Should Schools Reopen In The Fall? Absolutely. Not.

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Back to school.

In our Pre-COVID world, this simple 3-word phrase was wrought with emotion: excitement, nervousness, last-minute FOMO to squeeze the most out of summer, relief, maybe even dread. But now, in our pandemic-stricken society, “back to school” is stirring up a whole new mix of emotions: fear, anxiety, anger, confusion, disbelief.

What will back to school look like this year, and should our schools even reopen?

This is a hot topic that has blown up to epic proportions over the last couple of weeks. There seem to be two pretty distinct teams that have emerged from the debate: Team School and Team No Way.

Team School argues that we need in-person instruction. It is the government’s responsibility (and the tax-payer’s reward) to have full-time instruction available for all students. We need schools open, and we need them now.

Team No Way is reading CDC guidelines and WHO statistics and shaking their heads. Those curves we wanted flattened or diminished are looking more and more like the first uphill tick on a roller coaster. They’re all gripping the lap bar with white knuckles as they wait to see what terrifying turn of events will happen next.

So, where do I stand on this subject? Which team am I rooting into the World Series?

Neither.

And Both.

When looking at the dilemma of whether or not schools should open, we need to acknowledge that education is only one of the many functions of capital-s School. School as a societal function on the surface appears to be merely a place for teachers pouring knowledge into the empty vessels of students. But, as anyone who has spent more than one microsecond on the other side of a whiteboard will tell you, School is not only for education.

In fact, I would argue that education is not even the primary function of School. I am a former teacher and, in addition to “educating”, my years in the classroom included the following roles and job responsibilities: counselor, mediator, nurse, childcare provider, special learning needs intervention specialist, disability services manager, mandated reporter, lunch lady, snack monitor, bully remover, recess supervisor, parenting trainer, financial advisor, culture and race ally, safe haven. School is not just a place, and its function is not just education.

You see, we need schools. And not just because schools are school. Allow me to illustrate.

One of the hardest years of my life was teaching Spanish Kindergarten in a highly-impoverished charter school in California. Every single one of my students was poor enough to qualify for free lunch. Only two of my 28 students spoke any English at all. Not a single one of my students’ parents had attended college; most had never graduated from high school, and a handful had never even completed elementary school. Privileged white girl teacher was in culture shock…and still had to teach kindergarten. In Spanish.

During the course of that manic year I received a crash-course in the true multi-faceted function of School. Those kids arrived at school every day–usually by themselves, because Mom had already run off to her first job (she worked 2 or 3 jobs) and more often than not, Dad was not in the picture–and, as a class, we marched over to the cafeteria for breakfast. After breakfast we learned about things like how to line up and raise a hand, because none of these kindergarteners had ever attended preschool or music group or library story time. I taught them how to tie their shoes and use a tissue. We practiced paying attention for 2 minutes, then 3 minutes, then 5 minutes until, by January, we were able to get through an entire lesson in one go. Sure, those kids learned their letters and numbers and all that, but they also learned essential life skills. School was vitally important for them.

And, just as school was vitally important for my students, school was vitally important for their parents as well. Those parents knew that they could go to work during the day and support their family because their child was safe and supervised. Their child’s physical and mental needs were, to the best of our ability, met every day. They knew that, even though they had never received an education themselves, their children now had this opportunity. They knew that their child with Autism or Dyslexia or Vision Impairment would get the services they needed but could not afford. They knew that, even though they did not yet speak English, that their child would learn the Language Of The Land and be able to help communicate for them–at the store, at their job, in court. They knew that their child would come home with a full belly and a full mind, and that was everything.

I have thought of those families often during this pandemic. How on God’s green earth are those families surviving this? Do those parents have jobs, and if they do, are they dangerous “essential worker” jobs that put them at a higher risk of contracting the virus? Do those families have health insurance during this pandemic? Do those children have food to eat every day, and is it healthy and accessible and guaranteed? Do those children have supervision during the day while their parents work outside the home? Did those children have access to technology or learning tools during last spring’s school shutdown–and if they did, was anyone able to help them with their education at home?

Those children need School.¬† Not just “I’m tired of having my kids around all the time” need-School, but their very lives depend on it need-School.

And yet, COVID rages on. In some areas of our country positive COVID cases are at an all-time high. We can not go to school.

So what are we to do? How can we have in-person school while guaranteeing the health and the safety of the millions of students, staff, and families “back to school” involves?

