By Mike Reynolds
In his column, (R-J 7/26/20), Chris Powell gets one thing right: schools are indeed “Soft Targets.” A place where children congregate each day to learn, grow and change, they are relatively easy prey for people with disruptive, criminal, and sometimes murderous intent. A place where children and teachers are together in groups of as many as 28, they are easy prey for colds, the flu, or COVID-19. Often the largest single item on any city expense list, they are also easy prey for any writer irresponsibly trying to draw attention by frightening citizens or scolding public officials into swinging the budget axe — or in this case forcing teachers to return to work in an unhealthy and potentially deadly working environment.
In the interest of full disclosure — I teach Social Studies in Hartford. I am a member of a teacher’s union. I will be returning to school this August under a reopening plan featuring full in-school face-to-face instruction six hours a day. My wife is recovering from a bout of pneumonia: her lungs are compromised, and any exposure to COVID-19 from me could possibly kill her.
Mr. Powell, though, seems to regard this all as some weird sort of game. In his latest play, the retired MJI managing editor relies on an old trick — painting the teaching profession as a mere pack of overpaid, overindulged crybabies with nothing better to do than bleed our poor, fixed-income taxpayers dry — laughing all the way to the credit union. His rationale — the kids are practically immune from COVID anyway, full safety measures are an unaffordable luxury, and we should all just suck it up, go to work, and take deep, possibly contaminated, breaths. If this is a game, Mr. Powell — what do you win?
Since March, statewide, 1,645 school-aged children, (age 10-19), have contracted COVID-19 and 2 have died, (stats from portal.ct.gov). Each brought COVID home to their families, spreading the infection. Five of my colleagues in Hartford had been hospitalized for it. In response to this outbreak, schools were closed and students and teachers had to immediately adapt to a distanced learning environment, (the “flop” Mr. Powell so flippantly refers to).
Schools in Hartford have since been deep cleaned, as they will be each evening under the plan — but we do not know if air conditioning vents have been sanitized and re-filtered for a disease which travels primarily by air. Students will be required to wear masks while they are in class or in the halls, and it is “recommended” that they remain 6 feet apart at all times, covering sneezes and coughs. Those showing symptoms would be sent to the nurse, but there is no means of testing them for a disease which is contagious for two weeks before symptoms emerge. Students are offered a home-based distanced learning option which is intended to decrease class sizes for buildings which cannot be expanded to accommodate necessary social distancing.
In practical terms, Hartford and many other districts plan to open the doors, cram students in, try to enforce social distancing and masks, and hope nobody gets sick. Will the “incorrigible students” Mr. Powell cites dutifully wear their masks all day? Will middle and high schoolers who have not seen their friends since March stay six feet apart from their boyfriends and girlfriends? If not, we will be faced with thousands more seriously sick kids, sick families, and sick teachers. I suggest we send the medical bills to Mr. Powell. With his conservative dedication to individual responsibility, he will certainly welcome his victory.
Mike Reynolds is social studies teacher in the Hartford Public School System and a former guest member of the R-J editorial board.