I'm a public school teacher and I want to return to my classroom. But not like this.

insider@insider.com (Devora Courtney)
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In September, schools will reopen partially in New York City, which is home to the largest school system in the US.
In September, schools will reopen partially in New York City, which is home to the largest school system in the US.

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  • New York City's school system, the largest in the US, will partially reopen in the fall.

  • Devora Courtney, a New York City public high school teacher, is eager to return to her classroom, but feels like a "lab rat" as officials haven't outlined how they'll keep students and staff safe.

  • Courtney's school, like other underfunded ones, already lacked sufficient soap, toilet paper, and janitorial personnel before the pandemic, and will likely face budget cuts during the economic downturn. 

  • While some countries that have reopened schools haven't seen an uptick in coronavirus cases, that's not true for all.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

I'm exhausted — utterly depleted even two weeks into summer vacation. I'm a New York City public school educator reeling from the most challenging period of my career.  

In my 14 years of teaching high school, I've grown accustomed to wearing multiple hats — from instructor to therapist to advocate. I have written letters to judges on behalf of students who have faced complex legal issues. I have calmed students during panic attacks. I have guided families through the special education evaluation process. I have helped my students reconcile their own identities with their parents' differing expectations.  

I am used to fundraising for desks and chairs and purchasing Lysol wipes for my classroom and boxes of granola bars for students with my own money. 

I was not, however, prepared for what transpired over the last four months, or what we're in for when school resumes.

It started in March when my colleagues and I fought for schools to close to protect us from the coronavirus. Then, overnight, I developed remote learning structures, made myself available to students and families at all hours, worked through spring break (without pay) —  all while caring for my own two young children who were home from school. 

The coronavirus claimed 74 Department of Education employees in New York City

I watched helplessly as the pandemic ravaged our city. My community was hit especially hard. The New York City Department of Education lost 74 employees to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The school year is finally over. Yet, I remain anxious, uncertain, and scared.

I'm a tenth grade global history teacher at a school that houses grades pre-K through 12, in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, where nearly 20% of residents live in poverty —higher than many other neighborhoods in the borough. Like many schools in underserved areas, mine lacks many basic resources. Classrooms are packed, there aren't enough special education supports, counselors or functioning copy machines. 

Many New York City public schools struggled to sufficiently stock classrooms even before the coronavirus pandemic.
Many New York City public schools struggled to sufficiently stock classrooms even before the coronavirus pandemic.

AP

Just like many public school buildings in New York City, ours is old and dilapidated. Our water fountains are few and filthy. There isn't enough toilet paper in the bathrooms. Our printers' warranties have expired, so the DOE will not fix them. We don't have enough working computers. We need supplies.   

So, when I read the plans for reopening schools in the fall — which hinge on "social distancing," "staggered scheduling," and "providing personal protective equipment," I recoiled. How can this plan possibly be implemented properly? 

How will be able to supply masks if we didn't have the funds for toilet paper?

Where will we get the funds for masks, when we didn't have the funds to sufficiently stock up on soap in the restrooms prior to the pandemic? How will we properly disinfect when we already didn't have enough personnel to keep our schools clean? How will we pour money into protective measures during the worst economic downturn the city has seen since the financial crisis of the 1970s when schools will face inevitable and steep budget cuts?

Our hallways are narrow, barely six feet wide — where is the space to practice social distancing?  How will schools enforce these measures among teens who instinctively interact with high fives and hugs, and who typically share materials and equipment?

Many schools in New York City are housed in old buildings with narrow hallways.
Many schools in New York City are housed in old buildings with narrow hallways.

Getty

How will we stagger schedules for close to 1,000 students if teachers were already working overtime?

We keep hearing about how children are less susceptible to the coronavirus, and therefore we should feel confident reopening schools. But we also know that children have been largely protected from the virus due to strict social distancing measures. There are still big question marks about how the disease affects young people.

Even if children are relatively safe, what about our teachers —  especially those who are older or who have other health issues? How will schools accommodate educators whose own children attend schools that stagger their schedules differently?

How will this really work?

Remote learning was less than ideal. I will be the first to say it. 

From home, we can't replicate the level and quality of academic support that students get in the classroom. We can't adequately meet the needs of the students who rely on school as a lifeline for such basics as meals and supplies. We can't as effectively screen for abuse. We know virtual learning has exacerbated problems for students with disabilities, especially those who get therapy services at school. 

We're seeing that being isolated from friends and classmates may increase risks for mental health issues in children.

But because distance learning was crucial to saving lives, we made it work. 

No teacher wants to educate remotely, but we made it work because we had to

remote learning
remote learning

Getty

Many of our students' parents continued working during the pandemic while their children juggled their academic and familial responsibilities. 

Our high school students taught and fed their younger siblings or other relatives during the day and did their lessons and work at night. Some moved residences more than once to quarantine or to avoid ill family members. 

Our teachers and administrators, the most exceptional and talented educators I know, tracked down students, mandated live instruction when live instruction was not required, supported struggling students, rummaged through closets at school for devices for children who couldn't afford them, and ensured that we gave every single student a fighting chance to earn course credit for the semester.  

In June, instead of winding down, we ramped up. We held office hours and live sessions at 5 a.m. and 11 p.m., whenever we could get a parent or student on the line. We did not rest until we were absolutely certain that every child's needs had been met to the best of our abilities.  

I'm eager to return to my classroom, but only if it's safe for me, my colleagues, and students

Come September, I would love nothing more than to return to my regular classroom post. I miss my students tremendously.

I would love to see my own children back in school too.

But more than that, I want my family — which includes my students and my colleagues — to be safe. 

Los Angeles, the nation's second largest school district, recently announced that schools will continue with online learning when classes resume in August due to coronavirus risks. New York City, on the other hand, home to the nation's largest school system, has put forth plans for a partial reopening.

It's true that many countries that have reopened schools haven't seen a large uptick in cases. But that hasn't been the case for all.

Some countries have reopened schools without seeing an uptick in cases, but not all

Denmark Schools
Denmark Schools

Reuters

Schools in Israel reopened without restrictions in May. There's been a recent spike in coronavirus cases, affecting more than 2,000 students and teachers. Some wonder if reopening schools too soon, is — in part — to blame. 

In places like Denmark, where infection rates have been kept at bay, schools invested in significant mechanisms to protect against infection.

Schools there installed outdoor hand washing stations, converted sink taps to the automatic sensory kind, put bathrooms in each classroom, and hired additional janitorial staff. 

I haven't heard of any such measures being considered here.

The fact that the Trump administration is threatening to cut funding to school districts that don't reopen, that Vice President Mike Pence said "we don't want CDC guidance to be a reason why people don't reopen schools," and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said she wants school open full time, terrifies me. This mounting pressure comes at a time when we don't even have a firm reopening plan.  

Teachers and students are not lab rats. The city cannot adopt the same "wait and see" approach it took in March when its delay in closing schools likely contributed to scores of deaths of school employees. We are all at risk of contracting COVID-19. This virus does not discriminate.  

All levels of government need to put their money where their mouths are and truly invest in reopening safely and fairly if that is their genuine goal. It is certainly mine.

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