By The Washington Post · Eli Saslow · NATIONAL, EDUCATION
This is my choice, but I'm starting to wish that it wasn't. I don't feel qualified. I've been a superintendent for 20 years, so I guess I should be used to making decisions, but I keep getting lost in my head. I'll be in my office looking at a blank computer screen, and then all of the sudden I realize a whole hour's gone by. I'm worried. I'm worried about everything. Each possibility I come up with is a bad one.
The governor has told us we have to open our schools to students on August 17th, or else we miss out on five percent of our funding. I run a high-needs district in middle-of-nowhere Arizona. We're 90 percent Hispanic and more than 90 percent free-and-reduced lunch. These kids need every dollar we can get. But covid is spreading all over this area and hitting my staff, and now it feels like there's a gun to my head. I already lost one teacher to this virus. Do I risk opening back up even if it's going to cost us more lives? Or do we run school remotely and end up depriving these kids?
This is your classic one-horse town. Picture John Wayne riding through cactuses and all that. I'm superintendent, high school principal and sometimes the basketball referee during recess. This is a skeleton staff, and we pay an average salary of about 40 thousand a year. I've got nothing to cut. We're buying new programs for virtual learning and trying to get hotspots and iPads for all our kids. Five percent of our budget is hundreds of thousands of dollars. Where's that going to come from? I might lose teaching positions or basic curriculum unless we somehow get up and running.
I've been in the building every day, sanitizing doors and measuring out space in classrooms. We still haven't received our order of Plexiglas barriers, so we're cutting up shower curtains and trying to make do with that. It's one obstacle after the next. Just last week I found out we had another staff member who tested positive, so I went through the guidance from OSHA and the CDC and tried to figure out the protocols. I'm not an expert at any of this, but I did my best with the contact tracing. I called 10 people on staff and told them they'd had a possible exposure. I arranged separate cars and got us all to the testing site. Some of my staff members were crying. They've seen what can happen, and they're coming to me with questions I can't always answer. "Does my whole family need to get tested?" "How long do I have to quarantine?" "What if this virus hits me like it did Mrs. Byrd?"
We got back two of those tests already - both positive. We're still waiting on eight more. That makes 11 percent of my staff that's gotten covid, and we haven't had a single student in our buildings since March. Part of our facility is closed down for decontamination, but we don't have anyone left to decontaminate it unless I want to put on my hazmat suit and go in there. We've seen the impacts of this virus on our maintenance department, on transportation, on food service, on faculty. It's like this district is shutting down case by case. I don't understand how anyone could expect us to reopen the building this month in a way that feels safe. It's like they're telling us: "Okay. Summer's over. It's been long enough. Time to get back to normal." But since when has this virus operated on our schedule?
I dream about going back to normal. I'd love to be open. These kids are hurting right now. I don't need a politician to tell me that. We only have 300 students in this district, and they're like family. My wife is a teacher here, and we had four kids go through these schools. I know whose parents are laid off from the copper mine and who doesn't have enough to eat. We delivered breakfast and lunches this summer, and we gave out more meals each day than we have students. I get phone calls from families dealing with poverty issues, depression, loneliness, boredom. Some of these kids are out in the wilderness right now, and school is the best place for them. We all agree on that. But every time I start to play out what that looks like on August 17th, I get sick to my stomach. More than a quarter of our students live with grandparents. These kids could very easily catch this virus, spread it and bring it back home. It's not safe. There's no way it can be safe.
If you think anything else, I'm sorry, but it's a fantasy. Kids will get sick, or worse. Family members will die. Teachers will die.
Mrs. Byrd did everything right. She followed all the protocols. If there's such a thing as a safe, controlled environment inside a classroom during a pandemic, that was it. We had three teachers sharing a room so they could teach a virtual summer school. They were so careful. This was back in June, when cases here were starting to spike. The kids were at home, but the teachers wanted to be together in the classroom so they could team up on the new technology. I thought that was a good idea. It's a big room. They could watch and learn from each other. Mrs. Byrd was a master teacher. She'd been here since 1982, and she was always coming up with creative ideas. They delivered care packages to the elementary students so they could sprout beans for something hands-on at home, and then the teachers all took turns in front of the camera. All three of them wore masks. They checked their temperatures. They taught on their own devices and didn't share anything, not even a pencil.
At first she thought it was a sinus infection. That's what the doctor told her, but it kept getting worse. I got a call that she'd been rushed to the hospital. Her oxygen was low, and they put her on a ventilator pretty much right away. The other two teachers started feeling sick the same weekend, so they went to get tested. They both had it bad for the next month. Mrs. Byrd's husband got it and was hospitalized. Her brother got it and passed away. Mrs. Byrd fought for a few weeks until she couldn't anymore.
I've gone over it in my head a thousand times. What precautions did we miss? What more could I have done? I don't have an answer. These were three responsible adults in an otherwise empty classroom, and they worked hard to protect each other. We still couldn't control it. That's what scares me.
We got the whole staff together for grief counseling. We did it virtually, over Zoom. There's sadness, and it's also so much fear. My wife is one of our teachers in the primary grade, and she has asthma. She was explaining to me how every kid who sees her automatically gives her a hug. They arrive in the morning - hug. Leave for recess - hug. Lunch - hug. Locker - hug. That's all day. Even if we do everything perfectly, germs are going to spread inside a school. We share the same space. We share the same air.
A bunch of our teachers have told me they will put in for retirement if we open up this month. They're saying: "Please don't make us go back. This is crazy. We're putting the whole community at risk."
They're right. I agree with them 100 percent. Teachers don't feel safe. Most parents said in a survey that they're "very concerned" about sending their kids back to school. So why are we getting bullied into opening? This district isn't ready to open. I can't have more people getting sick. Why are they threatening our funding? I keep waiting for someone higher up to take this decision out of my hands and come to their senses. I'm waiting for real leadership, but maybe it's not going to happen.
It's me. It's the biggest decision of my career, and the one part I'm certain about is it's going to hurt either way.