Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Lisa Arrastia: Teaching Under Covid

We need a radical plan for the public, even though care for all shouldn’t be such a radical notion.

New York State’s “Recovering, Rebuilding, and Renewing: The Spirit of New York’s Schools,” a 145-page tome issued July 13, is a spirit-killer that begs the question, If these many guidelines are necessary, why are NYS schools—or any schools and colleges—reopening? 

The reopening considerations are manifold, and they will produce a logjam for school leaders immersed in a multitude of, ultimately, futile health matrices in the face of this super-virus. The guidance illustrates our fragility in the face of COVID-19, our vulnerability to its mysterious travels, and it affirms that American exceptionalism must wither on its seemingly ever-strengthening and twisted vine.

If teachers and students are forced back inside schools, the novel coronavirus will not respect state guidance. Students will also be challenged when adult models are unmasked in bars and beaches, unabashedly thwarting science by the thousands throughout the country. Florida may be miles from NY, but this virus does not make U-turns at state Welcome signs. This virus is smart; it isn’t deferent.

What If They Have It? What If I Get It?

Anyone who tests positive for the virus can return [to school] if it has been at least 10 days after their first symptoms, three days since they’ve had a fever, and three days since other symptoms, such as a cough, have improved… Signage should be used to remind individuals to stay home if they feel sick.

NYS’s 212,000 public school teachers educate almost 2.6 million students, over a million of whom reside in NYC. Without universal healthcare, some schools are the Urgent Care facilities for kids. Under COVID, schools will create areas for the isolation of potential COVID cases, who will be “sent home immediately,” and areas for non-COVID cases. Under normal conditions, no schools would have time to calculate and treat according to the state’s formula, one that neglects that COVID-19 is not just a cold and that researchers are still attempting to comprehend this naughty virus’s mutations and the effect of asymptomatic bodies on the uninfected.

Consider, Recommend, Encourage: A Way Forward for Non-Compliance and Transmission

Schools should encourage staff to complete required screenings prior to arrival at school and encourage parents/guardians to screen their child before sending them to school . . . Screening of students includes a daily temperature check and periodic completion of a screening questionnaire.

To avoid student exclusion, schools should “ensure any process has multiple avenues of completion.” But suggested data collection methods like texting apps and paper checklists, for a state in which 42 percent of its children are poor, are unrealistic.

One-Trick Pedagogy

Turn desks (including teachers) to face in the same direction rather than facing each other to reduce transmission caused by virus-containing droplets (e.g., from talking, coughing, sneezing).

The sage on the stage returns. Teaching under COVID is a smack in the face for those educators who, for decades, made successful efforts to move their classrooms toward collaborative, experientially critical pedagogies.

Aerosol Virus? Virus Droplets? No Problem. We Got This!

Open windows to improve ventilation. Do not open windows if there is a health or safety risk (e.g., allergies, or potential fall).

How will teachers in classrooms with no windows, or windows the Hulk couldn’t open, follow this recommendation? Legal counsel hand is all over this state document. The “potential fall” example is like the warning on jars of peanut butter: “WARNING: peanut butter contains peanuts.”

Sneeze-Guarded Yellow School Buses

School bus companies may choose to install sneeze guards.

Sneeze-guards. Well, that’s a relief. 

Buses will have school-issued hand sanitizer, but “school bus drivers, monitors and attendants must not carry personal bottles of hand sanitizer with them on school buses.” Why? Because hand sanitizer is combustible. We can only presume that NYS doesn’t want lawsuits during the pandemic if a driver’s personal flask of hand sanitizer is the cause of a bus fire.

Bus companies “may want to consider… when temperatures are above 45 degrees, transporting passengers with roof hatches or windows slightly opened to provide air flow.” Let’s pray for kids in Buffalo where temperatures average between 37 and 17 degrees in fall and winter.

Science, Capital, and Radical Equality

NYS has heard Science, but it hasn’t listened to Science. NYS has heard the call to demonstrate equity and parity. Yet, as the virus brings into relief centuries of racialized social and economic inequalities, no school reopening plan in the country has provided the systemic changes needed to support the public. As a country, leaders refuse to coalesce around a uniform response to the virus, i.e., a nationwide lockdown as European countries performed successfully. Instead, despite party affiliation, they seem to have coalesced around a uniform effort to protect capital accumulation.

The reality is that capital depends on schools for childcare, for healthcare, for violence prevention. Public schools are the country’s food pantries and the buffer between black and brown, white, rural poor people and the over-resourced. Schools are the country’s social safety net, and this is amoral.

Transparency is needed as schools establish reopening guidelines. Capital requires schools to reopen so adults can work and kids can eat and learn to work. Imagine how quickly the urgent drive to reopen would end if the five richest men in America (worth $435 billion combined) or the top 10 colleges and universities with double-digit, billion-dollar endowments sent their money back to the public whose labor produced it.

This country is a believer in a distorted sense of freedom; it refuses to provide adequate and appropriate support for children and their families who are homeless, ill, or who require learning support and who have other social and economic needs—needs this country (re)produces. And no US reopening plan gets at these root causes. We need a radical plan for the public, even though care for all shouldn’t be such a radical notion.

If capital remains the nation’s guide for pandemic considerations, recommendations, and encouragements; if we don’t get at the root; if the US doesn’t radically respond to the virus, this country will be responsible for the proliferation of bio-terrorism against the public and quite possibly global genocide.


Lisa Arrastia

Lisa Arrastia, PhD, is an education professor, a former middle and high school principal in Chicago and New York City, and the founding director of The Ed Factory

First published in Common Dreams. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. 

A girl wears a face mask as students sit in a classroom of the Petri primary school in Dortmund, western Germany on June 15, 2020. (Photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)

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