Contributed by Paige Barnett.
Covid Log Part II: This is one science teacher’s personal account of suddenly being thrust into online teaching and learning due to the pandemic. Since the last time that I wrote about my experience in the ILNH August ‘20 Newsletter, I can tell you that teaching in the time of COVID remains a struggle, albeit for different reasons.
Over the summer, I continued teaching through the online learning platform for our extended school year (ESY) program. It turned out to be a somewhat good experience while still challenging for many of the same reasons shared in the August newsletter. The social studies teacher with whom I was paired became a great team. Together, we created a program called A Sense of Place that introduced students to their home state and its unique ecosystem, the New Jersey Pinelands. It was the perfect amalgam of science and history about the pine barrens. We actually had fun, and team teaching helped to lighten the load for both of us in terms of parental communication, planning, and offsetting Zoom fatigue, where creating and maintaining meaningful student/teacher relationships is much more challenging.
Fast forward to September of 2020, recall that our administration decided to return to in-person learning.
As a special education teacher of 20 plus years, I understand the social/emotional needs of our population. As a science teacher, I understand the very real danger of this disease. It leaves me conflicted. In Part I of Teaching in a Time of Covid, I wrote about the many questions and concerns of returning to in-person learning. While our administration addressed some of our concerns, I felt they missed the mark in one very important, if not THE most important aspect of protecting staff and students. Masks. And they continue to do so despite my emails and face-to-face meetings pleading with them to mandate wearing a mask 100% of the time in the building.
While the CDC provides guidelines for schools and the workplace in CDC Protecting School Staff, these guidelines certainly are not best practices. The guidelines also defer frequently to state and local officials, hence blurring the lines of what should be mandated vs. what is actually mandated. My two biggest concerns have been school ventilation and proper mask wearing procedures and rules.
When we returned to school in September, some administrative and teaching staff were often seen in their offices or classrooms without wearing masks. I put on my science teacher hat and gently mentioned that this disease is highly transmissible and that they may want to consider wearing their masks 100% of the time, even when students are not in the room. Most were pretty agreeable. Like I always say, when you know better, you do better.
I expressed my concern in a voice message to our director, however, no reply was forthcoming. Shortly thereafter, I followed up with an email explicitly requesting that she please mandate and model proper mask wearing in the building 100% of the time, and if needed, staff take mask breaks outside. It should be noted that Governor Murphy mandated that students must wear masks the entire time they are in school.
Ironically, the following Monday, the director and I met face to face when she informed me I was exposed to a student who contracted the virus. This was my first brush with COVID, and while I wasn’t in extreme danger and didn’t have to quarantine, I wasn’t taking any chances. I took myself out and got tested that night. October 7 I received a negative PCR result.
Days later, the HR director stopped by my class, asking what made me think I could tell our director to mandate and model mask wearing. I replied because it’s not my opinion as to whether or not we should mandate the masks, it’s the science behind why we should be wearing the masks. Additionally, Princeton University released a research report the week before stating that children are excellent vectors for transmitting COVID.
I expressed how the school may be exposing itself to a liability and that the CDC guidelines are not best practice, merely a guideline. I explained to her that best practice would be to mandate the mask wearing 100% of the time in the building. I likened mask breaks to smoke breaks. People are not allowed to smoke on the school premises and literally have to drive off campus. Why should taking a mask break be any different? Go outside.
October 7 we received an email from our principal that contained the following line, “Like all schools, we are following required guidelines to keep everyone safe and secure.” To which I replied with the following:
“Then please enforce the mask rule for staff as well. I’m seeing staff members, admin included, in their classes or offices talking to one another with their masks off or down at different times of the day, but mostly at the end of the day. It’s dangerous to allow staff to take mask breaks in their rooms. Especially now that the CDC released just yesterday confirmed information for how covid lingers in the air. Please send an email to all staff with the newly released CDC information regarding transmission and encourage and model the message that wearing a mask at all times is mandatory while in the building. This isn’t my opinion, this is science. Lives are on the line. I’ve made my concerns known to <name> via email with other suggestions that I’ve given to help keep the building as safe as possible: same suggestions that I supplied in the staff survey, UV lights in bathrooms and with poor circulation, strategically placed in the hallways and toilet seat covers. <Name> and I spoke briefly about my concern yesterday and I am not satisfied with the answer, to make work ‘bearable” she’ll allow staff mask breaks in their rooms. And for the record, I hate wearing a mask, but I do it because science and out of consideration for others. I am asking admin to please encourage the mask mandate in the building at all times (except eating). My other concern is that upon learning that we had a positive case in the building, why was school open today? Why Was the CDC 24 hour wait time not utilized and then deep cleaned like districts are doing?”
October 9 I received a reply from HR. Apparently, my discussion with our director and subsequent reply to our principal was “unduly confrontational.” HR scheduled a meeting with me, the principal and our director. In this meeting I made my concerns very clear. Alas, I was told, people are gonna do what they are gonna do, and they’re going to continue to allow the staff to take mask breaks in their rooms. If I wanted to leave, they would understand. They stated that they consulted with a lawyer and that they were doing as much as they possibly could. I, too, consulted a workman’s comp lawyer. Should I contract covid while on the job, they’ll be hearing from him.
We’ve subsequently shifted to remote learning twice since September. In fact, we returned to in-person just this week. We were informed via email, anyone who had contact with the infected person was consulted. As for a vaccination? March 28 has been the earliest I’ve been able to schedule. I’ve tried to get in earlier to no avail. I’ll keep trying. In the meantime, I never take off my mask except to eat. I stay in my class, except when I go grab lunch and I don’t socialize at all. It’s kinda lonely, if not for the students. I’m tired, stressed and frankly, my students know it. Science be damned.