We can’t. It’s an impossible situation. As much as I love cake (and I LOVE cake!), this is not the time to have your cake and eat it, too.

But there are positive steps we can take in the right direction. There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution that can solve this impossible situation, but there are some guiding principles that could help make this transition more manageable:

Money
Doing anything safely at this point is going to cost a boatload of money. Extra staff, sanitization, PPE, improved technology services, upgrading buildings and ventilation systems, hazard pay for teachers (this is not a thing, but it should be). All of it will cost actual US Dollars. Lots of them. Someone (I’m looking at you, US Government with a $721 BILLION DOLLAR annual military budget…) needs to pay up. And, no, asking teachers to pay for this in any capacity is not an acceptable answer.

Schools Must Open
This is not even a question. In-person School is an essential service in our world, and many students and families will not make it to the other side of this pandemic in one piece without it. Parents need to work. Students need to learn. School in all of its capacities is absolutely essential.

We need to find a creative way to start School services…and that may or may not be in actual school buildings with our usual army of teachers. Maybe we utilize the (many) shuttered spaces in our local communities and the (many) unemployed adults to help provide daytime childcare for children so their parents can get back to work.

Maybe we send school buses full of food on their usual bus routes every day to distribute 3-squares to every man, woman, or child that needs nutrition. Maybe we send (well PPE’d) OTs and Speech Therapists to childrens’ neighborhoods to provide essential special education and therapy services. Maybe we employ college students who can’t return to their university campus this fall to facilitate remote learning with pre-recorded lessons from certified teachers. These lessons could take place in empty movie theaters with a handful of students at a time. Or in a community park. Or whatever. The point is, School does not have to happen within the four walls of an actual school.

Families Must Have The Choice To Stay Home
After months of shuttering ourselves away (“sheltering in place”) we can not expect families to willy-nilly throw their children back into the mouth of the lion. There are a million reasons why a child or a teacher should not be in a physical classroom with even a dozen other humans for multiple hours at a time right now. Just Google it.

We need real, equitable, well-planned, well-executed modes of remote education. Teachers need specialized remote-teaching training. Students need access to physical learning tools, books, and equipment. Parents and tutors need access to remote teacher training and teaching materials–we need to equip everyone involved and set them up for success.

We need parents to have the choice to unenroll from public education for however long this pandemic rolls along without any negative impacts to the local school district. Funding should not be withheld from local schools just because a family needs to make a different choice during an uncertain time. Parents must have the ability to make the right choice for their family–whatever that choice is–without negative repercussions.

Teachers Need To Have A Say
You guys, some of my best friends are teachers. Some of them are terrified right now. They’re afraid to return to the classroom because they don’t want to get themselves or their families sick. They don’t want to accidentally kill their parents or their neighbors or their grocery store clerk. Some of them are pregnant or have babies and young children at home, and they don’t want to infect or orphan their children. Some of them are cancer survivors. Teaches are already heroes, we don’t need them to be martyrs, too.

Some of them–all of them–have 8 days of paid leave for the year…which is not enough for even one 14-day quarantine if they are exposed to COVID in their classroom. Some of them will lose their health insurance during a pandemic if they don’t teach this year. Some of them are being bullied by administrators to suck it up or get out the door. Some of them have PTSD from being thrust into online teaching last spring and they don’t know how they’ll manage it for another year.

They’re all tired. They’re all waiting for an answer that values their life and their opinion and their needs and their desires. We owe them a voice in this decision and a guarantee that they have options.

Temporary Shifts
We need to acknowledge that any changes we make now are temporary. It feels like COVID has been going on forever and it will never end. But it will. And when it does, we need to have a mechanism in place for change. We will need to swiftly remove the parts of this temporary plan that are not best practices moving forward in whatever new world we find ourselves in on the other side; crisis School may not be used as precedence for the new world.

By that same token, we need to be able to continue the parts of the crisis changes that actually do work. If increased technology or the different solutions we come up with to survive crisis schooling do work in some ways, we should hold on to those ways that do work and not throw them out with the face masks and respirators at the end of this whole thing.

Every change that is made during crisis schooling needs an asterisk *This is temporary*. Schools need to be given the autonomy to rebuild themselves in the right way when this is over. Some things will be the same, and some will be forever changed, but schools themselves need to have a voice in how the new world of School will look.

***

We are in an unprecedented time. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action. My hope is that each family and each teacher will feel empowered and validated to make their own right choice in regard to school this year. Impossible as it is, we will all get through this. And even if the choice my family makes is radically different from the choice your family makes, we will all be stronger if we walk through this uncertain time together.

