Mitchell Robinson: How Can We Reopen Schools If We Can’t Even Open Windows?
Mitchell Robinson is an associate professor of music education at Michigan State University. He’s a researcher and a staunch defender of public education (in a state where it often needs defending). He blogs regularly at eclectablog.
Contemplating the re-opening of school building, Robinson draws on his own teaching experience to talk about the nuts and bolts of the issues involved it getting students and teachers back in buildings together. This is reprinted here with author’s permission.
I’m seeing a lot of well-intentioned rhetoric lately about the importance of good ventilation in schools to mitigate the spread of Covid in school classrooms, with the best advice being to “just open a window,” and “use a simple box fan to circulate exhaled air.” The example shown was of a “real classroom” with an entire wall of windows, a teacher, and 9 students socially distanced at 6 feet between desks.
That disturbance in the force you may have just felt was created by every public school teacher in the country rolling their eyes, hard, in unison. Because they understand, in a deep, rich way, that nothing about these “simple recommendations” is, in fact simple.
Allow me to share a few thoughts, based on my time as a teacher…
- In my 41 years as a music teacher, I have never taught in a room with a window. I’ve taught in basements, closets, boiler rooms, trailers, and band rooms with no windows and egress doors permanently locked. The only time those doors could be opened was in the event of a fire drill, and then only if the assistant principal remembered to bring the key with him when he was doing his “sweep” of the building–and if he bothered to walk all the way down to the band room, which was located in the furthest back corner of the building, next to the Industrial Arts room and the wood shop (the other “noisy” places in the building, according to the principal).
- The room next to mine did have a window–but that window had been painted over during the 1970s, and in order to prevent students or staff from trying to open it, the window hardware had been removed, rendering it inoperative.
- Another music room in our school also had a window–but it was located at the very top of the wall, just under the ceiling tiles, and couldn’t be opened even if you climbed a ladder to reach it.
- My office windows at my current job did not open for many years–until all the windows were replaced a few years ago as part of a remodeling project. Prior to that remodel, the only way to open the windows was to bring a pair of needle nose pliers from home—and if you did somehow manage to get the window open you got scolded for doing so, as it was “against the rules.”
- As part of a budget crackdown in the 1990s, we were told we had to get rid of any electrical appliances (coffee makers, space heaters, refrigerators, fans) in our classrooms. So “simply” sticking a box fan in a window would have been out of the question.
- And where would I have plugged in this “illegal” fan if I had a functioning window in my classroom? There was one outlet in the front of my room, and a matching one in the back. When I brought an extension cord in from home to get power to my sound system the custodian confiscated it because it was not an “approved” electrical device. It took another 4 years to get additional electrical outlets installed in my classroom.
- If I did have a classroom with a window, and if that window could be opened, it was 4 degrees in my town last week. Opening a window would freeze my students in minutes.
- And if I wanted to adjust the temperature in my classroom there was no way to do that–because the thermostat was protected behind a locked, “tamper-proof” plastic box, and required a special key to open the box and change the temperature settings. A key that only the head custodian had, and apparently was not permitted to actually use.
- My last school music class had 133 students in the classroom, not 9. They were packed in like sardines, chairs touching, not 6 inches apart much less 6 feet, in a room that the Fire Marshall said could safely and legally accommodate no more than 60 persons, according to the faded safety poster tacked on the door of the band room.
- As if 6 feet of distance doesn’t seem adequate, or realistic, to keep students safe in school settings, we are now seeing school leaders in many places deciding to reduce even that minimum distance–to as little as 36 inches.
Look, every teacher I know is dying to get back into their classrooms and be with their students and colleagues again. They just don’t want to get sick—or chance literally dying to do so.
If better ventilation systems will help us get back to school, then let’s do it. But silly recommendations like “just open a window” aren’t serious or good faith gestures in schools that have been systematically defunded and neglected for decades. They are just uninformed and lazy attempts to mollify–or shame–teachers who are legitimately afraid to re-enter spaces that in many cases and places weren’t clean, maintained, or safe *before* Covid, let alone now.
When will these “school safety experts” spend some time in schools?
Or talk to teachers?
Or try to open a nonexistent window…