We experience cognitive dissonance when we hold contradictory ideas. Experiencing these inconsistencies tends to be stressful and disorienting. In order to regain a sense of balance, we often engage in self-deception and ignore the reality of a situation.
Updated: July 15, 2020 7:15 a.m in the Houston ChronicleJuly 15, 2020
Last week, Texas Education Agency Commissioner, Mike Morath mandated that our public schools reopen for in person instruction next month. Simultaneously, Texas logged its largest number of positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, increasing the number of cases statewide among children 9 years of age and younger to more than 550.
Parents and children all across Texas are experiencing the stress of this cognitive dissonance. When you speak to the educators themselves, though, the self-deception cannot hold.
In May 2020, we began interviewing 28 education experts — Texas primary and secondary school educators who spoke to us on the condition their identities would remain confidential — and asked how they envisioned social distancing working in their classrooms and on their campuses; their unanimous response — it would not work. Their doubts focused on the inherent constraint of school environments — physical space.
As one interviewee said, “We would come back with 28-30 students [per class]. I’m not getting additional staffing. There is no space even with additional staffing. Same thing with riding the bus, buses are full [with] two to three kids to a seat.”
Students and teachers deserve to learn and work in places that provide the greatest safety. Confined and enclosed spaces that encourage close contact coupled with poor ventilation describe both classrooms and areas in which COVID-19 spreads easily.
“It’s impossible, my school has a terrible AC system that breaks down twice a week, my classes have 34 students basically sitting on each other,” one educator told us.
Commissioner Morath and TEA recommend, “where feasible without disrupting the educational experience, encourage students to practice social distancing” to reduce the spread of COVID-19. In Houston and cities across Texas, COVID-19 transmission is nearly uncontrolled. TEA’s flexible school reopening policies come without adequate funding or resources to contain virus transmission. This premature reopening of school buildings is unwarranted.
When social distancing is not possible, TEA advises that schools plan for more frequent handwashing, hand-sanitizing, and increasing airflow from the outside if possible. One has to wonder how much handwashing will be necessary, according to research, children 11 years of age and younger touch their mouths with their hands six to 28 times an hour. Using outside air to increase airflow is questionable, average high temperatures in the Houston area range from 90 to 95 degrees in August and September. Picture it, a student in an unair-conditioned classroom wearing a mask, drops a pencil while wondering which students in class might have the virus, then worries about whether hand sanitation should take place both before and after picking up the pencil while the teacher is informing students that they must memorize math facts for tomorrow’s quiz. What kind of learning outcomes are students expected to achieve under such conditions?
Mandating school reopenings threatens teachers’ safety. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that nearly 25 percent of teachers face an elevated severe illness risk from COVID-19. A USA Today/Ipsos poll indicated that 20 percent of current teachers do not intend to return. Educators we interviewed also expressed concerns about their safety — many have underlying health conditions — and that of immunocompromised family members with whom they live. When educators are coerced to endanger their most valuable possession — their lives — we must ask: what do we value?
Identifying schools as necessary to students’ social and emotional development created one rationale for mandating their reopening. However, at this moment, that rationalization is unsound, ill-informed, and unacceptable. The educators we interviewed were well aware of teachers’ and schools’ significance to students’ social, emotional and cognitive development. Educators also understand that debilitating anxiety and fear of illness and death can undermine students’ emotional well-being. The transmission and integration of knowledge occurs most effectively and efficiently when everyone’s needs for safety and security are met.
If school buildings remain closed, what will students lose that they can never regain?
Given what is known about this virus we cannot deceive ourselves about its dangers to students, teachers, and ourselves. We must approach the coming months with wisdom and compassion; protecting the most vulnerable among us. The responsible and reasonable course of action for reopening school buildings is to do so when safe conditions as defined in peer-reviewed evidence-based scientific reports are fully met.
McCoy is a counseling psychologist and Serrano is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown. Both have extensive experience in conducting education research and program evaluations in K-12 Houston-area public schools.