Too Much to Ask of Us

Too Much to Ask of Us

I looked at my computer screen and scanned through the emails. Zahira Daniels, my assistant principal, had invited me to a Zoom meeting. I was so Zoomed out—meeting after meeting with people from the superintendent’s office, with other principals trying to get answers, and with my own staff trying to give them what little information and guidance I had. “No, I don’t want to do a Zoom meeting,” I wrote back. “Just pick up the phone and call me, Zahira, okay?”

A few minutes later, my cell rang. “Hey, Zahira. How are you?” I asked.

“I just don’t know, Sandra. Have you read all this?”

“I am trying to,” I answered. “Hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, cloth face coverings, adequate supplies, signs and messages, cleaning and disinfection,” and the list goes on and on—that is just from the CDC. The PA Department of Education says we should have a “pandemic coordinator and/or pandemic team” with a “health and safety plan.” “Zahira, this is just beyond what we can do. I wake up at night trying to think of how this all is possible. How do we ask this of the teachers and staff, let alone the children and their families?”

“I know. I know. Cloth face masks might be possible. We could have students make them, for God’s sake—if we can get the material and some sewing machines. But how are we going to have enough hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies? What about all our kids with asthma (teachers and staff members for that matter)? Constant exposure to disinfectants and chemicals is going to be bad for them. How are we going to explain to eleven- to fourteen-year-old children that they can’t touch anything that doesn’t belong to them? That they can’t borrow a pencil or a piece of paper? That they can’t trade lunch items? That they can’t go to recess?”

“Hillman wants the kids in school two days a week. One scenario is to have half the children come Monday and Tuesday, clean Wednesday, and then the other half Thursday and Friday. That is assuming we have all the cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer that would need. But that is still a hardship on families. Even if we can maintain social distancing in school (which I am highly skeptical about), the child-care arrangements that families would be forced to make will mean that social distancing will be out the window. What will that mean for exposure possibilities? And it still means online learning for more than half the week—and that worked so well in the spring!”

“We’ll never get the supplies, Sandra. You know that, don’t you?” she said, bitterly.

“We could make some. I have actually been thinking about this. I have started saving milk and large beverage containers (soda bottles and juice bottles)—what if we mixed up water and bleach and water and vinegar solutions for cleaning? We could ask teachers and staff members to do the same?”

“Are you serious?”

“Unfortunately, yes. I am serious. Again, we could have the children help making such things so they could share the information at home. We could ask for donations (fabric for masks, clean empty bottles for cleaning solutions). Bleach and vinegar aren’t that expensive. Rubbing alcohol (over 60%) would be best, but it is really hard to find that. I have even made hand sanitizer using Tea Tree oil, Witch Hazel, and Aloe Vera gel.”

“Have you really?”

“Yes, it isn’t as good as alcohol-based hand sanitizer, but it is better than nothing.”

“I have been wondering about the times the children are in school. What if we opened earlier and stayed open later?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, usually our school day is 9 AM to 3 PM (six hours), but what if we went to a five hour day, one shift 7 AM to noon and the other from 1 PM to 6 PM, cleaning in between sessions?” she suggested.

“It’s an interesting idea. But how would we staff it?” I thought a moment. “And to what end? Hillman wants the children in school only two days a week. The shift plan seems more suited to trying to have children in more than two days—like a normal situation, only half the children coming in the morning and half in the afternoon/evening.”

“Yeah, but how does any of this align with S.O.A.R. (Showing trustworthiness, Owning our behavior, Accepting Responsibility, and Responding respectfully) that is part of our mission statement, Sandra?” she asked.

“It doesn’t, Zahira. It just doesn’t. Hillman is under increased pressure to have the children in school—by parents, by businesses, by the mayor. They all want to reopen and go back to some sense of normalcy. But how do we make sure we are ‘staggering the use of communal spaces and hallways and ensuring regular cleaning’ or, even better, ‘adjusting transportation schedules and practices to create social distance between students’? How do people, let alone students, even take public transportation in a pandemic?” I asked with exasperation. “Lord, even if we can create safe conditions at school, which I doubt, how do we account for what students and staff will be exposed to on public transit?”

