Our Schools Can’t Reopen Safely – And That’s On Us

The CDC guidelines for reopening schools are, as the kids say, Problematic.

The guidelines themselves are pretty reasonable. They’re about what you would expect from epidemiologists who spend their lives in offices or labs. They read like the work of people whose life pursuit is understanding how diseases spread in the population and providing guidance to the average citizen as to how to reduce their personal risk.

They are also obviously written by people with no grounding in the realities of running a US public school.

The recommendations themselves are not terrible. Trying to implement them within the context of current US public schools, however, is likely to cause infection hotspots on par with US prisons.

Here are just a few of the places the recommendations fall short.

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The CDC recommends that “staff and students should stay home” if they have tested positive for or are showing COVID-19 symptoms.”

Having worked full-time in schools in the past and having coached in public schools for the past five years, I see at least three immediate challenges with this one:

  1. A person can infect others for up to two weeks before they show any symptoms of COVID-19. By the time a kid or teacher spikes a temp, they could have exposed everyone else in the same building.
  2. Parents frequently send their kids to school sick because they don’t have a choice. They cannot take time off work without risking their jobs and they cannot afford an alternate arrangement like daycare. Schools will basically need a quarantine ward for these kids.
  3. There’s already a major substitute teacher shortage in the US. Subs receive about $80 per day and zero benefits. The moment a teacher needs to quarantine for symptoms or exposure to a kid with symptoms, they’re out of action for 14 days. There are not enough subs in the US to cover even one teacher per building being out for 14 days.

There’s an additional problem embedded in relying on substitute teachers, too. Being a contingent workforce, substitutes typically rotate among school buildings and districts. They take whichever job they can get wherever they can get it.

This makes substitutes a major potential vector for the spread of COVID-19. A substitute who picks up the virus in one school won’t show symptoms for about 14 days.

That’s two entire weeks in which a sub could visit a different school every single day, or even multiple schools in a single day (my spouse, a band director, goes to three different buildings each day, for instance).

The CDC recommends schools “teach and reinforce handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and increase monitoring to ensure adherence among students and staff.”

By itself, this is a good recommendation. We all benefit from increased handwashing and proper handwashing. It’s a skill everyone, including kids, should learn and practice.

Making this plan work in a school setting, however, poses some challenges that don’t appear in other settings:

  1. School bathrooms are typically not equipped for more than one or two people to wash their hands at a time while also practicing social distancing. A class with 30 kids, where each kid washes their hands for 30 seconds (20 seconds of scrubbing plus 5 on each side to turn water on/off and grab a towel), will need 7.5 to 15 minutes for each handwashing session, plus ten or so minutes on each side to get the kids to the bathroom and settled down again after, and a minute or so per kid to switch out who’s at the sink while maintaining social distancing. This process could take up to an hour – multiple times a day.
  2. Increase monitoring…by whom? Schools are already understaffed. A teacher who takes the kids to the bathroom for handwashing time has to both make sure the kids wash correctly and supervise all the kids either waiting their turn or who have already washed (and are touching God knows what).
  3. School schedules are currently packed as schools scramble to prepare kids for the month or more of standardized testing we put them through each year. Taking an extra hour, or even half an hour, to do handwashing even once per day is time our schools do not have – at least if they want to stay funded.

The CDC recommends “cloth face coverings” be worn.

Again, not a bad idea on its face (no pun intended). Also, probably not an issue among high school students.

But the younger the kids are, the harder this one will be to enforce. Kindergarteners in particular are good at losing normal clothing, like socks and shoes. They are not going to keep a mask on their faces for six hours a day plus the bus ride. They also don’t have the self-awareness or self-control skills yet to refrain from touching their own faces. They just don’t.

Think we don’t have to worry about kids that little catching COVID-19? Think again – not only can they catch it, they are more likely to carry and transmit it without ever showing symptoms.

The CDC recommends that schools “provid[e] adequate supplies, including soap, hand sanitizer…, paper towels, tissues, disinfectant wipes, cloth face coverings (as feasible) and no-touch/foot-pedal trash cans.”

To this one, I have only one response: With whose money?

