Is Your School Reopening Its Buildings? Here Are the Questions to Ask.

Small child with dark skin and curly black hair wears a face mask while being carried by an adult. The child looks over the adult’s shoulder, clinging to the adult, eyes wide.
Photo by Xavier Donat. Creative Commons License.

There’s been a flurry of activity nationwide about the need to reopen school buildings and get back to in-person instruction. No one wants to get back to in-person learning more than teachers! Teaching on Zoom is much more difficult, and an all-online K-12 curriculum has been wickedly difficult to create on the fly, not to mention extremely time consuming. But educators aren’t enthusiastic about this sudden push for in-person instruction because we want to ensure that it will be safe for teachers, students, and the families who are at risk of contracting anything brought home.

The safety guidelines touted as “easy” and “effective” are impossible to follow without an enormous influx of funding and support. If you’re concerned about your school buildings reopening and want to ensure that it’s done safely, here are the questions to ask administrators and school board members.

DISTANCING. In-person instruction can take two forms: hybrid instruction and full in-person instruction.

HYBRID. Usually what “hybrid” means is that students are divided into small groups to allow for distancing in a regular-sized classroom, and attend in-person classes one or two days a week. This sounds like a great compromise, but this model usually depends on every teacher moving from a single full-time job to two full-time jobs with no increase in pay or support. Each lesson will require both an in-person version for the students who are getting that day’s lesson in the classroom, and an asynchronous online version for the students who are at home for that day’s lesson. Those are two completely different types of pedagogy and require entirely different approaches. Teachers already work 10–12 hours a day on average, and there are only so many hours in the day, so the hybrid model requires that some corners be cut unless educators are receiving robust support. ASK:

  • What support are you providing teachers with the asynchronous curriculum so both in-person and asynchronous online instruction get someone’s full attention?

FULL IN-PERSON. This model involves just throwing open the doors and returning to pre-Covid in-person instruction. CDC guidelines for in-person instruction recommend keeping students six feet apart, but they have also said that three feet is fine if six feet isn’t realistic. In most overcrowded classrooms, three feet isn’t any more realistic, and it’s less effective for Covid mitigation. ASK:

  • How will distancing be achieved in a full classroom?

FOR BOTH. ASK:

  • Has staff been given increased PTO to encourage staying home at the first sign of illness and for the full course of any contagious airborne virus?

MASKS. This is a particularly critical area for people who live in conservative areas rife with Covid deniers and anti-maskers. We know that a tight-fitting mask, combined with distancing and handwashing, can be as effective as a vaccine. If you have a crate of N95s, you can use one per day with no doubling. If you’re using cloth masks, the CDC is recommending layers — double masking or cloth masks with multiple layers — and choosing masks with nose wires and/or using a mask fitter or brace. The guidance is complex and is frequently updated as we gain more knowledge about the virus and its transmission. Don’t accept “We can’t enforce mask usage.” If they can enforce sexist school dress policies like “no spaghetti straps” and racist policies like “No braided hair extensions, twists, locs, or dreads,” they can enforce safety policies like mask wearing. ASK:

  • How is the school enforcing mask usage? Will there be a school-wide policy with clearly stated consequences for violations of the policy?

VENTILATION. Distancing isn’t worth a hoot if the ventilation in the room isn’t adequate. An average school classroom contains 30–35 people anywhere from an hour to six hours at a stretch. Few schools have working, properly maintained HVAC. Many classrooms don’t even have working windows, and of course keeping windows open isn’t possible in cold, rainy, or snowy weather. Even here in California, it can be quite cold in the early morning, especially in classrooms with no heat. ASK:

  • How will the district ensure that each classroom is properly ventilated regardless of weather?

