Maria Symchych via shutterstock
BARTH KECK

Perhaps you’ve witnessed a conversation like this one about kids returning to school:

“Thank goodness the kids will be back in school full-time this fall!”

“Are you kidding? Why in the world are we sending kids back to school full-time?”

“Because children are among the least vulnerable to the coronavirus.”

“But scientists are discovering unique ways the virus is affecting children.”

“That’s a small minority of kids. Plus, children learn best in a face-to-face, classroom setting.”

“So what’s the point of teachers and kids getting used to remote learning only to drop it so suddenly?”

“Listen, Connecticut has successfully flattened the curve, so let’s get back to school!”

“So what happens when the second wave hits?”

And on it goes, this typical conversation that follows last week’s announcement that schools will fully reopen in the fall.

“We are proposing that districts plan to have all students back to school every day,” said Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona during a call with reporters on Friday.

Cardona explained how all students and adults will wear masks, students will eat meals in their classrooms or outside, and everyone will follow strict safety measures such as social distancing.

Missing from the plan were details such as caps on class sizes or restrictions on bus ridership, omissions criticized by the state’s teachers’ unions.

“The new plan raises many concerns and leaves dozens of unanswered questions regarding how schools will operate in a COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) world,” stated the Connecticut Education Association and AFT-Connecticut in a joint news release. “Simply directing district officials to follow generic CDC (Centers for Disease Control) recommendations, without customizing requirements for the realities of our school settings, is insufficient for a safe statewide reopening.”

Granted, the State Department of Education is set to release additional guidelines today, which each school district will fashion into its own reopening plan. Plus, the state has alerted districts that “alternative plans should be prepared (hybrid model with fewer students and enhanced remote learning)” should a second COVID wave occur.

Still, I haven’t seen many people demanding a full-fledged return to schools. A CEA survey earlier this month found that 64% of teachers “say their schools are not equipped to provide for frequent and sufficient hand washing for students and staff to reduce the spread of the virus.”

A nationwide survey of parents found a similar lack of enthusiasm for schools reopening: “Overall, a combined 54 percent of American voters said they are somewhat uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with reopening K-12 schools for the beginning of the coming school year.”

Even U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes tweeted her concerns about the state’s return-to-school plan: “Am I missing something? I haven’t been out the classroom too long to know this is not realistic & doesn’t instill any confidence.”

What the governor and SDE have issued, essentially, is a “best-case-scenario” plan. Teaching, after all, is a hopeful endeavor: One doesn’t pursue the career thinking, “Well, I’ll probably reach only one or two kids each year.” In a similar vein, the education department created an optimistic plan that delegates the nitty-gritty to individual districts.

The problem is that everyone is looking for answers that are simply unavailable, thanks to the ever-changing nature of a novel virus, putting policymakers in a no-win situation. Even so, as a parent, I was expecting the state to make a stronger statement for safety — more of an “err-on-the-side-of-caution” strategy that directly addresses questions about a typical school day.

Among my questions: Will elementary-aged children be able to wear masks for the entire school day? Can all elementary classrooms be reconfigured for social distancing? Will schools regularly monitor students and staff to ensure the coronavirus remains at bay?

I also have concerns as a high school teacher. Teenagers come with their own challenges when implementing changes in routine, beginning with masks: Will high schoolers actually wear them all day? What happens when a “conscientious objector” — stated politely — simply refuses to don a protective face covering? (Trust me; it will happen.)

Among my other questions: How will I establish effective social distancing in a class of 28 teenagers where 28 desks fit rather snugly? What safety procedures will be in place to protect people at high risk for COVID-19 illnesses, including staff members with 30+ years of experience whose risk increases by 71%? Who will provide lessons to students whose parents opt out of school entirely? Will teachers be required to write two separate lesson plans for each class they teach — one for the classroom and one for distance learning?

And then there’s my question as both a parent and a teacher/employee: Will sufficient daycare be available to the scores of families who will need it if schools resort to a hybrid schedule?

Clearly, the questions still outnumber the answers. I just hope the short-term solutions to school-related issues during the COVID crisis keep supreme safety as the number one priority. Otherwise, the selflessness of Connecticut’s citizens that made us a pandemic-containment role model for the nation will be all for naught.

Barth Keck is a father of three, an assistant football coach, and an English teacher for the past 29 years who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.