Handshakes are a deeply ingrained part of our society, and they play an important role in daily life. Handshakes, or one of their various cultural equivalents, such as dap, can be greetings that signify warmth, teamwork and camaraderie.
As a high school English teacher, my custom for 16 years has been to greet kids at the door to my classroom and shake their hands as they enter. We practice a firm handshake, eye contact and even smiling. It isn’t always easy with the distractions of life going on all around and even inside of us, but the role of this gesture in our society is such that I teach my students we need to learn to do it, even when we may not wish to. “Nobody is going to reschedule an interview for any job you actually want just because you’re grumpy.”
For years now, I’ve been gratified by emails and social media messages coming from former students, contacting me after landing jobs with law firms, Fortune 500 companies, and even professional sports teams, thanking me for teaching them to shake a hand and look another person in the eye. Moreover, our handshakes each day signify an understanding between my students and me: It’s time to get to work. It has, up to this point, been one of the simplest yet most meaningful things that I do every day in my classes.
But what will it look like when we at last return to school after a global pandemic? And what will that mean for the relationships we build with others? Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s leading expert on infectious diseases, who has—willingly or otherwise—become the face of the COVID-19 outbreak in America, wants handshakes done away with completely—and he’s not alone. But what will a world without dap, a world without handshakes, hugs or high fives, even look like? You can’t elbow bump—you might as well be necking if you’re that close, and as a teacher, I should forget about placing a comforting hand on the shoulder of a distraught young person. But can we really get back into brick and mortar schools with “keep a safe distance” as our mantra? I have my doubts.
True—handshakes are not a customary greeting between teacher and student in most schools, and while I’ve already explained the rationale behind my practice of shaking students’ hands, it is difficult to imagine doing away with that—perhaps in favor of standing behind a podium with an apple balanced atop it, a yardstick in my hand, taking attendance? Maybe I’ll practice balancing spectacles at the end of my nose. Regardless, can we have school without handshakes? Yes. Can we figure out how to conduct job interviews without handshakes? We already have. But for schools, the issues run far deeper than that.
Reopening Schools Will Pose A Number of Problems
- School Buildings. Our buildings are almost universally built with a series of bottlenecks that confine hundreds of kids into tiny spaces. Our hallways and entrances can be packed wall-to-wall, and most of our buildings are full or near capacity. One solution might be staggering dismissals and passing periods, but at a school like the one I teach at in Omaha—a school of two thousand students—the best we can hope for isn’t going to be enough to keep a disease from spreading. Furthermore, it already takes nearly two hours to feed everyone in two overcrowded cafeterias in my building; I can’t imagine how long it would take if we spaced them out even more. Our brick and mortar buildings, the very symbol of public education in many ways, may prove to be the greatest threat to a resurgence in outbreaks once we return.
- Athletics. Another arena in which this is going to dramatically impact students and teachers will be school sports. In my sport, cross country, we routinely line hundreds of runners up, side-by-side, sometimes five, 10, 20 students deep, their shoulders touching, their adrenaline-fueled breath all over one another. And at the finish line? I don’t know how many runners have collapsed into my arms, or leapt into them, depending upon the circumstances. It will be even worse in other sports. There’s obviously no way to maintain social distance in tackle football, much less on a 94-foot basketball court. And if you take dap and high fives away from student-athletes, what will the competitions even look like? None of this even begins to address the question of stadiums and gymnasiums crowded with fans, of course.
- Social and Emotional Support. Then, too, there are those moments when distance can’t be maintained by teachers. It’s one thing to voluntarily give up handshakes, but it will be completely another to look a sobbing young man in the eyes and say, “I know you really need a hug right now, but I can’t—our social distancing guidelines don’t allow for that. I’m sorry. Maybe you can hug yourself?” At that point, it might actually be better to be separated by a screen. At least then it wouldn’t feel so cruel.
- School Nurses. Then there are the school nurses. We already don’t have nearly enough of them, and they are already overworked and visited constantly by students with a million different ailments at varying levels of severity. What will the life of a school health professional look like when we return from a pandemic? Every fever, every cough, will have to be taken seriously. Do we have the funding or the space to hire enough nurses to do this right?
- Professional Development. Finally, there’s the staff at large. When it was announced that we would not be returning to traditional classes after spring break, I was relieved when my district told us, “Check your email.” However, teacher friends in two neighboring districts texted me the following week, saying things like, “We have our entire staff in the auditorium right now” or “We have an all-hands meeting in the media center—how does this make sense?” It doesn’t. Training staff, or even delivering information that is too complicated or too sensitive to deliver in an email, is likely going to prove difficult moving forward.
We Must Be Physically Distant At School, Not Socially Distant
I recently recorded a lesson of “Teacher TV” with my friend Carl to air on public television here in my home state of Nebraska. As we spoke, Carl pointed out that the term “social distancing” is problematic, and he told me he prefers “physical distancing.” This resonated with me.
In scary times—like a pandemic, but also post-pandemic—the last thing we want is to feel socially distant from those who support us. As teachers, administrators and public officials start to put school back together, I think we would do well to consider that what is needed is not social distance, but physical distance. If anything, the social distance should be minimized as much as possible.
It seems very likely that, among the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be the yet-to-be-defined alterations to social interactions, in particular those that involve physical touch and close proximity with others. One thing I will say is that if handshakes are to become a casualty of the pandemic, a verdict that I am prepared if not excited to receive, then I will expect whoever issues that order to be equally diligent in ensuring that my students and I are able to maintain a minimum six feet of distance between our persons at all times. In my little classroom, that will translate to class sizes of about ten. I suppose I am willing to trade in handshakes for that.