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.

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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.

A Day in the Life of COVID-Summer Vacation

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We made it.

I just have to declare this fact because, to be honest with you, there have been days over the last few months that I didn’t think I’d ever get to write those words. Back in March when I first heard the words “Novel Coronavirus” (Are we talking about a fictional book? A Mexican beer? A seasonal cold?) I had no idea how much our lives would change in such a short amount of time.

The whole world flipped on its head overnight: school became home and the classroom teacher became me. School this year had its challenges–and its rewards–and then some more challenges to round things out. But we made it. We survived the first wave of Epidemic Crisis Schooling that the world has ever endured, and I’m pretty sure we can survive anything now.

Except maybe summer vacation.

Because if you’re anything like me, you’re just as confused about “summer” as you were about “E-learning”. Quite simply, summer in the time of COVID is about the most stressful, labor-intensive, hair-pulling period of relaxation I’ve ever experienced. For those of you not lucky enough to have young children at home with you this summer, allow me to give you a glimpse into a typical day of summer vacation 2020:

Tuesday, June

7:40  You wake up to the sounds of your 4 year old screaming your name from down the hall. She’s not hurt or incapable of moving out of bed on her own. No, she just wants you to remember who’s boss in this family.

7:45  You bring the screaming child downstairs and find the older boys already awake and playing video games. They ask you if they can have your real American dollars to buy video-game-nonsense-dollars so their avatar can wear a shirt with a “sick flame” on it. You politely decline. For the 10 millionth time this week.

7:55  Start making breakfast and realize there are no clean dishes. Start emptying the dishwasher that you ran overnight (this is the first of up to 3 loads of dishes you will run through your dishwasher today with all of these people home eating food 24/24 hours of every day).

8:00  An alert pops up on your phone that today is supposed to be the first day of that super awesome summer camp you signed your kids up for 12 months ago. Of course the camp has been cancelled, so you delete the calendar entry and replace it with the sobbing emoji.

8:15  Return to the breakfast situation. It’s been nearly 2 weeks since the last time you picked up a curbside grocery order. Prepare the best available option: granola bars AND fruit leather, because you like well-balanced meals.

8:30  Announce breakfast and turn off all screens in the house. Earn the title “Meanest Mom Ever”.

9:00  After breakfast you ask the kids what they’d like to do today. The boys want to stay home and play video games so they can whine at you about buying video game dollars. The girl wants to go to a princess party just like Cinderella. In your head you debate your options because after 4 months of house arrest with these kids, you just need to get out of here. Compromise and tell the kids we’re going to find a quiet park where we can be outside and physically distanced from other people. “It will be fun!” you say, “It will be our own little adventure!”

9:30  Pull up Google Maps on your phone and look for green spaces (usually parks) that you’ve never heard of (maybe nobody else has heard of them either). Pick a promising green patch in the middle of nowhere and pack some snacks for the adventure.

10:00  Before you leave the house, tell the kids to bring a face covering with them since we’re going into public. One child comes downstairs wearing underwear on his head.

10:30  Pull up to the “park” you found on Google Maps and realize it’s mostly just some bushes on the side of a road. Consider your options and decide check it out anyway. After about 20 minutes of the kids throwing rocks into the bushes and one kid falling into some blackberry brambles, decide to call it a day.

11:00  On your way home you drive past one of the kids’ favorite parks. They haven’t been to this park in nearly a year and they all beg for you to stop for just a little bit. Since the first stop was such a bust you decide to give the park a try.

11:05  Before you get out of the car, remind the children that they must stay at least 6 feet apart from all other people, wear their masks, not touch anything, and basically try their very hardest to not enjoy themselves. Remind the children that the playground is closed so we can’t play on it anyway. We’re just here to look and reminisce, and then back into the car we go. They agree to abide by the law of the land as they pile out of the car.

11:10  You walk into the park and notice that the playground is no longer roped off. You weren’t prepared for this. We already had the “we don’t touch anything” talk in the car, and now this playground is just sitting there like a siren in the wild beckoning to eager children. Thankfully the kids haven’t noticed the playground yet, so you stop in your tracks and point wildly into the sky: “KIDS, LOOK!!!! A BALD EAGLE! NO, MAYBE IT’S A DRAGON! OR A UNICORN! QUICK! LOOOOOOOOOOK!!!!”. As the children avert their gaze heavenward, you huddle them together and usher them back toward the parking lot. The middle child swears he saw the dragon.

