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Making the Grade? Back to School in the Age of the Pandemic

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

Students checking in the gate. One shows phone to security (not seen in photo)

Students checking in the gate. One shows phone to security (not seen in photo)

First Quarter Ends

School has been in session for nine weeks. First quarter grades are due at the end of the day and the students will either feel anxious, confident or complacent about the scores they are about to receive. At least, that was the way things were before a little virus made major changes to the entire school system.

The 2021-2022 school year is our first year back since the school closed down a year and half ago. We have a new superintendent for the district; a new school principal and administrative team; and new teachers. In addition, we have new protocols geared to handle the ongoing pandemic -- which seems to linger despite the availability of vaccines, masks, and social distancing policies.

COVID’s influence can be seen in the campus’s physical structures.

  • Plexiglas have gone up in the administrative office building.
  • Desk numbers in classrooms have been reduced.
  • Daily custodial sanitizing -- even if class is in session.
  • No tables in the cafeteria.
  • “Six-feet Distance” decal trails meander through several buildings and walkways.

All this, while the school is under major renovation. Ever-changing fenced barriers intrude onto walkways and many open spaces. Students and faculty travel through narrow paths that forces many to walk shoulder-to-shoulder down bottle-necked corridors. Clearly, this violates social distance practices.


Students heading through narrow corridor that  was created by ongoing construction on campus.

Students heading through narrow corridor that was created by ongoing construction on campus.

Policies and events off campus have profound effects. The state of California enters a phase in which vaccine mandates will go into effect. This includes public school districts. LA Unified, the biggest and most influential in the area, made it clear: students over the age of 12 and teachers must get vaccinated. My district will follow (in fact it’s being debated among school board members as I write this). Others have already followed LAUSD’s policies.

Through all these events, there is still a sense of uncertainty permeating throughout the campus. Many of us strive for a return to normalcy; however, these are stressful -- and changing -- times for all. And we’re not the same teachers or students that we were before this all started.

Still, this is the end of the first quarter. Students will get the grades. However, the grades need to go beyond typical academic functions. The quarter grade is a good time to gauge our return to in-person teaching.

Grading Ourselves

Grading students in one thing. How about grading the response by faculty and staff? Parents, too can be added in the mix. After all, we are all deemed “stakeholders” in a student’s education. Did the students fail or did we?

Specifically, grading of this nature can be broken down in these categories:

  • Screening;
  • Mask and safety policy;
  • Classroom cleaning/maintenance;
  • Students and parent preparations;
  • Teacher preparation;
  • Student behavior; and
  • Parent behavior

Traditional grades often used for academics and citizenship/behavior can be implemented in this process.


Screening

Grade, C+ : Screening is supposed to be the frontline defence against COVID. It’s meant to ensure that those infected with the virus are prevented from entering. At a glance, it appears to be very sophisticated. But, does it keep the infected out?

First thing in the morning, students fill out yellow slips or use an app on their smartphone to report their current symptoms. Afterward, they give the slips or show the apps to campus security and administrators at an entry point. The yellow slips are kept at a table next to disposable masks and hand sanitizers.

The smartphone app works by pointing and scanning a QR code. Along the perimeter of the school there are laminated posters with the codes on trees, poles, fences, doors to the administrative office and on the plexiglass on the security booth within the office building. In addition, some of these posters are at the crosswalk and signs of the nearest intersection.

These instruments are not uncommon at public schools around the country. My sons’ schools in Spokane incorporated a similar system when they opened back for in-person learning last year.

QR Code Poster in parking lot.

QR Code Poster in parking lot.

Faculty members, too, must do screening before entering. There is a choice between paper and an app. Most of us, however, will use the app. Ours is different, In the beginning it was similar to the ones the students use on their phone. However, we switched to a site called lintelio.com. As a result, we can report our vaccination, as well as answer three questions to pass the screening and be allowed to enter the campus.

It sounds great; however, the screening process has its flaws. It’s based on an honor system in which everyone is truthful on the questionnaires. So far, most students and faculty have been. Still, some have lied or didn’t show the symptoms despite being infected. This has happened (more on that later).

Masks and Safety Policy

Grade B+: As mentioned, disposable masks are available at several campus entrances. They’re also available in classrooms and offices. Still, Most students and faculty arrive with their own masks. That’s a positive step.

