As much as I hated to see summer end when I was a child, I loved getting ready for school.
A new school year meant I would have a new adventure every day. I’d leave my house and go out into the world and walk to the bus stop and play hopscotch until the yellow bus arrived. I’d board the bus all by myself without a parent or a babysitter. I’d see my old friends. I’d get new teachers and new books and a new seat in a new classroom with new friends. It was so exciting. To this day the racks of school supplies in Walmart and CVS and Staples fill me with joy.
And I haven’t even touched on the pleasure of new shoes and new clothes and new clubs and choirs and bands and orchestras and teams.
So my heart is breaking for all the kids who might not be able to go back to school this fall. Especially since they had their school year cancelled mid-March and were unable to go to camp or play team sports or hang out with their friends all summer.
I hear you, kids. It’s awful.
We all want the schools to reopen. But the problem is that the virus isn’t cooperating and we don’t have a treatment or a cure or a vaccine or a national policy that has bent the curve sufficiently to guarantee that it’s safe for us to congregate in schools.
So no matter how much we may all want schools to reopen, as a teacher friend posted, if the meeting to discuss how to reopen the schools has to take place via ZOOM to keep everyone safe, maybe we shouldn’t be discussing reopening the schools.
And of course we have to discuss it. And we need to think and talk and implement new ways to educate kids until it’s safe for us to go back inside a schoolroom.
Here are a few questions about the challenges of opening up schools posted by another teacher friend:
If a teacher tests positive for COVID-19 are they required to quarantine for two-three weeks? If so, will they be paid during this time?
If that teacher has 30 students, do all 30 students need to quarantine at home for 14 days? If that teacher, instead, has five classes a day with 30 students each, do all 150 of those students need to stay home and quarantine for 14 days?
Do all 30-150 of those students now have to get tested? Who pays for those tests and where are they administered? School? Hospitals? Clinics? Who notifies the parents? Does every family member and anyone they come in contact with have to get tested? Who tracks and administers all of that and who pays for it?
What if someone who lives in the same house as a teacher tests positive? Does that teacher now need to take 14 days off of work to quarantine? Is that time off paid?
Where is the district going to find a substitute teacher who will work in a classroom full of exposed, possibly infected students for substitute pay?
Substitutes teach in multiple schools. What if they are diagnosed with COVID-19? Do all the kids in each school now have to quarantine and get tested? Who is going to administer, track and pay for that?
What if a student in your kid's class tests positive? What if your kid tests positive? Does every other student and teacher they have been around quarantine? Do we all get notified who is infected and when? Or because of HIPAA regulations are parents and teachers just going to get mysterious “may have been in contact” emails all year long?
teach? Who determines how many “in person” and “remote” lessons each teacher is responsible to provide? How does a constantly changing student and teacher population affect the quality of education?
What is all this stress and uncertainty going to do to our kids? What are the long-term effects of consistently being stressed out?
How will it affect students and faculty when the first teacher in their school dies from this? The first parent of a student who brought it home? The first kid?
How many more people are going to die or have permanent lung or other damage, that otherwise may not have happened if we had stayed home longer?
And this is just the start. What about bus drivers and the threat of infection to them – and from them if they fall ill? What about sports teams and bands and the casts of plays and the staff of school newspapers and arts magazines – all groups who work closely together and are often in contact with their counterparts at other schools. How do we monitor all that?
It’s overwhelming. And it’s July and decisions need to be made – both by school districts and by families.
Leaving aside the disruption caused by having kids at home full time while parents have to work and tend to extended family and — hello — take care of themselves, there may be something to be gained from looking at the history of public education and the opportunities this situation offers.
First the history.
Way back when, kids were educated at home.
It was still happening as little as 50 years ago. I can remember my grandmother telling me that in her day, children had to be taught to read and write at home before they went to school – “We weren’t going to waste the teacher’s time with all that.” There is still a lot of educating happening at home whether it’s teaching colors or numbers or music appreciation or how to catch a ball or ride a bike or scramble an egg. To say nothing of ethics, morals, how to manage finances, make a plan for your life and love one another.