This, too, shall pass.

And until then, let’s be the best advocates for each other.

Stronger together, forever.

How To Prepare For The First Day of School In 10 Easy Steps

FullSizeRender 5 copyTomorrow is (finally) the first day of school(!) for my kids. I think we’re about the last ones starting school this year, which is only fair since they basically didn’t get out of school last “spring” until the 4th of July. We’ve had a glorious summer and I’m not quite ready to face the reality that’s about to smack me in the face tomorrow morning when I have to actually get kids up and dressed and fed and out the door at a reasonable hour like civilized humans. Ready or not, though, here it comes: the school year beckons.

If you, like me, need a little help getting psyched for the first day of school here is a little guide to whipping your crew into shape:

Step 1: Locate your children
It’s likely you have at least one rogue child at this point in the season, but fear not. In order to locate your children, start with the most obvious places: the blanket fort in your living room, the playhouse in the back yard, in the garage where you keep the popsicle stash in your freezer. If the primary locations come up bust, widen your perimeter: the neighbor’s house, that park down the street, the woods behind your house. If you’re still coming up empty-handed, just take an important phone call or hide in your bathroom and unwrap a candy bar: this is the universal signal to children that it is time to come find Mom, and they will surely be pawing at your door within seconds.

Step 2: Hygiene
This step will meet with much resistance, but it must be done. Carry on, warrior. Yes, we have been taking “pool baths” and using the “nature potty” all summer, but now it is time to re-introduce your children to indoor plumbing. Give your children an actual bath in an actual bathtub with actual soap. Scrub off the sand and the dust and the layers of crusty sunscreen that have been accumulating for the past 90 days. Pick the seaweed and the tree branches out from their hair. For heaven’s sake, trim their talons so they at least resemble human fingernails.

Step 3: Clothing
Your children must wear clothing. No more tiny nudists, we’re going public here. Go to Target or Costco or whatever real clothing store you shop at and buy something that is not a swimsuit and flip flops that your children can wear on their bodies when they re-enter proper society this week. Make sure the clothing you choose is new and exciting so they’ll want to wear it more than that horrendous excuse-for-a-t-shirt that they tie-dyed with you this summer. Also remember that your children are now accustomed to very little–if any–effort in dealing with their wardrobe: limit tedious tidbits such as zippers, buttons, and snaps.

Step 4: Nutrition
Oh my gosh, you guys, we have to quit feeding our kids hot dogs and Cheetos for every meal! I mean, I’m going to keep doing it when they’re at home and everything, but when they’re at school you’ll get nasty notes compelling you to pack “healthy, balanced meals for the benefit of your developing child’s mind and body” if you try to pass that stuff off as lunch. Cut veggies into festive shapes, decorate sandwich bags with little faces and googly eyes, cut napkins into confetti—just do what you’ve got to do to make it look like you’re putting in the effort here.

Step 5: Preventative Care
Schools are basically just giant cesspools of germs. There has never been a time in the history of ever when all children come home healthy from the first week of school. Nope, not gonna happen. What we can do, however, is take a few steps now to prevent the onslaught of disease that is about to return with our kids after their first days back with other living, breathing children. Serve Emergen-C or Airborne in place of their regular juice at breakfast. Bathe them in hand sanitizer. Preemptively shave their heads so the lice don’t want to mess with that. Insist on their wearing of face masks and surgical gloves during all periods of contact with other children. Tell them that a you’ve cast a magic spell on them and now their boogers will taste like brussels sprouts. Line up emergency babysitters for next week when you yourself will inevitably be so sick that you can’t get out of bed.

Step 6: Wake Up
This will be a challenge. Not so much for the kids, of course–they’ve been waking up by 6 AM every day since, well, they were born. No, no, no–the challenge is for YOU. No more laying in bed while the kids watch “just a little TV” in the morning so you can catch up on your beauty rest. No more. Set your alarms and your coffee pots, Mamas: School is coming.

Step 7: Hone Your Homework Skills
Watch a few YouTube videos on new Common Core Math strategies (what on earth is this hocus pocus they teach now, anyway?) and hop on Pinterest for science fair project ideas. It’s always better to stay ahead of the curve so you actually look like you know what you’re talking about when your kid comes to you for homework help. If that doesn’t work, just practice repeating this phrase: “Go ask your Dad.”