Schools have relied on parents to donate sanitizer, tissues, and disinfectant wipes for decades now, because these items simply are not in a school’s budget. Increased handwashing alone is likely to strain school supply budgets because it will mean more soap and paper towels. Replacing all the trash cans is also an added expense schools haven’t budgeted for.

Normally, I think we could expect parents to rise to this challenge and donate the needed supplies. They generally do, and they know we’re in a crisis here.

The problem is that the market doesn’t have an adequate supply of sanitizer, tissues, disinfectant wipes, and so on. For instance, all the stores around here only allow one purchase of each item per customer per visit, and they still cannot keep these items on the shelves most of the time. (I tried to buy bar soap the other day and there were only two packages left of any variety.)

When families can get their hands on these things, they’ll restock their own homes first, not schools. And that makes sense. Families have a home and people to help keep safe and healthy, too. But it means that there’s no supply left for schools.

And schools are going to need much more of these things than usual, because the CDC also recommends cleaning and disinfecting all high-touch surfaces and items several times a day. In a school, that’s pretty much everything in the building.

(Cleaning the entire building multiple times per day will also require an increase in janitorial staff, further increasing the school’s operating budget. Or it will require existing staff to take on cleaning duties, reducing their ability to teach, supervise, plan, and so on.)

The CDC recommends that schools “ensure ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible, for example by opening windows and doors.”

Several problems.

  1. Most school buildings have shared HVAC systems. A school ventilation system that “operates properly” is pushing all the building’s air throughout the entire building – and spreading COVID germs from any one room into all the other rooms. This effectively renders moot the CDC’s recommendation to put students into “cohorts” that can be quarantined altogether if one member gets ill.
  2. The vast majority of schools do not have windows that open. This is especially true in places where air conditioning is a standard feature or has been retrofitted to an older building. Windows that open have long been identified as a safety risk in schools.
  3. Propping doors open is a safety hazard in most schools, because it’s a security risk in both directions – a kid can slip out, or an unauthorized party like a mass shooter can slip in. Some building security systems will not allow the propping of doors without setting off an alarm after a short interval.

It’s worth pointing out the irony here. We have spent years, and millions of dollars, building or retrofitting our schools so that the windows and doors can’t just be thrown open to the breeze, on the grounds that it’s how we’re going to protect kids from mass shooters. Yet now, when the threat is a virus, we find ourselves with buildings that prevent us from doing one of the very things that could help keep those kids safe from lifelong disability or death.

The CDC recommends increasing space between students in classrooms, putting up physical barriers, closing communal spaces, and so on.

Yet again, this is reasonable advice in most situations. But our schools are not equipped for it.

Schools are designed to cram in as many students as is practicable. They’re designed this way to reduce the overhead cost per student of running the building.

Currently, the average school has about 180 square feet per student. Which sounds like more than enough for that six feet of social distancing – until you realize that that’s the total square footage of the average school divided by number of students.

That means it includes spaces like utility rooms, janitor’s closets, loading docks, kitchens, and stairwells. You know, the kinds of places you can’t really put desks.

School buses are also a problem. 

School buses are also on the list of the CDC’s places to increase space between students – but since school bus routes are drawn so as to pack the bus to the brim, the only feasible way to do this is to double or even triple the number of buses available.

A new school bus costs about $50,000. Used buses currently cost less – anywhere from $3,000 up – but if every school district needs buses, those prices will quickly spike, because demand will greatly exceed supply.

Meanwhile, each bus route on average costs a district $37,000 per year to operate, between paying the driver, buying and maintaining the bus, and so on. That means that every route that has to be added in order to socially-distance kids on buses adds $37,000 to the school’s budget – but the per-pupil funding the school receives stays the same, because they added buses but not kids.

Just like the substitute teacher shortage, there’s also a bus driver shortage nationally. My district, for example, had to cut late bus service last year because they could not find even one additional driver to hire to take that route. That’s despite offering competitive pay and benefits.

To bus kids while socially distanced, we’d need an additional thirty bus drivers – and so does every other district this size in the area. Bigger districts will need even more drivers.

If we can’t find even one driver, where are we going to get hundreds of them?

Conclusion: It’s not that the CDC recommendations are bad. It’s that they presuppose a school environment that does not exist.

