creative Commons)

Stevens Elementary school shut down amid COVID-19 and yellow tape is placed around the playground to keep people from using it – March 25, 2020. (Buidhe/Creative Commons)

It’s almost August, but the back-to-school sales aren’t as in-focus as they might otherwise be. There looms a question mark behind it all.

On July 6th, Business Insider released a list of what “the top 25 colleges and universities in the US have said about their plans to reopen in fall 2020.” At the same time, Trump was pushing for schools to reopen. The New York Times noted that the debate is on as the virus spreads faster than ever in the country, especially in the Southeast and West, “a trend some attribute to states reopening prematurely this spring on a timeline encouraged by Mr. Trump.”

On July 7th, Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, spoke among various at a House Hearing on COVID-19 and Higher Education. He illustrated an intersectional way to view all the back-to-school hullabaloo, highlighting the disparate ways the pandemic has affected international students, Black students and workers, and Latino students and workers.

On July 23rd, the Centers for Disease Control released its statement on “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall.” This came after President Trump threatened school funding if they didn’t reopen and pushed back on the CDC’s initial guidelines which warned of risks to reopening schools. From the title, it is clear that the CDC now advocates going back, emphasizing the importance of the school’s role in child development: “Reopening schools creates opportunity to invest in the education, well-being, and future of one of America’s greatest assets—our children—while taking every precaution to protect students, teachers, staff and all their families.”

A day later, the Times pointed out that the CDC didn’t write it – instead, a “working group convened by officials at the Department of Health and Human Services” did, adding that the update is “sounding at times more like a political speech than a scientific document.”

And a week later, the Times published that more than 6,300 COVID cases have been linked to college reopenings. They offer a comprehensive university list: “As college students and professors decide whether to head back to class, and as universities weigh how and whether to reopen, the coronavirus is already on campus.” Across the world, we see countries offering their school reopenings up for study: Israel thinks it reopened too quickly, France saw flare-ups in May, while Japan and Uruguay are, well, OK. Take a look at what happened to Isreal:

To keep addressing the looming question, while recognizing all the complexities in the facts of the pandemic, Rantt interviewed four individuals working in education on their thoughts regarding going back to school.

Moments like these require unrelenting truthtelling. We take pride in being reader-funded. If you like our work, support our journalism.

Stephanie, an elementary school teacher in the East Village, New York City

“In terms of reopening in the fall, I think it would be a grave and literally deadly mistake. Children want to be back in school; teachers want to be back in school; but not just to any school – to our school communities we’ve worked tirelessly building.

“The magic of teaching elementary school lives in the secret handshake morning greetings, the kneel down and whisper encouragement into the child’s ear, and the hugs goodbye. Our students listen to us because they trust us as they share their secrets in morning meetings and spend lunchtime upstairs just to find out a little more about our lives. If we return, we will be masked, we will be separated by plastic borders, and our children will be traumatized.”

Stephanie shared “The Case Against Reopening Schools: A Teacher’s Perspective,” which her cousin published and the Washington Post wrote an article on.

Research scientist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; preferred not to use a name.

“I feel absolutely terrible about it because a lot of people are going to get sick, and even if they survive, they may face a lifetime of health complications. I understand that most universities are under a lot of pressure to maintain enrollment—all universities are under the threat of lost revenue due to reduced enrollment, and public universities (which tend to be underfunded even in good times) are under the additional threat of budget cuts if enrollment drops. But I don’t think risking the health and safety of students, staff, and faculty is worth it. This could be an opportunity for federal leadership in the form of e.g. additional relief funding (the first round was welcomed but insufficient), but I’m not holding my breath for that.

“The president (Mr. Trump) basically wants to pretend there’s no pandemic and just go back to normal, including but not limited to having everyone head back to school in the fall. There can be no mistake that by far the biggest contributor to the absolute shitshow taking place in the US right now is the catastrophic failure of the current Administration to develop a coherent strategy and encourage people to follow appropriate scientific guidance for social distancing, mask wearing, etc.”

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Sarah, who works in Campus Auxiliary Services (CAS) at the State University of New York at Geneseo (SUNY Geneseo)

“CAS provides all dining service needs for SUNY Geneseo. I work as a cashier and stock person in one of the dining halls.

