The Yearning for In-Person Learning
As new school year begins, educators join epidemiologists in pleas for common sense
Another school year has commenced, the third impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In early summer, as vaccination rates increased and hospitalizations decreased nationwide, many in Erie County were cautiously optimistic about the coming school year. Fingers were crossed that maybe classrooms could be somewhat free from masking, social distancing, and shutdowns.
After averaging over 3,000 daily deaths nationwide during the winter peak — before vaccines were widely available — it dipped below 200 a day throughout much of June. Vaccination rates then plateaued as the more contagious Delta variant began spreading throughout the country. By August, ICU beds were filling up again in some parts of the country, overwhelming hospitals once more as the United States eclipsed over 1,000 daily deaths.
It initially appeared that Erie County school districts would individually develop their own masking policies, but between mid and late August, local COVID-19 hospitalizations had increased by 60 percent, the Erie Times-News reported. On Aug. 23, alarmed by the data, the Erie County Department of Health ordered universal masking for all private and public schools. This was recommended by the CDC, the Children's Hospital Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), an organization of 67,000 primary care pediatricians who also endorse prioritizing in-person learning this year — but not without necessary and proven safety measures such as proper ventilation, testing, quarantining, cleaning, and disinfection.
On Aug. 31, by an order from Gov. Tom Wolf, masking was expanded to all schools statewide.
"There are many children and others who cannot be vaccinated," Sara Bode, MD, chairperson elect of the AAP Council on School Health Executive Committee said in their statement. "This is why it's important to use every tool in our toolkit to safeguard children from COVID-19. Universal masking is one of those tools, and has been proven effective in protecting people against other respiratory diseases, as well."
The goal is to safely keep schools open where possible. Masking isn't infallible, of course, but it has proven effective in reducing transmission, especially when combined with other safety measures. In a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, even 3-ply cotton cloth masks and neck gaiters were found to have reduced the expulsion of respiratory aerosols while coughing, breathing, and speaking by about half. Numerous other studies have produced similar results. In a collaborative study between University of North Carolina researchers and EPA scientists using airborne salt particles (the same size as the smallest particles of SARS-CoV-2), they examined the "fitted filtration efficiency" of breathing in viral particles with over a dozen types of masks — nylon, polyester, cotton, even bandanas — and found that they all help with reduction.
"A cloth mask is intended to trap respiratory droplets that are released when the wearer talks, coughs, or sneezes," the Mayo Clinic explains. "It also acts as a barrier to protect the wearer from inhaling droplets released by others." The American Lung Association also confirms that there is absolutely no evidence that masking lowers oxygen levels, despite some parent concerns
Erie County Public Health Director Melissa Lyon, who studied biology and chemistry in addition to public health, and has been in the field for two decades, signed the order for universal masking, which is authorized by Section 5 of the Pennsylvania Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955. The law states that health departments "shall be primarily responsible for the prevention and control of communicable and non-communicable disease, including disease control in public and private schools."
"The last 18 months have left deep scars on educators, on students, and on our nation," wrote Steven Grant in the latest issue of NEA Today. Recent studies reflect this. Students are reporting higher rates of depression, anxiety, social isolation, and difficulty concentrating. This will add to this year's challenges as educators work to meet the needs of all students. Even pre-pandemic, student health and safety have always been prioritized first. Psychologist Abraham Maslow's influential hierarchy of needs demonstrates how a student's physiological and safety needs being met are the necessary base before students can begin learning to their full potential.
Students are not the only ones affected either. In May 2021, the CDC released a report on the mental health of teachers and school-age parents. Over one-quarter of teachers self-reported symptoms consistent with clinical depression and 37 percent with symptoms of anxiety. Over half of teachers said they were considering leaving the profession altogether. Meanwhile, nearly one-fifth of parents reported poor mental health and feelings of being "overwhelmed" and "burnt out." One can imagine similar sentiments among public-facing administrators and elected, unpaid school board members.
Brian Polito, superintendent of Erie's Public Schools, is very aware of such concerns entering this school year.