Another encouraging sign is the availability of hand sanitizers throughout the campus, including in the classrooms. Before reopening the campus, as well as the other schools within the district, an effort by maintenance and administrators was made to ensure safety measures were put in place.

Among these efforts were to:

  • Establish perimeters for social distancing.
  • Configuration of desks
  • Stocking supplies of masks and hand sanitizers at each site.

Also, stringent rules have been put in place. Not only are masks available, they are to be worn correctly, especially in the classroom. The protocols are as follow:

  • Masks must cover nose and mouth;
  • Eating and drinking in the classroom is prohibited (since it means someone taking off their mask);
  • Students are to be seated six feet away from each other; and
  • Teachers must make seating charts, and students are expected to stay seated at all times.

The seating chart may seem beyond strict, especially in a special education classroom. But, there is a reason for it. This is meant to help with contact tracing in case there is a need to inform students and faculty that may have come in contact with an infected student.

“I can’t breathe,” a particular student ... said repeatedly

There are consequences, too. If a student breaks these rules repeatedly, they are to be reported to administrators or intervention specialists. First, they are given warnings and a brief lesson on the appropriate ways to wear a mask. Repeated infractions can lead to suspension or placement in an independent study course.

Still, students will push back on the rules. They will see how far they can take it. Some will come up with numerous excuses why they don’t want to wear their mask properly.

“It’s too hot,” one student stated when told to put his mask over his nose.

“I’ve got to eat what I didn't finish at lunch!” Another exclaimed after being told to put his chips away and pull up his mask.

“I can’t breathe,” a particular student -- a repeat violator -- said repeatedly. This student was one of the first to be placed in independent studies (to be noted: this student had a history of disruptive behavior. His punishment for mask hestinancy was the final straw).

The safety protocols appear to be stringent and effective.

Classroom Cleaning/Maintenance

Grade A: When the pandemic started in early March of 2020, custodians and maintenance crew on campus went on a cleaning frenzy. They sprayed and wiped down glass doors. In many cases they did this while school was in session (often minutes after someone used the targeted doors).

Now, in October 2021, they’ve extended to classroom interiors. Custodians have weekly schedule charts posted in all classrooms. It indicates the items to be cleaned on certain days of the week.

The daily cleaning schedule

The daily cleaning schedule

Much of this was in practice before the pandemic and eventual lockdown. But it wasn’t done as often. Today, it’s not unusual for them to enter the moment the last school bell of the day rings and the teacher has yet to vacate the classroom.

The cleaning is constant. Often, the classroom will have a strong chemical smell. While irritating to the senses, it is reassuring to know that my class is sanitized.

Student and Parent Preparation

Grade D: While many parents and students comply to the school’s protocols, there are many who don’t . One story that circulated on campus was of a student who arrived at school with two masks.

As mentioned, the screening system operates on an honor system. Most students and parents understand this and will comply. If students were not feeling well or had tested positive, they were supposed to quarantine for two weeks before returning. And, throughout this quarter, several students did and went into quarantine.

However, not all did. One student reportedly showed up wearing two masks. He didn’t feel well but still showed up at school. He filled out the yellow slip, indicating all was well.

It’s not clear if a teacher reported him or if he made his way to the nurse’s office. Either way, it was revealed that he had tested positive several days prior to showing up for school. Further investigation revealed, according to a teacher, that his mother forced him to go to school because “she couldn’t watch him at home due to work.”

"They’re trying to kill us,” one teacher stated.

My school caters to a working class community. Many of the parents are barely getting by, working long-hours or doing more than one job. While this parent’s action is not to be condoned, it’s understandable why this would happen. Still, her decision put an entire campus life in jeopardy.

“They’re trying to kill us,” one teacher commented on the incident.

There are other cases of students not adhering to school policy. During the summer, the campus was open for summer school. There were several accounts of students becoming super spreaders (even a teacher, but more on that later), infecting entire classrooms. In many cases, the students didn’t properly wear their masks or ignored symptoms and went to school, anyway.

Thus far, in this quarter, the incident of the student forced to come to school is an isolated incident. However, I can’t help but think that this one was one that got caught. I’m sure there’s more out there doing the same thing.

Teacher Preparation

Grade C: Not all the problems can be heaped on the students and parents. Some teachers share some responsibilities. In my district teachers are mostly vaccinated. In fact, some of us are about to get the booster. In addition, most, if not all, come to school with masks and will supply sanitizer once the school supply is out. In addition, they are diligent in enforcing rules.

