Death and Teaching: COVID-19 and the Return to School

Chris McNutt
June 10, 2020
It's a grim time in the United States.

(This post has been updated to reflect the full text of our recent podcast episode featuring this article.)

We'll start with just acknowledging that COVID is a serious issue. Almost all school districts in the United States closed during mid-March. Using March 17th as an example, at that point there were 6,300 cases total in the US, with 108 deaths.

The previous day, there were 4,500 cases and 88 deaths. That's a 40% increase in cases and 22% increase in deaths in one day. In response, on March 17th we saw the closure of schools from Oklahoma to Ohio.

As of the date of this recording, July 13th, there have been 3,415,590 cases, with 137,797 deaths. To put that into perspective, from when we closed schools until now, there has been a 75,802% increase in cases. In the past day alone there have been 60,768 cases in the US. Only two states in the entire country are seeing a decrease in cases, Maine and New Hampshire. 40 states and Washington D.C. are seeing spikes, continuing peak numbers, or the beginning of spikes.

And despite this, teachers are being forced back into the workplace. Many families, without access to government support, want schools to reopen as essentially daycare facilities. Many schools, without access to government support, do not have the means to operate virtually.

And despite all of this, teachers are being forced back into the workplace. Many families, without access to government support, want schools to reopen as essentially daycare facilities. Many schools, without access to government support, do not have the means to operate virtually.

Hypothetically, let's say we open schools. There's plenty of stories of the future of teachers, their students, and their families.

The Danger

Morosely, I've always had nightmares about school shootings. We all know that because US society, with its lack of gun regulations and lack of a mental health support network, is just waiting idly by for the next massacre. Although the chance of this happening is quite slim, it's still a sad fact of life of being a teacher or student in this country. It's a source of anxiety for many of us.

Yet, our current situation is far, far worse. We're marching toward an inevitable death that we know will take some of us. It's already happening.

At the time of her death, Mungin was teaching social studies at Bushwick Ascend Middle School, a Brooklyn charter school where her classrooms were filled with middle school students much like her younger self.

Rana Zue Mungin was actively teaching when she succumbed to COVID-19. Likely due to her being a Black woman and the known discrimination that exists, despite showing symptoms and visiting a hospital multiple times - she was denied treatment. Mungin was only 30 years old.

Even without the increased influx of people moving about in school, teachers have lost their lives to COVID-19:

I want to call specific attention to Kimberly Bird, a 35-year veteran teacher in Arizona who contracted COVID-19 while teaching virtually at school. Her and two of her co-workers were working in a school office space during the summer, all three of them were diagnosed, and Byrd sadly passed away. I think it's further important to note that about half of these teachers are young, and many did not have preexisting conditions.

And this is only a short list found by searching the news. According to the NYC Dept. of Education, within their schools alone 28 teachers, 2 administrators, 2 guidance councilors, 2 school aides, 2 facilities staff, 1 parent coordinator, 2 food service staff, and a technology specialist have died.

Given that the majority of these deaths occurred when teachers were not actively teaching their students, it is highly worrisome what will happen when they are placed in non-open air, difficult to social distance, locations. Some may claim that children cannot spread COVID-19, but the research is still incredibly unclear. Further, children tend to be asymptomatic but can still spread the virus, and their rate of catching COVID-19 increases with age.

According to the research, there's mixed results. Overall, though, the language is telling - research agencies, such as the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention, state that children are not the primary source cases....but children can still spread the virus. To quote Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University actively looking and conducting his own research, ""to open schools because of some uninvestigated notion that children aren't really involved in this, that would be a very foolish thing..." Not to mention, many of us teach in buildings or work actively with students older than 10-12 years old, which is usually referenced as "children" in these studies. Therefore, the research involving said "children" doesn't encompass all students. Further, this doesn't even mention the movement of adults, from teachers to faculty to student family members, who are still actively moving around the building.

