Who Has it Right When it Comes to School Reopenings?
What wins out when education, health, and economics square off with our children at the center of it all?
My son has been attending school virtually since March of last year. What started as a challenging transition, the shift from being in a classroom with teachers and classmates to sitting in our living room on Zoom calls and watching prerecorded videos of teachers was jarring for everyone. By June, we were all exhausted. It is the first time I have seen parents looking forward to their children being out of school for the summer.
We all awaited the day where we could safely reopen schools. We crossed our fingers for November, but the holidays all but assured that we would see a spike in COVID cases, so that idea was abandoned.
Now, as my town stands a few days away from reopening schools with a hybrid schedule, we all find ourselves in a standoff between education, health, and economics with our children in the middle.
This week, we learned that the elementary school teachers in our town did not report to their respective schools to prepare for next week's opening. This after expressing health and safety concerns and lobbying to hold off on reopening until vaccinations are made available to teachers. It’s a sensible request that protects teachers, students, and their families.
Waiting is prudent… if you can afford it.
My family has been fortunate that we have had the means to make the best of a bad situation. We can afford the equipment our children need for remote learning and the flexibility of time necessary to support them. This isn’t the case for many people.
Not so long ago, it wasn’t the case for me.
I often think of what my life would be like if the pandemic had happened a few years ago. I was fresh out of a homeless shelter living in a basement. I had a job driving for a senior center making eight dollars an hour. I often worked twelve-hour days to make ends meet. My son’s mother managed. to hold things together for him.
If the pandemic had taken place in 2017 I’m not sure how we would have managed. The senior center would have been shut down, so at best, I would have been on unemployment. Barring that, I would have been struggling to find another per-hour job which is the worst of two worlds. I lose the time necessary to help guide and support my son through the challenge of remote learning while not making enough money to support the financial burden to support his physical needs.
The pandemic has highlighted just how important schools are to a fully functioning America. School isn’t just education. It’s childcare for working families. It’s a social safety net for those struggling with practical needs. Nothing can function fully unless schools function fully.
Earlier this year a contingent of parents protested to open schools immediately. Now there is a contingent of parents and teachers protesting to keep them closed for the foreseeable future. I find myself vacillating between the two.
The pandemic has turned the school conversation into a ven diagram without a center. An emphasis on economics pushes health and safety out of the center. An emphasis on health and safety pushes economics and quality education out of the center. An emphasis on quality education pushes health and safety out of the center.
There is no perfect answer. Only points of interest actively repelling each other like same poled magnets.
It doesn’t help that we are more polarized as a country as we have ever been and that the pandemic has become as much a political debate as it is a health issue. Open schools now? Far-right nutjob. Keep them closed until everyone is vaccinated? Far-left nutjob.
I don’t know what happens when everyone is kind of right. When all the options are a gamble and everyone wants to be the one rolling the dice.
Tonight I will be attending a Zoom meeting with my school's principal and other parents. Honestly, I’m not expecting much in terms of productivity. There will be overly specific questions that don’t apply to anyone else. There will be grandstanding and too long soliloquies about what is right and wrong. And our principal will be her usual boldly honest self. The most poignant thing she told us in September? “I’m glad my kids already graduated.” I love that woman.
My stepdaughter's school has been holding class outside since September. I have often thought about how ridiculous the notion of outdoor schooling is when you live in New Jersey and it’s the dead of winter. They even had a tent upend itself in the wind one morning. Nobody was hurt but it only added to how absurd this all felt. But, she gets to see her teachers, she gets to see her classmates, the parents get to, at least for half a day, go about their business.
As much as I have criticized it, the school has reconciled itself to an imperfect solution to an unsolvable problem. They have halfway satisfied all the problems understanding that the damage of solving just one ultimately does more harm than good.
What if the perfect solution is not seeking a perfect solution at all? Everyone at my stepdaughter's school has a complaint about the school’s process. But in the midst of those complaints the spread of the virus is nearly zero, the children, are getting some face-to-face instruction, and parents get a few hours to do whatever it is they need to do.
In the end all of what we are dealing with. The schools, our jobs, our communities, all require us to concede something in the face of global challenges. We have to give skin to save skin. There is no dodging it.
Until we finally get a handle on the pandemic the appropriate question isn’t “Where is the win?”, it’s “How do we mitigate the loss?”