For many teachers, a new school year can start with a mix of anticipation and apprehension about the semesters lying ahead.
But after schools slogged through distance learning in the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, the physical reopening of some districts this fall is making the mix of emotions more extreme.
Some teachers are elated and others are furious at the prospect of a physical return to school.
Ryan Noel remembers watching students stream out of buses and cars for the first day of school at Unified School District 322 Onaga-Havensville-Wheaton. It was a moment of pure happiness for the 20-year Kansas school teacher. There was nothing special about the weather that moment near one of the temperature check entry points at Onaga High School.
‘What made it great was to be back with the kids.’
“What made it great was to be back with the kids,” Noel said. “We’re back.”
“It was a sense of normalcy again,” he added.
But Harley Litzelman, a high school social science teacher in Oakland, Calif.’s Skyline High School, says he gets angry when he thinks about any physical return right now. “Rage at the idea that my school could simply just try to kill us,” Litzelman told MarketWatch. “Because it’s not a matter of if and when. It’s a matter of how many people we are going to sacrifice.”
Litzelman founded Refuse to Return, a campaign of educators and supporters calling for no in-person return to school until the surrounding county has no new cases for 14 days. Since its early summer start, Refuse to Return has gathered more than 100,000 signatures on its online petition and added chapters in 35 to 40 states.
“There’s nothing more I want than to go back,” Litzelman said. “The question is, do we recognize the epidemiological relationship of disease, or do we ignore it?”
‘There’s nothing more I want than to go back. … The question is, do we recognize the epidemiological relationship of disease, or do we ignore it?’
“If we want a return to normal, we need normal amount of COVID-19 in our communities, which should be zero,” Litzelman added.
Noel and Litzelman are two diverging voices in a school year that’s filled with diverging plans for America’s approximate 56.4 million pre-kindergarten-12th grade students and 3.7 million teachers teaching those grades.
Noel’s rural school district — without a single stoplight in its limits — is returning to full-time, in-person instruction for its approximate 360 students. The three towns combine for an entire population of around 1,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The surrounding Pottawatomie County accounts for less than 1% of Kansas’ 46,914 coronavirus cases.
Litzelman’s school system, Oakland Unified School District, is offering only remote learning for the time being for its nearly 50,000 students. The surrounding Alameda County added roughly 2.5% of California’s 735,235 cases.
There had been 6.3 million coronavirus cases in the United States and 189,972 deaths as of Wednesday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
Many big city school systems, including Los Angeles and Chicago, are beginning the year with remote-only instruction — but not all of them. New York City, the country’s largest school district, is planning for a blended model.
Families can choose fully-remote learning or do a hybrid where kids do a combination of remote instruction with one to two days a week of in-person school. It postponed in-person classes to Sept. 21 to avert a potential strike from the teachers’ union, which worried about safety conditions.
Schools large and small face pressure to reopen — right up to President Donald Trump — as other parts of American life adapt to the new normal. Educators also have to try countering the “COVID slide” that could stunt many students who fell behind in the spring.
But schools also have to consider the health of students and teachers, and some research makes that a daunting call.
Asymptomatic children can “shed” the virus — meaning, potentially infect others — for several weeks, one study suggests. Meanwhile, one-quarter of all U.S. children who had contracted coronavirus since the start of the pandemic were infected as of late July, as some of the earliest school reopenings occurred. Around one-third of America’s teachers are 50 and older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Almost 80% of urban schools are re-opening with remote instruction and 65% of rural districts are opting for in-person schooling, according to one survey.
Almost 80% of urban schools are reopening with remote instruction and 65% of rural districts are opting for in-person schooling, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Suburban districts are split: one-third are starting the year remote, roughly one-quarter are going with in-person instruction and another quarter are doing a hybrid model, according to the research center.
The patchwork of plans can create a patchwork of feelings for teachers. They have to balance their attachment to a difficult but rewarding job against their health and their family’s health. Educators like Noel and Litzelman are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Others are somewhere in between.
‘I think everyone’s a mix. I think everyone wants to be back, but everyone’ nervous. …There’s still a lot of questions that make people really anxious.’
Kelly Smith, a third grade teacher at P.S 157 in the Bronx, wants to get back to her classroom.
She hasn’t been there since June, and that was to pick up belongings after last being in the building in March. There were still snacks in her desk and a stack of papers to grade.
