Teacher says school reopenings would be 'epidemiological nightmare' as thousands sign remote learning petition

A new petition signed by thousands of teachers and parents calls for distance learning when school resumes amid the pandemic. (Photo: Nathalie Cruz)
A new petition signed by thousands of teachers and parents calls for distance learning when school resumes amid the pandemic. (Photo: Nathalie Cruz)

More than 25,000 teachers, students and parents want to continue distance learning this fall until U.S. coronavirus cases — 3 million and counting — subside for 14 days in their respective counties, according to a new petition that claims in-person school would lead to a health care disaster.

The Change.org proposal was written by Harley Litzelman, a history and economics teacher at Skyline High School in Oakland. Alameda County, where Oakland is located, has more than 7,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, according to Friday data. According to Litzelman, resuming in-person classes would “glorify the endless sacrifice of American teaching,” as he explained in a June 30 article on the website Medium calling for support of the petition, which uses the hashtag #14daysnonewcases.

“We refuse to return to campus this fall until our counties report no new cases of COVID-19 for at least 14 consecutive days,” reads the petition. “Let it be known that this is not simply a petition, but a statement of intent, a pledge not to return until it is safe.”

Many teachers showed their support for Litzelman’s pledge on the online petition.

“I do not want to risk my life or the lives of everyone I know, including the 28 young people I’m supposed to teach,” one wrote.

“[I’m] in a building with 2200 students and staff, can’t open any windows, and the air is recirculated around the building. I can’t even find Lysol cleaner right now...How can this be safe?” another added.

“With 32-36 students in a classroom, there is no way to social distance. Any other plans to separate students are moot if classrooms are still packed,” one commented.

This week, President Trump said he “may cut off funding” for schools that don’t resume in-person classes, and in White House remarks he recommended that public schools reopen “quickly, beautifully.” The president also criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “very tough & expensive” school opening guidelines. In May, the CDC presented virtual learning as the lowest-risk scenario, while promoting modified classroom layouts and cloth face coverings. The American Academy of Pediatrics has advocated for “students physically present in school,” citing better mental health and evidence that children don’t commonly become infected or spread the virus. Meanwhile, education groups in California and Florida have opposed in-person classes. “Texas AFT says a big ‘Hell No,’” proclaimed the Texas American Federation of Teachers.

Litzelman says certain measures would ensure a 14-day clearance (the CDC time frame for COVID-19 symptoms to appear after exposure to the virus): mass testing for symptomatic and asymptomatic people, nationwide contact tracing, mandatory face masks and the suspension of nonessential travel and business. To fund distance learning, students need access to technology, and teachers to digital training. Litzelman also advocates that schools need mental health professionals to help students “readjust to campus life socially and emotionally” amid the pandemic.

Not to mention that all school staff and students need sufficient supplies of PPE upon return, he says.

“[Theoretically], kids would need a new disposable mask every day or the ability to launder cloth ones every night,” Litzelman tells Yahoo Life. “However, there is no amount of PPE or plexiglass barriers to keep children safe, because schools are not structurally designed to be safe during a pandemic. A school that is safe in a pandemic is not safe for learning — the regime of control and sanitation I would have to enforce would dismantle the positive culture I work to build in my classroom.”

Skyline High School, where Litzelman teaches, did not immediately respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.

In a May article published on the site The Bold Italic, Litzelman presented an “epidemiological nightmare” should schools open in current conditions — aside from securing social-distanced seating, teachers would spend time enforcing masks and sanitation. “Abrasive echoes of ‘Six feet please! Six feet please!’ and ‘Mask please, wear your mask!’ fill the air,” he wrote.

In the article, Litzelman questioned whether all U.S. classrooms can allow wider layouts. “I can only fit 1.5 meters between [my desks], about 4 feet, 11 inches,” he said. And lunch period would be “miserable.” He envisioned that “The line to the cafeteria now wraps around several buildings as campus supervisors demand at least six feet of distance between students. Lunch is either 30 or 35 minutes long depending on the day, and it previously took about 25 minutes for all students to get their meal.”

Before afternoon classes, said Litzelman, students would cluster in hallways “because I must wipe every desk, chair, and counter between every class,” he wrote. “I would rather delegate this to my 17- and 18-year-old students, but only I am legally allowed to handle disinfecting wipes and sprays according to an amendment to California’s Healthy Schools Act of 2000 — that is, after taking a one-hour training on proper disinfectant use.”

And during class, he said, children would stay seated while he retrieves pens, rulers, scissors, glue — tools already in short supply — which could not be shared, and he’d have to monitor who touches what. Lab experiments, school plays, recess sports and circle groups would change. “Again is the time to ask: Have you ever met children?” wrote Litzelman.

Epidemiologists and pediatricians acknowledge that schools cannot ensure a risk-free environment, but some are optimistic that scheduling and structural adjustments can help lessen the danger. This week, several experts told Yahoo Life that children are capable of wearing masks throughout the school day. “I will tell you, kids are really good at it,” said Matthew Wilber, a pediatrician with Texas Children’s Pediatrics. “Especially 4-year-olds and up, they are good at it. ... For the kids it’s like dress-up or Halloween — they are not as bothered by it as I thought they would be.”

The U.S. Department of Education tells Yahoo Life that “all students must be learning and all schools must be fully operational in the fall.”

“It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘how.’ That does not mean one-size-fits-all,” Department of Education press secretary Angela Morabito tells Yahoo Life. “Students and families need options based on their personal situations and the local health realities. Schools should continue to rethink their approach to education to be more student-centric and deliver a more personalized education. Schools could choose to adopt a hybrid model as one option for students, but every student needs to have access to a learning environment that is fully operational and that provides the student a full school year of learning starting this fall.”

Litzelman advocates for a commitment to distance learning — not a complete strike — to avoid violating “no-strike” contract clauses and to insist on the legal right to a safe workplace while still educating children. However, he does not discount the potential for mass walkouts, telling Yahoo Life, “It may come to a threat of massive resignation.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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