As I mentioned above, you can tell these guidelines were written by epidemiologists who work in labs or offices. They’re decent epidemiological advice. They’re about what you’d expect to hear from professionals whose life’s work involves helping populations understand how various diseases spread and how to mitigate their own risk.

What these guidelines do not do is account for the realities of most US schools. It’s that missing piece that means these guidelines will fail.

Schools do not have the resources they need to implement these guidelines fully. They just don’t. And that’s on us.


If you like my work, please feel free to buy me a coffee and/or share this post on social media – as well as with your state and local lawmakers. 

The Stars Hate You, Vol. 2: Grab Bag

So much astrology, so little time.

This installment of The Stars Hate You features wanderlust, career advice, and the dulcet song of destiny.

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What do you do if an astrologer tells you to avoid your birthplace, but you don’t know where you were born?

The only thing to do in this instance is to avoid every place. Any one of them could be your birthplace. You just don’t know.

Normally, I’d recommend that you consult the keepers of the ancient scroll Your Birth Certificate for help ascertaining which cursed borough to avoid. Unfortunately, the stars inform me that everyone who might know where you were born was wiped out in the Potato Stampede of 1976.

My condolences. Maybe try heading for Thebes?

Can any astrologer predict my career, foreign living, partner and marriage? My date of birth is [personal information redacted].

I don’t know if any astrologer can predict your career, foreign living situation, partner and/or marriage. I, however, can make the following predictions with a level of confidence:

Career: You will do some work you find very fulfilling and some work you find boring, perhaps even insulting. You will do it because you like to eat food and sleep in a place that isn’t a park bench or a highway overpass. You may not always be able to make all these things work out at the same time, or maybe you will.

Foreign Living: You will live abroad, or you won’t. Wherever you end up, some things will be very strange to you and others very familiar. You will experience the true wisdom of the ancient proverb, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Partner: You’ll have one or more, unless you don’t. Experiences with partners or the pursuit of partners will teach you much about the need for self-reliance and self-confidence, but you may decide to ignore these lessons or pretend you never heard them. Lots of people do that. They’re usually not very happy.

Marriage: Your marriage situation will depend on your partner, or partners, or lack thereof. The stars say it’s too soon to ask about marriage when you’re still trying to figure out if you’re going to have a job, live in a place, or know people.

What year will I be married if I am born on [month and day redacted] 1995 in [place redacted]?

The stars predict you will marry at some point between 2015 and the end of your natural life. The stars say the end of your natural life could come at any moment, but is less likely to happen quickly or unexpectedly if you avoid major risks, like skydiving, eating raw shellfish, and investing in multi-level marketing schemes.

The stars were extremely concerned that I warn you about the multi-level marketing schemes.

How will I see my destiny or my “soul & life purpose” based on my natal chart?

The stars say that’s none of my damn business.

Rude.


There’s more wise advice where this came from. Buy me a coffee or ask a mystical question in the comments for mystical, caffeinated answers. Or read the rest of the series.

How to Write an Essay Fast

Every semester as a college English instructor, I had students who were SHOCKED, SHOCKED I SAY that the deadline for a major paper had snuck up on them without their realizing it.

College does that to you: You’re busy with this assignment and that reading and this club and that sport and this roommate and that party, and pretty soon, you have a 10-page essay due November 11th or April 23rd, and what do you mean that’s tomorrow?!

A professional could bang that essay out in an hour or two. But you’re not a professional (yet). If you were, you wouldn’t be in college. Or high school. Or wherever it is that you’re stuck with a giant paper to write and a looming deadline.

I’m not going to show you how to write that essay like a professional would. I am, however, going to share a method that will allow you to write a passable essay in about the same amount of time it would take a professional to write an outstanding one.

A Note: This method will not turn out a good essayby which I mean “an essay that uses the craft of writing itself as a means of persuasion.” It will merely turn out a competent essay, by which I mean “an essay that demonstrates that you read what you were supposed to read and learned something from reading it.”

Consequently, I do not recommend this approach for essays due in English or technical writing classes – the classes where you’re supposed to be learning the craft of writing. Nor do I recommend it for written works that must follow a specific structure, like lab reports or legal briefs.

