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I am a high school English teacher and have been for 14 years. I am also a doctoral candidate, mother of a rising kindergartner and am married to a fellow high school teacher.
When I return to school for the professional development that will precede our students’ start, I plan on kissing my 5-year-old and my husband goodbye. I’m going to school in my scrubs, wearing my PPE, keeping the windows in my classroom open and beginning to troubleshoot teaching and learning under the hybrid model.
When I return home, however, I will no longer set foot inside our home. My husband’s medical conditions put him at greater risk for grave health repercussions or death from COVID-19, so I’m sleeping in a tent in our backyard and isolating myself from my husband and young son. We live in a modest home, not configured for quarantine.
Mine is a large tent. We’ve run electricity to it, and I have a camping shower and toilet. It could be worse.
If this seems extreme, it’s what we feel is necessary to keep our family safe, not only because our family has grown accustomed to making health and safety a priority but because what we know about COVID-19 from a scientific and medical perspective has evolved. Although schools have planned a return to in-person instruction with featured protocols like the increased frequency of surface cleaning, these protocols represent May 2020, not August 2020, thinking about this virus. Just since July, The New York Times has published articles highlighting studies indicating that:
Children bear a greater viral load than adults; children 10-19 have the same capacity as adults to transmit and be sickened by the virus; this virus is airborne, and airborne particles are spread at a greater distance and in greater quantity than previously thought; toilet plumes — school restrooms are lid-less — fling aerosols in restrooms; schools that have opened in the United States have already experienced outbreaks and closures, thus amplifying the potential for community spread.
I am sleeping in a tent in our backyard because my return to school compromises my family’s health and safety. The combination of the pandemic and the political will to return to in-person instruction forces choices on teachers that none of us should have to make. What will be worse for my 5-year-old: Missing out on countless mom-kisses, or potentially having to bury his father? Enduring remote learning or having his first experience of school be under pandemic conditions?
Many teachers in Connecticut and elsewhere will be left in a terrible predicament. Although we will be required to teach five days a week, our own children whose districts will open under the hybrid model will only have access to school two days a week. This will require us to shoulder unexpected financial burdens or take leaves under the expanded provisions of the Family Medical Leave Act. Districts that have not thought creatively about child care solutions are likely to experience mass absences of teachers.
I am well-aware of the problems associated with online learning. I experienced them myself this spring when I was teaching my high school students from home and undertaking my own doctoral coursework in an online model rife with challenges. Virtual learning is politically unpopular; however, it is the only option that keeps teachers, our families and the community at large safe. We ought to be using these next days and weeks to ensure that meaningful, robust, viable online learning is possible. We should not be practicing protocol related to surface cleaning.
In the meantime, I have been counting down my family’s close-proximity moments. My son cries when he remembers that we won’t be able to snuggle when I have to return to school. This tears me apart. Tuesday night was our last family meal together indoors and the last time I’ll tuck my son into bed for the foreseeable future.
Emily Kilbourn teaches English at Ridgefield High School in Ridgefield, Connecticut. This piece was originally published in The Hartford Courant.