This school year has been a failure in so many ways.
But don’t get me wrong.
I’m not going to sit here and point fingers.
The Covid-19 pandemic has tested the public school system like never before.
Teachers, administrators and school directors have been under tremendous pressure and I believe most really tried their best in good faith to make things work as well as possible.
But as the year comes to a blessed close, we need to examine some of the practices common at many of our schools during this disaster and honestly evaluate their success or failure.
Some things worked well. Many made the best of a bad situation. But even more were blatant failures.
We need to know which was which.
As a classroom teacher with 17 years experience who worked through these times, let me clarify one thing.
I am not talking about things that were specific to individual classrooms.
Teachers struggled and stretched and worked miracles to make things run. We built the plane as we were flying it. As usual, this is where policy meets execution and that can differ tremendously from place-to-place.
What I’m talking about for the most part is policy. Which policies were most unsuccessful regardless of whether some super teachers were able to improve on them or not in their classrooms.
Here are my top six administrative failures of this pandemic school year:
1) SOCIAL DISTANCING
Health officials were clear on one point – keeping space between individuals helps stop the spread of Covid-19.
Exactly how much space we need to keep between people has varied over time.
At first, we were told to keep 6 feet apart. Then as health officials realized there wasn’t enough physical space in school buildings to keep students that far apart AND still have in-person school, they changed it to 3 feet.
The same happened with violating social distancing.
At first, you were considered a close contact only if you were within the designated space for 15 consecutive minutes. Then that was changed to 15 minutes in total even if that time was unconsecutive.
In any case, classes were held in physical spaces. Many schools at least tried to make an effort.
Was it successful? Did we actually keep students socially distanced all day?
Walk into nearly any school during a class change and you will see the same crowded halls as you would have seen pre-pandemic. Observe a fire drill, and you’ll see the same students right next to each other, skin against skin as they try to quickly find an exit.
These times generally aren’t 15 minutes consecutively, but think about how many class changes there are a day. If you have 8 or 9 classes, with each class change averaging 3 minutes, that’s 24 to 27 minutes of exposure a day.
If it weren’t for the fact that most children are asymptomatic, what would the result of this have been? How many kids did we expose to Covid-19 because of the sheer difficulty of administering social distancing protocols?
Health officials told us it was important to wear masks on our faces to stop the spread of respiratory droplets that contain the virus. True there was some discrepancy on this issue at the beginning of the pandemic, but over time it became an agreed upon precaution.
There was also some discrepancy about what kinds of masks to wear and whether one should double mask.
However, putting all that aside, did schools that had in-person classes abide by this policy?
It actually depends on what part of the country you’re in. Some schools were directed to do so and others were not.
However, even in districts where it was an official policy, it rarely worked well.
Not only is it difficult to teach when the most expressive parts of your face are covered, it’s difficult to be heard. And for students, it’s even worse. They are still adolescents, after all. They abided by mask mandates with various degrees of success.
In my own classes, about a quarter of my students could never get their masks over their noses. No matter how many times I reminded them, no matter how often I spoke up, the masks always slipped below their noses – sometimes moments after I made a remark. Sometimes three, four or more times in succession to the point that I gave up.
Administration didn’t seem to take the matter as seriously as the school board written dress code policy, and teachers (including me) didn’t want to come down too hard on kids for neglecting to do something that many of them seemed incapable of doing.
Were we all exposed to respiratory droplets? Definitely. Without a doubt. Especially during lunch periods which were almost exclusively conducted in doors without even the possibility of opening a window.
Did partial masking have some positive effect? Probably. But I do not think we can call this policy a success.
3) CONTACT TRACING
How do you tell if someone has been exposed to Covid-19?
Health officials advised contact tracing. In other words, when someone exhibits symptoms and then tests positive for the virus, you identify people who came into close contact (within 3 feet for 15 minutes total).
However, this was conducted entirely on the honor system. So it was only as accurate as those reporting it were perceptive or honest. If someone was a close contact but didn’t want the hassle of quarantine, they could usually just refrain from reporting themselves.
Even worse was the fact that most children are asymptomatic when infected with Covid-19. Hundreds or thousands of kids could be walking around the school as carriers of the virus and you’d never know with contact tracing.
Random blood tests for Covid-19 and Covid-19 antibodies would have actually solved this problem, but it was never even recommended. This may have been because of costs or fears of inconveniencing students. However, it demonstrates perhaps the worst failure of the entire pandemic.
