Friday, August 7, 2020

Clear plan to protect local teachers, students desperately needed

Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune (online at their website here).

Earlier this week, the Grand Haven Area Public School district (GHAPS) released their plan for school this fall. 

In response to surveys from parents, the district is offering two options. One option is in-person learning that may have to return to at-home remote learning, if needed. The other option is an entirely online learning environment run by an outside organization and taught primarily by GHAPS teachers. The options look to be similar in the Spring Lake district when that plan is released, likely sometime this week. 

The first thing I want to say is that I do not envy the task of the school boards of Grand Haven or Spring Lake, nor do I envy the decisions the administrations in those districts must make. Making  difficult decisions that will impact thousands of families, which involve possible life or death realities, in the midst of a global pandemic and a rapidly changing landscape of news and developments is massively difficult. Making these decisions for my own parish here in town, St. John’s Episcopal Church, has been hard. I cannot imagine what it is like on a school district level.

My concern, however, is with how the plans for social distancing will be put into place for each building. Those are beginning to be released for each building but there are no district-wide standards. For example, in the high school there will be three classes a day to reduce passing time in the hall and limit turnover in student to teacher contact but no reduction in students in the building in any given day. Face coverings will be required in all buildings—though, oddly enough not during physical education at Lakeshore, indicating that there will be physical education this fall. If there is, studies have shown that six feet of distance is not enough during physical exertion. 

The lack of clear and district-wide standards for what in-person learning means that we are already seeing very different decisions being made by different buildings. While each building is different, and what each age group can accomplish varies, the lack of district-wide requirements (for example, no in-person singing or physical exertion without significant distance, all plans must require at least six feet of distance between students, no large group gatherings, etc.) is making it difficult for parents to make decisions about whether to return and only increasing the anxiety of our educators.  

The GHAPS Superintendent, Andrew Ingall, has said that there is a priority for staff and student safety. I absolutely believe that is his goal. I hope the district will look to other schools in state and country and put together a district-wide articulation of clear requirements for in-person learning that makes that priority evident and clear.

After all, one of the other reasons we have some of the best districts in the state is because of our teachers. One of the biggest problems in this national conversation about schools reopening is a lack of attention to the risks teachers will face returning to in-person instruction, the risks that their families will face given the particularly high rates of asymptomatic transmission among children and teenagers. We must make sure our teachers know that they are not seen as childcare so parents can get back to work, but that they are an essential part of our children’s lives and development and that their safety—given that their risks are much higher than the children they will instruct—is of the highest importance.

When plans are developed for each individual building, there need to be clear articulations of just how social distancing is going to be achieved. Many schools are alternating school days or schedules, so that there will not be the same amount of people in the building as in normal times. Depending on what in-person enrollment numbers look like, I am not sure how students will be able to be spaced six-feet apart in classrooms that are already full. Some indications are that a three-foot rule might be followed instead in the districts, but no explanation for how that is a safe decision. Administrators right now seem just to be hoping that lower in-person enrollment will make distancing possible. But hope is not enough in times like this.

There needs to be a clear articulation of plans for designated entrances and exits, closing off common space (or repurposing it so that teachers can properly distance their students), floor markings to direct foot traffic. Ideally, there should be upgrades made to ventilation to ensure we are not just spreading an airborne virus throughout the building and also upgrades to the restrooms to limit contact. Cafeterias cannot continue as they did before—which would basically be large crowds of people dining in person, a sure way to pass along the virus. Some buildings (like Lakeshore) have made plans to address this, but there is not district-wide consistency on activities like this which have been demonstrated to pose significant risk of viral transmission.

More than two-hundred and fifty employees were not able to return to work in Georgia’s largest school district. Another school in Indiana had to shift to online learning after only two days of being open. Three students in Mississippi tested positive at one school within the first week of return. However we return to in-person learning in our area, my hunch is that we will shut back down after not that much time. The question is how much risk will teachers and students be exposed to during that time we are in-person. 

If our local districts are going to resume in-person learning this fall, the plan for how we will protect the health of our children and our teachers must be more than a promise of social distancing with no indication how it can be achieved. I hope those plans are articulated soon, with attention to districts who have already identified ways to achieve these goals. We must not jeopardize the lives of our teachers in a rush to get kids back in school. 

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at