If the Agency of Education is “teleworking” (per their recorded phone greeting), and if Secretary of Education Dan French is “working in the corner of a bedroom to plan and coordinate the state’s response to this emergency” barely three weeks before teachers are scheduled to return to schools in person, then school as we know it should not be in session. Either in-person work is safe, or it is not. Either it is okay to meet in person, or it is not. Either we are protecting people during a global pandemic, or we are not.
On Tuesday, Secretary French said, “We will likely have positive cases in our schools, among students and staff. This is a hard reality to accept, but it is the reality.” Why? Why is that a reality? Why are we simply accepting that sacrificing some of our young people and educators is the thing-to-do-du-jour? When did we decide that collateral damage was an acceptable risk so that we could open schools? Should teachers somehow feel ennobled by the request to put our lives on the line? Parents, are each of you so bold that you would look me in the eye and ask me to lay down my life for your child? Would you do the same for mine? The ages-old implicit public opinion that teachers are service animals has reached a new level of absurdity.
In their press conference on Tuesday, Mark Levine and pediatrician Rebecca Bell focused their remarks on children, but failed to mention or address the science that indicates older children are considerably more likely to be vectors for disease. I am a high school English teacher, and the opinions expressed in this piece are solely my own, and I seek to represent no one but myself. That said, I have worked doggedly this summer to redesign my school, to be part of the solution. After much research and hard work, I’ll hazard the statement that no Vermont high school has figured out how to create any kind of pod structure to truly “restrict mixing between groups,” as outlined in state guidelines. Regardless, it appears that Vermont’s high schools will forge ahead with their plans.
School administrators are not public health experts. Their training does not ready them for infectious disease control. Nor should teachers, school staff, or students be trusted to professionally, faithfully execute infectious disease protocols. I mistrust the fact that school administrators have been given the task of designing schools to keep people from dying. They will not think of everything, though they will earnestly try. There is no way the AOE can check every plan to the degree they would have to in order to vouchsafe safety. Already in the handful of in-person meetings I’ve been at in order to figure out how to open our school, it has become clear that people do not know how to wear masks, repeatedly touching them and letting their noses stray from behind them. I am talking about professional adults.
One of the ways we are supposed to know we are safe is to take everyone’s temperature in the morning--which creates the illusion of safety. People, however, are contagious for days before they are symptomatic. High school students statewide will be moving from class to class, mixing and remixing all day — even though the classes are shorter and the student body halved to accommodate distancing. We know this disease is airborne. Evidence shows this virus is viable suspended in the air for up to three hours. Even with a shortened school day, moving students in and out of classrooms has them breathing the air that lingers where they enter. In what other business sector are we condoning this level of possible vectors for the spread of coronavirus?
I know teachers are volunteerists. We want to join all the committees and help all the people. We believe we can tinker with anything and make it work. We are wrong about this one. No amount of can-do attitude or list of protocols is going to keep people safe in buildings we know are Petri dishes. All of us have seen strep and the flu travel from student to student. Every young person believes themselves immortal, too. They break rules for fun. They defy advice and guidelines for sport. I love them. I love them hard, but I will not lay down my life for their advancement as readers and writers, or even their advancement as humans during a time when we should all respect that a force bigger than all of us is among us.
Parents don’t want the kind of online schooling their kids had this past spring. None of us wants that. We had to take one of our largest social institutions that is one of the most resistant to change, and change it almost exactly overnight. We had a few days. Was it inconsistent? Yes. Was it trial by fire? Damn straight. Did we get it right? Sometimes. Sometimes we did. But often we did not. It was an impossible task with no advance warning and no instructions. We all suffered in so many ways. It was a terrifying spring, and now it’s a terrifying summer — though young people hanging out everywhere would make one think differently. Any fantasy, though, that in-person school will be “school” again this fall is delusional.
Throughout this pandemic, I have trusted our leadership in Vermont. My family and I have followed Governor Scott’s guidelines to the letter. I now find myself utterly flabbergasted by this move to re-open schools by a governing body that also mandates fire drills and school shooter drills, regularly training us how to get students and teachers out of danger, not run toward it. Just because the architecture of school buildings makes them look like boxes doesn’t mean they are containers to hold children so that people can go back to work. Schools are institutions for education, and if in-person meetings are not safe for industry, they are not safe for the professionals whose workplaces schools are. Restarting the economy is not the function of schools.
I do not accept the possibility that I may have to bury even one colleague or student. There is no winning this game of roulette. As Joe Morice, a parent in Fairfax County, Virginia, exhorted, name just one person in your school community you’d be OK with losing. Try saying a name out loud — put a face on who you’re willing to lose. Not one lesson I could teach in person is worth that much.
Kerrin McCadden teaches English at Montpelier High School. She also is a poet and writer who lives in South Burlington.