Step 8: First Day Photo Prep
What good is a first day of school if you don’t document it with photographic evidence? Print off your customized first day of school chalkboard-inspired sign for your child to hold in the photos. Have your child practice poses and smiles in front of a mirror so they look cheerful yet natural, as opposed to the freakish half-smile/half-snarl they usually don for non-candid photos. CHARGER YOUR CAMERA AND MAKE SURE THERE IS MEMORY SPACE AVAILABLE. Lots and LOTS of memory space.

Step 9: Review Your Script
What will you say to your children on the momentous occasion when you leave them at the bus stop or their classroom door on the first day of school? I have a dream of what this moment will look like, but somehow my last words always end up being something like “Quit making those tooting sounds NOW!” or “Pencils are not for stabbing”. Review your script beforehand so you can inspire the other parents in the drop-off line.

Step 10: Celebrate!
You did it! You not only kept your children alive all summer, but you have delivered them safely to their teachers on the first day of school. Have a party. Drink some coffee. Drink something sparkling. Cry. Take a nap. Sit in your car in the school parking lot. Go to the grocery store BY YOURSELF. Pat yourself on the back. You did it. Hooray!

And to all of us starting a new school year: may it be a year full of joy and learning!

An Ode To Summer

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Well, hello there! It’s been awhile, and I’ve missed you.

I didn’t plan on taking a mostly season-long hiatus from writing, but this thing happened. This thing called summer. Well, not just Summer, but Summer With Children…which is a whole different thing. Summer is sitting at the beach with a good book and working on your tan like it’s a full-time job (or, at the very least, a paid internship). Summer With Children is spending three hours packing for the beach, 1 hour wrangling your children into too-tight swim suits and chemical attack spray (sunscreen), 45 minutes searching for a parking spot at the family-friendly beach that is big enough to host your minivan/SUV/church bus, 1 hour waiting in line at the potty, and 20 minutes being paranoid that one of your children will drown before packing it all up and heading home for nap time.

Day in and day out. For approximately 70 straight days.

There is another reason that I haven’t written in so long, and it’s mostly my own fault. It’s also partly Google’s fault.

This may surprise you, but I’m a big fan of lists, notes, and words in general. I’m also a big fan of keeping my words forever. It was quite a shock, then, when I logged in to my Google account a few weeks ago and noticed a red bar at the top of the screen proclaiming that my Google-Stuff was at 99.9999999% capacity and that I could not write another single word without deleting something.

Now, this was a problem because ALL of my computery stuff is Google-Stuff: Gmail for email, Google Docs for word processing, Google notes for my notes, etc. Besides oggling my friends’ cute photos of babies on Facebook and pinning recipes that I’ll never cook on Pinterest, I basically do everything on the Google platform.

And since I am an everything-or-nothing girl, I deleted everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. Old documents from my teaching days: Gone. Grocery lists from pre-babies: Gone. Email folders: Gone. I literally had every email I’d ever sent or received since 2004 (it was quite enlightening, by the way, to re-read classic gems like “RE: How To Reset Your AIM Login” and “Engagement Photo Proofs”). I didn’t actually mean to delete EVERYTHING, but somehow it was just easier than weeding through 80,000+ files to determine what would make the cut. So, somewhat inadvertently, nobody made the cut and we’re starting a new team from scratch.

Unfortunately, among the players getting “cut” was my Google note for blog posts I wanted to write. I actually didn’t mean to delete it, but somehow it was tied to those 80,000+ emails that I didn’t want to weed through. I had kept a running tally of writing ideas ever since I started this blog 5 years ago…but I ¬†managed to delete it during my manic delete-a-thon. Whoops. And, so, now I have to come up with new ideas which is not such a bad thing, but it does require, you know, thinking. Something of which I couldn’t be burdened much with this summer.

You see, I’ve been busy summer-ing lately. I could have written more, but I simply chose not to. Before I even deleted all of my clever ideas from Google Notes, I had made a conscious decision to just step back for a few weeks and let life happen. Cancel the plans and the commitments (and the internal blog deadlines) and just be.

I didn’t make any real plans for this summer: we didn’t go on any big trips, we didn’t sign up for any camps (except for that week-long camp that I signed up my kids up for, and only went to one day of because I’m just that lazy of a summer-mom). In a rather anti-me fashion, we just did each day and each week as it came. As a result we had the space to be spontaneous or lazy or, in most cases, a little bit of both.

