We are nearly one week away from the start of school. My private school in Washington DC will be starting the year virtually. Our theme for the year is “Standing Together”, and I appreciate the call to think and act like a community during these uncertain times. My son’s public school in Montgomery County will also start virtually. As I last wrote, our family decided to stay home together this fall and made choices that supported that decision. Yesterday we picked up his backpack full of supplies along with a chromebook. I am impressed with the organized roll out so far, which has included several instructional webinars and multiple phone calls, emails, and texts to check-in. Luckily we live in an urban area in close proximity to our school with excellent internet. If I lived in a rural community with less access, I might feel very differently. I understand how our country has come to this level of division over what is best for children, what is best for teachers, what is best for families, what is best for economies, and what is best for communities. I just think it is unfortunate that the decision to stay home or not ever became an individual choice.
In Maryland and the DMV at large, the school opening debate has been contentious, with administrators putting forth various plans, soliciting feedback, waffling, being defiant, caving to teachers, ignoring teachers, caving to parents, ignoring parents and all myriad of ridiculousness. Meanwhile, families are enrolling, withdrawing, filing lawsuits, forming pods, hiring tutors, panicking, and sometimes acknowledging the inequity of it all. Meanwhile, our governor held a press conference that basically threatened schools, saying there would be financial penalties for not opening by the second marking period. Meanwhile, the science evolves as more research is done and there continue to be “surprises”.
Everyday we learn more about this disease from how it spreads to whether people can be reinfected. Several vaccines are underway. The treatment protocols and procedures have changed drastically since the early days in March when Governor Andrew Cuomo did press conferences in front of a pile of ventilators. We are just now learning about the patients with lingering effects and long term recoveries, the young ones who weren’t supposed to succumb to strokes or need double lung transplants. No one has had COVID-19 for a year yet…or five. Answers to the many questions will take time, and we should be sure that we have enough information to proceed without regret. I see delaying the schools reopening as an effort to buy the scientists a little more time. It is too early to get back to normal, and when people say they want to reopen schools they are imagining what we will offer will be normal.
Instead, children are arriving at school and lined up for temperature checks, prepared to be admonished constantly while kept 6 feet from their nearest friends, no shareable snacks or passable notes in sight.
Instead, teachers are putting up plexiglass and shower curtains and ordering scrubs.
Instead, classes that can’t be done without sharing materials or instruments or close spaces are being canceled.
Instead, families are having to choose between school activities and outside ones that would widen the circle of exposure.
Sounds like a blast.
Now teachers are going to make whatever needs to happen, happen. Across the country we are preparing for a wide range of scenarios. Whether in person, hybrid, or virtual, I see colleagues making the best of their situation, even as they all come at a cost. To be honest, I prefer virtual teaching to the necessary sterility and inevitable anxiety of in person teaching. I don’t want to hound children all day about their masks. I don’t teach kids to work silently and alone. I rarely stand at the front of the room and certainly never behind plexiglass. I won’t be able to control my face if someone sneezes. And while virtual kindergarten isn’t ideal at all, neither is the thought of my gregarious child being yelled at for various forms of noncompliance while the carefree play and hugs he is used to become impossible. What is all of this for?
It has become clear that the United States, its culture, and its economy are heavily reliant on teachers. Just conceptually people are having a hard time imagining what happens if their kids cannot go to school. I suppose many had children with the imperative caveat that they would be occupied from 9am – 3pm, Monday through Friday, September through June, from age 5 to age 18. Certainly protestant work ethic and capitalism held hands during the birth of the public school system at the height of the industrial revolution. We do not know any other way and have refused to address the crushing childcare needs of women and poor families for decades. Meanwhile teachers are caught between explaining how vital our function is to society and advocating for the right to protect ourselves and our families. We know we are essential, but in a pandemic what does that even mean?
I know for sure that I touch lives. I expose and inspire and coach and encourage. Over a series of weeks and months I can have a pretty big impact. But the day to day is more mundane – fractions and fragments, geography and geometry, and any other number of necessary but perhaps not exactly critical pieces of information. I cannot point to a single lesson that I will do this year that makes me say, “Now that’s worth it!” when I imagine an outbreak taking hold and being passed on to a more vulnerable party in our community. It would be devastating to learn that even one staff member or parent or elder relative or (god forbid) child had died because we decided to be in school. No one seems to have an answer about how to handle that. We either naively expect it not to happen or expect that it will happen and that everyone can find a way to deal. It is clear that our economy doesn’t work when our youngest members have no place to go outside of the home. But is that a good enough reason to put lives at risk?
I used to imagine how if a school shooter broke in I could do everything in my power to protect my students even if it meant endangering myself. Somehow this doesn’t feel like it requires the same level of martyrdom. Of course we all want this to be over. But acting like it isn’t happening or that we can will it away with our determination is not the answer.
Last Saturday we met friends outdoors for a masked playground playdate. Many precautions were taken. On Thursday, I received a text that the family was testing positive for COVID so even though we had all worn masks and stayed outdoors, we might want to take precautions as though we had been exposed. So far we all feel fine and are awaiting results from our tests, which were provided for free by the county. They won’t likely come until next week. I am really grateful for this family’s transparency. I am really grateful that our county has an organized system for free and convenient testing. I am really annoyed that a definite answer is not immediately available. We will responsibly stay inside until we hear back, but how does that work if I need to report to school on Monday. It turns out that most essential workers show up unless they are exhibiting symptoms so I guess that is what would be expected. Imagine a school full of families on this revolving wheel of exposure.
If we really want to open schools then we need to become much more unified and much more compliant. We need to empower our community governments to put systems in place for frequent, wide spread, rapid testing and contact tracing which means less privacy. There needs to be a standardized system of reporting and information sharing with the public. We need to set aside selfish desires and change the way we live our lives to protect each other, with mask wearing being the minimum requirement. We need to prioritize the needs of BIPOC, the medically vulnerable, and the elderly. When schools do open widely we need to prioritize resources not for the wealthy who have other options, but for the families and students who suffer the most when schools are closed. We need to take strides to truly stand together. Basically, we need to become less American and more…something else.