(TNS) - Since the fall, research has shown that schools can operate safely during the ongoing pandemic—as long as schools take precautions such as universal masking, distancing, and contact tracing to stop the virus' spread. And while most schools doing in-person instruction have put these protocols in place, teachers say that the reality on the ground is that strict adherence to them can be next to impossible.
In interviews with Education Week, 15 teachers across seven states described how the conditions in their classrooms are often far from the ideals outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health experts: Kids take off their masks, classrooms and hallways are too crammed for distancing, and windows don't open for ventilation.
This group of teachers does not comprise a nationally representative sample. But other research suggests that some of these breakdowns in mitigation measures are occurring across a subset of schools. In a survey of students conducted in October by the CDC, just 65 percent of students said that their peers wore masks "all the time" in classrooms.
Several of the teachers interviewed by EdWeek taught in states that don't require, or explicitly ban, collective bargaining with teachers' unions. They said that the kinds of contentious battles going on between big-city school districts and teachers over safety precautions aren't happening in their districts. Many have been teaching five days a week in person since the beginning of the school year, with little or no input in decisions about classroom conditions.
"It seemed like there were a flurry of studies that came out in January that said school spread doesn't happen ... as long as these guidelines are followed," said Betsy Hobkirk, an elementary school art teacher in Knoxville, Tenn. "But who has those conditions?" How could it be possible to extrapolate that all schools are safe, when not all schools meet the same criteria as those that are studied, Hobkirk asked.
Most teachers said they didn't fault their school administrators, who they said were trying to keep everyone safe with scarce resources and amid competing mandates, guidance, and community priorities. But the gulf between what public health experts are recommending and the conditions in teachers' classrooms left them wondering: Is what we can manage to do good enough?
It's hard to know from the research we have now, many experts said. The schools that have been the focus of research on spread during the pandemic may differ from others in significant ways, said Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. "The schools, by the mere fact that they're being studied, are going to be more on the ball."
"Doing the really careful work takes time, and we haven't had it," said Kimberly Powers, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Global Public Health. "Some of the really careful looks at how schools have contributed to this pandemic may come later. We may be through this."
For now, even as more educators receive the vaccine, the way forward isn't for schools that have operated with few mitigation strategies all year to assume that precautions aren't necessary, Lessler said. COVID-19 variants continue to circulate, and though their spread hasn't been shown to weaken the effectiveness of the vaccine, they are more transmissible. Instead, schools need to double down on the strategies they are able to execute, Lessler said: "Just because you've dodged it so far doesn't mean you're not at risk."