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Opinion – Chasing the Mirage: the Impossible Burden of Reopening Schools

Deneese Steele Deneese Steele Opinion – Chasing the Mirage: the Impossible Burden of Reopening Schools
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With the recent announcement of the State of Ohio’s guidelines for school reopenings, there has been a flurry of conversation about what to do with schools this fall and how exactly to do it. It goes without saying that there are no perfect choices here; balancing the physical safety as well as the psychological and emotional well-being of teachers, staff, and students is challenging enough. Add to that any consideration for the fact that schools don’t exist in a vacuum and are instead, enmeshed within their communities by design, and it’s clear that administrators and local school boards have a Herculean task on their hands.

As I listen to these conversations, though, there are a few key take-always that bear further consideration, especially in light of the fact that this pandemic isn’t going anywhere any time soon. I will preface this by admitting that I don’t purport to have any answers, but ultimately I want to make sure that responsibility for this messy and difficult business of reopening schools falls as squarely on the shoulders of government, industry, and our own expectations as it does on individual school districts.

First, the catastrophic failings of our political leadership at nearly all levels of government has left us with a pandemic running completely amok across the United States, where other countries have managed to get it under control. Governments around the world didn’t dream of opening schools until their rates of infection were far better controlled than ours currently are. Yet, despite the pandemic being the literal opposite of under control in the United States, our governments are issuing guidelines for reopening schools.

Compound that with the insulting brevity and absence of actual guidance provided by the State of Ohio, and it’s no wonder that local school districts are floundering to devise meaningful and effective plans. Our school districts don’t have access to public health experts and epidemiologists whose jobs are to study and understand the pandemic (as well as the precedent set by countries further along than we are). Our school districts need the state, whose job it is to protect the people and to help the people protect themselves, to leverage the experts to provide more support and real guidance.

Second, teachers (as well as the schools in which they work) are underpaid and overworked, and the funding of schools through property taxes exacerbates this problem even further in poor communities. The relentless and systematic defunding of education over the years has left us with a broken educational environment that devalues the enrichment of young minds, even in communities that boast of “good” schools.

Schools and teachers must already do so much with so little. We cannot, in good faith, praise our teachers for the “essential” work they do when we compensate them inadequately and fund schools as though their only function is to provide supervision of our children while we work. We also cannot continue to defund education while asking our teachers to act as sacrificial lambs and risk their own health and well-being, as well as that of their families. It is a bridge too far, and, dare I say, irresponsible and callous.

While each school district rolls out plan after plan riddled with potential pitfalls, I think we need to recognize that our issue isn’t with the schools for being unable to come up with a perfect plan. The rightful object of our anger is employers and companies who, by and large, lack the impetus and creativity to make their workplaces easier to navigate for working parents under normal circumstances, let alone during a global pandemic. Whether anybody likes it or not, parents are going to continue shouldering more childcare responsibility while the pandemic rages on. It isn’t business as usual, and our workaday world where busyness, consumption, and productivity drive everything we do is dying as we speak. The sooner employers recognize their role as members of their communities who can and ought to make their employees’ lives significantly more bearable during an impossibly challenging time, the better off we’ll all be. 

Finally, and this is perhaps the most important point, we have to let go of normal. I know you’re thinking that we’ve already done that over the past few months, and it is true that much of our pre-COVID lives have been upended, but hear me out.

We want so desperately to do all of our normal things–all of our reopening plans to date have been structured to meet this same essential goal. Our desire, naturally, includes a deep and desperate longing to do school normally. But in our relentless quest for normal, we have no choice but to Macgyver the hell out of every aspect of our lives in order to make them work in a situation that simply won’t allow for normal. You cannot ram-rod normal school into a world where COVID thrives on people being close together, indoors, for long periods of time with inadequate ventilation and poor air filtration. It simply cannot be done. Normal school under this current state of affairs will result in more people getting sick and ultimately more people dying. Perhaps kids fare better (although the evidence for that seems inconclusive, and we hardly know the long-term effects on adults, let alone children), but their teachers, staff, parents, grandparents, and caregivers will not.

Yes, I understand that our kids are suffering and struggling mightily without normal school and socialization, and yes, I understand that we are creatures of habit and ritual. But is there some way that we can release our stranglehold on normal for long enough to accept that our kids are not going to get through this unscathed? Moreover, can we accept that it isn’t our job to get them through this unscathed, but rather to try and equip them with the skills to adapt? Because if we can let go of some of these unrealistic expectations, perhaps we can make room for creative solutions that will support all of our kids, especially the most vulnerable ones. But as long as we cling to our pre-pandemic lives as the gold standard that we’re trying desperately to meet, I fear that we’ll waste all of our energy chasing a mirage.

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