My first teaching position was in a preschool organized by the local recreation department. Students ranged in age from two to almost five. They had to be potty-trained, but they still peed on chairs, floors, carpet and outdoor equipment. They weren’t supposed to arrive sick, but they did. They wiped snot on everything in the room, from puzzles to paint brushes. They coughed on everyone and sneezed without thoughts of the safety of others.
It wasn’t any better when I taught Kindergarten and Third grade. The older students still had accidents when urine pooled under their desks. One boy opened his desk and vomited inside where textbooks and materials were kept. Another threw up on my desk, covering attendance records, my grade book and lesson plans.
My next full time position was as a Special Day Class teacher for fourth and five grade students. No longer did I have to deal with urine, but these kids, like the younger ones, loved to hold my hand. Considering where those hands had been, like digging deep inside nostrils, and taking care of bathroom needs, all most likely without using even a tiny bit of soap. It was no wonder that disease spread rapidly and constantly.
Even when I moved to the high school I was not spared the contamination students brought into the room. They coughed and sneezed without protection. They came with pink eye and the flu. They distributed bronchitis and pneumonia germs with equanimity.
Throughout all these years and changing circumstances, there was one constant: I fell ill. If I was lucky it was just a slight cold. If not, it was pneumonia. As an asthmatic, both were dangerous.
Advance into the present. Parents want their kids in school and teachers love sharing the classroom with students, not teaching over the Internet. However, what has changed over the past thirty-plus years since I first took over a classroom? Nothing.
Parents will still send sick kids to school. Kids will still wipe noses and cough all over everyone. Kids will pee and poop and vomit. Kids will want to sit on the teacher’s lap and hold the teacher’s hand. Kids will contaminate materials despite limited sanitation unless done by the teacher, who is then touching possibly contaminated objects.
Imagine yourself in that classroom with little or no protection. Most classrooms lack AC and those that do have no windows to open to provide some circulation of air. Most classrooms have windows on one side of the room and only one door, on the same side. Some teachers installed ceiling fans in their rooms, at their own expense, but those fans do not provide sufficient circulation to keep people safe.
Elementary classrooms generally have a sink, but not all do. Those with sinks often have empty soap dispensers. Unless the district provides sufficient sanitizer, the teacher has to buy it. There is limited cleaning done as maintenance are on a tight schedule.
At my last position, the room was allotted three minutes of cleaning time. That meant a quick sweep of the floor and empting trash cans. Desks were cleaned by me or not at all. I only had time to clean them once or twice a week, at most. Think about the germs that developed in between?
My students shared textbooks, crayons, markers, rulers and other materials. They were never cleaned. We had one set of dictionaries that were shared by two teachers. They were never cleaned. I shared an overhead projector with two other teachers. It was never cleaned.
The entire time I taught, over a span of thirty-three years, we never had a pandemic such as the one the world faces today. The flu, yes. Pink eye, yes. But COVID-19? No.
Considering that districts pack thirty-four students in most classrooms, squeezed together in poorly ventilated rooms, in-person teaching is a disaster peeking around the corner. With little kids the desks can be further apart, but not six feet. High school students have much bigger bodies and so desks are often inches apart.
Elementary teachers are figuring out ways to use corrals to keep students’ emissions behind Plexiglas or cardboard. If it’s cardboard, how does the teacher make eye contact when the students’ eyes are hidden? You can’t put cardboard corrals around high school desks. Perhaps Plexiglas would work.
Who’s paying for these dividers? Cash-strapped districts or the teacher? Are teachers expected to supply these devices just as they buy tissue, crayons and paper?
While I am glad to be retired so that I am not worried about the germs floating around my classroom, I sympathize with teachers who do. If I was still working, I’d have to quit rather than risk my health.
Parents want their kids in school. So do teachers. In order to make it work, responsibility has to be shared. Parents don’t send sick kids to school or kids who’ve been exposed to the virus. Teachers try to keep the classroom as safe as they can with the support of the district. Districts provide the PPE necessary to make the environment as safe as possible, even if it means buying industrial-size fans for every classroom.
This is a huge dilemma for which there is no tidy answer. The virus is predicted to be with us for a while. What are the stakeholders doing to prepare?
That’s the most important question to the most serious threat to public health that we’ve seen in modern history.