Opinion: Commentary: A Teacher’s Take on the Reopening of Schools

I teach high school English in Fairfax County Public Schools. A number of teachers from across the county suggested I share the following concerns with the community about the plan for reopening schools next month.

Many of us fear that the primary objective of in-person school -- a richer, more personal and dynamic learning environment -- will be sharply undercut by the need for distancing, masks, constant disinfecting, not to mention constant reminders to students to adhere to protocols. The result will likely be a sterile, even oppressive environment where kids are mostly working solo on their laptops. Wouldn't they be doing the same from home without all the stress, expense, and health risks of in-person school?

Personally, despite the challenges inherent to virtual teaching, I had a decent experience this spring. My English classes read works by Frederick Douglass, Poe, Sojourner Truth, and others. We did a bit of research on the coronavirus. We wrote analysis and reflection and poetry. I felt like we learned something. My journalism class managed to publish two more issues of the newspaper.

The frustrations I experienced stemmed mostly from issues that (I believe) could be mitigated in a new school year. I'm talking about occasional technical issues (like bad sound), the brevity of teaching sessions, and the fact that student work was optional. Trying to teach a group of shadows -- since most kids opted to keep their cameras off -- was also a challenge. But again, I think we could find ways to overcome these stumbling blocks come August.

FCPS teachers have been sharing other concerns about the hybrid teaching plan: When the inevitable COVID cases turn up in our schools, how do we assure a smooth transition to virtual learning? Will there be huge delays and roadblocks, as we experienced in April? Will the instability and uncertainty cause more stress compared to a stable schedule of learning online?

Can the school system guarantee adequate PPE, including sanitizers and disinfectant wipes? What if we see another general shortage of these supplies? How will students social distance in the restrooms, or wash hands adequately with sink faucets that cut off after a few seconds?

The thought of students eating lunch in the classroom sparks particular concern, given that masks will come off and students will want to congregate and socialize. Will teachers ever have a break if kids are eating in our rooms, and we are scrambling to clean during six-minute pass periods?

Will we be able to display warmth and compassion to our students, and above all, teach effectively?

What about the sub shortage that posed vexing problems in our pre-COVID environment? Faced, inevitably, with even fewer subs next fall, and given the need for social distancing, what will we do with classes that have no coverage and cannot be combined?

And let’s not forget the bigger picture: Will the likely rise in COVID cases stemming from in-person schools — potential breeding grounds of “super-spreaders” -- burden our hospitals and help prolong the economic misery caused by shutdowns?

Finally, is it really honest to say teachers have a "choice" of whether to teach in person or online, if the latter means we may face negative repercussions with regard to teaching preps and the security of our current position?

These are pressing questions which FCPS has failed to address. There are many more.

Helen Mondloch is Honors English 11 Team Leader and Journalism Teacher/Watchdog Advisor at Westfield High School.

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