Part II: Were school reopenings actually safe?

One of the most pressing concerns for teachers re-entering the classroom at the start of the 2020 school year was safety. What did it mean to “safely” reopen schools? Depends on who you asked. Or when you asked this question. According to the then-acting Trump administration, schools should have shoved as many kids as possible into a classroom, pandemic be damned. The CDC, on the other hand, initially had very stringent guidelines for reopening schools. These measures included limiting the number of children in a classroom, spacing out desks, mandatory mask-wearing, and upgraded HVAC systems. Trump then decried the guidelines as too onerous and the CDC ultimately caved to political pressure.

Suffice it to say, this is not how a government agency, especially one that is charged with preventing and controlling the spread of disease, is supposed to operate. Nevertheless, the political influence over the CDC was tangible. Federal guidelines for reopening schools changed daily. This inconsistency essentially kicked the can back down to the states. The federal government’s dereliction of responsibility shouldn’t have been surprising. After all, the Trump administration left individual states, particularly those with Democratic governors, to fend for themselves during the pandemic. COVID-19 protocols including mask mandates, business restrictions, and stay-at-home orders consequently differed from state to state. It stands to reason that the same, ineffective system would apply to schools.

I interviewed fifty teachers throughout the country about the COVID-19 guidelines implemented at their schools. Predictably, every teacher had a different experience. Even teachers who worked in the same school districts had different experiences.

Let’s run through some of the basic protocols: temperature checks, masks, social distancing, and classroom sizes. Seventy-eight percent of teachers interviewed said that students’ temperatures were not taken before entering the building. Ninety-two percent reported that mask-wearing was enforced in schools. The same number stated that social distancing was incorporated. As to whether or not the number of people was limited in a building, the teachers were pretty evenly split: fifty-four percent said yes and forty-six percent said no. The number of students in a classroom varied dramatically. Classroom sizes ranged from three to thirty-five with the average number of students in a classroom being eighteen.

How did teachers feel about the safety protocols within their schools? Did they feel safe going to work? Participants were fairly divided. Forty-five percent asserted that they generally felt safe going to school. Those that gave this answer identified three common factors: availability of PPE and cleaning supplies, consistent enforcement of masks and social distancing protocols, and a clearly defined quarantine process. Even among those who felt safe, going into the school building was still a stressful and daunting prospect. Prior to the pandemic, teachers regularly cleaned their own classrooms. With the additional pressure of a deadly virus, teachers felt personally responsible for keeping their classrooms as clean as they possibly could.

Thirty-four percent of respondents reported they did not feel safe working in a school building. Several common themes emerged among this group. First, a dire lack of cleaning products. Without adequate cleaning supplies, teachers could not disinfect their classrooms. Second, a poorly run hybrid school system. As discussed in a previous article, hybrid school works by separating children into cohorts and keeping them apart. The idea being that if one child in that cohort gets sick, the other cohorts won’t have to quarantine because they did not come into contact with that child. However, as one teacher explained, this system only works if the cohorts are actually kept separate: “…kids would show up on days they weren’t supposed to, but no one in charge seemed to care. There were also kids who were in both cohorts during hybrid learning, which made zero sense for contact tracing.”

Another issue identified was a lack of consistent implementation of COVID-19 protocols. Many teachers asserted that not everyone in the building was on the same page when it came to enforcing the rules, or lack thereof. According to one teacher, “we were told students needed to be six feet apart inside and outside, but some staff didn’t follow that.” Another echoed very similar concerns, “There is a pandemic. Some teachers and staff don’t take it seriously, putting everyone in a potentially dangerous situation.” Even if all the faculty and staff were consistently enforcing the rules, that didn’t mean students were always compliant. A first grade teacher described the difficulty in getting such young students to follow the rules: “I had twenty-three first graders who did not understand social distancing and masks very well. They’re so young and they didn’t understand the new normal.”

Most teachers who said they didn’t feel safe going to work also reported not being informed about sick students. As one teacher explained, “No, I didn’t feel safe because several students contracted COVID-19 every week at the high school where I taught. We never knew who they were. I was always in fear of contracting the virus.” Another teacher disclosed that his administration knowingly allowed students with COVID-19 to enter the building: “…my administration lied about students with COVID-19 and allowed students in the building with no masks, and let kids in with COVID-19 all year.”

When school reopenings were first being discussed, teachers were assured by politicians and school administrators alike that PPE and cleaning supplies would be readily available. Participant responses already indicated that this was not the case. Nevertheless, I still wanted to investigate how well this promise was upheld. Again, answers varied. Whether or not teachers had access to PPE and cleaning products largely depended on the school.

The good news: sixty-two percent of respondents stated that they had consistent access to cleaning supplies and PPE. Of that sixty-two percent, respondents said cleaning supplies were more readily available than PPE, like masks. Twenty-three percent asserted that they only received these supplies once or randomly, as opposed to a consistent basis. Less than one percent of respondents claimed that they received no supplies. While another one percent explained that their supplies were low, or in some cases dangerous, quality.

Although the teachers who made this claim were a small minority, it’s worth addressing their experiences. In my capacity as one journalist, I was only able to interview fifty teachers. The probability is high that many teachers throughout the country also received low-quality or hazardous cleaning materials. One teacher explained, “My school provided a caustic chemical to clean with that ate away the skin on my hands and made me physically ill for months. We were supposed to have respirators and rubber gloves to use it, but they never even trained us. When I called the department of health, they did nothing. They had pregnant women using this even though it causes birth defects.” On the other end of the spectrum, some teachers received cleaning supplies that were effectively useless including baby wipes and cloth rags to disinfect their classrooms.

When it came to PPE, several teachers noted that while available, the materials were ill-fitting or poor quality. Some received face shields that were held together with staples, reusable masks that were either too big or too small, and a limited supply of disposable masks. Given the quality and inconsistent availably of PPE and cleaning products, I asked the teachers whether or not they purchased their own materials. A staggering eighty-four percent spent their own money on PPE and cleaning supplies. On average, teachers spent $194 and the amounts spent ranged from $30 to $2,000.

Any teacher reading this article is probably not surprised by how much money other teachers spent during the past school year. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, ninety-four percent of American public school teachers reported spending their own money on classroom supplies. How much did teachers spend? In 2018, teachers spent on average $740 per year. Twenty-eight percent reported spending over $1,000 annually on their classrooms.

Add in the costs of PPE and cleaning supplies, and teachers could easily spend thousands of dollars on their classrooms. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost of PPE and cleaning products rose over 1,000%. That’s an absurd amount of money for anyone to spend on their job, let alone in a criminally underpaid profession. According to the National Education Association, “the estimated average annual salary for K-12 teachers was just over $58,000 during the 2016–2017 school year.” In fact, “…in most states, K-12 educators’ salaries fall below the living wage.”

The COVID-19 pandemic demanded so much from teachers emotionally, physically, and financially. As we head into the 2021–2022 school year, I implore you to recognize how much our society demanded of teachers and how little they were given in return. I again want to thank the fifty wonderful teachers who made this article possible.

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Brianna Steele

Brianna Steele

Writer lady. Politics/ education/ feminism/ social justice.