The Yellow Brick Road Back To School

Coronavirus, Masks And Computer Screens Line The Path To Emerald City

Gwynne Ann Unruh
7 min read
The Yellow Brick Road Back to School
Schools are preparing to navigate how to reopen safely this fall. (Clarke Condé)
Share ::
The yellow brick road back to the Land of Education is becoming more and more like the nightmare on Elm Street. In the ’60s schools taught students to hide under cafeteria tables to be safe from the atomic bomb that might blow up in their backyard. Today the boogieman is lurking in the classroom, and everywhere else besides. It could kill you and your teacher, or you could take it home and kill Mom and Dad. That’s a heavy burden for anyone. It’s a childhood bad dream like no other. The only silver lining is you get to wear a colorful mask like your superheroes. Your teachers are masked too, and some wear hazmat suits to keep themselves safe.

Parents who have been trying to homeschool their children are realizing teaching 1 or 2 kids is insanely difficult, let alone 30 of them. Adults who may have once thought of teaching as an easy, overpaid profession have gained a new level of respect for teachers; any teacher entering a classroom today deserves hero’s pay.

While safety must be the main consideration, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to school reopening. Albuquerque Public Schools Interim Superintendent Scott Elder told APS teachers that while their opening plan is thorough, it does not provide all of the answers teachers will need, as things are changing fast and often. APS teachers and school staff return to school on Aug. 5 to prepare for online and in-school teaching, and learning in a sanitized and safe setting that includes social distancing and wearing face masks.

“School will begin the week of August 12 with the distribution of technology to students, virtual home visits, and guidance for staff, students and families on safely attending school and effectively learning at home,” Elder explained. Under the plan, which is subject to change depending on the spread of the coronavirus and public health orders, students would return to the classroom after Labor Day on an every-other-week rotation Tuesdays through Fridays.

In some ways private schools have an edge. Their smaller sizes can make them more nimble. School administrator of Salam Academy Fedah Abdelhack said since private schools are considered a business, they can open at 25% capacity. Kindergarten through second grade will attend the Academy, while third grade through high school will be online with Zoom classes and weekly handout packets. State and CDC guidelines are strictly enforced, classroom size is capped at ten students, and temperatures are taken before anyone enters the building. Changes may take place after Labor Day.

“We have ordered some masks for the teachers that are clear so, when teaching the kids phonics, they’re able to see your mouth,” Abdelhack said. “With positive reinforcement and encouraging them to wear it throughout the day, our 4-year-olds attending day care this summer did amazing wearing their masks. We’re doing everything we can possible to ensure the safety of all of our teachers and students. And hopefully people are patient with developing guidelines,” she said.

The “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” tweets from President Trump have not gone over well with educators. During an interview with CNN, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said, “My advice to all parents is please under no circumstances take medical advice from President Trump or Betsy DeVos. Especially when it comes to the health of your children. This is a virus that kills people. They are making a mockery of the danger they would be in if you rush to do this. It is absolutely mind-boggling to me for Donald Trump to have a press conference, this publicity stunt about saying I am going to use my bully pulpit—and he does mean bully—to pressure people to do something before it’s safe.”

At the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Biennial Convention on July 28, President Randi Weingarten asked attendees, “Why would anyone trust President Trump with reopening schools, when he has mishandled everything else about the coronavirus? Why would anyone trust Betsy DeVos, who has zero credibility about how public schools actually work? Why would anyone try to reopen schools through force and threats, without a plan and without resources, creating chaos? Unless all they wanted was for it to fail?

“Before the virus’ resurgence, and before Trump’s and DeVos’ reckless ‘open or else’ threats, 76 percent of AFT members said they were comfortable returning to school buildings if the proper safeguards were in place,” Weingarten said. “Now they’re afraid and angry. Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills. Parents are afraid and angry, too.”

AFT Convention delegates agreed governments at all levels must offer protections at work sites, such as safe ventilation and potable water systems, access to viral and antibody testing, strict protocols and safety training, adequate personal protective equipment, isolation procedures, self-quarantining policies and other detailed safety measures.

“We need safe, reliable and high-quality child care,” said Kathy Chavez, president of the Albuquerque Educational Assistants Association, executive vice president of AFT New Mexico and an AFT vice president. “We need to champion this and to fight to see our country provide the funding that is needed to open child care safely. But if the authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table—not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits or, if necessary and authorized by a local union as a last resort, safety strikes.”

School districts are wondering if they’ll have enough money and employees to reopen. A report released by AFT, found if the federal government fails to prioritize aid to state and local governments, and appropriate direct assistance to public schools and colleges, nearly 1.4 million public education jobs will be lost, and schools throughout the country will be forced to meet remotely indefinitely.

“Let’s be clear,” AFT President Weingarten told delegates at the AFT convention. “Just as we have done with our healthcare workers, we will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators.

“Congress has a choice—either fund our future and tackle the virus, or meekly surrender to the triple crisis of the pandemic, the economic recession and structural racism. We’re facing an unmitigated disaster—and we hope our cries for help are heeded before it’s too late,” Weingarten warned her members. “Our nation is at a critical crossroad, and the decisions Congress and the president make in the next two weeks will be felt for generations to come.”

For many families, school is not just about reading, writing and math. It’s where their kids get healthy meals, get exercise, access the internet, learn and develop social and emotional skills, and have access to mental health support and many other things that cannot be provided with online learning. The yellow brick road back to open schools is filled with landmines and looney tunes. Educators are determined to defuse the mines, ignore the looney tunes, and they categorically refuse to be a pawn in a political game.

Clarke Condé

1 2 3 455