School

“If You Want Us to Reopen, You Cannot Leave Your House From Now Until September”

Four teachers on their fears and frustrations heading into the 2020 school year.

A student in a mask sits at a desk along in a classroom.
Getty Images Plus

In about a month, the fall school year will begin for many American students. But what will school look like? Some districts are attempting business as usual. Los Angeles is starting the year entirely online. Some schools are giving parents options. Plenty of districts still don’t know what they are going to do.

All parents want their kids to go back to school. Yes, some of us are more comfortable than others with the idea of in-person school right now. But we all want our children to learn. We want them to see their friends. We want them to be out of the house so we can work or just, like, think for a second. Many of us are also scared for their health, for our health, for everyone’s health. And, if I may be so bold as to speak for millions of parents I do not know, we’re angry that the country, now and in all the years leading up to now, hasn’t done what it needs to do to make school a priority.

The Trump administration has been clear on how it feels about the issue, from the president’s tweets demanding that schools reopen to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos threatening schools that don’t open full time with defunding. Government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and professional organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have released their guidelines and recommendations. Opinion columnists and education experts have weighed in. But until recently, the voices of teachers have largely been missing.

What about the teachers? What do teachers want their jobs to look like in the coming school year? What kind of guidance are they getting from their principals and superintendents? What options do they have, including the many who are parents themselves? How do they feel about the loud and persistent complaints from working parents? Or from the parents who are so fed up with the school system that they are threatening to pull their kids out? And how are teachers talking with one another about the position that our country has put them in?

I asked four teachers—all writers for Slate’s Ask a Teacher column—to join me on Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting, to talk candidly about what it’s like to be a teacher facing the great unknown of fall 2020. They are Matthew Dicks, a fifth grade teacher in West Hartford, Connecticut; Brandon Hersey, who teaches second grade in Federal Way, Washington, and is also on the Seattle school board; Cassy Sarnell, an early childhood special education teacher in Albany, New York; and Amy Scott, an eighth grade English teacher in Durham, North Carolina. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Dan Kois: You’re all talking to your colleagues and friends. In three words or fewer, how would you characterize the emotional state of teachers right now?

Matthew Dicks: Well, my wife is also a teacher, a kindergarten teacher, and today she told me she was frightened and angry. I think I probably possess a little bit of those two things, as well as hopeful. I think I’m more hopeful frankly than my wife is.

Cassy Sarnell: I’m going to go with frustrated, scared, and sad.

Brandon Hersey: Confused as fuck.

Amy Scott: I was going to say disappointed. But given what I know about the Trump administration—you’d have to have an expectation in order to be disappointed.

So can each of you please tell me where your school system stands today? What do you, as a teacher, know about your fall 2020?

Hersey: In Federal Way, we have not received any real update on what school is going to look like. I think that we are playing around with the idea of the A/B model. And for those of you who might not know, it’s this idea that 50 percent of the kids will come to school on Monday and Tuesday; the other 50 percent will come on Thursday and Friday; and Wednesday will be kind of a check-in day, mostly virtual. As cases continue to spike, and as we’re starting to see more and more come out of the CDC around how dumb of an idea it is to send kids back, those decisions are changing.

Amy, what’s the story in Durham? What’s the plan right now?

Scott: The school where I am right now, it’s planning to be fully remote, K through 8, for 30 days. And then, to go to what Brandon was talking about with the A/B plan—it is still up in the air. Nothing is board approved, and who knows? Things could change in a moment.

Dicks: Right now, as of this moment, we’re going back full time. We’re in Connecticut, so the infection rate is actually the lowest in the country right now. And I have not seen a person in public not wearing a mask where I live. So people are taking it very seriously here. And as a result, we’re in a better position, I think, than in a lot of places in the country. So we are offering full-time school at school, and also full-time distance learning, and parents can choose between the two.

But I’ve been telling my teacher friends that everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face. You know that famous Mike Tyson quote? Because we have a thousand teachers in our school district and what will happen, 100 percent, will be: A kid or a teacher will die over the course of the school year. And when a kid or a teacher dies, everything is going to change.

Sarnell: I’m in a bit of a different boat than everyone else here, because I teach preschool. So I don’t work in one district [in Albany]. I work with up to 20 different school districts at my school. Right now, every district that I’m working with, they are all in the process of figuring out how to open in person. They’re all very secretive. None of them will say what their plan is. Nobody has any information out.

