Famous Last Words — Sliding Expectations Around Reopening Schools

All of us who are teachers have caved. We can admit it.

We know the questions:

“I can’t make it to the class, but I need to take it and pass. Could I pass the class just by doing what’s available on the course management system?”

“I need to take the five-week summer school course, but I have to miss the last week. Will that work?”

“Why can’t I just turn in all of the work during the last week of class?”

“Could I re-do all the assignments I have low grades on and have you re-grade them?”

“Im not feeling challenged by this class. Why can’t you let me do a separate independent study?”

For most of us who have encountered these questions in our college (or K-12) classes, the answer is usually a flat “no.” But we all have our moments of weakness. Maybe the student had a particularly compelling reason. Maybe they happened to ask us on a day when we were already worn down and didn’t have any more energy to argue. Maybe an administrator twisted our arms.

And we find ourselves saying, “Well, maybe that would work IF . . .”

Sometimes we’re kicking ourselves even as we say it.

Maybe doing this has worked out for other people, but whenever I have said these words, I have lived to deeply regret them. Students frequently nod their heads and steadfastly agree to do everything after the IF. But later, for one reason or another, meeting those conditions does not happen. Then they come back to my office, upset about their grade, asking why they didn’t do well, and wanting to know what else they (I) should do to resolve this issue. They often also blame me for not clearly communicating expectations, even when I had outlined a whole list of things they would need to do and consequences if they did not, including, “if you aren’t able to do all of these things, you may fail the class.”

Some of the issue seems to be what we say to students vs. what students hear. We may say, “This class was not designed to be an online class, it was designed to be an in-person class. Some of the assignments for the class will be completed during class, and people who don’t come to class will not get credit for those assignments, so it will be impossible to do well in this class if you are not coming to class. Nevertheless, since the major assignments are all online, I suppose it might be possible to turn in only those assignments and perhaps pass with a ‘C’ or a ‘D.’ But that would mean that YOU would need to use the course management site independently, do ALL of the online assignments independently and on time, and read and follow the directions to do the complete assignment correctly. If you are unable to do all of this on your own, you will not pass the class.”

That’s pretty strong professor-speak for “there is a high likelihood that this will not work, but since you’re an adult I will let you choose to try to be the exception to the rule as long as you’re comfortable accepting the risk of failing the course.”

But students often leave the conversation having heard: “I talked to the professor and they said it will be fine.”

Then they don’t do any of the things I’d told them they would need to do because, hey, they’d talked to me and I’d said everything would be cool.

Then when they are not passing and things are not cool, they feel lied to. Even though what they’d heard had almost nothing to do with what I’d said. In their view, I had not communicated clearly, which means I am at fault, which means I have a responsibility to fix the problem.

“Maybe we can try it, IF . . .” almost always opens a Pandora’s box. I end up having to have meetings, take late work, re-grade assignments, give an “Incomplete” and keep grading work even after the term is over, or I end up having multiple meetings and emails up the chain of command where I have to explain and re-explain what our original agreement was and why I refuse to make still more accommodations after the first ones weren’t met.

Watching the discussions about reopening the schools is bringing me back to all the “Maybe we can try it, IF . . .” discussions I have had over the years. In June, the CDC started putting out guidelines saying that we could try to reopen schools, IF all students get temperature checks and wellness checks before they enter, wear masks, stay spaced six feet apart throughout the day, remain in groups of 10 or fewer students, wash their hands frequently with soap and water, and IF the schools frequently administer COVID-19 tests to students and staff, install plexiglass shields and other PPE, frequently disinfect rooms, and keep all spaces well-ventilated.

That is a lot of IFs. Immediately, teachers had questions.

Many brought up that their classrooms didn’t have windows that opened, let alone HVAC systems, let alone HVAC systems that are monitored and cleaned regularly. Or they started pointing out that bathrooms at their schools have push-down faucets that don’t allow people to hold both hands under the faucet, or that their school bathrooms only had cold water, or frequently ran out of soap. Or that anyone who thinks students will wear a mask all day and never touch their faces or touch each other after touching their faces (not to mention other orifices) has not been in a classroom. And what would we do when parents started writing notes, or sending notes from a doctor, saying that their child thought wearing a mask was uncomfortable, so they decided that their child should not need to wear one? We wondered who was going to pay for the Plexiglass, boxes of disposable masks, vats of hand sanitizer, and cleaning products and cleaning staff to make all this possible. How was this going to fit into slashed budgets? Would Clorox wipes and Lysol spray even be available by fall? We’d already started shopping around to try to buy our own — just to be safe — and we couldn’t find any stores or websites that had these in stock.

Even so, the public heard, “We can re-open schools. The CDC said it will be fine.”