11:15  When you get back to your car there is another family unloading right next to your car. Fortunately/unfortunately they are friends from school. Fortunately, because THEY’RE REAL LIVE FRIENDS!!!!!! Unfortunately, because OH MY GOSH WHAT DO WE DO?!?!  Humans! Gah! The kids all want to hug and play and just be kids. You glance at the other mom and reach an unspoken understanding: We’ve all been quarantined for so long that it’s in our health interest at this point to allow the children a few minutes to catch up. Relish the quick reunion while you pray under your breath that nobody present is an asymptomatic COVID carrier.

12:00  Upon returning home from the morning’s adventure (AKA the most excitement we’ve had in half a year!) set to work preparing lunch. The kids decide on Unicorn mac-n-cheese (the girl wants it because it’s magical, the boys want it because they want to bite the heads off the unicorns).

12:30   After lunch, send the kids outside to play in the back yard. Return a couple of emails and check the “news” to see updates on which of the 10 Plagues of Egypt we can expect next.

1:30  Call the kids back inside and tell them that we have a fun game to play this afternoon. The game is called “Living With COVID Challenge”. Here’s how you play: everyone gets a face mask and they have to wear it while completing “challenges” such as reading aloud, taking a math test, writing a letter to a friend, or “shopping” in our pretend store. The goal is to leave your mask on for the entire challenge without touching your mouth, eyes, or nose. Players can earn bonus points for washing their hands, checking their friend’s temperature with a temporal thermometer, wearing gloves while disinfecting a surface with non-toxic cleaner, or engineering a plexiglass shield.

You make it exactly 2.6 seconds before all 3 children fail the challenge.

Consider writing (another) email with the updated results of your at-home challenge to the members of the school board that will be making the “safe return to school” plan for this fall.

2:00  The kids say it’s too hot outside and they want to go swimming. A quick Google search shows you that every public pool within a 100-mile radius is closed, the nearest lake is full of toxic algae, and the nearest river is still full from spring melt-off and has a no-swimming advisory. Tell the kids to put on their swimsuits anyway, because we’re swimming in the upstairs bathroom “Bathtub Pool”!

2:45  Check on the kids in their bathtub pool and realize that 90% of the water has now migrated from the bathtub to the bathroom floor/walls/ceiling. As your blood starts to boil, notice that you already have “month-3 of summer vacation patience” rather than the actual “week-1 of summer vacation patience” that should be accompanying this moment.

3:00  After you mop up all of the water from Bathtub Pool, tell the kids that it’s reading time. Since you’re pretty sure the only learning your children accomplished in the last 4 months involved Roblox obby hacks, you count this daily reading time as sacred.

3:15  Since your husband is still working from home in his basement “home office” cave, you sneak out of the house for a quick solo walk while the kids are busy reading. These 20 minutes walking around your own neighborhood are the highlight of your day.  5 minutes into your walk a cyclist passes you on the road. It’s not until the cyclist is out of view around a corner that you realize you’ve been unconsciously holding your breath since you saw the other human approaching your air space.

4:00  Bake something. Because COVID.

5:00  Start preparing dinner. Again. For the 4,376th day in a row.

6:30  After dinner, have “family movie night”…also for the 4,376th day in a row. Whisper a silent prayer for the timely providence of Disney+ during a worldwide epidemic.

8:00  Tuck the little one into bed. You tried to order her new bedroom furniture 4 months ago for her birthday, but so far only her mattress has arrived because everything else is backordered indefinitely due to the COVID shutdowns. So, actually, just tuck her into mattress instead of tucking her into bed.

8:30 Despite their pleas to stay up later, tuck the older kids into bed because you are D.O.N.E. DONE. Promise them chocolates in the morning if they just stay in their rooms and don’t bother you for the rest of the night. If quarantine has taught you one thing, it’s the power of bribery. And chocolate.

9:00  Go downstairs and immediately notice the filth that is covering  every square inch of your house. Debate cleaning it up while the kids are tucked away in their bedrooms, but decide against it. After all, we need to save some fun for tomorrow’s COVID-Summer adventure!

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Happy summer, everyone–stay safe, stay healthy, and stay sane!