What Happens When School Reopens? A Teacher’s Letter to His Administration

Poster made by Rob Sheridan

Dear Administration,

Let me just start by saying I love teaching. I want nothing more than to be in my classroom this fall teaching my kiddos the joy of punctuation (oh, there’s joy). However, having read the reopening plan put together by the administration, that excitement has been replaced by a creeping sense of dread. For the first time in my teaching career, I am scared to do my job.

Learning cannot happen until all necessities are met, most importantly personal safety. It’s the foundation of our training as educators. Under the current reopening plan, that is impossible. Imagine trying to learn the importance of indenting paragraphs. Now try it with a gun to your head. Now, take that gun, make it invisible to the naked eye, then fill the air with it.

Faced with this, who could ever care about the importance of indentation?

Opening schools now, without stringent safety measures in place, is like an alcoholic celebrating six months of sobriety by chugging a fifth of vodka. It undoes all the sacrifice. I realize, of course, that this is an incredibly complex and unprecedented situation, but it’s impossible to ignore the feeling that the administration is willfully subjecting students and staff (and their family members) to COVID-19.

Here are the questions I demand answered before you’ll see me back inside my small classroom with only one window that opens for ventilation (and note, I am the exception. No other classrooms on my floor in the building have a single window that opens):

What kind of precautions will the school take each day to prevent the virus from spreading like wildfire inside our walls?

-The current plan calling for student/parent self-assessment prior to school would be comical if it weren’t so misguided and potentially life-threatening. How many of our kids have little to no interaction with their working parents in the morning? How many even have access to a reliable home thermometer? And how many of them will end up asymptomatic and unmasked during lunch or between classes?

What is the concrete plan for when a student or staff tests positive?

You say that the student/staff will be moved to a secure location, tested, and then we will proceed. Okay. But what about all the students and staff that individual had been in contact with over the past hours and days?

What happens if I get COVID?

Do I have to take 14 of my own banked sick days? Is it considered Workman’s Comp? Short-term Disability? Teachers save sick days for personal reasons such as maternity/paternity leave; asking them to sacrifice for a situation that has been forced upon them by the administration is laughably unjust. Shouldn’t teachers get hazard pay?

How is reducing class sizes to meet social distancing guidelines even possible?

I teach in a small, cramped room. Class sizes would have to be cut in half, at least, in order to meet the standard of six feet separation. This does not seem to be the administration’s intent.

Will we have additional staff in the halls during passing period to enforce distancing and mask-wearing?

Teachers are being asked to disinfect their chairs, desks, laptops, and other surfaces during passing periods. How are we supposed to prevent students from removing their masks and creating an excessively high-risk situation several times a day in our hallways? We all want to believe that the students will act responsibly and keep their health and safety in mind at all times. But we’re teachers. We know better.

Will the school system pay my medical bills?

What about the medical bills of my at-risk wife?

Will I still have to provide and teach lessons if I’m quarantined?

And if not, who will teach my students? A substitute? How many are you hiring to meet their inevitable demand?

Do quarantined students still have to do homework?

And if not, how will their workload and grades be handled upon their return?

What happens if a student in my class tests positive?

Does that mean all his/her classmates and teachers need to do a 14- day quarantine or get tested?

How many students and staff have to get sick before we can admit this plan is insufficient and revert to online learning?

-1? 25? 200?!?

NOTE: Six days before the start of school, teachers were expected to attend a training. This event was scheduled to be in-person, but it has now been changed to be entirely online. Considering that:

What drastic changes do you expect to happen in those six days? How can it be unsafe for a small number of adult staff to have an in-person meeting, but then magically less than a week later, it’s perfectly fine to be in a small building, with few if any windows that can open, with over 400 students moving between classes seven different times during the day?

I realize you don’t have a reasonable answer to this last question because there is no reasonable answer.

Before I end, I would like to reiterate: the plan you as the administration have presented to the teachers is not only unrealistic, it’s reckless. It is impossible to imagine a scenario in which this ill-conceived attempt to force in-person learning does not result in needlessly infecting our students, our staff, and their families.

Online learning is not ideal, we can all admit this. But it’s something we, the teachers, are already equipped to handle. At the end of the last canceled school year, we created a workable system and held students accountable. It wasn’t perfect, far from it, but we learned from the experience and are ready to make improvements. Trust us to do better, and we will.

One final thought I’d like you to keep in mind. This is not a rant-letter where now I feel better for having got this all off my chest. I don’t. I expect answers to all of these questions. If you and the administration truly believe that staff and student safety is your top priority, then prove it.

The ability to keep your students and your teachers safe is in your hands.


A Concerned Teacher

Michael Olowek is a former high school English teacher and writer living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He writes about his life, like when he was an amateur boxer in South Korea or when he was a drag queen for a day.