As with students’ amnesia about all of the stipulations that come after the IF, or expectations that those stipulations will also be negotiable, the CDC’s recommendations were glossed over. Then they got distilled down to fewer “real” recommendations. Then even those got walked back to being “guidelines.” Then Trump and Pence declared that the CDC guidelines would be too expensive and “too impractical,” and demanded that the CDC make changes that would allow schools to reopen. A few days later, the Trump Administration told hospitals not to share data with the CDC, effectively keeping it from doing its job to craft policy based on the most up-to-date data.

Meanwhile, the public continued to demand that schools reopen. Even experts and pediatricians — not to mention economists — started falling into line and publishing articles about why schools NEED to reopen. Some parents, and even some school board members, had bought into Trump-circulated myths that COVID-19 was “a hoax,” or that case numbers were inflated, or that it is no different than the flu, so why close schools for for COVID-19 when kids get the flu every year? As conspiracy theories abounded, more and more people insisted that re-opening our schools would be completely safe, and that the original CDC guidelines should be options for students, teachers, and families who wanted to take additional precautions.

Often, when I go against my better judgement and allow a student a “You can try this IF. . .” they thank me profusely and rave about how great I am. But as all the things that came after the IF come into focus or become too difficult or unwieldy, they either ignore them or I become the “bad guy” who is making all of these unfulfillable and unmanageable demands. What had started as an extra chance becomes twisted into my being perceived as being inflexible and having unreasonable expectations, or becomes my being perceived as demanding they jump through a bunch of additional hoops to get the grade they thought they deserved. We can see the same thing happen to schools and to teachers as districts and families start to come face to face with all the requirements the CDC had said they would need to meet — and with how to pay all the costs.

I’ve had administrators or department chairs who are pressuring me to find a work-around for a student and allow a “You can try this, IF. . .” option ask me what the problem is when I’m reluctant. With one, I got exasperated and said, “Because making this work always ends up on my back. It ends up being my job to find a time to meet with the student that fits with their schedule, and then it’s up to me to figure out an option that will work, and then I usually have to follow up with them and remind them of what they’re supposed to be doing, and then if they don’t do what was required or their work isn’t passable, I end up looking like the Wicked Witch of the West, and then it becomes my job to explain that again and figure out what to do next.” He finally kind of heard that.

Teachers are now expressing the same concerns. We’ve been down this road before, and we know where it leads. We’re already starting to get that twisting feeling in the pit of our stomachs as we realize who will have to maintain all these rules, do all this cleaning, accommodate constant absences, and argue with parents about why yes, their children really do need to follow these rules — while simultaneously reassuring anxious parents that the rules are being followed. Most — if not all — of it is going to land squarely on our shoulders — again.

With most of the “We can try this, IF . . .” options I’ve given to students, the stakes have been an “F” in my course — at most. Given the cost of college tuition, even those stakes are pretty high. But with reopening schools during a pandemic, the stakes are much higher. How many children’s lives are we willing to risk if we can’t do all of the CDC’s IFs that followed their statement that it was safe to reopen? How many lives of teachers and staff are we willing to risk? Or lives of parents, grandparents, and other family members? What if the CDC’s conditions aren’t possible in our buildings or with our students? What if there is no money to pay for meeting these requirements? What if all the schools in the country create a run on tissues, hand sanitizer, face masks, Clorox wipes, Lysol spray, and other cleaning supplies, so that there aren’t enough of these required items to stock each classroom? What if students and families don’t want to follow the rules and refuse? What if we all manage to follow the CDC’s recommendations, but they turn out not to be enough to curtail the spread of COVID-19 and there are still outbreaks?

Even while teaching college classes, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s my job to be the adult and say no — even if saying that makes some people angry. Sometimes I have to tell people that they might think they will have no problem with doing all the things after the IF, but that there are good odds they will have problems because all the things I listed after the IF means there will be no margin for error. I’ve taught long enough to know that, even before COVID-19, things happen. People get sick. They get tired. They lose focus. They have to cover additional shifts at work. Or deal with something that happens in their families. In one way or another, even the best-laid plans frequently go awry.

Sometimes I have to tell people what they don’t want to hear and I have to say “NO.” And I have to explain that I’m saying “no” because I care about them and because it is not ethical to set someone up to fail. Online, I’ve written to people who think that COVID-19 is a hoax and that it’s completely safe to reopen schools that making your own run for a Darwin Award is your choice, but that it’s unconscionable to sign up children. Our children are trusting us, not just to make them happy, but to keep them safe. As with teaching, that means being the adult and sometimes saying “no.” It means making the safe, but unpopular choice and keeping them home. Especially when the stakes are so high, it is not ethical to set people up to fail.

Suzie Null is a former middle and high school teacher and current professor of Teacher Education. Follow her on Twitter at WritingontheWall @NullSet16

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