Smith, 26, said there was worry mixed with her anticipation as she prepared for her first day of work. “I think everyone’s a mix. I think everyone wants to be back, but everyone’s nervous. …There’s still a lot of questions that make people really anxious.”
‘We appreciate schedules’
Noel teaches high school physical education and middle school English Language Arts.
When his PE students are done in the weight room, he goes through the room with a fogger of disinfectant and then closes the door for 10 minutes.
His students eat lunch on the same side of the table to avoid facing each other. They are on slightly varied bell schedules and can only visit their locker at certain hours to avoid crowding the halls.
It’s not how school looked last year, but Noel, 42, will take it after a spring where he sent out gym routines to his student via an app and watched his own four school-age children working on screens too much for his taste.
‘We appreciate schedules and bells and sticking to a rigorous timing schedule.’
Noel missed the structure of a class day for both him and his kids. He’s glad to have it back, noting he and other teachers like routines. “We appreciate schedules and bells and sticking to a rigorous timing schedule.”
Structure is good, but for Noel, being around his students is even better. “It’s the reason we all do this. We’re here for the kids,” he said.
A return to school isn’t risk-free, Noel understands. Two fourth-grade classes in his district are in quarantine for two weeks after one student contracted COVID-19, he said. But he trusts the school administrators and their plans. “I am comfortable with what we are doing,” he said.
Noel sees the risk on a personal level. One of his children has Type 1 Diabetes. So he and his wife consulted their son’s endocrinologist, weighed the options and decided school, which is in a nearby district, was still best. “We thought we made the best decision for all our children,” he said.
Dan Polk, Onaga-Havensville-Wheaton’s superintendent, said the school year is “going really well” and says many district staffers share the same attitude as Noel.
‘It’s a lot easier to manage with smaller numbers.’
There have been cases, he said, like the fourth grader who tested positive and is experiencing mild effects, if not asymptomatic, as well as a staffer’s possible exposure. A sixth grader also tested positive and is exhibiting mild effects, and possibly asymptomatic.
Polk understands why larger schools in different parts of the country may opt for remote or hyrbid models. “It’s a lot easier to manage with smaller numbers,” he said.
‘This comes back to how well do we care for each other’
Litzelman’s wife has chronic asthma and her Houston, Texas-based grandparents contracted COVID-19. The symptoms were “relatively mild” for the couple in their 70s, but Litzelman said it still scared the family. Nevertheless, Litzelman, 24, says his stance isn’t powered by his personal experiences.
“My politics are driven by general solidarity with the working class,” he said.
One criticism of teachers refusing to return — often found on social media like Twitter
— goes like this: if all sorts of essential workers, from grocery store workers to delivery drivers to doctors, can venture out to their jobs, why do teachers deserve special treatment?
‘The point of disease control or public health is a cooperative effort of members of society to reduce our overall exposure to it. If teachers go to work, nurses have a much bigger job.’
“The logic underlying that question is a hyper-individualistic way of thinking about disease,” Litzelman said. “The point of disease control or public health is a cooperative effort of members of society to reduce our overall exposure to it. If teachers go to work, nurses have a much bigger job.”
Staying out of the classroom at this moment is the right thing to do to reduce larger exposure risk, Litzelman said. “This comes back to how well do we care for each other,” he said.
As for distance learning, Litzelman said, “it’s tough, it’s new, it’s a lot of work, but I truly feel that our student are having a solid educational experience.”
Looking ahead, Litzelman said if district officals “understand we cannot go back until COVID-19 is virtually eradicated, then we are good.” But if administrators “want to force us back, then we will fight like hell.”
“As it stands right now, we can’t even make the choice to reopen because our county, Alameda County, remains on the state’s COVID watch list because cases remain high here,” said an Oakland Unified School District spokesman. “The state says schools in any county on the watch list cannot open until the county has been off the watch list for two straight weeks, at the earliest. At this stage, it is unclear how soon that will happen.”
Noel acknowledges he might feel differently about returning to school if he worked in a more densely-populated district. But living and working in a rural area is the choice Noel made. “I respect each person’s ability to choose and choose wisely,” he said of other teacher’s decisions about return.
Litzelman wouldn’t second guess the situation in Onaga without knowing the local facts. If there were no new cases for 14 days in the area, that would fit his organization’s demands, he noted. “I’m not going to judge. But I also know our Kansas chapter was really active.”