World Cases

There have been articles circulating that claim the US should look at other countries which have reopened their schools successfully during the pandemic. However, I think we're ignoring the most obvious elephant in the room we could possible have....most other countries have stopped a first wave, taken proactive measures to socially distance, and are seeing a decrease in their cases. The US has never solved its initial outbreak, and is now reopening the economy and with it, planning on schools.

In addition, some pundits are citing the American Academy of Pediatrics who recommended that schools reopen. That has been walked back. The new statement says that teachers and stakeholders should be at the center of decision making.

There have been some that say there's more danger in not reopening schools because of the mental health toll it will take on students, which is the ultimate concern-troll. I mean it's bullshit - we haven't had mental health councilors or adequate resources for this issue in school for years, and now we're worried that opened schools will harm students' mental health? And that's not even bringing to light that school is the reason why many of these students face mental health crisis. The opening of schools isn't the root cause of this issue, it's our inadequate systems to deal with mental health.

I want to revisit the fact that the US has had fucking 60,768 cases in one day, and Hong Kong is shutting down schools when they've had 38. Israel had 1,528 cases on the day it shuddered schools again - after 244 students and teachers reported testing positive. Even in a best case scenario, can you imagine how horrific this bodes for the US? In the majority of states, we're seeing thousands of cases per week.

Oh, and let's not forget that internal CDC documents warn that the full reopening of schools is at the "highest risk" level for coronavirus spread.

The "Hybrid Model"

Now, let's move into the proposed solutions by districts and policy makers.

Most school responses have consisted of the "hybrid model," a system where the number of students are limited at school and the rest follow along online. This means classrooms, on average, will house 10-15 students (if the average sized classroom is 20-30, and schools are at 50% capacity.)

But wait...that's still a lot of people in one spot. In Texas, childcare facilities recommended face coverings, required temperature checks of staff and children, and mandated a staff:child ratio of 1:10. This was in May.

As of July 8th, there were 1,695 cases of COVID-19 attributed to Texas childcare facilities at 1,078 different locations. 1,140 were staff members, 555 were children. This is a 707% increase since last month.

Simply stated, there's absolutely no way schools are adequately prepared, resourced, staffed, and maintained to avoid this exact same scenario - except far worse as the number of schools greatly outweighs the number of childcare facilities.

Even in a perfect scenario where all staff members were protected by PPE, how will they enforce students do the same? Children are unpredictable, and although I love being a teacher - I know how children see themselves as often invincible, and it's incredibly difficult to monitor that number of students with this much regulation. Between conversing, bathroom breaks, hallway monitoring, late arriving students, students leaving early, regular sickness, and all the other movements that will occur, it's nauseating to even think of how rapidly COVID-19 will spread in the hallways. (Not to mention our small classrooms, lack of vents/AC, handing out lunch, and a culture that's been established where 25% of Americans don't believe masks are needed.)

Could you imagine policing students to keep their masks on? What if a student wears a mask improperly? Hell, I was at a doctor's office the other day and some of the nurses didn't cover their nose with the mask. What if a student doesn't believe in mask-wearing? At what point are teachers going to have to become even more of a police force than they already are? I know I certainly will feel a ton of pressure and stress to maintain safety in the classroom, and that argument I foresee causing a ton of problems in classrooms everywhere.

Even then, the CDC only recommends face coverings for students. So...we're just fucked then. Because we know that masks limit the spread of COVID-19, and if one isn't wearing a mask then they're going to spread it to others. The mask barely protects the user. Well...I teach in a fairly conservative area, as I'm sure many of you do. Sadly, our country's administration has made mask wearing into a political issue, and I know for a fact that there will be a sizable number of students who choose not to wear a mask purely due to the President's actions.

This is further complicated by many schools not having well-ventilated areas. I've never been in a school building that didn't have at least a few rooms without windows, and many rooms with windows don't even open. Most schools have serious HVAC problems and many rooms or buildings don't have AC. Plus, we know that COVID has a higher chance of spreading via restrooms, and most schools do not have ample amounts of toilets....usually you're seeing hundreds of students share one restroom - which tends to be a fairly gross place even on normal days.

