Teaching in a Pandemic: an Interview With Mercedes K. Schneider

Mercedes K. Schneider is an author, blogger  and classroom teacher based in Louisiana. Her most recent book is A Practical Guide to Digital Research: Getting the Facts and Rejecting the Lies (Garn Press, 2020). As the K-12 school year begins across the U.S., the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is spreading. Below is an interview about that public health crisis and its impacts on education instruction.

Seth Sandronsky: In brief, what are the state and local politics driving your Louisiana school district’s decision to provide in-person classroom instruction for the fall semester?

Mercedes K. Schneider: I think Louisiana has escaped much of the political danger in state mandates, like the reluctance of officials to require mask wearing. Our governor issued a mask mandate, and he has been clear in saying that Louisiana residents should not expect any speedy movement from phase 2 to phase 3. Louisiana’s positivity rate is around 8%, down from 17% prior to the mask mandate.

Our state superintendent is asking students and staff to wear masks “whenever practicable.” My district has students and staff wearing masks unless individuals apply for and receive exemption from school administrators.

I think school admin desires for students to be at school, perhaps in part due to parental pressure and Donald Trump’s declarations on the issue. But in the end, I believe our school board will back off of the idea and switch to remote learning relatively quickly if too many faculty, staff, and students test positive for COVID-19.

I have heard that our district is having some staffing issues, and if teachers are quarantined, I do not think our district will be able to find enough substitutes to cover classes. It could be that the district is already leaning toward remote learning but has not yet officially publicized the decision.

SS: What health and safety measures are your school district and you taking for the reopening of school?

MKS: As of this writing, our district has delayed its start by 2 1/2 weeks for faculty and 4 weeks for students. Required temperature checks daily for staff and students (if temperature exceeds 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, individual must go home). Designated room for sick students.

Students will report half Mon and Wed, the other half, Tues and Thurs, and alternate Fridays. Masks are required for adults and for students in grades 3 thru 12. No visitors on campus. At my high school, three lunches, I believe, in a partitioned cafeteria. Scheduled bathroom breaks. Staggered class change. Reserved seating on the school buses. Deep cleaning of facilities each day (evening?), with teachers cleaning their classrooms before school, after school, and between classes. (To limit movement and cleaning, students will follow a block-styled schedule of 110 minutes per class for three classes and 53 minutes for the last class of the day. Desks 6 feet apart; teacher has a designated space and is encouraged to move around room as little as possible. District is also providing Chromebooks to all students, and teachers will be using Google Classroom as the principal teaching and learning platform.

I have also purchased two HEPA air filtration machines for my classroom. I also have purchased scrubs (allowed this year for teachers because scrubs are easy to wash), goggles (2 pair), face shields (2), and masks (multiple). The school will also provide all of these to staff (except goggles), as well as gloves and gowns for staff and masks for students (if needed). The school will provide cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer for staff and students.

SS: How is Big Tech responding to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on classroom instruction?

MKS: Well, this is a tremendous sales opportunity for technology companies, and I am receiving solicitation emails and seeing the television commercials and social media ads galore. The need for social distancing is clearly useful for tech companies to promote online education platforms and products; schools, districts, and parents inevitably must utilize these tools in some capacity at this time, even as they combat the negative press associated with the limits of online learning for its absence of in-person, human interaction between teacher and student and students with one another.

SS: What sources of education information in the pandemic moment do you recommend to concerned guardians, parents, students and teachers?

MKS: Definitely consult district/school board and school websites on a frequent basis because information can change from day to day. Also, stay current with local and state COVID infection news, which likely can be found on state department of health websites. Pay particular attention to ongoing studies about how COVID-19 affects children (and can be spread by children) in order to make informed, individual decisions for one’s own children and other family members.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com