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Writers on the Range: School + Pandemic = High Anxiety

Masked children greet Gov. Jared Polis as he visits a second grade class in Aurora.
Cherry Creek School District handout

As a longtime teacher who has heard every complaint under the sun about how horrible school is, how boring, arbitrary, irrelevant and unfair, I find myself somewhat taken aback by the fierce pressure to return to regular classroom instruction.

 Of course, those complaints were from students, and much of the pressure is from grownups concerned about little things like getting back to work or helping young ones learn and grow.  Kids themselves, par for the course, aren’t much asked what they think.

But as of this writing, only about 15% of U.S students are headed back for full-time in-person classes, according to the latest data from Education Week, with a similar number going to a hybrid/partial model.  If these proportions hold for the nation overall, it leaves the majority of our kids, almost 70%, to continue with remote learning.  

Which leaves parents and politicians whiplashed, and rightly so, over how to get back to work and restore some sense of normalcy to daily life, while also being troubled by the obvious risks of reopening and aware that any “social distancing” version of school will be anything but normal. Writer Christine Stevens compared it to outfitting each classroom with its own living, breathing, full-size lion.

And whatever the format, it’s a mess: On-days and off-days, endless screen time, morning temperature checks and who stays home if there’s a fever, uncertainty about what happens if a student or a teacher gets the virus, friends you can’t even sit next to, relentless cleaning protocols, and no guarantee that this year’s seniors will ever get their long-awaited walk across the stage. 

Whatever the format, we’ll still have standards and tests and grades and homework: in other words, everything you always hated about school, but with a lot more hand sanitizer.

Remember last spring on lockdown, when we watched in amazement as the smog cleared over Los Angeles and the murky waters of Venice ran clear?  Residents of northern India even reported seeing the Himalayas for the first time in decades.  It was a beguiling hint of possibilities that might lie beyond the grind of the 21st century machine we have come to take for granted. 

So it makes me wonder:  Why are we in such a hot rush to go back to a system no one liked that much in the first place?  It’s not just kids who think school sucks; consider the past 40-some years of reform initiatives such as A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, Homeschooling, Unschooling, STEM, STEAM, and STREAM. 

Thanks to COVID-19, it seems the real bottom line of public schooling is not some starry ideal like equal opportunity for all, but a reliable system of taxpayer-funded childcare. We have now seen how crucial school is to all families everywhere–and how vital for kids themselves. Online learning, even if it’s the safest option for human beings at the moment, breaks that contract right across the knee. 

I retired before the virus hit, but like my friends still in the trenches, I never stopped caring for kids.  We’d soldier up for whatever crazy initiative came down the pike, trying to maximize the benefit and somehow make it work for students.  Witness the magic act teachers pulled off last spring, turning on a dime to put the entire school system online — in a matter of weeks, not decades.  Polished and perfect?  I’m guessing not — but neither, to say the least, was Common Core.

Now may not be the best time for this plea, but I’m making it anyway.  When the pandemic is over, be it in a year or a decade, let’s put a note in our planner to look not only at what society needs from schools, but also at what the young truly need from us.

Just because you and I had to live through what felt boring and irrelevant in school doesn’t mean our kids and grandkids should.  Trust me, it doesn’t actually seem to improve character all that much.

Meanwhile, one more request.  Before opening those classrooms to the lion that lurks inside, let’s ask ourselves one last time: Whose life is it worth?  Because until this virus is finally under control with the right mix of prevention, testing, and treatment, it’s all kind of a big experiment.

 A Nation at Risk, indeed. 

Asta Bowen is a columnist for Writers on the Range.


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