Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed spending $2 billion to reopen schools in California, while President Biden wants $170 billion to reopen schools and universities nationwide. To get kids back into the classroom, that money would be far better spent putting vaccines into people’s arms, starting with school personnel and adding students as soon as inoculations are approved for them.

Brian Foster 

We pretend that air filters and socially distanced students will prevent COVID. Even NFL players could not achieve success with wrist proximity sensors. In junior, middle and high school environments, the reopening of schools with retrofitted heating and air conditioning systems, mask-wearing and social distancing will result in less class time — and teachers will be far less effective than in purely virtual schools.

How can that be? In my own classroom, which has been rearranged in anticipation of a hybrid reopening, about 60% of the desks have been removed to provide 6 feet of clearance between students. Desks are spread to all edges of the room, which makes both the white board and storage cabinets inaccessible. I cannot even get into my chair, which is wedged between my desk and a cabinet.

The result is that I could have only one-third of my students in my classroom at one time. Where do the other two-thirds of my students go? They are at home, of course, attending class virtually. I would see each student only once or twice a week; the rest of the time, they would be at home just like they are now. Worse, we would be unable to read our facial expressions due to mask-wearing. I would have zero one-on-one interaction with my in-class students and reduced interaction with my virtual students. In short, I would become a stationary robot, and the quality of my teaching would precipitously decline.

My voice would be muffled not just by my mask, but also because the HVAC unit would be running continuously to filter the air. Students already complain that they cannot hear me when the unit cycles on, and my voice strains to reach the back of the classroom. Some classrooms do not even have ducting for air circulation, so the retrofitting costs could skyrocket beyond bailout budgets.

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Due to the seating arrangement, all students (and I) would need to orderly enter and exit the room first in-last out while maintaining 6 feet of distance. What happens when a student needs to use the restroom, develops a bloody nose, starts to vomit or just forgets the restrictions and walks around the room? I cannot even begin to think what would happen in a fire, earthquake or other emergency.

Having COVID-free schools assumes that teenagers will behave perfectly. Teenagers. Need I say more? Let’s assume that they behave perfectly. Minimally, the time needed to enter and exit classrooms single file, to move between buildings, to get to lockers and to use restrooms will all increase. So, we need to extend passing periods, intruding on in-class instruction time.

Between classes, who is going to disinfect the rooms? Most schools prohibit teachers from using toxic chemicals, and some teachers have physical limitations that preclude cleaning their classrooms. Assuming teachers could disinfect classrooms, they would need more time between classes, including time to wash their hands in now-crowded staff restrooms, all of which further reduces class time. If teachers are cleaning their rooms during “break time,” then additional class time needs to be reduced to provide for real breaks, as provided by state law.

The truth is that students will not behave like perfect robots, and teachers and students will inevitably come into close contact, rendering schools the modern equivalent of the 1918 influenza epidemic (which caused more deaths than those killed in World War I).

Are students learning less with distance learning? Absolutely. But what should be obvious is that teaching a hybrid model damages student learning more.

The goal should be to fully reopen. To do that, instead of putting billions of dollars into retrofitting schools, we should put it into vaccines.

Brian Foster teaches social studies at Newark Memorial High School. Prior to teaching, he was a government financial and management consultant.