by Terry Rogers
On Wednesday, July 15, the State of Delaware Department of Education released guidance for the reopening of schools for the 2020-21 academic year. The guidance, issued in a 34-page document, included three scenarios for schools to resume. Scenario 1 would be used if there was minimal spread in Delaware and would allow schools to reopen with some restrictions such as face coverings and social distancing requirements. Scenario 2 would occur if there was minimal-to-moderate community spread and would require a hybrid model of virtual and in-person learning with additional precautions. Scenario 3 would be utilized if there was significant community spread and would require schools to continue with remote learning.
The announcement led many parents and educators to express concerns about the three models. Some parents would like to see children return to school in as normal an atmosphere as possible while others think schools should remain closed until there is no longer a threat of the virus. Lisa Marie McCulley, a member of the Stand Up Delaware Reopen Schools Committee, a group that included pediatricians, teachers, school administrators, parents and public health experts. The committee submitted a white paper to Governor Carney in late June with suggestions on how schools could reopen fully in the fall.
“I want schools reopened 100 percent, fully, no restrictions,” McCulley said. “We can take extra precautions, but children are not affected and it’s very clear that what we were originally told about this virus was not true. Our children are safe. I’m more concerned about the division all of this has caused. The healthiest thing we can do for our kids, if their normal routine is public or private school, is to let them return. It’s best for them emotionally, mentally and yes, physically, too.”
Others expressed concerns about children, especially those in lower grades, wearing a mask all day. One parent stated that their older child would return to the classroom if that was the decision but her younger child would not. Several parents agreed to speak as long as their last name was not used.
“I really feel for the teachers not only having to try to teach a classroom, but then go home to their families,” Deb said. “And, I really feel for teachers not only having to try to teach a classroom, but then go home to their families. Plus, who knows what kind of medical history the teacher and other students have. I don’t think either way is the right or wrong answer, but I’m fortunate enough to work around his schedule and keep him home for now.”
Not all parents are as fortunate as Deb and many are concerned that they will have to quit their jobs should regular classroom learning not resume in the fall. In addition, several parents say that their child struggled with virtual learning. In a press conference on Tuesday, July 14, Dr. Susan Bunting reported that, by the end of the school year, only 40 percent of students were still completing their virtual assignments. One parent stated that his daughter struggles with reading and that it was worse when she could not attend school. Others pointed to the fact that online learning was a struggle and they would feel better with them learning in a school environment. Most parents who wanted schools to reopen completely cited work requirements that make it impossible for them to home school their child. However, not all parents approve of any classroom learning in the fall.
“What our school is proposing as of now is not an environment I want my kids in,” Renee said. “More like a prison. I’m not sure I believe that the virus is so terrible right now so that’s not the issue. I’m really hoping they give the parents a choice in distance learning or sending them in. If I have a choice, I will keep mine home to do online school and my girls agree they don’t want to go back with all the crazy new policies.”
Teachers and administrators also weighed in on the new guidelines. Jody, an administrator in a public school district explained that parents need to be the driving force as to how schools reopen in September.
“Parents need to have the control,” Jody said. “If they want to send their students to school, they need to know the schools have done everything possible to make schools safer for children. If parents decide to keep their students’ home, they need to know that the schools are doing everything to provide equal education for homebound students. But that also means that parents should just choose to send their students to school just so they can go back to work. They have a serious role to play in teaching their children how to be safe at school and how to focus if they stay home. As an administrator in a public school district, I will do my part to keep schools safe in y district and support students who stay home. As a parent, you must work with me to teach your children safe distances, mask wearing or ride them like a bronco bull to keep them focused on schoolwork at home.”
Deborah Remer, a language teacher at Positive Outcomes Charter School, explained that she is torn about what is best for the students.
“I can easily understand the difficulties of making decisions on behalf of students all across our state,” Remer said. “I have a strong preference for face-to-face interaction as the best way to connect with students and meet their academic needs. My greatest concern for my students, though is their mental and emotional health in the midst of a global crisis. As a teacher, my desire is for face-to-face instruction, even with the drawbacks that may entail. However, I am concerned with the negative impact of children wearing masks all day long, both physiologically as well as socio-emotionally.”
Remer is a language teacher who often must rely on facial expressions and gestures to aid in communication. Although she understands she could use a face shield that would keep her face visible, she is unaware how difficult they would be for breathing or if they would have a tendency to fog.
“Being forced to wear a face mask, no matter the distance I maintain between myself and my students, severely impacts my ability to teach them well. A mask prevents students from studying how I articulate and form words that may be foreign to them, do that they can imitate what they see. I am also trained to pick up nonverbal cues from my students to determine who is understanding instruction or if there are instances when I need to repeat a concept or ask questions to ensure all students are comprehending. Viewing a class of masked students will also impair my own ability to gauge which students are struggling and may need more time. So, without even touching on whether or not a mask may cause breathing difficulties or lung issues with prolonged wear over time, it is going to impact the ability of students to be successful in my classroom.”
Remer believes that if students are required to maintain a safe distance form each other and the teacher to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she wonders why masks are necessary, believing that masks should be used when the teacher circulates through the room, when a student gets up, in hallways or in areas where social distancing is not possible. Remer does acknowledge that by the time schools open in August or September, families will have had five months to acclimate to wearing masks in public. She does think it will be difficult to ensure they are wearing them properly.
If only remote learning is possible, Remer knows that teachers will do what they must to help children learn.
“Teachers did an amazing job completely reinventing how to approach our child’s education,” Remer said. “With no warning, we switched to a remote learning environment, learned new technologies and developed new approaches to help our students be successful. And many of this did this while simultaneously parenting our own children full-time, helping them adjust to new realities and develop positive habits for their own academic success. But as a teacher, I only saw about one-half of my students with any consistency at all. Online attendance was a major issue, in spite of the fact that the school where I teach saw to it that all students had access to computers and even internet hotspots if needed. Even highly motivated high school students who started out well succumbed to the growing sense of isolation and depression, with some eventually no longer attending any classes at all.”
The upcoming school year may have additional challenges as far as student preparedness. With so many students not attending remote classes consistently, Remer is concerned that they may struggle to reconnect with teachers and that those who may already struggle, learning could be even more difficult in the fall.
“Quite frankly, there are students we never saw once in our online classes, despite our best efforts to reach out to them and their families,” Remer said. “By the time classes are scheduled to resume this August, students will have already been out of the school building for five months. If we do not resume in-person instruction soon, I am concerned that some students will simply never return, and we may see a dip in the percentage of students that graduate.”
Remer pointed out that once a student falls below grade level, it is an uphill battle to catch up, but that is where committed teachers come in. She explained that teachers look at impossible situations and seek to develop viable solutions. Remer would not say that a student cannot catch up because her school is focused on closing the gap between academic deficits and student success.
“We have faced challenges before and we will do it again, but the truth is, this is by far the most challenging setback to education that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Remer said. “And it may take a long time for our students to recover. To the students who are feeling disconnected and isolated, I encourage you to rise above these challenges. Times may be difficult and even seem impossible at times, but you can overcome the difficulties and push through to be successful. You are worth the effort! And you’ll find that we teachers can’t wait to help you on your way. Whether we are back in person or via remote learning, we will get through this together and we are committed to your success.”
Governor Carney stated that a decision will be made in early August which scenario schools will be required to use in the fall.