If you just need an essay that demonstrates you read some things in the field and had a thought or two about them, however, here’s how to get it written fast.

essayfast

Step One: Assemble Your Research

Your research is done, right? If not, you have a problem this blog post can’t help you solve.

If your research is done, get all your notes together in front of your face. It doesn’t matter whether you made them on notecards or in a Google Doc or on cocktail napkins or by putting Post-It flags on every page of every book you want to cite. Just get it all in your writing space.

Step Two: Thesis Statement

Open a new Google Doc, Word doc, or whatever your favorite word processor is. (You can also do this on paper, but it’s tedious.)

You may have already done your research with a particular thesis statement in mind. If so, just type it in at the top of your document.

If you didn’t do your research with a particular thesis in mind, here’s how to generate one:

  • Think about all that reading you did. What’s something you can say about it that reasonable people could disagree about? Generate 3-5 such statements – things you could say about the reading that someone else could say “nuh-uh” to.
  • Choose the one that bores you the least, not the one you think is easiest to defend.

A thesis statement should always be a statement about which reasonable people could disagree. “There are four Presidents’ faces carved into Mount Rushmore” is a fact, not a thesis statement. Reasonable people can’t disagree about it, because you can all just go to Mount Rushmore (or look at a photo) and count the Presidents yourself.

“The four Presidents’ faces carved into Mount Rushmore deface a sacred Lakota site,” however, is a thesis statement. A reasonable person can disagree, for instance by saying “No, they enhance the site,” or “They’re not a defacement, they’re an example of the glory of American imperialism.” (The fact that you might disagree with every counterargument doesn’t make the arguments themselves unreasonable.)

Avoid the option that’s easiest to defend, because an easy defense makes your essay sound like you phoned it in. “The viewing platform at Mount Rushmore could be placed closer to the Presidents” is easy to defend, and for that reason, it’s super boring. It screams “I didn’t really do any work, I just don’t want a zero.”

The one that interests you most/bores you least, however, will automatically be better written because you actually care about it somewhat. It’ll have an energy that says “Hey, I did enough reading to find a topic that matters.” Do that one.

Step Three: Because Reasons

Below your thesis statement, write down a list of points that support the argument the statement makes. Avoid the urge to get too specific – you want general “buckets” or categories, not details. You can write these as sentence fragments if you like.

For example:

THESIS: The four Presidents’ faces carved into Mount Rushmore deface a sacred Lakota site.

  • the Lakota considered the Black Hills sacred ground generally
  • the Lakota named the mountain “the Six Grandfathers” specifically
  • the mountain in question actually terrible for carving
  • the monument lionizes the same white leaders who consistently undermined Native Americans’ ability to live peacefully on their ancestral lands

Then, work in a reference to your thesis statement for each fragment:

  • the Mount Rushmore carving appears in the Black Hills, which the Lakota consider generally sacred
  • today’s Mount Rushmore is carved into a site the Lakota called the Six Grandfathers, which had a particular spiritual significance
  • rather than choose a more stable site for the Presidents’ visages, the project was carried out on a sacred Lakota mountain that is actually ill-suited for sculptures
  • the Lakotas’ sacred Six Grandfathers were turned into a monument that lionizes four US Presidents who pursued harmful policies against not only the Lakota but other Native Americans as well

Finally, slap on a transitional word or phrase. Like “also,” “as well,” “in addition,” or ordinals like “first,” “second,” “third.”

  • First, the Mount Rushmore carving appears in the Black Hills, which the Lakota consider generally sacred.
  • Also, today’s Mount Rushmore is carved into a site the Lakota called the Six Grandfathers, which had a particular spiritual significance.
  • Another reason the Mount Rushmore presidents constitute a defacement of sacred Lakota territory is that rather than choose a more stable site for the sculptures, the project was carried out in a place that is ill-suited for carving.
  • Finally, the Lakotas’ sacred Six Grandfathers were turned into a monument that lionizes four US Presidents who pursued harmful policies against not only the Lakota but other Native Americans as well.

At the bottom of this list, write your thesis statement again, but say it differently. For example, “These four factors support the position that today’s Mount Rushmore is actually a defacement of a sacred site.”