"All of us – administrators, teachers, staff members – are mindful of the toll this pandemic is taking on the emotional well-being and mental health of our staff, students, and families," he says. "Part of our job will be continuing to make sure any individual who needs additional help or support receives it."
Dr. Ian Roberts, superintendent of the Millcreek School District, notes concerns over learning loss, but the increased risk of illness to students, teachers, and administrators has been the greatest challenge. The district has experienced serious illness and death. He also loses sleep over the thought of more school closures and the idea of students losing out on more in-person instruction and extracurricular programs.
"The uncertainty of the changing public health data and our inability to guarantee the safety of our students and adults from the COVID-19 virus [worries me]," Roberts says.
Despite these concerns though, he remains optimistic and is focusing on strengthening the district's relationship with the parents and community and ensuring students get a quality education. He is looking forward to having students in school for face-to-face learning five days a week for "the incredible expertise" of Millcreek teachers who "provide world class pedagogical delivery."
Like Roberts, Polito is looking forward to seeing teachers and students in the classroom again (Erie's Public Schools were virtual for the vast majority of last year), although he compliments the creativity of teachers engaging students online. Uncertainty still lingers though.
"There is no doubt that this will once again be a challenging and unpredictable year given COVID-19," he says. "We are, once again, going to find ourselves constantly assessing and reassessing. All of our administrators, teachers, and staff are going to have to be patient and flexible and we're going to have to ask our students and parents to be patient and flexible. And we're going to have to do all of that while remaining focused on fulfilling our mission and protecting the health and safety of our staff and students."
Garrett Skindell, an 8th-grade social studies teacher in the Erie School District, has the perspective of both an educator and parent.
"There have been so many challenges and all of them happening at the same time," Skindell explains. "[R]evamping and learning an entire online platform to deliver instruction in a short period of time to figuring out how best to deliver instruction via Zoom meetings was no easy task in and of itself, but to have to juggle that and then turn around and try to help your own children at home through their own struggles of virtual learning was definitely a challenge."
This sometimes led to 16 to 18 hour days for Skindell, which was "brutal and exhausting," but it did help him empathize with everyone's point-of-view last school year. What he disliked most though was the difficulty of establishing relationships with his students while virtual.
"The thing I am most looking forward to is reestablishing those relationships with the students," he says. Like all educators, he's worried about everyone's safety, but also with the misinformation and disinformation being spread. "It seems like a lot of folks are directing their ire at school officials for trying to keep kids safe." He cites school board meetings across the country making news for being so volatile over boards trying to enact safety measures meant to keep students in school and safe. "It's concerning," he says.
"Clearly, the new variants have us all concerned [too]," Skindell adds. "The safety of the students and my coworkers is paramount. The possibility of students catching the virus is real."
As a public school teacher, I can relate to many of these concerns. I am fortunate to teach in a school district where we were in-person for most of last school year. We had strict and carefully planned safety measures implemented by our administrators, custodians, support staff, and board. Students were distanced, masks worn, and desks sanitized between every class. Students were great and seemed genuinely thankful to be in the building with their teachers and peers when so many schools around us were not. Our district also offered a cyber option, of course, and (for last year) even the option to Zoom into their classes live if parents preferred or students were quarantined. This meant we were teaching students in our classrooms and online in their homes at the same time — a seemingly impossible feat, but one we accomplished. It wasn't ideal and was overwhelming at times, but during a once-in-a-century pandemic? We all did our best.
As so many of us now know, teaching and learning virtually is a challenge. It requires different skill sets for both students and teachers. Teaching is performance art. It's building relationships and rapport, it's learning about one's students and scaffolding and differentiating, it's planning and identifying needs and making adjustments, it's disciplining and redirecting and listening and learning. It's a tap dance at times. It's improvising. Sometimes it's simply making it all up as you go.
"Hopefully everyone can get vaccinated, mask up, and be healthy and safe entering this year so we can put this all behind us and get back to some semblance of normalcy and best practices," says Skindell.
Students have been through a lot. We owe it to them to work together as communities to ensure their safety and that they have the best year possible, whatever it looks like.
Jonathan Burdick, a high school history teacher, and runs the historical blog Rust & Dirt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org