And yet, it gets worse...

What we're really overlooking with the COVID-19 pandemic is the irreparable damage. We tend to only look at deaths.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, I had a terrible time in hospital, but thank goodness I’m home and everything’s back to normal,’” said Dr. David Putrino, director of rehabilitation innovation at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. “It’s, ‘I just had a terrible time in hospital and guess what? The world is still burning. I need to address that while also trying to sort of catch up to what my old life used to be.’” (NYT)

Here is a short list of complications that can last months or years after surviving COVID-19:

(sources: 1 | 2 | 3)

It is estimated that 45% of COVID patients will require ongoing care. And we don't know the long-term effects.

Oh, and of course, who can forget that the United States has a completely unsustainable medical insurance system? Some patients are receiving $80,000 bills for medical care, with insurance not even covering half of it. As a result, they're refusing follow up care. There is still no in-depth plan for covering COVID-19 treatment beyond some areas offering free testing.

And this doesn't even begin to implicate how the spread of COVID-19 will impact students and their families, extended families, and communities.

Let's think about a few hypothetical scenarios:

Plus, there are many more questions circulating that are part of this (chaotic) “experiment.” I hate the word "experiment" being used by the way by policy makers. I really am not someone's lab experiment. I'm sure many of you, including myself, live in households with, or are yourselves, high risk. There is a high probability that if I got sick, I would kill someone in my household.

Who's to Blame?

Regardless of these serious ramifications, everyone feels like their hands are tied. Teachers must go to school or likely be fired. Administrators must enforce the policies given to them by the district. Districts feel held back by parent demand and lack of resources to sustain virtual classrooms.

Ultimately, the federal government is responsible as their financial resources would allow schools to easily transition to virtual.

However, does that mean we should lockstep to our potential doom come Fall? Because I don't see a situation where the federal government, who has barely assisted regular people in this pandemic, will all-of-the-sudden change course on schools. Especially when the President is threatening to cut funding to schools who don't reopen. Is our society so misplaced that we will readily accept dying because no one knows what to do?

The plan should be to simply go online and find ways to mitigate, in any way possible, the inequity of access that will result.

@SarahJTeacher on Twitter shared her school's reopening plan which seems better than most: start with 90% of students social distancing, except for students with disabilities or homeless/foster youth. It isn't included in the graphic, but I would (hopefully) assume that the majority of staff would not be on campus either.

Any other measure would be an extremist position. Some have even doubled-down on the "teaching is my superpower" position of we "knew what they signed up for" when they decided to die in their school because of national pandemic mismanagement.

What Now?

I would implore districts to take the perceived-as-radical action of going virtual. Nothing is going to change between now and Fall. If anything it will get worse. I don't understand the notion that we're going to magically have different numbers in August. It's July, cases are way up. The government isn't taking any proactive actions. Why would the numbers go down? If anything, they're going to go way up - especially when we reopen schools.

There's been a call for schools to delay past Labor Day...but unless we're talking about preparing for virtual learning past Labor Day - this idea is laughable. The cases will be higher past Labor Day. Again, we're not doing anything different! Like, this is mind-boggling to me. If cases are surging and we're opening more things, it isn't going to miraculously disappears as the President has infamously said.

There is a literal article on USA Today called "Scared for my life" but needing a salary: Teachers weigh risk of COVID-19, with teachers throughout the country talking about returning to work just because they have to, knowing that they might die or be irreparably harmed.

Therefore, that leads to my major point of all of this. Given everything I've just spoken about and cited....teachers should organize and refuse to work at school. Both union and non-union, there is no way that teachers will get what they desire without using their leverage to stop the openings of buildings. We have a lot of power here. Schools can literally not replace teachers with long term subs right now, and they can't maintain student staff ratios if teachers leave.