“What are we going to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I have thought of three strategies. First, trying to comply with Hillman’s request for two days of in-person instruction for students, and to do that I would be asking for the donations (for material, sewing machines, and clean, empty bottles) and thinking about a GoFundMe page. For both of those things, we would need to put them out to teachers and staff members so that they make those requests known and begin collecting themselves. We could even put it out to our students’ families.”

“GoFundMe?” Zahira asked.

“Why not? What is the worst that can happen? We don’t get any money? But if we don’t ask and try, we won’t get anything, and clearly this year, we need money for supplies PSD isn’t going to be able to supply,” I answered.

“And two and three?”

“Two, you are not going to like. I am thinking about retiring. I have thirty years in. I was trying to make it thirty-five, but my husband is high risk (overweight, former smoker, high blood pressure) . . .”

“No! Sandra. Please. You can’t,” she pleaded.

“I can, but Tony doesn’t want me to give up the job I love and have worked so hard to have.”

“Virtual kiss him for me, would you? And three?” she asked.

“Three is risky. Three is we defy Hillman and go virtual in the fall,” I said.

“Can we do that?”

“We’ll be sued, probably. But the mayor has said no public gatherings of more than 50 people through February 2021. How is bringing 144 (half our students) and over 100 teachers and staff members not defying the ban on large public gatherings? On any given day of in-person instruction, we will have fives times more people in our school than the mayor says is safe. Plus, COVID-19 is spiking across the country with all these knuckle heads listening to the president and not wearing masks and not taking it seriously. Pennsylvania has over 100,000 cases and Philadelphia over 28,000—and God only knows what happens when the college students come back in August. Tabernacle alone will have 40,000 and that isn’t including Drucker, La Savior, or Franklin—not to mention the other colleges and universities in the area. Even the K-12 schools that start two day in-person instruction will eventually be forced back to online instruction, or at least, that’s my prediction.”

“What about our parents?” she asked.

“It is going to be hard. There is no question about that. But we could start planning for it now—start talking to them about it. Think of Bernie Thompson and Mary Jackson or Shirly Brown. They are all teachers and staff members who are medically compromised, and they are just the first to come to my mind. And you said it before, we have a significant population of children with asthma—and they probably aren’t the only ones in their families with medical conditions that make them vulnerable,” I answered.

“You’re right, I think. What a horrible situation we are in! They are just asking too much from us and not providing the resources for us to do this responsibility and ethically. I don’t like option three, but I like it better than the other two. What do we need to do now?”

“Though I am so sick of Zoom, I think we call a Zoom meeting with teachers first and talk it through. The teachers need to be on board before we do anything else. Then we meet with the staff members. We can do a virtual town hall with everyone if they want to. Then we reach out to parents and our students.”

“Hillman will fight us on this,” she said.

“Yes, he will. But looking at the CDC guidelines—how can we open Sojourner Truth when we don’t have a ventilation system or an updated water system? And we don’t have physical barriers, and I doubt we will receive them. We don’t even have face shields for teachers and staff. And eating and food were always going to be problematic with children. There is no concrete plan for how to deal with us. They are just asking us to wing it and hope for the best. Well, that is not acceptable. I will not risk our children and their families. I will not risk my teachers, staff, and administrators—and their families. I will not be responsible for killing people. I just won’t. It isn’t responsible. It isn’t ethical. ‘A community of 19,000 caring employees working together with parents, families, volunteers and community members to support the limitless potential of more than 203,000 young scholars’ just doesn’t risk the health of all those people because economic and business interests want life back to some sense of normal.”

“Well, as John Lewis (God rest his soul) would say, let’s get ready for some ‘good trouble,’” she said.

“Amen, Zahira, Amen.”


Asking teachers and staff to bring kids into schools (K-12 and colleges and universities) is a risky proposition until the spread of COVID-19 is meaningfully under control in the United States, which it is currently not.

About the Artist

Kathleen Murphey,  Montgomery County
Published:  August 20, 2020