Kevin*, a New York City high school teacher, sits in front of his laptop in August doing the work of two teachers for one 9-month salary.
“You can’t just take your in-person lesson plan and hop on Zoom,” he said. “To do remote learning right, you have to completely reimagine the lesson plans. So that’s what I’m doing.”
Kevin has to build an in-person and remote teaching plan because he will have to do both in the 2020–2021 school year. I (virtually) sat down with him to find out what a day will look like in his school this year.
The before times
In a normal school day, Kevin and his colleagues saw five groups of students with 30–32 students each. Teachers got to their school early because they had to clean up the mouse droppings on their desks and in their classrooms. Then they checked the sticky traps the custodial staff gave them to dispose of any mice before the students arrived. Despite filing complaints of rodents to the principal, chancellor, and even 311, all they ever got were more sticky traps.
Kevin’s school was always short on supplies. They did not have enough desks and chairs for all the students so some had to sit in beanbags. (He made a point of thoroughly checking the beanbags for droppings and mice as part of his morning routine.) The bathrooms were routinely without toilet paper, soap, and paper towels. The ventilation was (and remains) inadequate or non-existent, especially for Kevin’s classroom because he had an interior space with no windows and a failing HVAC system.
Like many schools in New York, Kevin’s building houses multiple schools on different floors. This can cause intense rivalries and fights between the students so safety was always an issue.
COVID compounds existing school problems
On top of safety and cleanliness issues, supply shortages, and poor ventilation, Kevin and his colleagues have additional challenges now that will begin before the students even get to their school. To avoid crowding when students first arrive, the school will only perform random temperature checks. The school is asking families to check a student’s temperature before they go to school but it has no way of making sure that was done or verifying the results.
“There’s no question that we’ll have people with COVID showing up at school,” said Kevin. “A fever is only one symptom out of many possible ones, and some people never show any symptoms at all. Temperature checks might make some people feel better, but I think they’re a false security especially if they’re random.”
The vast majority of New York City students, teachers, and staff commute to work via public transportation. In the case of Kevin’s school, many of the students commute more than two hours one-way. In the process, they are exposed to many people in a contained space. While the New York City subways and buses have never been cleaner than they are today, they will be under an increased amount of pressure at the start of the school year with ridership numbers higher than they have ever been since the start of this pandemic. Can they maintain these protocols with higher ridership and a shortfall in funding? That remains to be seen.
How the hybrid model shapes the school day
The school day now is not going to be anything like the school day before COVID. With the hybrid model, students come to the physical school in groups to maintain social distance. For example, Group A goes to the physical school Tuesday, Thursday, and every other Monday. Group B goes on Wednesday, Friday, and every other Monday opposite of Group A. The other days, they are at home for remote learning.
Kevin’s school has decided to make every classroom a bubble to provide maximum safety for students and teachers. He will have 10–12 students in his classroom every day with desks and chairs spaced six feet apart in all directions. They will be in his classroom all day except for bathroom breaks. There will be no group work and everyone has to wear masks at all times except for lunch which they will eat in his classroom at their desks.
In high school, teachers teach one specific subject. When physically at school, Kevin will teach his 10–12 students his one subject in-person. For the rest of their classes, his students will be on their laptops with headphones taking classes from their other teachers just like they did in the spring when everyone was remote. When he is not teaching his one in-person class per day, Kevin will be at his desk on his laptop with his headphones on teaching his other students remotely.
The learning value of the hybrid model in Kevin’s school is a fallacy. The learning is still mostly remote; it is just done at the school rather than at home for half the week. But if a school makes the decision to have the students move to a new classroom for each subject like they did before COVID, the risk of the virus spreading increases dramatically. We have seen this scenario play out in school districts across the country that opened and then quickly closed again because of outbreaks.
Mental health during this pandemic has been a serious topic. One of the reasons many people are pushing for students to return to the classroom is for socialization. This is also a fallacy with the hybrid model. Without group work, extra-curricular activities, lunch in the cafeteria, gym, the library, and special events, students will still feel lonely and isolated even though they will be near other students and a teacher in a physical school on some days.
Students are already struggling mentally and emotionally. They are not engaged nor learning. They miss their friends and activities. In Kevin’s school, students may see some of their friends if they are in the same classroom but socializing from six feet away when everyone is on their laptops wearing masks will be nearly impossible. It may also be dangerous for students, teachers, and staff. A student could easily snap at any moment due to stress, depression, frustration, and any number of other emotions brought on by these circumstances.
Constant mask wearing is going to be a challenge to enforce. At Kevin’s school, the principal said students will be sent home if they don’t comply with wearing masks. However, this requires contacting the parent or guardian first to approve the dismissal.
“For most of our students that means sending them out onto the streets and missing a day of learning,” said Kevin. “It’s going to be a bad situation for everyone.”
Of course classroom behavior challenges is not limited to mask wearing. One of the most effective ways to manage any disruptive behavior is teacher proximity. If a student is acting up, a teacher’s go-to tool is to stand next to the student. It stops the behavior and keeps it from escalating. Now, teachers cannot use that tool because everyone needs to be six feet apart at all times.
“Honestly, I’m afraid of what’s going to happen,” said Kevin. “Behavior problems, fights, no one learning, everyone being frustrated. We could see a lot of teachers, staff, and students just quit or drop out. Not to mention that we [teachers] could get sick, watch our students and their family members get sick, or worse. I don’t know what I’ll do if someone dies because we reopened our school.”
A community in crisis
A school is much more than a place where students take classes and socialize. It is a community unto itself and it underpins the livelihood of the larger community and the city as a whole. Teachers and staff are now frontline workers. And yet, teachers feel as if no one is cheering for them the way we cheered on our healthcare and essential workers with the 7pm celebrations that used to happen across the city. If anything, there is vitriol from every corner thrown in their direction.
Call it fatigue. Call it frustration. It is indicative of a lack of leadership, responsibility, and collaboration between all stakeholders: government officials, administrative staff, teachers and their union, parents, students, and community members. There has never been a sense in New York City that reopening schools was a joint effort with all of these parties committed to and involved with reimagining and creating new student-centered solutions.
One possible solution
If this pandemic prevents schools from being able to open safely and stay open safely, what other options do we have? The big roadblocks in all of this are the physical condition of our school buildings and overcrowding. What if we completely relocate school? We transformed the Javits Center and a patch of Central Park lawn into hospitals. Hotels have become shelters and halfway houses for the homeless. Homes and apartments are now offices. Why not renovate spaces for schools?
Look at all of the empty space in our city created by a lack of tourism and an exponential increase in work-from-home arrangements. We have cultural institutions, hotels, office buildings, libraries, stores, and restaurants that are currently placeholders. Why not hold school in empty spaces that do have proper ventilation, high-quality cleaning protocols, and no rodent infestations? Why does school have to be conducted only in a school or at home? Why can’t we create the most important third place our city has ever needed?
The truth is we can. It takes creative vision and leadership to make that happen. It takes a team of leaders who can rally all of the stakeholders together to collaborate and imagine a new and better way forward in public education. And this is just one suggested solution. There could be a dozen others but we will not discover them unless we create them together.
There is still time to make it happen as long as we unite in our commitment to do what is best for our young people. We owe it to them to put aside our differences and our egos, and get to work on their behalf. Do we have the will to do that for them? Time will tell.
*The name of the teacher interviewed has been changed to protect their identity.