Any sense of security was completely false. Every week – often every few days – I’d get phone calls and emails from my district about students and staff testing positive for Covid-19 but miraculously there were no close contacts. Districts, administrators, school directors, health officials have lost a tremendous amount of credibility from this which may damage our society much worse than Covid-19 ever did.
4) STANDARDIZED TESTING
We threw caution to the wind and reopened in-person classrooms so children could have live instruction. Then the Biden administration mandated standardized testing which would eat up much of that time.
My last month of school is divided up almost equally in half between teaching and testing.
I’ve had to cut my curriculum to ribbons just to get a semblance of instruction done by the last day.
And it serves no purpose.
We all know students haven’t had the kind of robust instruction time they normally would. Why do we need tests to show that? It’s like looking at a person bleeding from an open wound and then testing to see if there was blood loss.
Not to mention the fact that these standardized tests have been shown to be bad assessments long before Covid-19 came on the scene.
This is a total policy failure that the kids are paying for with less time to learn.
5) CYBER SCHOOL
Many students spent some or all of the last year on-line. The reasons why are clear and even potentially sound.
Their parents wanted to mitigate infection, and going cyber certainly did that.
At best, classroom teachers provided lessons through distance learning platforms like Zoom using accessories like Google Classroom.
Platforms like Edmentum – which my daughter had to use – provided material that was not developmentally appropriate, assessed unfairly, and full of typos.
This just demonstrates the inferiority of cyber programs in general. The more interaction possible between teachers and students, the better. However, even at its best this is not as effective as live instruction.
Those districts that simply gave up and threw students onto fully cyber programs almost abrogated their responsibilities to educate at all.
However, I can certainly see why parents may have chosen this option for their children. After all, I made such a choice for my own daughter.
The best result though would be safety from Covid but somewhat less instructional quality. Either way, it’s a failure, but the degree will vary.
6) HYBRID MODELS
Many districts choose a hybrid education model combining some cyber and some in-person learning.
This tried to strike a balance between keeping children safe and providing the best possible education. However, both models were flawed and thus the hybrid model combines these flaws.
The worst part of this type though was how it often forced educators to educate.
This is nearly impossible to do well. It’s like trying to perform a play to two different audiences at the same time. What works in-person does not work as well on-line and vice versa.
I found myself catering to one group and then another. Often it lead to the on-line students being left more to their own devices. Since most of them had their cameras off and rarely responded to questions, I fear they got an even worse education than under fully cyber circumstances.
In-person students also had to exercise patience as the teacher divided his or her attention to the on-line group.
And the degree of technical wizardry expected of teachers was astronomical.
In every class I was required to post material to a central in class TV screen so my in-person students could see it, while also making sure it was displayed on-line for my cyber kids. Sometimes it wouldn’t work for one group and I’d have to trouble shoot the problem in real time.
There were often instructional videos or examples I wanted to show where the volume or video wouldn’t display for one group or another. And sometimes on-line students couldn’t hear the teacher or their classmates.
Then we had Internet connection issues where cyber students were inexplicably dropped or in-person students couldn’t access materials on Google Classroom.
It was a nightmare – an every day, every period, never ending nightmare.
But teachers just got on with it and achieved amazing things despite all the issues.
This pandemic year can be characterized by epic failures at all levels.
In short, things could have been much worse.
At each level, these failures were mitigated by everyday classroom teachers who made the best of it.
The school year was not a complete waste academically for most students.
It would have been better under normal circumstances, but these were not normal circumstances.
Likewise, students, their families and educators were put at unnecessary risk of infection. And many paid the price for that with long illnesses, lingering symptoms and even death.
However, it could have been worse. Safety efforts – though insufficient – did protect people and fewer people were infected than might have been otherwise.
As more people are vaccinated against the virus and we move forward with vaccinating those 12 and older, risk should become even less prominent.
I dearly hope infection levels will be legitimately low enough in August that we can dispense with social distancing and masking, that we can have universal in-person classes.
However, we probably will do away with these measures WHETHER IT’S SAFE TO DO SO OR NOT!
And that is the worst problem!
Throughout the Covid pandemic, our policies have demonstrated a blatant disregard for human life and safety. Instead we have prioritized economics and capitalistic pragmatism.
Don’t let anyone tell you “Safety was our number one priority.”
It wasn’t. And it isn’t.
In America, the almighty dollar reigns supreme and your life and the lives of your children come in a distant second.
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