To reopen or not to reopen: thoughts from a student teacher

Cartoon courtesy of Corinne McDevitt ’23

Corinne McDevitt

Cartoon courtesy of Corinne McDevitt ’23

Josie Schuman, Managing Editor

Reopening schools has been a contentious issue with varied responses across the nation. President Joe Biden came into office ambitiously hoping to reopen all schools within his first 100 days. According to The New York Times, weeks after being elected, Biden tempered his expectations, focusing only on the reopening of elementary and middle schools. This plan was quickly amended again, shifting the goal to reopening a majority of schools. Regarding this newest plan, schools are considered to be “open” if they offer in-person teaching at least one day a week.

The moral of the story: Reopening schools is a lot harder than Biden thought. 

On the state level, Gov. Mike DeWine has pressured Ohio schools to return to in-person instruction by March 1. For schools that do not meet this deadline, DeWine has threatened to withhold teacher vaccinations, which seems counterproductive if you ask me. 

The reality is that all schools are not created equal. 

For smaller districts, the March 1 deadline was feasible. However, for much larger districts like Cincinnati, Akron and Cleveland, this deadline was simply not realistic. Mayfield City School District serves around 4,100 students, whereas Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where I am currently student teaching, is the second-largest district in the state, serving almost 38,000 students and planning to get 7,000 employees vaccinated before reopening. 

CMSD CEO Eric Gordon has scrambled to create a reopening plan to get at least some students in the school buildings to accommodate DeWine’s deadline.

Is this rushed return really what is best for our students? 

At CMSD, the reopening plan has already been pushed back one week, and the worlds of faculty, staff and students have been turned upside down. There are millions of questions and not many answers. With the possibility of people returning to the school buildings as soon as March 8, there is still no clear plan about Cleveland’s reopening.

Of course, there is an undeniable need for in-person instruction. Virtual learning has not been easy — the understatement of the year. According to Edutopia, students have fallen behind academically, suffered from rising rates of depression and anxiety, and have stopped attending class in striking numbers. I have several students on the class roster that have come to class once this year or not at all. 

During the pandemic, the opportunity gap has widened for Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities, who are less likely to have access to devices, internet and live contact with teachers. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds depend on schools for food and other basic necessities. Morale among students and teachers is low too. 

As much as I love my students, teaching to blank screens every day can be demoralizing. I often ask questions without receiving responses and send information into the void of a silent Microsoft Teams call, hoping that someone on the other end is listening. 

But I don’t blame my students. I still am a student after all, and I know their struggle. Sitting in front of a computer screen all day is exhausting. It’s difficult to participate in class when you barely know the teacher or the other students. I have experienced a loss of interest and motivation in my own schoolwork, so I understand what my students are going through. 

Returning to in-person instruction is necessary, but it cannot be rushed. In light of CMSD’s reopening plan, stress and anxiety levels for everyone involved are at an all-time high. 

There has been little clarity about the exact date we will return, who will return in each phase, whether the buildings are safe and what the schedule will look like. However, one thing is clear: Reopening will drastically alter our schedule. Just when students and teachers are getting the hang of remote instruction, the scramble to return to in-person will cause a major disruption to the rhythm and flow of learning. 

One option for in-person instruction is that teachers and their students would never interact face-to-face while in the building. Yes, you read that correctly. From one location in the building, teachers would deliver virtual instruction to their students, who would be on individual computers in an alternate location. While the students attend their online classes, other teachers would “babysit” — the word used by the administration — them, despite likely having no relationship or rapport with the students. When thinking about “in-person instruction,” this plan is far from what educators had in mind. 

From speaking with students, I can tell you that this plan is also far from what many students are expecting. I suspect many of them will be shocked when they find out what “in-person instruction” really means, which may push them away even further.

There is also the possibility that some teachers will be moved to different school buildings within the district to accommodate class sizes and social distancing concerns, among other factors. As a result, students may have completely different teachers and vice versa. Three-fourths into the year, this option uproots students and throws them into a completely new environment with new material, new peers and possibly new teachers. 

Talk about “learning loss”? This kind of drastic disruption is not conducive to learning. 

While we are eager to return to business as usual, this rushed reopening does not seem to have the students’ best interest in mind. Rather, it seems to be the district’s best attempt at throwing together a plan to appease DeWine’s unreasonable expectations that overlook the needs of large, urban school districts. 

With the various moving pieces and parts that come with managing almost 50,000 people, CMSD was unable to be well prepared to reopen by March 1, and it is unfair to the faculty, staff and, most importantly, the students that the district was being forced to do so. 

Though I don’t have all the answers, continued online learning may be the best option for our students at this point. It seems counterintuitive, but uprooting systems that they understand and are comfortable with may lead to unnecessary upheaval, chaos and confusion, which our students have endured enough of already. 

I’m interested in hearing about your experiences and suggestions about school reopenings. Please leave your comments below or write a letter to the editor to inform further research on this topic.