Hidden Dangers: It’s Not Just COVID We Have to Worry About in Regards to In-Person Schooling
Today is July 12, 2020 and with each passing second schools around the country are inching closer to reopening. Over the past few weeks and months, districts that have formed committees with Central Office staff, consulted with local Departments of Health and asked for input from parents and teachers through various surveys to help sculpt their proposals for what the 2020-2021 school year will look like. School systems have certainly had their hands full with all of this and I do not envy the no-win situation they are in, especially since each potential proposal that is made represents a solution to one or more potential problems while often exacerbating others.
One of the most prevalent proposals I have seen publicized involves schools reopening in a somewhat hybrid/part-time capacity. Considering the surge in positive COVID cases across the country in many densely populated places, I have to suspect that the motivation for districts to move forward with these types of plans stems mostly from a place of "restarting the economy" under pressure from political leaders and parents that share the same beliefs. The complete disregard for the students and staff members being thrusted into this situation in the coming weeks in light of mounting evidence that suggests COVID can be transmitted through airborne means is not only EXTREMELY disturbing/negligent in regards to physical health and safety, but I propose also has the ability to be exceptionally dangerous in ways current supporters of such in-person schooling possibly haven’t yet thought about. The purpose of this blog is to explore these potential “hidden dangers” largely from an elementary perspective as a way to enlighten parents, fellow teachers and people in positions of power that are ultimately responsible for making the decision for specific proposals to become reality.
HIDDEN DANGER #1: Cabin Fever and Conflicting Perceptions In order to minimize the risk of transmitting COVID between large populations of students, many of the in-person portions of the hybrid proposals that I have seen school districts publicize are recommending that students remain in the same room all day that they are on the school’s campus. The enormity of requiring students to stay in a single 16 square foot space (4’ x 4’) within the same room for 90% of their time (6.3 out of 7 hours) while in-person at school under the hybrid models can’t be overlooked. While some may say that comparing what this situation will be like to “cabin fever” is an exaggeration, I honestly don’t think it is too far off.
Movement around the classroom, a pre-COVID essential to allow students the freedom to choose their own work space with flexible seating, is now no longer an option. Students working in collaborative small groups in face-to-face settings will also now be a thing of the past. Hands-on and play-based instruction utilizing tangible items within classrooms will likely no longer be possible either.
All of these instructional methods are evidenced-based best practices that have multiple benefits across many domains of learning, but with students no longer able to engage in these practices in order to diminish the risk of COVID transmission, all students are left with is essentially being “tethered” to their small footprint within the classroom for the overwhelming majority of the day. While students will not be isolated in the traditional sense of the term “cabin fever” since they will physically be in a classroom space with other students and a teacher, the case can still be made that they will experience a similar form of isolation as the result of how different things will need to look.
The lack of social interaction and human connection for students as a result to changing the methodologies necessary to teach in-person in the COVID world will have psychological consequences and I have to believe that students will experience many of the symptoms of this form of “cabin fever” as a result. These symptoms include increased restlessness, decreased motivation, increased irritability, increased anxiety and difficulty concentrating amongst others.
Not only are these symptoms problematic while being a hindrance to learning while in-person, but they will likely be unexpected on behalf of many, particularly younger students due to their perceptions of what school has been from their limited experience. Imagine being a 2nd grade student and hearing that you are going back to school in the fall. This likely brings a huge smile to your face and a rush of positive emotions because from your experience thus far in school, it has been a place you have looked forward to going. Now think about how this child’s perception of school is likely to change on that first day of in-person instruction during the COVID era when everything they have come to know and love about school in the past is no longer an option out of an abundance of necessary safety protocols.
In alignment with this way of thinking, multiple questions come to mind. What effect would this type of experience have on students’ psyche? What new emotions and feelings are they associating with attending in-person school? When in-person schooling looks and feels more like being confined in jail, do the benefits of sending students back in-person to learn offset the cost of keeping them at home where there is significantly less risk of contracting/transmitting COVID while at the same time being able to have more freedom of what the day looks like? These questions are worth thinking about.
HIDDEN DANGER #2: Contradicting the Essence of Community Reinforcing positive behavior is a large part of any elementary teacher’s role. Yes, we are responsible for helping our students to meet academic standards, outcome and benchmarks, but this does not happen in a vacuum. Learning domains are intertwined and through the process of teaching and learning academic content also comes opportunities to reinforce expected and positive behaviors linked to interpersonal skills.
Interpersonal skills are some of the most important skills children can learn. As teachers, we know learning communities cannot thrive without a deliberate focus on building positive teacher-student and student-student relationships through the modeling, practicing and reinforcing these interpersonal skills in order to help our students develop into positive, contributing members of the immediate classroom community and of the larger community outside of the school walls in which they live.
When a student goes out of their way to help a classmate gain a better understanding of something, we as teachers reinforce this behavior with positive praise. When a student shows empathy and kindness by going over to a friend and putting their arm around them to provide comfort, we as teachers reinforce this behavior with positive praise. When a student takes the initiative to offer a classmate to come play with them, we as teachers reinforce this behavior with positive praise. All of these examples and many more are things you would likely see multiple times in many different elementary schools across the country on any given day pre-pandemic to foster development of interpersonal skills.
In the current COVID world of in-person school, one of our new responsibilities as teachers will be to discourage this very type of behavior that up until now, we have been reinforcing and praising. Think about how confusing this would be as a young elementary student. This links back to the concept of conflicting perceptions from the previous “hidden danger” and of course the irony of all of this is that in a time where we need to help children develop these skills more than ever amongst our classroom communities and beyond, the inherent nature of social distancing as it relates to in-person schooling will be expecting teachers to do and reinforce the opposite.
CLOSING: Physical health and safety must remain the top priority in regards to going back to in-person instruction in any capacity, but the “hidden dangers” referenced in this blog, amongst others, provide much food for thought. Instead of expecting schools to rush open for political and economic reasons in the face of mounting hazards for both students and staff, think about how amazing the return to school would be when we can go back in a manner where students and school staff will be crying tears of joy rather than tears of fear and frustration…
About The Author... Ross Chakrian has been teaching elementary physical education for the last 10 years in central Maryland and after a recent stint as a full-time professor within the world of higher education, he returned to the gymnasium during the first half of 2020 to work with young students once again. Ross was recently named by SHAPE America, our nation's physical education governing body, to be a recipient of the prestigious Mabel Lee award by showing great promise as a professional leader within the field of physical education while being under the age of 36. He is also a co-founder of 5STARPE, an organization that provides professional development services to other physical educators at conferences across the country.