HANDWASHING. The need for frequent handwashing in classrooms is often tossed out as if it’s no big deal. Most classrooms do not have working sinks. Even with a sink, it can take half an hour of class time or more to get 30 students to wash their hands for twenty seconds each. Remember, they can’t share the sink area and must go one at a time to maintain distancing. The optimal situation would be individual bottles of hand sanitizer, or squirting hand sanitizer onto each pair of hands as their owners come in from recess or hand in an assignment one by one. But hand sanitizer isn’t — as you may have noticed — free. Hand sanitizer manufacturers expect to be paid for their product and its transport to your locale. School districts are so laissez-faire about supplies that teachers are forced to purchase pencils and paper for their classes with their own meager salaries, let alone hand sanitizer. ASK:

  • What percentage of classrooms have working sinks? How often is the hand soap replaced? When will the CDC-recommended no-touch faucets and soap dispensers be installed? How often are soap dispensers refilled?

STERILIZATION. One of the features of the Covid-safe school is sterilization of areas and equipment between use by different groups of students. Right now, it’s assumed that teachers will do the work of sanitizing areas and equipment. That assumption is wildly misguided. Teachers have very little time between classes, and that time is almost always taken with answering student questions, preparing for the next class, and supervising free-range students (“hall duty,” “yard duty”), which will also be a critical aspect of enforcing social distancing. Passing periods, recess, and lunch are also teachers’ only time to go to the bathroom. Teachers can’t legally leave students unsupervised, and must wait until there’s a break to run to the bathroom. What this means is that the district can assign sterilization duty to teachers, but teachers have not yet (to my knowledge) gained the requisite control over the flow of spacetime to carry out that assignment. Even if you had nothing else to do, ten minutes to wipe down an entire classroom with Clorox wipes is a tall order. Now try it when your classroom has been out of Clorox wipes for ten days and “Just come to the office during passing period and grab a few from our container” sucks up 6 of those minutes. And of course there are common areas, like lunchrooms and bathrooms. ASK:

  • Who will be sterilizing each classroom between classes while teachers are busy prepping the next lesson, supervising students in the hallways, or running to the bathroom?

BATHROOMS AND LOCKER ROOMS. Speaking of bathrooms, most student bathrooms have historically been crowded and unsupervised during passing periods. Locker rooms are somewhat better supervised, but often just as crowded, and filled with students breathing hard and sweating after exercise, making social distancing even more critical. ASK:

  • How will social distancing be enforced in bathrooms during passing periods and during class?

EQUIPMENT. In the pre-Covid world, students shared equipment frequently. In science classes, two or three lab partners shared the same microscope and lab equipment. In art classes, multiple students shared the same paint containers, pastel crayons, brushes, and pencils. In PE classes, some activities require multiple people handling equipment. ASK:

  • Has adequate equipment been acquired to ensure that students will be able to socially distance in every class, including PE and labs?

PE, MUSIC, & THEATRE. In these courses, students are usually quite close together, speaking loudly, breathing heavily from physical exertion (running, dancing), expelling air & droplets through singing and musical instruments. Yet these courses are often critical for student mental health and well being. Students who take music and theatre courses do better in English and math, for example, and have better attendance rates. ASK:

  • How will PE, music, and theatre courses be adjusted to maintain social distancing?

TRANSPORTATION. Does your school district have a busing system? ASK:

  • How will social distancing be maintained on school buses? Have you hired more drivers and acquired more buses so students can follow distancing guidelines on school buses?

This doesn’t cover everything, but it’s a solid start. And this wouldn’t be a Bitter Gertrude post unless I mentioned the social justice impact of these decisions. When we believed white people were at equal risk, we closed school buildings and called teachers “heroes” for creating online classes on the fly. Now that we know communities of color and disabled people are much harder hit, teachers are “selfish,” the unions insisting on safety guidelines are “obstructionist” and “dangerous,” and school buildings must open right now, safety be damned, because it’s “safe enough.” Safe enough for whom?

There have been 3.1 million cases of Covid in minors, and that figure is on the rise while nationwide cases decline. And while pediatric Covid is unlikely to lead to death, many people, including children, suffer long-term consequences we’re only beginning to understand, and of course infected children can spread Covid to their families and teachers.

Hopefully we can reach 100% vaccination before school buildings reopen, making all of this moot. Until then, let’s advocate for the safety of our students and educators — all our students and educators.

PhD, D&D DM, Disabled Cyborg, lifelong educator & theatremaker now working as a JEDI consultant (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion).

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