As the new school year continues, parents and teachers will need to guard against a new version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Like the older version from the 1990s, this version will also bring heartbreak and danger to our communities.
The new “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the secrecy that surrounds the self-reporting of COVID-19 in public schools.
Let’s be honest. There’s a difference between colleges and universities starting and the reopening of K-12 public schools. Higher education has the ability to test and receive results rapidly even when a person is asymptomatic. Many colleges and universities are also using random testing.
To my knowledge, public schools in my home state of Iowa have none of these procedures in place. Instead, they must rely on private doctors, county public health officials, and the timely, honest reporting of students and parents about exposure and symptoms.
Teacher: I was a reluctant Trump voter. Coronavirus is the end of my Republican identity.
While the governor has assured us that Iowans will act responsibly, we have all seen the huge unmasked parties and the packed bars. We can all hope Iowans are driven by common sense.
But hope is not a strategy.
Can we depend on honesty as a policy?
Yet that’s what we are doing when we are relying exclusively on parents and students to step forward to be honest. Our hope also requires not just disclosure, but timely disclosure, to avoid a derecho of virus in our schools.
For example, what’s to stop a whole team from making a pact to not report until the season is complete? But delaying the reporting of virus contact until a season is over could shutter a public school quickly.
Coronavirus: I’m a New Jersey school nurse. ‘Fingers crossed’ is not an acceptable reopening strategy.
The other line of defense against “don’t ask, don’t tell” is observant and honest teachers, administrators, coaches and school nurses who could observe and then ask students and colleagues about exposure and symptoms. Unfortunately, nurses, the most qualified to identify COVID-19 symptoms, are an endangered species in public schools because of underfunding. That leaves teachers, coaches and building-level administrators to ask and report.
Teachers have a lot on their plates. Many are being asked to not only teach face to face, but also be experts on remote learning. In their spare time, they have to disinfect repeatedly, supervise mask wearing and, in some places, help serve lunch in the classroom.
Yes, if teachers see a student struggling, they can get them away from the other students, but without a school nurse in every building, I’m not sure where these students go until a parent can be contacted. Some schools have “COVID care rooms” in their reopening plans, but the real details about these rooms and who staffs them remain mysterious.
Combating “don’t ask, don’t tell”
Principals also can play a role combating “don’t ask, don’t tell.” First, they have to be in touch enough to observe students. That may mean pushing away paperwork, to be out and about where kids are. Second, they have to be brave enough to “ask, and then tell.”
That may seem easy, but no principal will want to be blamed for a COVID-19 outbreak. Anyone who thinks that isn’t a possibility has never read the comments on a controversial education story on Facebook.
Superintendents and central office administrators also need to be transparent with the community. Hiding cases or cooking the numbers is deadly and will cause two things to happen: When the truth comes out, there will be little or no trust left in the community, and the school employees will lose whatever faith they once had.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” in the U.S. military harmed a lot of dedicated soldiers. The new version could be deadly for our kids and our educators.
Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City, Iowa, and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for 11 years and a regional director for Iowa State Education Association for 27 years until retirement. This column was originally published in the Des Moines Register.
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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: COVID-19 in schools: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ can’t be the rule