This question of what happens when someone dies, that Matthew brought up, seems very crucial. Because no one in my kid’s school district in Arlington, Virginia, has given me any sense that there is a plan for what happens when someone tests positive. When a teacher tests positive, or a student, or a student’s dad. Which is another way of saying, is there any kind of benchmark for when a school shuts down or changes its policy? Have you been given any kind of guidance as to what that future planning looks like?

Dicks: I know that in our school district, one of the goals we have is to sort of bubble kids. And so the teacher and the students are going to remain as isolated from the rest of the school as possible. So that if I have a class of 20 kids and one of my kids, or I, or one of the parents tests positive, that group of kids theoretically can then enter quarantine. And if the teacher’s healthy, we can begin distance learning for the two to three weeks that we’re going to decide quarantine is necessary, and then come back into the school, theoretically having not contaminated anyone else in the process. I stress the word theoretically because I’m not quite sure how that is possible, given the physical space that we occupy. But I think it’s a reasonable attempt by the school district to maintain school in the event that someone tests positive.

Hersey: I think that we also need to really give space to the socioeconomic and racial barriers, and issues that come along with thinking about schooling in person. A lot of times when we are thinking about coming back, we’re only looking at this pandemic from a medical standpoint, but we’re also facing a pandemic of racism. And as we think about the safety of our children, what I’m really concerned about is that I know for my students, a lot of their families don’t and didn’t have the luxury of quarantining. They still had to go to work. So if we are sending kids back home, a lot of our students also are living in multigenerational family settings. So you’ve got grandma, you’ve got aunt, you’ve got uncle.

But also we need to be prepared as a school system because we found that, honestly, we are the social safety net for children. We’re where they get food. In a lot of places, we’re where they get counseling, or where they get clothing. If we don’t have a clear and consistent plan for how we’re going to address those disparities, the opportunity gap is just going to continue to widen.

Brandon Hersey, Cassy Sarnell, Amy Scott, and Matthew Dicks.
Clockwise from top left: Brandon Hersey, Cassy Sarnell, Amy Scott, and Matthew Dicks. Photos by Woke Photography, Cassy Sarnell, Amy Scott, and Holly M. Williams

It seems like that problem cuts both ways. If you close the school for safety reasons, you’re cutting that safety net for all of those kids who depend on school, but if you don’t, you’re exposing them to a much greater level of risk, which is then transmitted right down the line to those families they live with. The ones who maybe can’t afford to quarantine. It seems to me that no one has been able to quantify, either through research or even through argument, what the answer is for how to best serve students who both need school and are most threatened by in-person school right now. That’s not really a question. That’s just me expressing my angst.

Hersey: Yup. That’s the work.

Are you afraid for your own health?

Hersey: Yeah, man. I mean, we have health insurance. But I can tell you right now, districts are going to fight tooth and nail not to provide the adequate PPE needed to do our job effectively. Our school doesn’t provide any type of hand sanitizer. We have soap and water, but some schools don’t even have sinks.

Sarnell: Before I taught preschool, I taught middle school. And I loved my middle schoolers dearly, but they were always licking each other or sticking their fingers in each other’s ears. Dumb kid things. I went from that to my preschool where I walked out to the playground, I leaned over to see what some kid that I didn’t quite have my eyes on was doing, and she’s sucking on another kid’s finger in the corner of the playground.

Scott: Middle schoolers do that too.

Sarnell: In what scenario are you going to keep kids from spreading normal germs? Because I think a lot of schools are going to pretend that, “Oh, well, you know, I think if you guys just keep them from licking each other, it’ll be fine.” But if we could keep them from licking each other, we would have by now.

Dicks: It’s the students, I think, that concern me the most. And my own children. And frankly, my wife, who is a kindergarten teacher. I worry about her a great deal. Because kids come to kindergarten and they’re crying on the first day of school, and the only way to get them to stop crying is you hug them. My wife is trying to figure out, what is she going to do to crying children who are leaving their parents for the first time? And you say, “Please stay six feet away. I’m behind some plastic and so are you. Stand over there and cry.”

