Wednesday, January 20, 2021

No, It's NOT Time To Fully Open School Buildings

I'm fairly gobsmacked to see an op-ed from a teacher suggesting otherwise in the NY Post, but everyone's entitled to their opinion. There are some things in this piece, however, that are quite correct. Zoom just is not what we do. I've been personally discouraged, more than I can say, by doing a job other than the one for which I signed up.

I teach on Zoom, and like many of my colleagues, I've been doing so for months. I'm as discouraged by it as the writer of this piece. I know why I love being a teacher, and it has little to do with anything I've been doing since last March. Were this the job, I'd never have lasted. There are great rewards to this job, and few tend to show up on computer screens.

I really miss seeing students face to face. I absolutely believe there's a dimension beyond my subject. That's hard for me to admit, as I consider my subject, the English language, absolutely indispensable to my newcomer students They can still learn from me online, but it's not as easy. I'm far less effective remotely than I am in person. I'm also not able to support or influence students as well as I could. Students won't tell me secrets that need telling online. The writer is absolutely correct that students aren't getting what they should. 

I'm surprised the writer didn't cover the shortcomings of masked, socially distanced learning as well. The bizarre practice of having students sit far away from one another, masked, does not really promote the sort of discovery we want in a classroom. I don't aim to instill fear in students, but these classrooms can do a pretty good job of it. About the best thing I can say about the state of education in NYC right now is that it's better than nothing. 

And as flawed as Zoom is, it's kind of a miracle we're able to do even that. I'm old enough to remember a time when it was inconceivable. However, I've also read of outdoor classes that took place early last century. Uncomfortable though they may have been, I can see how they may have been better than Zoom in some ways at least. Mayor de Blasio never really got that off the ground, let alone on it.

As for Zoom, I'm lucky in that my supervisor programmed me to teach many of my last year's students. I have history with them, and I really know a good portion of them. This makes a big difference, and I'm grateful that I've had a chance to know these kids. I think I serve them better for that, even under these circumstances. It's tougher to really see and know students I've only known online. 

Like the teacher who wrote this, I belong in a real classroom. Unlike him, I don't think it's safe for me, my students or any of our families to return now. I'm frankly shocked at the shallowness of his arguments otherwise. 

The writer correctly points out that vaccines are effective. What I didn't see in the article was the sad fact New Yorkers are not getting the vaccine all that quickly. A whole lot of sites are booked for months in advance. Also, NYC uses Moderna vaccines, and they require two visits a month apart. If we were able to get all New Yorkers the vaccine today, it would be a month until they got the second shot, and I'm told it would take twelve days after that before they'd be effective. That would bring us to March. Even if Biden makes spectacular progress (and I very much hope he does) that's not happening. 

Furthermore, vaccines have yet to be tested on children. Moderna, at least, has begun the process, but if we want to prevent the spread of COVID, we're going to have to include kids. Even now, European school buildings are closing to prevent spread of COVID. They're seeing more evidence that children spread the virus, and it behooves us to protect both them and their families.

Another argument the writer makes is that there's a very low rate of infection in city schools. There are multiple reasons for that, none of which are mentioned in the piece. The most obvious is that a very low percentage of city students have been in attendance. If, say, 75% of students are not in attendance, that cuts down significantly on transmission opportunities. Another reason is enforcement of masks and social distancing. If we'd had a President who deemed that important, perhaps we wouldn't have the explosive fatality rates we see in these United States.

There's another factor in play here, though, and that is the testing that we insisted on. Flawed though it was, and is, it's led to hundreds of building closures that precluded further spread of the virus. The low transmission rate is not due to luck or chance, but rather to care. And of course we need to continue to take care. Right now the city hasn't even got the capacity, should we do as this writer urges, to test a sufficient number of people who'd be full time in buildings. If we gamble with testing, we risk reversing the very stats this writer puts forth. We can't afford that.

If we are able to widely distribute the vaccine and keep people safe, of course we should open school buildings. Like the writer of this piece, I'd like nothing better than to see my students and offer them the services they need and deserve. It would make me a whole lot happier. I actually like this work, and this year has been the most discouraging, bar none, in my 36 year career.

Education is one of the most important things we can offer kids, and I'm very proud to have devoted my life to doing so. However, I'm not willing to risk the lives of everyone in the building just so I can do what I want to right now.

In fact, about the only thing I can think of that's more important than education is health. Turning a blind eye to health while jumping in headfirst and hoping for the best has proven to be one of the most abysmal failures in the history of our nation. It won't work out for us, our students, or our families either. It behooves us to give our students the best we have to offer. 

Right now, like it or not, that's exactly what we're doing. 

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