Teachers want to know: How exactly are we supposed to return to school?

The prospect of in-person education in the fall prompts hundreds of questions from school staff across the country.
A teacher wipes down desks in a classroom before students return to school during the coronovirus pandemic.
A teacher wipes down desks in a classroom before students return to school during the coronovirus pandemic.izusek / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

With pressure mounting for public schools to reopen in person this fall during the coronavirus pandemic, teachers and parents everywhere are grappling with too many questions and too few answers.

Teachers are finding themselves wondering: How am I realistically supposed to keep first graders 6 feet apart? Do I have to buy my own hand sanitizer for all my students? If one student gets sick, will an entire class need to quarantine for 14 days?

Adults with preexisting health conditions are especially worried that asymptomatic students might infect them and cause them to bring COVID-19 into their own homes.

“I am terrified of schools reopening in the fall,” Aislyn Lipford, a sixth grade language arts teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, told TODAY Parents. “District and school leaders are going to be forced to open schools for in-person instruction, even though they do not want to and they know the severe implications that are sure to follow.”

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While remote learning is widely recognized as a safer option, it isn’t feasible for many parents who must return to work. Remote education also hasn’t been a good fit for families at a digital disadvantage. This technology gap goes beyond households without computers and without internet access. Many schools have let students borrow hot spots and laptops during the pandemic, but their parents haven’t always been able to help them troubleshoot when something goes wrong.

Kai Mills, a high school English teacher in Detroit, said remote learning only works properly if all students “have internet and technology at their fingertips.”

“This is no longer a luxury of the privileged, but a human right as students and their families seek quality education,” Mills said.

Remote learning also has serious drawbacks from many special education students. Ashley Harris, an in-home special education teacher in Houston, used to visit high school students in roughly five homes a day before the pandemic hit.

“Zoom is not designed for hand-over-hand learning,” Harris told TODAY Parents. “My students’ greatest benefit of me going into the home was having that human contact, and they lost that when the pandemic started.”

Adding to the inevitable conundrum this fall, many working parents — particularly essential, front-line workers — say on-campus schooling is the only option they have.

“Most households cannot afford child-care services for 40-plus hours a week,” Mills said. “School provides an immediate solution to this problem, plus meals and entertainment. The issue isn’t that parents don’t want their children to be safe. The issue is that most parents can’t afford to keep their children safe.”

Schools have been communicating with parents and teachers about the safety measures to be put in place at the start of the school year — but many of those plans are raising even more questions. Jeseka Hunt, a middle school instructional coach in New Orleans, is unsure of how schools are going to secure the additional funding needed to stay safe.

“A large population of our students ride the bus, so the transportation costs for schools will increase because more buses will be needed to ensure there are no more than 25 students on a bus,” Hunt said. “I don't think some schools can afford that. Also, are schools prepared to provide masks and one-to-one school materials and resources?”

Many teachers are preemptively buying personal protective equipment and sanitization supplies for their classrooms, as they often do with school supplies, because they’re still unsure of how everything is going to come together in the fall.

“The responsibility of making sure that classrooms are properly sanitized, as well as that masks are provided for teachers and students, will likely fall on the teacher,” Lipford said. “I have been preparing for this for months, buying as many quality disinfecting supplies as possible, as well as stocking up on masks, face shields and gloves.”

Once in the classroom, asking kids to keep their masks on, avoid touching their faces and socially distance is sure to be challenging.

“I just don’t see how (social distancing protocols) are practical with children,” Harris said. “Adults are struggling with it!”

In New Jersey, teachers and other school staff members crowd-sourced nearly 400 specific, practical questions about schools reopening in the fall. To provide a sense of just how tricky the path forward to brick-and-mortar schooling might be, here’s a sampling of those questions:

  1. Will staff be able to remove masks while actively instructing? My biggest concern is wearing a mask all day because my classroom is on the second floor of a building with no air conditioning. It is already difficult to breathe on the hottest days and it takes a physical toll.
  2. Will COVID blood tests, nasal tests or mouth swab tests be offered in each building/district for students and staff needing quick and timely results?
  3. Does every student who complains of a COVID-19 symptom get sent home?
  4. Parents routinely send sick children to school by dosing them with medication to mask symptoms. Parents also do not report illnesses and do not keep their children home for an adequate amount of time (24 hours fever-free without medication). How will districts ensure that parents do not violate these rules, which have been in place for years and are routinely ignored?
  5. How will staff in the younger elementary/special education classes teach reading/sounds to kids when students cannot see the teacher’s mouth or hear correctly with a mask on?
  6. If we contract the virus at work, will we be able to claim workers’ compensation since it occurred in the workplace? This seems especially important since it could take months to fully recover from the illness.
  7. If staff are not permitted to congregate outside of their cohort and students are eating lunch in the classrooms, when do staff get a duty-free break?
  8. How will this affect young students when one of the main purposes of early childhood education is to learn to share and learn social skills? Will children be getting in trouble for the very things we would in fact like them to learn, such as to share, invite other children to sit with them, engage in conversations?
  9. Will districts provide classrooms with amplification systems for hearing-impaired students to hear their masked staff? What about hearing-impaired staff who rely on lip-reading and will have a hard time hearing both students/staff who are wearing masks?
  10. Will teachers be required to have remote learning plans available to students at home, as well as prepare in-class lessons? When I get home from teaching in my classroom, do I spend the next few hours reviewing the work of my remote learners? Then do it all again the next day, and the next?