Back to school

The decision about opening up schools this fall is getting heated.

It’s easy to see why. Our education system is basically entwined with everything else our nation. Plus, education is always a controversial topic connected to many stakeholders.

Economically, we live in a society in which both heads of the household often hold jobs, which means many families will have some tough decisions coming down the pike. Will one parent have to stay home if schools don’t return? Will their jobs be in jeopardy?

Every district subcontracts with dozens of local, regional and national businesses and nonprofits that rely on their money.

Politically, there’s no doubt the president and any incumbent governors or legislators at the state and federal level will benefit if the kiddoes head back to class. Remember, opening up will happen just ten weeks before Election Day.

Meanwhile, school districts – already overburdened – have been crushed with a lack of tax dollars.

We haven’t even talked about the benefits and negatives of sending kids back yet.

Let’s admit, however, that there is no easy answer to this problem. Anyone who tells you there is is selling you something you should avoid buying.

Some quick personal history

I witnessed first hand the dedication of dozens of caring individuals who struggled with the modern needs of the classroom.

If you’re reading this, I assume you know me. Just in case, let me share my bias before we get any further. I have spent about 15 years as a practicing journalist. A few years ago, though, I started feeling burned out and a bit of a calling toward teaching. So I took the risk of walking away from my career and going back to school.

Last year was my first full year as a teacher. Like most teachers, I have had to start out as a substitute. I spent what seemed to be a wonderful year as the building substitute at a public high school in Wilkes-Barre. I was blessed with the opportunity to learn from a ton of wonderful professionals.

And I often found the kids inspiring. Of course, they could be frustrating when you catch them bullying someone, smoking pot in the bathroom or being snide.

But far more memorable are the times I saw a “cool kid” befriend a quiet special ed student who was about to be picked on. Or when a pair of kids showed up at the room I was subbing in to ask me a question because they thought I could explain the subject better.

On March 13 it all came crashing down. School closed. The teachers, staff and students I had grown to adore were gone. As was my paycheck. So, I have every reason to want to go back.

I knew – or at least hoped – this subbing situation would be a one-year deal. But I expected a chance to say goodby and never got it. Now I am looking at a second year of subbing.

Putting kids first

I know some of my students weren’t guaranteed lunches or love at home during incredibly trying times.

Experts advocating for kids mental health and development are rightly saying kids have been traumatized by the virus. They argue schools should reopen.

Let’s make one thing clear. There’s one reason and one reason only to reopen schools: kids’ health. There are risks either way. If on balance, opening up is more beneficial to kids, then do it.

However, you can take your economic concerns and pound sand. It is not the responsibility of children, educators, and the staff at schools to jumpstart this economy.

The only way you jumpstart the economy is by solving the virus. Otherwise, you’re just extending the economic suffering.

The question is whether or not opening up is what’s in the best interest for the kids.

It’s hard for me – even as someone who needs schools to open up so I can get a job – to think that kids’ trauma is being eased by going back if there is a resurgence because they went back.

The last thing a kid needs is a grandparent in the hospital or a coffin because they got the virus. Imagine spending years wondering if you brought it home.

As a parent, and an educator who has seen his students outside the classroom, it’s evident being home was incredibly difficult.

Despite my loss of a job, our family did OK. We got our stimulus check. My wife’s job – she’s a school administrator – has been fairly secure. We’re millennials. We went into the pandemic with five jobs between us, so she is also a part time librarian at a local college.

Despite being in a home with parents who both had education degrees, my kids – 8, 6, and 3 – dealt with stressed out parents, missing their friends, and not getting all the lessons they needed.

They spent far too much time in front of the TV. They had crying spells because they missed their friends and teachers. They fought more than normal.

Other kids had it worse. I know some of my students weren’t guaranteed lunches or love at home during incredibly trying times. I think about them all the time.

Keeping them home isn’t an easy choice by any means.

Then there is the problem of opening up schools.

No easy task

Administrations are easy targets for voters, teachers and parents.

I’ve seen close up how hard my wife and the administrators she works with are working.

They’re on the phone late at night. They’re having hours-long zooms. They don’t seem to stop working.

I try to avoid her, and keep the kids away while she’s working, but I can’t help but overhear things. The only thing I’ll share is that they’re doing their best and trying to think of everything.

I say that as someone who is intrinsically skeptical of administrators. Any managers, really.