And that was always the case. But then as now schools were organized to teach young people skills that enabled them to become independent, productive and able to contribute to society. At first, in our neck of the woods, that meant learning how to read so that you could read scripture. Nowadays to have an independent, productive life, young people need to master basic mathematics, be able to read and write coherently, know the principles of science and law and economics, know something about history and culture and the arts, and choose an area of proficiency, this proficiency usually requiring many years of schooling, whether it’s computer programming, engineering, medicine, carpentry, fine arts, law, electronics, teaching, marketing, counseling, plumbing or you name it – it requires education and/or training.
And that ain’t all happening at home.
Which brings us back to schools.
The whole idea of public schools started centuries ago with the Puritans and then Thomas Jefferson who advocated for public monies and then Horace Mann in Massachusetts and Henry Barnard in Connecticut who developed the idea of compulsory education with a standard curriculum so that by 1918 all American children were required to attend at least an “elementary” school. There were plenty of kids left out — Native American kids and Black kids in particular — and there were lots of legal campaigns to secure equal opportunities for them — see Plessy v Ferguson and Brown v Board of Education for starters.
And I’m no doubt butchering the history. But the point is education has always evolved.
Think about the fact that while the Puritans taught young girls to read – so that they could read scripture – they weren’t taught to write because they weren’t going to “work.” And this disparity hung around literally for centuries in some parts of this country.
So education evolves. Which means we have a chance here to make change.
There is no doubt that this “Zoom” revolution is teaching us things. First and foremost we’re acutely aware of how much we miss one another — so that’s lesson one: we want to be able to gather together with a teacher and learn things in one another’s presence. But all things? All the time?
I suspect that many of us are discovering that there are benefits in being able to pull up a webinar at our convenience, to be able to scroll back and listen again and again to certain sections, to be able to freeze on a chart or a blackboard full of print and puzzle over it. It’s also wonderful to be able to take classes with people all around the world — and to have access to courses we’d otherwise miss because they’re taught in another country or state.
And yes, these are valuable adds for older students in high schools, colleges and grad schools and beyond. What about younger kids?
Kids are more computer savvy than we are – one. And two, it can be a mix. If we empower master teachers to create video modules of foundational lessons that can be consumed online, we can free up all teachers to confer with kids who need more help or more advanced opportunities – either in person or in small group settings on Zoom.
And very little kids? Hate to say it but even babies are grabbing for phones and iPads these days. So there will no doubt be portions of lessons that can migrate online.
All of which is to say that given our over-burdened teachers and school systems and limited tax dollars, maybe we can inspire families and teachers to use this time as an experiment to see what works and what doesn’t so that we can all use this as a teaching moment and come up with new ideas and approaches.
Teachers and families are already finding new ways, with families pooling resources and hiring tutors to oversee lessons for groups of students learning remotely. Foundations are stepping in to help with computers and broadband in areas that are underserved. Libraries are making resources available online.
And yes, it’s very hard. But the opportunities are there if we keep our eyes open during this time and listen to the people who know best — families and teachers.
(Thank you so much for all your emails. Reach me at WelcomeToThePandemic@gmail.com. And find me on Twitter at @epagenyc or on Facebook at ElizabethPage.)
Elizabeth Page’s work as a writer and filmmaker focuses on folks impacted by social issues. Plays include Spare Parts (produced by Olympia Dukakis at Whole Theatre, Off B’way at Circle in the Square Downtown and nominated for a John Gassner Award), The Nazi Plays (Denver Theatre Centre’s US West Theatrefest) and Aryan Birth (Best Short American Plays.) Her work in television brought her six Emmy Awards and four Writers’ Guild Awards. As a filmmaker she has made lots of award winning shorts, and web pieces for artists such as Melba Moore. Her latest short film, Safe, about an accidental shooting, is currently in distribution in Europe.