I miss Paul Harvey. For those who never had the chance to listen to Paul Harvey, he was an ABC radio broadcaster from 1951 to 2008. I am too young to have listened to his daily radio broadcasts, but I always loved it when I caught his Saturday morning segment, “The Rest of the Story”.
These Saturday morning radio broadcasts were only 5 minutes long. Each was a story, carefully laid out and told with little known facts. Drawing in the listener and building to the end where the point of the story was revealed.
We are living in a time when many are missing the rest of the story as they form opinions on decisions that are being made during this pandemic. We see a news article, or media report and quickly jump from conclusions to outrage that is based on incomplete information. Instead of responding with outrage, slow down, take a minute to listen and ask questions to figure out why a specific decision was made.
Let’s be clear. Online learning is not a substitute for face to face instruction. Remote learning is not good for the social and emotional development of students that are isolated and staring at a computer screen. Students need to get back in school with teachers. Students need to be educated and distance learning is not an effective method for delivering an education. These are facts.
School reopening was discussed on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Chris Christie voiced the most common “cause” of schools still being close when he blamed teachers and teachers unions. He stated “if the guy loading my produce at the — at the supermarket — can go back to work, a teacher can go back and start teaching an urban kid. They’re (the teachers) failing our urban kids”.
I was struck that in all the discussions I am hearing about the reopening of schools, the debate always shifts to “parents want the schools open” versus “the teachers don’t want to go back to work” and “the unions are protecting them”.
Why Are Schools Struggling To Open?
It is time to dig a little deeper into the issue because I believe there is more to the story. Let’s start with the facts:
- There are teachers with legitimate fears of going back into the classroom during the pandemic. More than 30% of teachers are over the age of 50. They are older, have comorbidities, or live in multigenerational homes with family members who would be at greater risk of the effects of COVID-19.
- Over 500 teachers have died of COVID-19 in the past year. This does not include family members that may have also contracted the virus.
- Data shows that with appropriate protocols in place there is little transmission of COVID-19 within schools.
- Many schools are closed because of a lack of teachers to put into the classrooms.
The way to open the schools full time is to make available and enforce the mitigations that are described by the CDC. Key among these are mask mandates, social distancing and proper ventilation.
The purpose of a union is to protect teachers rights. Teachers being asked to go back into a classroom setting without proper mitigations in place have a right to refuse.
Politicization of mask wearing has created a culture where consistent following of the protocols does not happen. Parents who do not support mitigation procedures such as mask wearing and social distancing have children that feel they should not have to follow the guidelines either.
The typical class size is between 25 and 30 students. Less wealthy districts frequently have class sizes that are even larger. Within most classrooms students cannot be separated by 6 feet unless a hybrid system is employed with half the number of students attending for face to face instruction at a time.
Many districts have older school buildings that lack proper ventilation which is not a quickly solvable problem.
Lack of resources in poorer urban or rural schools leaves many schools without the necessary mitigations to support safely reopening further adding to the inequities of the educational system. Congress is in the process of appropriating funds to help, but the money is not there yet, further delaying the opening of schools.
Teacher shortages are not new. Two years ago I attended a session at the Michigan Science Teachers Association Conference led by the deans of three major universities and the director of the Michigan Department of Education. The topic of the discussion was the direction of science education in Michigan. Their biggest concern was the struggle the profession has with recruiting and keeping new educators.
During the past ten years there has been a steady decline in the number of teachers available for classroom instruction. The pandemic has only highlighted the problems education has due to the loss of classroom teachers.
- There has been a decade long decline in the enrollment of students into teaching preparation programs across the country. The net result is there are only half the number of students currently enrolled as there were ten years ago.
- Only 46% of teachers with a valid teacher certification are currently in a classroom in the State of Michigan. Many certified teachers chose not to work in a classroom even before the pandemic.
- Districts faced a massive substitute teacher shortage before COVID.
- Teachers are retiring at a record pace.
Declining enrollment in teacher certification programs, low pay, reduced benefits and current laws that restrict retired teachers from substitute teaching all contribute to the problem of trying to get the schools open during a pandemic.
One size fits all will not work to open all of our schools. Blaming teachers or the teacher’s union without addressing the underlying concerns is not a way to solve the problem and get the schools open again.
It is time to follow the example Paul Harvey set for us and ask, what is the rest of the story?