Still, there are few that have dropped the ball.

As mentioned, summer school had a few COVID breakouts. In one case, a teacher that wasn’t wearing his mask properly started it. He had it below his nose, and that was all it took for him to be infected and then to spread it to other students (also to note, the students in his class wore their masks in the same fashion).

Still, there are few that have dropped the ball.

Another issue emerged upon our official return to in-person teaching; not all the teachers were ready to come back. Several teachers, including one person in my department (special education) went out on leave before class started. Another revelation is that several teachers in the district are planning to quit. As a result, those of us present at school are feeling the brunt as our workload starts to increase. The uneven balance many of us will result in carelessness in the face of this pandemic. We can only hope it doesn’t get the best of us.

Finally, in my district, school started with some teachers being unvaccinated. The availability of the vaccines in the surrounding area is staggering. Yet, some teachers waited until school started to get the jab. To date, I’m not aware of anyone on this campus who hasn’t gotten it this late into the school year.

Student Behavior

Grade U: student behavior has their own set of grades.

  • E stands for excellent;
  • S for satisfactory;
  • N for needs improvement; and
  • U is unsatisfactory

So why the low grade for students this quarter? After a year and a half away from school, many students are restless and distracted. They’re slow to work, but quick to get on their smartphones to view to indulge in videos and text messages from their friends. These, however, are only minor infractions compared to other incidents.

The behavior among the freshmen is best described by the saying “Off the hook!” Security has been working around the clock removing unruly students from classrooms. Almost everyone of them are freshmen (The other grades are not any better, but they are wise enough not to get caught).

Just about every teacher on campus with freshmen have reported distractive and destructive behavior. These behaviors include defience to authority, verbal and physical conflicts with peers, vandalism, and other disturbing behavior.

A few weeks ago, an exasperated teacher came to a meeting stating he had just broken up a fight in his class between a male and female student.

“These kids are out of control,” he stated.

The popular theory for this collective behavior is that many of these students haven’t been in a classroom for a long time. In the case of the freshmen, the last time they were in a classroom, it was their 7th grade class at the local middle schools. One top of that, many used their phones or laptops for distance learning. It appears they need to reintroduce themselves to in-person learning.

Another theory is that many of the students are coming to school in dire need of emotional support. Some lost relatives to the pandemic. At least one student I know lost a father. In addition, many students haven’t set foot in the classroom.

Many in this latter group have been diagnosed with a form of anxiety disorder. This was unheard of before the pandemic. However, this condition is so crippling that some students simply can’t return. One student comes to mind. He has been working with social workers on campus, and every so often he musters up some courage to attend a class. Unfortunately, he backs off at the last minute. School started in mid August. Although he is still on my roster, he hasn’t attended one full class yet.

Another student showed up for the first week of school. Then, she vanished. Later, I got word from her counselor that she was going to be transfered to hospital school for independent study for the year. Again, anxiety disorder plays a major part in this.

Parent Behavior

Grade N: Many parents have been supportive. But there are few that have dragged this score down. The mother who decided to send her COVID positive son to school comes to mind.

The mother of the first student to be placed in independent study is another example. Administrators and case-carrier kept calling her about her son's behavior. She claimed she had a conversation with him about the matter and that he will do better.

In addition, she claimed she planned to attend his classes. That never happened. In the end, after numerous log entries (he garnered years of misbehavior aside from the mask violations) from teachers, he was placed on independent studies.

The mother who decided to send her COVID positive son to school comes to mind.

On a positive side, parents didn’t picket outside school, school district or at school board meetings. The same can’t be said about surrounding districts such as the affluent districts in the cities of Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach.

The ire of the parents vary. As well as ant-vaccine and mask mandates, they've rallied against subjects such as critical race theory. It’s not clear if all of them are parents, considering that many of them had ties to conservative think tanks and other groups.

The Final Assessment

Usually, first quarter grades are considered to be over-glorified progress reports. They merely give a snapshot of what the students are doing at that moment. The grades that do matter come in December and June. That’s when the 1st semester (2nd quarter) and 2nd semester (4th quarter) end. These grades are the ones that end up on the transcript for a student's permanent record.

The assessment for 1st quarter may indicate that school function is at a low satisfactory level. There are areas of strength and parts that need improvement. If we are to get back to normal, those areas of weakness need to be addressed.

making-the-grade-back-to-school-in-the-age-of-the-pandemic

Work Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Dean Traylor

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