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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Back to School with COVID-19; Ethical Questions for Teachers

an empty classroom with rows of desks, chalkboards, and maps

an empty classroom with rows of desks, chalkboards, and maps

Kathy Almazol and Don Heider

Kathy Almazol is the head of Faith Formation and a senior associate in Character Education, and Don Heider is the executive director, both with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are their own.

Typically, the first day of school has a magical feel. We all remember it; new clothes, clean shoes, backpack, and a box of tissues! Teachers are anxious as they arrive to greet their new students, who will spend the better part of every day for nine months with them, learning, problem solving, laughing, and sometimes crying. Well, put that on hold for this year.

The 2020-2021 school year begins under a cloud of controversy. There is much agreement from educators, health experts, and parents that children in elementary and middle school learn best from being together in a classroom. Teachers of elementary school are adamant that the K-8 levels of school are best done in a community environment with personalized support for the learners. However, in-person teaching presents a wide range of real concerns in a pandemic. 

For classroom teachers being asked to return to schools, there are some key ethical questions.

First and foremost, teachers are asking how they can assure the health and safety of their students. One of the lenses we use to make ethical decisions is the idea of whether a decision promotes the common good. Preserving the health of those students, of those students’ relatives, and preserving the health of teachers would be clearly promoting the common good. If schools cannot assure safety and health of students, teachers, and their loved ones, then starting school again in person seems to clearly violate the common good.

To make any assurances about keeping folks healthy in the classroom, a number of other questions arise. Will there be enough social distancing and masks? Will students and staff use hand sanitizer, and who will be cleaning and disinfecting the desks, and how often?

Is it a teacher’s responsibility to ensure the classroom is a healthy and safe place for the children in their room? Is that a fair thing to ask teachers to do? Teachers already have considerable responsibilities in delivering a lesson plan and maintaining some order in a classroom. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics also uses a lens of fairness to evaluate ethical problems. In this case, is it fair to ask teachers to teach, keep order, AND remind the children to wash their hands, put their mask on, social distance while trying to get across the lessons prepared for the day? Are teachers expected to monitor the bathrooms as well? If not, when using the bathrooms will students remember to follow the many new rules and protocols?

If a teacher believes a student is sick what exactly is their responsibility? Is it a teacher’s job to take a student’s temperature? To recommend a quarantine?

As a consequence of these overwhelming concerns many teachers have also determined that in-person school is not a safe place for children this year. Therefore, many schools are planning to begin again with distance learning.

Distance Learning presents another whole set of ethical issues and concerns for the teacher. Our framework for ethical decision making also includes the fairness, or justice, approach. Using this lens to evaluate a situation, we have to ask, are all people involved treated fairly?

The first question here is do all students have access to the computers and internet access they will need to be able to be successful with online learning? Are all home environments equally suited for student learning? What will parents who need to work outside of the home do in regard to having someone to care for children no longer attending school?

Then there are questions facing the teacher, such as how can a teacher best relate to the student through the online learning method?

How will teachers get to really, truly know the students through a computer screen? The teacher student relationship is an essential part of the school program. Getting to know a student is time consuming. Teachers invest their time and energy in learning each student’s sense of humor, their favorite snack, their shy way of asking for help, the plaintiff look in their eyes for speechless communication. Distance learning presents barriers to accomplishing this critical part of good teaching. Yet distance learning seems best for the health and safety of all students and teachers. In making a decision in the best interest of the health of most of the students, will we leave some students behind?

Other concerns for teachers include:

  • While distance learning, will students feel engaged through their computer?
  • Will they see their teacher looking at them or will they be looking at another screen?
  • How will kindergarten students know the instructor is focusing on them through the lens of the device they are using?
  • Will their device be working throughout an entire 60- or 90-minute lesson?
  • What happens if children can’t get online?
  • What if their home device doesn’t integrate with the school program format?

Most teachers are very concerned if the decision to engage in distance learning can really ensure a commitment to safely, care, and educate each of their students. Is it possible to provide an environment that allows each student to flourish and be successful? Can they guarantee this distance model will do no harm to how a student learns? It is indeed this burden of responsibility that keeps many of them up at night. 

As we wait for the end of this pandemic and assess the effect it is having on the children and teachers in our schools, are we—the parents, the community members, the pundits—going to support the ethical choices necessary to teach the youngest and most precious resources in our community? Will we take the time to listen to the teachers, the essential workers in education, who every day grapple with ethical situations and make (attempt to make) the best decisions for the good of each child in their room? Will we work towards the common good and try to protect everyone’s right to be healthy and to learn?

Aug 25, 2020