By Matt Nighswonger
As I am working from home trying to motivate 250 students to do an assignment online, I ponder how things will look when we do return to the classroom. This needs to be the time when parents, lawmakers, and our communities realize how chronically underfunded our public schools are. We all need to take a look at how students are jammed into classrooms and schools. There is a lack of support staff helping out at the school. Even the buildings are not properly maintained.
We can’t go back to how it was. We have to come up with a way to adequately fund education. I know we will be facing a severe budget crisis. Schools won’t be spared the pain of budget cuts. But, since we weren’t funding education properly before the quarantine, our students and their opportunities will be even more limited when funds are cut from education, once they return from the lockdown.
I hear a lot of talk about having social distancing at schools. It will be a challenge to keep students at an acceptable distance from one another with about 20 to 25 students in a class, but with 40 to 45 students in a class it will be impossible. I am lucky when I have a class with fewer than 40 students. If I ever have 30 or less I feel fortunate; the kids and I look around the room wondering where everyone is because we have all grown so accustomed to having no personal space.
With the COVID-19 pandemic we are now aware of being too close to one another and that kids bumping into one another just to get in and out of class is probably not healthy. It is not okay to have this size of classes for our students. Given today’s crisis it is even worse for the teachers and the students to be in classrooms without any personal space.
Not only are the classrooms bursting, the buildings are well past capacity. It is hard to drive around Clark County and find a school that does not have portable classrooms. We hastily throw up a double wide trailer with no windows and shove more students into those rooms. We also have to use every available room in the school, even if it is not an actual classroom. Offices have become classrooms, conference rooms have become classrooms, even computer labs become non computer classrooms. Most schools around town look like they have a trailer park out back. Even with the lack of space and rooms there are no plans for building more middle or high schools and as soon as we build an elementary school it is already full.
Kids don’t pay attention to cleanliness. They don’t always wash their hands. These habits will continue when we return to school, despite the virus. But, we can have the buildings cleaned more often. We could have the desks wiped down, the doors cleaned, and other high contact surface areas sterilized every day. But, most buildings don’t have enough support staff to have the garbage picked up and the rooms vacuumed at the end of each day, let alone adding more duties to these overworked employees. Many times teachers have to be the ones that vacuum their own room or wipe down all the student desks. It’s not as if the janitors don’t work hard; they do. But, they are severely understaffed. If the schools are going to be cleaner then we will need more workers.
On top of all this, we don’t keep up with maintenance at schools. On a regular basis, with the changing of the seasons at school, the heat and the air conditioning do not work at all, or do not work properly. We get an email about an hour or two into school letting us know the issue is being worked on and will hopefully be fixed soon. The schools can’t afford to replace the heating and cooling units, so repair jobs are done when the seasons change, just to put off the expensive task of installing a properly working heating and cooling system. In the warmer months many of us bring our own fans and in the colder months we pack an extra coat because we all know the centralized air system will fail at some point.
Distance learning is not the answer. Students are missing out on so many facets of a standard education. We need to get them back into the buildings. We as a society have to provide our students the resources they need. Our kids have to count on us to pitch in more so that school is a comfortable learning environment for them. We have to be willing to do this, even though it will be difficult.
There are a lot of aspects to consider when we work on sending our children back to school which we haven’t thought about much. It is time to have some serious discussions on the size of classes we send them back to, the overcrowded schools they attend, the lack of support staff at schools, and our refusal to maintain the schools that we do have. Without attention to these details of our kids’ education we aren’t giving them all the resources they need to be successful.
We weren’t funding education adequately prior to the pandemic and economic contraction. Now, it is going to have even more deficiencies and be less safe. That is, unless we are willing to step up and acknowledge that education in Nevada needs a significant increase of funding.
Matt Nighswonger is a teacher and coach in the Clark County School District.