I Spent Three Weeks in School, With Kids, Under Covid-19

The private school where I teach followed CDC guidelines to the letter. Let this be a cautionary tale. I just spent three weeks teaching in a school with kids in the classroom. Back in February, that would have been one of the most unremarkable statements a teacher could possibly make.

But within just a couple of months, the idea of students filling classrooms went from being commonplace to almost impossible to believe.

My school conducted a very carefully controlled experiment in the month of May. Under strict Covid-19 guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we reopened our school and held classes on campus with live, in-person instruction. We believe we were the only school in our state in the Intermountain West to do so, and one of only a handful of schools in the country.

Depending on where you land on this whole Covid-19 mess — whether you think it’s seriously overblown, or that it’s far more serious than we’ve acknowledged — you likely have preconceived notions of what back-to-school season may look like. I know, because I did. Almost nothing I expected turned out to be true.

I teach history at a private school, which means our staff has complete control over what we do in the classroom. We control exactly whom we allow onto campus. We are not bound by the procedural regulations that govern public schools, or even charter schools. Therefore before we reopened classrooms in May, we were able to select precisely which students and teachers would participate in the experiment. We had both high school and middle school populations, so we crafted the rules with that in mind. Here are the associated parameters as they were proposed to our students and parents before the experiment began:

Every student would be thoroughly vetted for risk factors. None of them would have any health difficulties of any kind. None of their families would have anyone in the home in a high-risk population. None of their close circle would have infection or any symptoms of any other disease. Their risk of forward transmission to susceptible populations would be as close to zero as we could possibly make it.
The students would wear masks at all times. The teachers would be masked in all situations except those in which they were teaching. Because of the nature of teaching and the need to project vocally, no students would be placed in front of the teachers to a distance of 12 feet.
Desks would be spaced to six feet apart, or, where that was not possible, they would be left empty until a minimum of six feet separated every student in every direction. Students would not move from classrooms. They would go in, stay there, and leave for the day. Teachers would rotate classrooms.
An area would be disinfected every time any population changed locations. The classrooms would be disinfected every night. The kids would use hand sanitizer on the way into and out of every classroom, every time. The teachers would also observe this protocol.

I had some misgivings about the process. I’ve been an online teacher for more than 10 years. I’m aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, in all its shades and varieties (I’ve used just about every platform out there). I’ve been in the classroom for five years, in all sorts of situations, from formal (desks bolted down and kids in ranks) to supremely casual (beanbag chairs and kids piled in like cordwood munching chips). My teaching style is energetic and a bit wild, and though I’m adaptable, I was curious as to how that style would play in the environment detailed above.

It didn’t work.

Oh, it worked in the sense that kids came to school, sat at desks, and teachers stood before them and unveiled some of the mysteries of the universe. But at least in my classroom, the students hardly learned anything of importance. Some of that was unquestionably due to the fact that these classes took place in May. I didn’t learn a thimbleful in May during the 20 years I was in school; few students are able to fully focus in the weeks leading up to summer break. But more importantly, in my classroom this late spring, we weren’t connecting as teacher and students.

As I see it, there are two options: open schools back up and forget about regulations, or don’t open them at all.

Masks, until May, were banned in schools. There are good reasons for that. Masks give no feedback. Masks depersonalize. Masks hide — not only bad things, but good things. The students sat, obediently. They took notes, obediently. They watched me come in, and watched me go out. They even “learned” something — as in, retained some information long enough to regurgitate it on a test. But that’s not education. I’m certain none of them were changed for the better by being in class those three weeks, and the change is what we’re after, in my classroom.

I’m a relatively funny guy when I teach (I briefly studied the art of standup comedy, which has its uses, even if you don’t get into it professionally). I’m energetic and enthused about my material. It’s infectious in any sort of group, but especially for young people. Most of them have never seen a teacher get deeply emotional about Joan of Arc — but I do. Most of them have never had a teacher extoll the virtues of the unsung miracle of our age — the cardboard tube that allows toilet paper to come in rolls. I’m used to getting reactions from my classes. The students laugh. They smile. They comment and get angry and it’s…well, it’s learning.

Almost none of that happened in my classroom during the restart. Most people, unless they’re smiling broadly, don’t use their eyes much. And from 20 feet away, they better be smiling awfully broadly for you to be able to see it. With standup, one of the ways a comedian knows a bit is working is they get the light laugh, then the big laugh, and then explosion. I apply many of these tactics to my teaching. But when you can’t see the low-level reactions from students, it’s very, very hard to get to the bigger ones. It’s hard to drive to the conclusion that actually changes the student without seeing any of the feedback.