I know that's a really scary proposition - to seek out fellow staff members, organize, and make demands...but at the same time, I don't consider that scarier than killing someone as a result of the actions I did not take. If one of my students died because I just went along with the status quo, I don't know how I'd face myself. If I killed someone in my household because I left it up to district policy...well I don't know if I could just blame someone else. The fact is, someone could die.

And listen, I completely understand why parents want schools to reopen. I get that schools are facing a ton of pressure to reopen from their communities. It isn't just the government. Families are concerned about their children quote unquote "staying ahead", families are struggling to raise their children and work, and rely on schools to operate as daycares, and many families are out of work. I mean, the real unemployment rate is estimated to be at around 1 in 4 people. I'm not pretending like keeping children at home is desirable.

However, if the choice is between an undesirable time at home, with added stress to families, versus staff and students dying, I'll still always choose the first option.

And if we act early enough, or delay schools opening until we're ready for virtual learning, we can remedy some of the equity issues. As Jennifer Serravallo states

"Time should be spent now on figuring out how to deliver books regularly to homes, get kids on WiFi with a device, get math manipulatives and art supplies out. In person school is going to be short lived (if it happens at all) and might even be worse than remote instruction."

I can't agree with this sentiment enough. Quite frankly, I'm pissed off at schools who are dedicating just a ridiculous amount of time to the most obtuse things: 360 degree webcams, putting markers on the ground at school, sterilizing lockers....when we could use that money to ensure teachers are prepared to teach online - I know for a fact I need serious help in doing that effectively - and ensuring that families have all the tools necessary to learn from home. I think it's a gigantic disservice to our communities that barely any schools are doing this.

So, here is my proposal that teachers begin to leverage with their positions.

  1. Schools remain remote in almost every area of the country that is seeing any kind of COVID-19 increase or stagnation. Schools in the few areas where this isn't the case could open at a low capacity. If there is any indication that cases are increasing, any school that was open would immediately close.  The only exception would be students with disabilities or unsafe environments. Certain staff members could operate at a very small capacity to ensure these students are cared for.
  2. If a school is not ready to carry out remote instruction, schools delay to open past labor day and push the school year back.
  3. If a school will never be ready to open remotely, push the school year back to 2021 and simply go through the summer, or just find a way for students to complete work on their own to make up that semester.
  4. Teachers and other faculty members should be included in all reopening talks and procedures and the record of policymakers, administration, and teachers should be made public.
  5. Schools should demand funding from state and/or federal sources to adequately equip students, educators, and faculty members for sustained virtual learning.

I implore you to reach out to your coworkers and begin to organize. Demand change or refuse to go back. That is the "teaching as a superhero" move, not sacrificing your life or students' lives in the name of a building reopening.

I also want to call attention to the work of Alison Collins, Stacey Shubitz, Julie Jee, and Sarah Mulhern Gross, who have provided a template for communities to write to their school boards to demand safe schools.

I can't emphasize enough how important it is that we remain virtual. We could deliver a kickass virtual curriculum with the necessary training and resources. And I want to state that the references I've provided in this podcast are just the tip of the iceberg. There are unions gearing up for widespread strikes, teachers across various news outlets talking about leaving the profession, rapid surges in COVID cases due to childcare facilities, and school heads opening talking about how they aren't sure of the next steps forward. There are an exhausting number of articles relate to the questions and dangers of opening school.

I understand and recognize that districts must be beholden to their stakeholders as well as what their budget can afford. Yet, this is a life or death situation…so I fail to see their actions as responsible. How many teachers will die as a result of a district’s inaction? Can a district honestly blame the federal government when one of their teachers, students, or their family member’s die as a direct result of their “experiment” with reopening?

I'm not making a hypothesis of what will happen. We've already seen what will happen. As Mitchell Robinson best put it on Twitter:

I’d rather lose a semester than a single student or colleague.

Additional cited sources

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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