“I am looking forward to going back to work because I enjoy seeing returning students & getting to know new students. I also like and appreciate the other staff members of CAS that I work with, at all levels in the company. My biggest personal concern about returning to work for the 2020-2021 academic year is having to wear a mask for 8 hours per day, 5 days per week. I understand the reason for wearing a mask for safety of not spreading the virus, but as someone who wears glasses and cannot afford contacts with my current wages, I already have issues with my glasses fogging up every time I go in and out of the refrigerator and freezer when stocking. With a mask on, my glasses fog up all the time from my breath or change in temperature, as well as slip off easily due to the straps of the mask being in the way of the earpieces on my glasses, so this will only make it more difficult to complete my daily tasks. Also, wearing a mask makes communication harder with customers in the check out line, and with other aspects of my job as well.

“I have not yet heard what precautions will be implemented in the dining halls. I am confident that SUNY Geneseo and CAS will do their best to keep students and faculty/staff safe and comfortable to the best of their abilities, but I’m still anxious to see exactly what changes they will be implementing.”

Faculty member at the University of Colorado Boulder; preferred not to use a name.

In an ever-so-appropriate Zoom meeting, Rantt shared a longer discussion with this faculty member from the esteemed (and desirably-located, especially for richer students) UC-Boulder.

“We have kept everything going by charging premium out-of-state tuition,” said the faculty member. UC-Boulder historically attracts students from California, New York, the rich suburbs of Chicago, as well as Texas and Florida – two of the states hardest-hit by COVID this summer. “There’s a straight bar coming in from Florida.”

“CU can get away with charging so much because it’s such a desirable place,” they noted, drawing up the ski slopes and mountainous scenery. “That exists because Colorado has consistently underfunded public school. We don’t really support our own university system at all.” Federal grants and rich kids from out-of-state, as well as the school’s good reputation for science, are really what juices the university machine.

In terms of what this faculty member knows about upcoming plans, a big preoccupation is keeping the revenue coming in. “We were all told that we had to be prepared to go online at a moment’s notice. It all sounds like a marketing strategy…I have a hunch that we’ll be fully online.”

And since they live with a family member who has a chronic illness, they’ll “be online as much as I possibly can. This Zoom format — I’ll make it work. It’s a terrible way to teach — my classes [last semester] went well, but we had already established a community in the first half of the year.”

In May, there were plans drawn up that required every department to think of a 40% in-person teaching plan, with the remaining online. And regarding room and board, especially for freshmen, there were plans to have “a sort of cattle-call test,” where students would be tested for the virus daily. “They wanted to keep the freshmen in these contained cohorts.”

“The problem with testing is that the cheap tests aren’t very good. And the expensive tests take a long time.” Given this, the school would start that cattle-call with mass cheap testing daily. Only when a positive result appeared would they utilize the expensive tests, “as a way to contain costs.”

But they point out that the university’s efforts are “by no means a lip service.” Original plans also called for a 5% decrease in salary for anyone making over $60,000, with the “higher-ups” taking a 10% pay cut. Faculty members also have monthly meetings to discuss pedagogical strategies through Zoom.

However, the faculty member is worried about how money will be handled and where it will all go. “In six months, we’ll have the ‘Assistant Sub Vice Chancellor for COVID Concerns,” a made-up position representing “the wasteful response of creating new administrative positions.” The money never goes to faculty, and the university is “top heavy.”

A more constructive response, they mention, would be increasing investment in the university’s GoldShirt Program, which has inspired models in other schools to support minority students. “If we really cared about diversity, we would triple, quadruple the funds here.”

Colorado as a state does “a remarkably good job at not serving our Latino communities,” referencing its high college-educated population, but low spending on public education.

These are state-wide systemic problems, but we’re forced to keep the urgency pointing towards fall. And in all they’ve heard about the university’s planning, “I am personally offended by the idea that kids are coming to school for their ‘freshman experience.’”

“It’s really amazing to me about how there’s not so much comprehensive information…it’s really still up in the air.”

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Interview // Coronavirus / Education