Half-Truths: A Look Inside New Jersey’s Schools During a Pandemic

Sarah Mulhern Gross is a National Board-certified English teacher at High Technology High School, a magnet school in Lincroft, New Jersey, and a graduate of Project Dragonfly at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. This first ran on Medium.)

As Covid cases increase across the United States, politicians, parents, and other non-educators keep shouting that Dr. Fauci, amongst others, recommends keeping schools open. This is true, but they are only repeating half of what is actually said. Dr. Fauci has said for months that schools should be a priority, but that in order to keep them open bars, restaurants, and other businesses will need to close during times of increased community spread.

NJ is currently in its second wave. When will the state start protecting student and staff health? Teachers are tired of being gaslit. We don’t want to be congratulated for working hard and dealing with difficult circumstances; we want to be treated as professionals and human beings who deserve to be considered when health decisions are being made.

In New Jersey, Governor Murphy repeatedly refers to the “low transmission” and “expected numbers” of Covid cases in schools while pointing out how important in-person school is. When does “low transmission” and “expected numbers” cross the line into “high transmission” and “high numbers”? Is it when a handful of staff are hospitalized? Is it when dozens or hundreds of students get sick? Is it when someone dies or becomes severely ill?

A recent editorial in the Washington Postdemanded that schools reopen because remote learning is failing students:

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I don’t think any teacher would say that remote learning is the best way for students to learn. And most teachers would tell you that this pandemic has amplified the issues facing many of our most marginalized students. They are more likely to be in need of in-person learning right now, but they are also more likely to be susceptible to the medical and social issues surrounding Covid-19.

And those same students have long been the victims of inequitable schooling. That doesn’t make any of this ok, but it means we need to stop pretending that all of the issues suddenly in the news are strictly due to remote schooling.

Schools need to be a priority. As soon as it’s safe they need to be open for our most vulnerable students. However, we are in the midst of a pandemic, and parents, politicians, and the media have no idea what it’s like behind school doors right now.

I surveyed teachers across New Jersey and asked about their daily experiences. Here’s what it’s really like:

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Common themes- it’s impossible to enforce social distancing, students don’t wear masks/remove them to eat for long periods of time, and staff are removing masks in classrooms that share ventilation. Districts are denying teachers accommodations and forcing some to work in unventilated buildings with open windows when it’s 30 degrees outside. And these are just some of the many, many issues teachers are facing on a daily basis.

Where do teachers turn? There is nowhere to report districts that violate the guidelines and mandates. Despite the state of NJ saying “Compliance with Executive Orders is not voluntary”districts are being permitted to make their own rules. If a teacher feels unsafe their only option is to report it to the people who are creating unsafe conditions.

Schools can be safe- when the proper safety precautions are in place. Most of the teachers I have talked to will tell you those CDC guidelines for schools? They are not being followed in their building. At the same time, non-educators point to manipulated data to “prove” that Covid doesn’t spread in schools.

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Excerpt from the Washington Post

I am so tired of hearing this. A lack of data does not mean data does not exist. No one is collecting this data in the US. We are not testing students and staff at all, let alone on a regular basis. Families are not required to report positive test results to schools. In NJ we are relying on children to accurately identify their close contacts if they test positive. Only 74% of people contacted even comply. Epidemiologists recognize that when children are carriers they are often asymptomatic and can spread the virus to those around them. When this happens school staff can become ill and it’s not traced back to the school.

Spare me the editorials about how safe schools are because safety precautions are in place. We have underfunded schools for decades and now we are being forced to deal with the consequences. Teachers are human beings, not robots. While students may not get Covid at the same rate (or severity) as adults, they can still spread Covid. When they attend school in any capacity they must be around adults in school buildings. The fact that students are more likely to be asymptomatic spreaders is terrifying to school staff when the CDC guidelines are not being followed in buildings.

How safe can schools truly be when districts haven’t upgraded their HVAC systems, aren’t providing PPE, are allowing students to unmask to eat meals, aren’t able to enforce social distancing, and aren’t requiring negative Covid test results when students are absent for Covid symptoms?

If you haven’t been in a school building during the pandemic teachers don’t want to hear your thoughts on reopening or remote vs. in-person learning. If you never had anything to say about the issues with school before this you aren’t concerned about education; you are concerned with childcare.

Spare me the articles about how safe schools are. They rarely, if ever, mention school staff. For years teachers have been taught how to step in front of a gunman, hide their students during a lockdown, and how to pack a bullet wound while locked down. We are trained in EpiPen use, glucagon dosages, and defibrillator use. Until society can keep teachers safe in school stop demanding we once again step in front of a metaphorical bullet. This bullet may be harder to see, but it’s likely to hit more teachers.

If you want to know what’s really going on in school you simply need to ask educators. We have been screaming into the abyss for months and no one is listening. Instead of answers, we get a pat on the back and “thanks for working so hard!”. That’s gaslighting, and we are tired of being set on fire to keep everyone else warm.

What do you think?