Listen to the full conversation on Mom and Dad Are Fighting:

Many of you have brought up how all these plans are theoretical, and we’re eventually going to see the plans break down. And it sort of seems to me that the breakdowns are happening even now, as plans are in theoretical form. Where I live in Arlington, a few weeks ago, the district announced what the plan was: Parents had a choice. You could choose between the A/B plan, where your kid has two days in school and three days at home, or you could choose full-time distance learning. And then about an hour ago today, a brand new email went out from the superintendent saying, basically, “Nope. We changed it. School’s going to be all virtual for everyone, at least for the first quarter.”

They didn’t say why, but my hunch is that it has something to do with the huge gulf between the number of parents who wanted their kids to go to school, and the number of teachers who felt safe going into that school environment. Because they asked all the teachers, “Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to teach remotely, or do you want to go into class?” Are you all seeing this kind of disparity between parents’ expectations or needs, and teachers’ expectations or needs?

Hersey: Yeah. I don’t know how we’re going to thread that needle between parent expectations and good policy. But I think that your district did the right thing, Dan. I think that your district realized that, for our workforce, this is not the best move.

Dicks: I think districts are very concerned right now about the workforce, in terms of how many actual adults they can get to go back to the building. The number of immunocompromised teachers, based upon either age or health conditions, is really going to limit the workforce. There will be teachers who just say, “I’m out,” or there will be teachers who say, “I’m going to stay home and home-school my kids this year. Have a nice time.”

We’re going to be short-staffed in many, many circumstances. Don’t even start to think about substitute teachers. Can you imagine the situation when a teacher gets sick? Because, as soon as you have the sniffles, in the era of COVID, you can’t muscle through. You can’t say, “I’ve got a cold, but I’m going to go to school.” If you have anything, you can’t go to school anymore, and just the dearth of substitute teachers alone is going to collapse the system.

Scott: And what they pay substitutes. I can’t imagine being a substitute and being like, “Yeah, I’m going to risk my life for,” what is it? Eighty bucks a day, or something. It’s ridiculous.

I’ve seen a lot of chatter on my very North Arlington, very white, very upper-middle-class Facebook feed that what parents should do right now, if they have the choice, is to not send their kids to school. Pick the all-distance option, create a home-schooling pod if you need to for a year. Ease the pressure on the system, so the lower-income kids have more access to the resources they need, including if they need in-person learning. What do you guys think of that idea?

Hersey: I think that’s racist as fuck. We have these 13 schools [with] high African American populations that we focus on as a district in Seattle, in terms of policy and resources, to boost those schools up. And folks are saying, like, “Well, why don’t you just keep those schools open and send the kids who are experiencing homelessness, the special education kids, to those schools to get in-person learning?” So what you’re saying is, you want us to create a COVID hotbed that only the students that are experiencing the most trauma will have access to?

And that’s the exact type of policy recommendations that we, as educators and policymakers, need to be really wary of. Because on the surface, that sounds like a great idea. “I’ll keep my kid home. I’ll home-school them, and then that frees up resources for everybody else.” When actually, collectively, we need to be uniting our voices and demanding a system that best serves all students, regardless of if you have the resources to choose a different one or not.

Dicks: Yeah. It makes you feel good.

Hersey: Exactly.

Dicks: Like, “I can keep my kids home and save the world.” Meanwhile, over at that school, all the teachers are sick and three kids have died, but I saved the world by keeping my kids at home.

Brandon, you’re on the school board in Seattle. Let’s say the Department of Education suddenly did an about-face and just was like, “We are going to throw $10 billion at the problem of opening schools up.” How would you want to spend it? What could we do with money that would increase safety to any kind of acceptable level?

Hersey: Support efforts for municipal broadband. We need a device for every student. We need adequate and real rigorous professional development as educators to provide distance learning. We need a communications specialist for every district, so that for the kids who, for whatever reason, have not been as engaged in distance learning, we can actually reach their families and get them plugged in.

There are so many things that we could ask for, but I haven’t been asked, so that’s the thing.

Scott: Having one device per child makes a huge difference as a teacher. There’s a lot to say for getting kids technology. But it’s not enough. In the district where my kids are zoned, they’re doing the one-to-one device for the kids; they’ve ordered all these Chromebooks. Are they going to be here in time, first of all, for the school year to start? And the district ordered all these laptops but didn’t add any additional staff to inventory them, to label them, to distribute them. So far, they haven’t had sufficient professional development on Canvas, the system that they’re using. It’s like, “Oh, OK, we’ll just get laptops and that’ll solve the problem,” but there’s so many layers underneath that that need to be addressed.

