Should teachers work from school buildings if all their students are learning at home?
At first glance, there are plenty of reasons to say yes.
Teachers struggled this spring adjusting to providing instruction from their homes, without their usual teaching tools and classroom objects. Plus, roughly 10 percent of U.S. teachers don’t have reliable internet access or digital devices at home, which forced some to teach from the parking lots of their school buildings or to shell out money for expensive computing devices. And teaching from home blurs the boundaries between work and personal life, which was exhausting and frustrating for many educators last spring.
An empty classroom gives a teacher room to spread out, and more time to evaluate the most effective ways to space out desks for social distancing when students eventually return. During live video sessions, students will also get to see their classrooms rather than their teachers’ homes.
“It’s going to be one step closer to a sense of normalcy for us and the students,” said Terri Holden, superintendent of the 750-student Yellow Springs district in Ohio, where educators will be required to work in the classroom, unless they have a valid health exemption, while nearly all students will learn remotely.
But there are plenty of reasons to be wary of this approach, too.
Leaving the home and working in a building with other people, even spread out for the most part from one room to another, increases the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus. Teachers with underlying health conditions, as well as older teachers and teachers who live with older family members, worry about getting sick on the job.
Further complicating matters are teachers who have young children or children with special needs at home due to school building closures. Many are already balking at being required to leave their homes for a large chunk of the day, preferring to struggle through balancing their child-care and teaching responsibilities.
Reopened buildings also require cleaning and maintenance, all of which costs money at a time when schools’ resources are stretched thin.
The teachers union in Los Angeles successfully lobbied against the district’s requirement for teachers to conduct virtual instruction from school buildings. However, teachers still have the option of returning to school buildings if they choose to teach from there. The district, like many others across the country, has decided to start the year with full-time remote learning for students.
Time to Figure Out Social Distancing
Administrators for the Yellow Springs district earlier this summer had planned for schools to fully reopen this school year, which starts Aug. 27. But as the virus persisted and even worsened in parts of the country this summer, plans quickly changed.
Requiring teachers to return to the school building “gives the teachers the first quarter to intimately re-examine their space and say, ‘When kids come back, how are we going to make this work?’” Holden said. Otherwise, she said, the school’s maintenance teams would decide where to move the desks without necessarily getting teacher input.
Students will get to see their classroom every day and imagine themselves in it. “‘I’m not seeing my teacher’s dining room, I see my classroom, I know I’m getting back there at some point this year,’ ” she said.
That opportunity can be particularly valuable for students with disabilities.
Kirsten VanWagner, who teaches for the Fulton Virtual School, the online arm of Fulton County Schools in Georgia, said her son, who has autism, will benefit from the “structure and repetition” of seeing his classroom every day and eventually transitioning to going there in person. The district decided this summer to have teachers deliver instruction from their classrooms, but students will be learning remotely through at least Labor Day.
The motivation to bring teachers back while students stay home isn’t just about student learning. Holden said having teachers in the building allows her to convene small group sessions for technology training or professional development.
But such meetings are risky.
Two Nashville teachers who attended a professional development session this month later tested positive for the virus, forcing 18 others who attended the meeting to quarantine for two weeks. A teacher in Arizona died from COVID-19 after teaching summer school in a classroom with two other instructors, prompting the district’s superintendent to write in the Washington Post that he’s deeply concerned schools don’t yet have the resources to reopen without putting people’s lives at risk.
“I’ve gone over it in my head a thousand times. What precautions did we miss? What more could I have done? I don’t have an answer,” he wrote. “These were three responsible adults in an otherwise empty classroom, and they worked hard to protect each other. We still couldn’t control it. That’s what scares me.”
Health Risks Deemed Too High
For some districts, the health risks of bringing adults back to school buildings outweigh the benefits for students and staff.
Jason Kamras, superintendent of schools in Richmond, Va., wrote in the district’s reopening plan that allowing virtual teaching to happen in school buildings “would violate our commitment that no one would be forced to work in-person” because custodians and some administrators would need to be there as well.
Teachers and parents were “strongly opposed to in-person instruction,” said Kamras. He suspects that’s in part because Black students make up roughly 75 percent of the district’s population.
Black people have been three times as likely to contract COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from it compared with white people, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. In a recent Education Week Research Center survey, 76 percent of Black educators said they favor full-time remote learning to start the school year, and only 35 percent of Black respondents said they’d prefer full-time in-person learning.
Bringing people back to the school building, even a far lower number than usual, could lead to an outbreak, Kamras said. “People even with the best of intentions tend to congregate, using one bathroom or connecting at lunch in the teachers’ lounge,” he said. “It had the potential to undo the very reason we closed, which was health and safety.”
The district isn’t leaving teachers entirely to fend for themselves at home, though. Kamras said every teacher will be able to take home anything from their classrooms, including whiteboards. And each teacher will get a “home teaching kit” that includes a document camera, a magnetic whiteboard easel, and office supplies. The district has also created uniform virtual backgrounds for teachers so they don’t have to worry about students seeing their homes.
For teachers that truly can’t work at home because their apartments are too small or the distractions are too great, the district may identify alternative workspaces, including some district-owned “sparsely used office-type properties” or workspaces provided by partner organizations.
None of the current options for remote or in-person teaching is especially appealing or universally favored, Kamras said. But the stakes are high and extend beyond schools themselves, he argues.
“We are part of the effort to not cause any transmission” in Richmond and beyond, Kamras said. “The fewer opportunities we have for people to be in the same place at the same time, the better off we are not just as a school system but as a community.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 19, 2020 edition of Education Week as Teaching in an Empty Classroom During COVID-19: Benefits and Drawbacks