Some aspects of the classroom experiment, however, pleasantly surprised me. I initially predicted the kids would not obey the Covid-19 protocols. I was wrong about that. We did not see a single student who showed symptoms; two weeks after the end of the experiment, none of the students or their families reported having any symptoms of Covid (this continued through the months since). I think it’s reasonable to conclude that we interdicted viral spread very well, though that is probably because there was never any virus in the school at all.

The kids also did brilliantly with the mask requirements, at least at first. They only took their masks off outside (when we let them out for breaks — a couple of 10-minute break per three hours of class), and even then, they stayed well away from one another. In class, they were angels. They kept the rules with exactness — for the first week. I was impressed, and also brokenhearted. I’ve taught stuff in juvenile detention, and the juvy was much more lively, engaging, and positively effective than that classroom.

By the second week, some kids wore their masks with noses exposed. They never took them off all the way, which impressed the socks off me, but they were clearly over the whole mask thing. Mask protocol would not have made it a full month.

We obeyed social distancing requirements to the letter. No exceptions. The kids didn’t seem to mind. It’s nice to have a little elbow room. Of course, it also meant that in a classroom of 30 desks, we could have eight to ten students. Such a setup would not work in the long term. Not in private school, not in charter school, not in public school. It is totally, completely, utterly unworkable. Even for us, where we have the absolute right to restrict our on-campus population, the distancing requirements are not feasible. In a public school, where “open” means OPEN, there’s no logistical way to keep the distancing the CDC rules require.

And the deep cleaning guidelines were cautionary as well. The first couple days, the students’ hands were slathered in sanitizer. Less and less of that happened as the weeks went on. The teachers gave up on it almost immediately — or maybe that was just me. I didn’t see the point to it. I touched nothing that anyone else touched. My desks in every classroom were sanitized before I put my stuff on them, and afterward. Not to mention, it’s unsustainable to keep up this constant level of sanitization. It can’t work over the long haul. It could maybe work in this controlled environment, at my school. But it would never work for an entire school year, or in a larger school.

So my conclusion is the same as it was when I first started thinking seriously about this: The CDC guidelines for school reopenings will not work. Buses cannot transport the kids on staggered schedules — there are too many kids and too few buses. Distancing cannot be maintained on buses, or in hallways or classrooms, which are already crammed. Students cannot be expected to wear masks at all times. Attempts to force them to obey mask protocol will result in more close contact. Sanitizer will not be used properly. Disinfecting on the CDC-suggested scale is not just impractical, it is impossible. There is not nearly enough custodial staff to handle it.

We might as well admit the only reason we’re sending kids to school is so they can be penned up for eight hours so their parents can go back to work.

I must emphasize this is my personal opinion, based solely on my experience of returning to my classroom in May, and guided by my own set of impressions about the pandemic. Though many schools or teachers may share my conclusions, I am not speaking on their behalf in any way. But no matter what your politics, our entire educational infrastructure is built for one kind of educational process — one that now carries significant potential health risks. It is unworkable for any other. It’s like trying to drive a school bus across Lake Michigan. You might get 30 yards. But at some point, you’re gonna drown.

As I see it, there are two options: open schools back up and forget about regulations, or don’t open them at all. Because of the ubiquity of school in our civilization — everyone either has a student, is a student, or has close contact with someone who participates in education — we can expect schools to efficiently transmit the virus through the population, even under strict guidelines.

Even if you could suspend the physical laws of the universe and make all the rules stick, you couldn’t do it and have kids learn anything. Teachers go to absurd lengths to engage students in the classroom, because that engagement creates learning. Taking all that away — and make no mistake, CDC guidelines take almost ALL of that away — and we might as well admit the only reason we’re sending kids to school is so they can be penned up for eight hours so their parents can go back to work.

And if that’s really the only reason for school to exist, I don’t think we should try it. As much as my heart breaks to say it — and it does — if we care about viral spread, and if controlling the virus is paramount above all other considerations, we shouldn’t open campuses in the fall. Online learning is not as good as on-site learning. Not nearly. But it is better, I think, than on-site learning under the impossibility of the CDC guidelines.

That said, in most places I think we are going to try to re-open school. And I think we will fail in ways that will have permanent, non-recoverable repercussions for our school systems.

I hope we don’t. I hope all the schools — public, private, charter, or otherwise — will work together to redesign our system so that it can work in the presence of these restrictions, because we’re going to have them in place for a while. I think that if we did this, if homeschool parents communicated about how to have small, lower-risk non-campus activities, and public school teachers lent their expertise to those that are engaged in alternative school, we could keep the viral spread down while improving the quality of education for all kids.

Maybe that’s even harder than driving a bus across a lake. But a man can dream.

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