Repeat this process for however many points you have. If you’re writing to a page count, estimate that you’ll need half a page for each point, plus half a page each for your introduction and conclusion. The example outline, then, is going to cover about three pages – maybe more, if you did a lot of research.

Step Four: Plug and Play

Get your research back in front of your face, and start dropping it into this outline under each point that is supported by that bit of research.

Drop in your summaries, quotes, and paraphrases with the author, title and page number attached. I cannot stress this enough. Nothing is more boring or eats more time than having to go back and fix all your citations after you already wrote the paper. Besides, it greatly increases the chances you’ll miss one and get dinged for plagiarism. Just put them into the outline, and you won’t have to deal with any of that.

You can use bullet points and sentence fragments here, too. Just put all the evidence bits where they go.

If you have a particularly weird or scandalous tidbit of information, or a fact or statistic that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else, set it aside. It’ll be great material for the introduction. (We’ll get to that.)

Step Five: Sew It Together

Once all your evidence details are in the outline, do the same thing to each of them that you did to your four topic sentences. Connect them to the topic sentence, and drop in transitions where you need them so someone who has never even heard of your topic before can still follow your train of thought. The body paragraphs are a great place to use “for example,” “for instance,” and “to illustrate” in order to introduce actual examples of whatever you’re talking about.

Take out the bullet points, start each paragraph with the topic sentence, line up all the details behind it, and end the paragraph by writing your topic sentence again in a different way. (You can leave out the transition when you rewrite.)

Step Six: Conclusion

Once all your body paragraphs are done, it’s time to write the conclusion. Start with your restated thesis sentence, then summarize the body paragraphs in a sentence or two.

For example, in our Mount Rushmore essay, your conclusion might read:

These four factors support the position that today’s Mount Rushmore is actually a defacement of a sacred site. The Six Grandfathers are a specific sacred site on sacred land. The sheer difficulty of carving them suggests an ulterior motive, particularly when the result is a sculpture of white imperialists with aggressively anti-Native American policies appearing on Native sacred land. 

Finish this paragraph with a “call to action,” or a punchy sentence intended to make your reader feel, remember, or do something with all the arguing you just did. An example here might be “Not only must similar projects be prohibited in the future, but reparations should be made to the Lakota Sioux for the damage caused to their land and culture.”

Step Seven: Introduction

Scroll back to the top. In front of your thesis statement, plug in that particular juicy tidbit of information that you pulled out of your research back in Step Four. For example:

In 1868, the Lakota Sioux were promised that the US Government would not interfere with their lives in the Black Hills. Just two years later, the US Government broke that promise. 

Connect this juicy tidbit to your thesis statement with a sentence or two that moves your reader from here to there. If you’re not sure how to do it, just summarize the points in your topic sentences. It’s okay to be really obvious about this. Remember, your reader has no idea what your argument is yet.

In 1868, the Lakota Sioux were promised that the US Government would not interfere with their lives in the Black Hills. Just two years later, the US Government broke that promise. In 1927, white sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved the faces of today’s Mount Rushmore into a mountain the Lakota considered one of the most sacred sites in a sacred land. Adding insult to injury, the four Presidents he carved all executed anti-Native policies. The four Presidents’ faces carved into Mount Rushmore deface a sacred Lakota site.

Step Eight: Cite Your Works

Finally (finally!), grab your sources one more time and put them in order on a Works Cited page, using whatever citation format you’ve been using in the paper itself. If you’re not sure how to cite something, Google it.

(In my day, there was no Google. We had to look up citation formats in print editions of the various style manuals. We also had to walk uphill both ways five miles in the snow to attend a one-room university with only a wood stove for heat, with an onion tied to our belts, as was the style at the time. “Give me five bees for a nickel,” you’d say.)

Give the paper a title, if you feel like it.

You’re done! Read it once to make sure there aren’t any obvious mistakes, then turn it in and get some well-deserved sleep while your friends pull all-nighters.


Have other questions about how to survive the research and writing portion of your education? Drop them in the comments. Keep me alive by buying me a coffee, and help your classmates by sharing this post on social media.