Back to the Classroom. I’m Scared.

School districts across the nation are voting on their back to school plans. None are good options. All have flaws. In my area of Virginia, the largest suburban districts – Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William – have all decided to begin Fall 2020 virtually. However, those of us at the end of the I-66 corridor and beyond will be in the classroom. Even though my rural county is considered to have just experienced an outbreak, our local health district director has warned area superintendents that schools will not be “100% safe”, and there is significant growing evidence that children and young adults do get Covid, we are returning to the classroom in August.

Why? my suburban and city friends ask me. Why not go virtual? One reason we are returning is due to the lack of internet for many of our students. Child care is another issue – and socioeconomics connects both of these issues – but today, my focus is on the internet, or lack thereof, in rural areas. I understand completely why we’re doing this but I’m still scared.

We are returning on a staggered schedule, with our school population divided into small groups. Group A on Monday and Tuesday. Group B on Thursday and Friday. Wednesdays are reserved for deep cleaning, even though the virus is also airborne. Students at the high school are required to wear masks when social distancing is not possible. Sneeze guards are being placed around desks. Masks are offered to teachers. We are getting two weeks of professional development to help shape our online content for the days of remote learning. I believe our school system is doing everything it can possibly do, given the circumstances, besides going 100% virtual. And I’m still scared.

So into the classroom we go, an experiment, I feel, in crowds and enclosed spaces. I’ll deal with my personal fears and pre-existing conditions in another post. First, the questions: Will students wear their masks? Will they stay six feet apart for 7 hours a day? Will they be the dreaded super spreaders – few symptoms but high contagion? Will How many teachers, teacher assistants, bus drivers, office staff, and administrators will get infected in rural areas?

Kids are still indoors, inside classrooms. Maybe I’ll have ten or fewer teenagers in my classroom, behind sneezeguards, six feet apart…but in this setting – six feet apart – masks are not required to be worn by students. I’m not sure why the governor hasn’t updated this rule yet. It would help. A little. I mean, several people are still breathing in an enclosed space for several hours. I’ll wear my mask…but I’m still scared.

Here’s the thing. We cannot go 100% virtual. We discovered in March, March 13, Friday the 13th to be exact, when Governor Northam closed all Virginia public schools. Two weeks later, we were closed for the rest of the school year. Within those two weeks, teachers were to develop online lessons and have downloadable files for flash drives for those without internet along with paper packets. In April, our district handed out laptops to students who needed them, along with the flash drives. We gave laptops to nearly half of our student population. Half.

Our superintendent also worked with community businesses and churches to offer hotspots throughout our county. Stores, churches, and fire halls offered free WiFi. Sort of a drive up service. Doing homework in your car isn’t ideal at all, but that’s what we’ve got.

We also discovered internet issues with those who did have some service. We’re in a mountainous area, near Shenandoah National Park. There are pockets of internet accessibility (I’m in one. My husband has worked from home for years because we can get unlimited broadband. We can also *afford* unlimited broadband.) What we soon discovered was that folks that did have internet was often satellite, sometimes dial up. Then you have two or more people working from home – siblings, siblings home from college, parents working from home – and systems started to crash.

I teach advanced English courses. For the most part, my students are motivated and college bound. I offered 2x a week Zooms, using the Canvas system through the community college. Of my approximately 30 students, about 15 showed up on a regular basis. Several emailed me immediately and said, they just didn’t have enough bandwidth to participate (this is before I figured out the phone call in option). Others tried but the sound was spotty or the picture cut out. I recorded the sessions and emailed them but again…bandwidth.

Senator Warner has proposed an Internet for All Act. Our electric cooperative is working on fiber optics. None of this will be here by August. Our choices are, quite honestly, limited. Rural districts will be the experiment for the rest of the state. I’m scared.

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