Sarnell: The professional development piece is so important because you could give every person in the country a Chromebook, but if you don’t teach teachers what tools they have and how to use those tools to best reach students, it’s not going to matter.

Cassy, if my child has an IEP (individualized education program) or otherwise benefits from special education in some way, what is this coming year going to look like for them? And how should parents be thinking about the role that special education can and should be playing in a mostly distance learning scenario?

Sarnell: Yikes. That’s how your year’s going to look: yikes.

I think for a lot of those kids, the IEPs that were written before the quarantine started are just meaningless. If the district lets you, you can physically scrap the document and start over. If they don’t, you’re just going to have to know in your heart that your teachers are doing what they can, but the document they wrote under the assumption that they could be there in person to provide therapy and they can’t, that’s just not going to be a realistic goal to set for yourself. And the point of an IEP is to be a realistically meetable goal.

Matt, you alluded to this a little bit earlier. Do you all think that we are going to see a mass exodus from teaching in the coming year? Are people bailing?

Dicks: I think that this is an opportunity for people who are on the back end of their teaching career to retire. If I was 55 to 65 and I was looking at a school year like the one that’s coming and I was being sent to school, I might just say, “I will take my retirement now, thank you very much,” and move on. Frankly, I also believe that if we move forward with jamming people into schools and not having plans and PPE and all these things, there’s just going to be people who die, and those people are going to have to be replaced too.

Hersey: I don’t know. I think teaching for a lot of folks is probably one of the safer positions. I know a few teachers in my building who are taking an early retirement and chucking up deuces and calling it good. I know others who are actively applying for jobs and receiving jobs right now. I think that we’re going to lose a lot of institutional knowledge around the field, but I also think that we’re going to get a lot of young people who are really, really excited to get into the classroom and repair a lot of the harm that has been done, not only from this pandemic, but from our racist school system, in the aim of truly reimagining what school looks like. So I’m hopeful. Cautiously optimistic.

What should parents do to make your jobs easier and safer?

Hersey: Buy us N95 masks. Donate them to the school.

Dicks: That’s a pretty good suggestion. I would say that if we’re going back in any kind of in-real-life setting, you’ve got to keep your kid home if your kid is sick, and you’ve got to let us know that your kid is sick. Do not send your child to school when they’re sick.

Sarnell: I mean, I think the only answer to me is don’t leave the house until then. Like, everybody go back into a full lockdown. If you want us to reopen in September, then you cannot leave your house from now until September. That’s it.

What’s the best-case scenario for your school and your job as a teacher in 2020?

Dicks: I think in a perfect circumstance, because I’m in Connecticut and our infection rate is very, very low, if it stayed low, like it is now, and every teacher had an N95 mask and every kid was masked, my perfect scenario would be a school year where I get to be with my kids in a very safe environment. I just don’t know if that’s going to be possible.

Scott: I do my best teaching in-person, obviously, and I, like Matt, would love to be in the classroom with my kids. With the North Carolina infection rate still going up, I don’t think it’s safe. And until it goes down, until we have a vaccine, until we’re clear, I would advocate for full online education.

Sarnell: I would love it if we could open in a way that was safe. Even if we could have them like once or twice a week, just to come to the school for a couple hours to be outside with their peers. But also in my perfect, perfect world, we’d be able to wait until there was a vaccine and until it was fully safe.

Hersey: Outdoor school, if your community can support it, is critical. It allows us to build closer partnerships with our community-based organizations who often have closer relationships with our students than we do. It allows us to actually socially distance ourselves in some meaningful way. It takes kids out of these institutionally racist buildings and gives them the opportunity to engage with curriculum in the way that we as human beings have been doing since our beginnings as a species, educating ourselves outside.

So many folks are having these conversations about reimagining schools. And I really want us to be pushing ourselves to think about that more deeply. If we are going to reimagine this system, if we are looking at this as an opportunity that needs seizing, then we can’t approach this with the same models and the same skill sets that we’ve been doing this so poorly, quite frankly, for the past several hundred years, right? Like if we are serious about rethinking and reimagining our school systems, an A/B model isn’t going to do that.

If we don’t take bold action right now, like Matthew and others have been saying, people will die. Children will die. And I really need superintendents, school boards, elected officials, parents, I really need all of the folks who are pushing us to go back to really take into consideration how many people, how many students, how many children, how many babies are you willing to lose to try something that we know is a really, really bad idea?