Look at transportation. How are districts going to transport kids to schools, particularly when students use vans? How many more trips are going to have to be taken? Who is going to be willing to drive the vans and busses? How much is that going to cost.?

What is the cafeteria situation going to look like? Who is going to work it, can they still use buffets, will it be bag lunches, will kids really sit several feet apart?

Look, as someone who has been in a class, I don’t understand how teachers are going to teach while also keeping kids separate?

If you have kids at home, try this exercise. Keep them 4 feet apart while working on a project for 42 minutes. Maybe a worksheet or playing with Legos. See how long that lasts. Now do that with 12-15 kids for 6 hours?

Here’s another practical problem: what are middle schools and high schools going to do with students who move from class to class? We want to limit exposure, so how do we do that? Do we move teachers from class to class? That’s going to be difficult because a science lab would have to move, etc.

Are we going to make teachers who are certified in one or two subjects teach subjects they’re not comfortable in? How does that service kids?

We haven’t even got to what happens if there is a case? Do teachers lose sick time? Do kids get excused absences?

Of course there’s the morbid fact that a district might have death form letters being printed.

There are so many questions. Getting the answers isn’t going to be the same for each school district.

For example, some districts offer online classes while parents in other districts will have to take their kids to cyber charter schools.

What are districts going to do when parents refuse to send their kids in with masks?

There really are so many questions and so little time left before school starts.

The biggest problem

One giant obstacle stands in the way of ensuring kids, teachers and their families are safe: The Trump Administration.

The irony is that if ever there was ever an instance that proved the need for a federal department of education, The COVID-19 pandemic is it.

With districts losing tax dollars, and far too many states self-sabotaged by balanced budget laws, the only answer for funding is a federal bailout. Plus, the federal government has far more resources in other areas when it comes to figuring out how to reopen.

Districts are preparing for distance learning by buying up laptops, they’re spending extra money on training, and PPE. They can’t avoid spending that money. Without federal funds, none of that preparation could be made. Hell, federal funds are helping ensure some of the poorest kids have food during this whole ordeal.

Thankfully, the congress got something done. They deserve credit for that.

But local districts also need guidance from their states and federal government. Coordinating information from the CDC, and getting it to districts is vital going foreword.

Sadly, the president installed a literal grifter, Betsy DeVos, in the position of Secretary of Eductation. There is a complete void in leadership.

This weekend, deVos appeared on CNN to be interviewed by Dana Bash. She is hardly Washington’s toughest interviewer, but she picked DeVos’ bones clean.

DeVos kept insisting that the way districts open up should be organized at the local level. Bash, rightly pointed out that forcing them to open isn’t leaving the decisions to the local level.

It was a mind-boggling level of absurdity. The federal government was arguing for authority in the decision to reopen, but no responsibility on how.

It is a prime example of why it’s dangerous to stack a government department with leadership whose main belief is that the government can’t or shouldn’t provide any services in that area. I’m loathe to compare things to the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. It’s a cliche and often errant. But the similarities are incredible.

The alarming thing was that DeVos didn’t even see the error in her logic. She seemed asleep at the wheel.

It’s reminiscent of the stories about Mike Brown not returning phone calls, worrying about his own sleep, and not following up on promises.

The two questions

I’m not pretending I have the answers. What scares me is that for people to get the right answers they have to ask the correct questions.

Two questions have to be asked, and they rely on each other. Should kids go back is the first. The second is can they and the teachers administration and staff who support them go back safely.

They seem like obvious questions, but people keep seeming to forget how intertwined they are.

What has been lost in the recent debate is how local districts are working creatively to try to reopen. That’s the point DeVos somehow finds a way to get both right and wrong.

Of course the federal government shouldn’t force all districts to adapt the same way. However, if a district feels it’s not safe to open up and bring students in, that should be their prerogative. And they should still get federal government support, through guidance and finances.

DeVos and the President keep acting like in-person classes are the only option. In the year of our Lord 2020 we all know that wasn’t the case even before the pandemic.

Responsible districts in affected areas will no doubt try some type of hybrid model.

Inevitably some districts will fail and others will succeed, which will, of course, drive the narrative of government inefficiency – as if the same thing hasn’t happened for private businesses.

And there lies the cliché rub. If schools don’t have confidence in their reopening, they shouldn’t be forced to open. The consequences are too great. However, if a district in a less affected area has confidence in its plans, opening up probably isn’t a bad thing.

No matter what, however, funds and guidance shouldn’t be held hostage by the executive branch.

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