Some days we spent time with friends. Some days we didn’t leave the house: we just stayed in our pajamas and played outside and ate Popsicles and Cheetos for lunch. Some days we did chores and errands until my kids and myself held a mutually irate opinion toward one other. Some days we counted a dip in the pool as “bath time”. Some days were cooperative siblings and empty roads and sunshine. Some days were squabbles and traffic jams…and STILL sunshine (Oh my goodness, this Seattle summer was ALL sunshine ThankYouJesus!).

It was exactly the summer I needed. Because after a year of total upheaval and Big Change and unsettling I just needed some time to…be. To experience this new place and who I am here. I needed to open my (new) doors to (new and old) friends. I needed to be neither on nor off a schedule, but be ascheduled–completely without a schedule. I needed to reconnect with my kids before one goes off to first grade (Somebody please explain to me how that happened?) and the other goes off to his last year of preschool (SOB!). I needed some time to see where God would lead me, who He would have me connect with, and do the God-ordained work of keeping three children and one mother alive and mostly sane, 24/7 under one roof.

And the good news, friends, is that it worked! I can say with confidence that this summer has been everything that a summer should be: unburdened, carefree, and invigorating. I am renewed, refreshed, and relishing these last few weeks of the season. I feel settled in who I am and where I am, and I’m ready to roll with the punches that are sure to come when Fall steals the show. I’m ready to embrace the year ahead and resume life as normal, schedules and all. I am going to make it my mission, though, to retain a bit of summer all year long. To hold on to the spontaneity and the ability to step back from my schedule, and just be. To live each day as if it is a long, carefree day of sunshine (I may need to invest in one of those sunshine lights, by the way).

Summer, you beautiful thing, you’ve been good to me…but as with all good things, even you must come to an end. Change is coming once again, but I’m ready. So here’s to new beginnings, and to holding on to the light of summer all year long.

Until next time, Summer!

 

Dear Kindergartener

  
Dear Son (Who Is Now A Kindergartener),

For the past 5 1/2 years I have alternated between dreading this day and pleading for it to arrive: your first day of kindergarten. And now it is here. The day I had been anticipating and wondering about and preparing you for and praying over is actually really truly happening. Tomorrow is the big day. In the morning you will wake up a new person, a Big Kid Kindergartener. Not my baby or my toddler or my preschooler, but my school kid. And I couldn’t be more proud.

You are an amazing person. Did you know that? God has created you to be uniquely you, and you are utterly and perfectly who He wants you to be. He made you to be loving and passionate and feisty and strong. He made you with Big Feelings. He gave you a deep desire to fiercely protect the underdog. He made you to be curious and creative. He made you to run and jump and climb like an American Ninja Warrior. He made you silly. There is no other you, and you are wonderful.

The world is full of incredible people and incredible moments, but it can also be harsh. So, when the world starts to tell you that you isn’t good or isn’t good enough, remember how amazing you are. Keep your head up like the warrior that you are, and be confident in the you that God has created. Up until now you’ve been under the shelter of my wing, but now it’s time for you to spread your own wings. As you venture out into the world, you will become more and more independent each day. Carry on strong as you make your own mark in the world, because I can’t wait to see what that mark will look like!

So when you wake up tomorrow morning (probably tired) and you refuse to eat your breakfast (because you hate eating in the morning), I hope you are at least a little bit excited. Excited to meet your teacher and classmates and new friends on the playground. Excited to find your seat at the table and sit in circle time (it will be a lot of sitting…just try to enjoy the rest).  Excited to play in the science corner and the art table and the dramatic play center. Excited to learn more about reading and numbers and telling your own stories. Excited to listen respectfully and take turns and be a good sport. Excited, most of all, for the grand adventure you’re about to begin. Because this year? This year is the beginning of one of the greatest journeys of your life.

Enjoy the ride, my not-so-little boy.  I am so very proud of you and I am 100% for you. Be kind, be happy, be attentive. Sometimes (if the teacher isn’t looking) be really super silly. Be you. Because you is amazing, and

I.

Love.

You.

XOXOXOX,
Mommy

P.S. If you see me tomorrow morning and my face is extra watery, just know that it’s a common condition that all kindergarten mommies undergo on the first day of school. It’s a love leak. It will likely reoccur during many of your milestones, including but not limited to: Any and every graduation (kindergarten, High School, College, Masters Degree, PhD, Doctorate, etc.), losing your first tooth, winning a participation trophy in Little League, every time you give me flowers,  getting your drivers’ license, seeing you in a tux on prom night, whenever those dang Facebook Memories pop up and I see you as a baby, and your wedding.