To school or not to school

I started and stopped this column so many times over the last month. It changed as the information and options changed. And then like so many parents out there I was so overwhelmed that I just had to take a break. A break from thinking about it (ok I tried to but that didn’t really work), a break from teaching my children and working from home, a break from this new reality.

But my break didn’t work – before we left on vacation, we had decided our children would do the hybrid model. We were confident in our choice, that it was best for our children and we had faith in the teachers to do the best they could to keep our children safe. And then halfway through vacation the school board announced that everyone would start school virtually. I heard it nearly live, via my Facebook feed while sitting in my mother’s living room.  The rest of vacation was focused on resetting and planning. In some ways that was good – my mother is a kindergarten teacher in Massachusetts – she will be back in her classroom this fall so I had an easy resource to help build my new home classroom.

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And so, she and I headed to the teacher’s store buying supplies for our “classrooms.” We talked a lot about the need for children new to school to forge bonds early on – this is particularly important for Kindergarteners starting school for the first time. I can’t even imagine starting virtual Kindergarten in the Fall, and I did it all Spring. Getting to know each other, making friends and telling ridiculous “jokes” to your class doesn’t work if you’ve only known each other on a screen.

We talked about how important those first few weeks are so important, even if they are forced to go virtual later. That’s part of why we had chosen hybrid for our children in the first place – my older daughter is moving to the Intermediate school this year and we wanted her to get a chance to meet her new classmates.

Massachusetts and New Jersey have nearly the same transmission rate so the fear parents have going into my mother’s classroom are similar to the fears I and others in New Jersey should have. But more New Jersey schools are going virtual, like mine with a plan to get to hybrid later in the fall.

There are no good choices and there are no bad choices – there are the best choices we can make in a tremendously difficult situation. Some schools have old infrastructure that creates circulation problems, some schools have large populations of at-risk staff, some schools have smaller class sizes - all of these variables impact whether in classroom instruction are feasible.

As this public conversation has become more real, I have seen a dangerous shift to attacking teachers and public education. Teachers who are using their hard-earned money not to “decorate” their classroom but to protect their students this year. Instead of fun borders many are building plastic barriers to keep students from each other. I’ve seen the Pinterest posts and they are adorable and horrifying at the same time.

Teachers who last year turned on a dime to teaching our kids virtually within a week of the shutdowns are now being vilified. Yes, some of it went smoothly, some did not and yet they kept at it. As parents, we saw how difficult it is to teach new skills, to keep our child’s interest all day long. We all saw that teaching was more than day care as we struggled to do three jobs at once – parent, teacher and whatever our full-time job is. And yet for too many in this economy the need for school comes down to I need my child cared for during the day so I can work and support them.

We shouldn’t be vilifying the teachers; we should be attacking a broken system. A system that can’t keep our kids safe, that has crumbling buildings with stale air that allows contagions to spread, that in a good year relies on parents to supply disinfectant wipes that we now can not even buy, a system that short changes our teachers and our students because the social contract is broken.

And I fear that this crisis will break it more- that when we tell parents that it’s ok, you can be your child’s teacher for nearly half the school year we are inadvertently discounting all the incredible work that teachers do on a daily basis. I can make sure my children listen to the lesson, I can try to do their workbooks with them but I am not a teacher – I did not study how to best teach these principles, I do not know how to give children that spark to love learning, to find that connection.

I worry that as parents look at options and more move to private school in the quest for in person classes, we will continue to devalue public education. Private school is an important option but it cannot be the only safe option for our children. Too often I have seen and heard comments have how “my taxes should pay for my child’s education,” and this where we have lost that social contract with each other.

Education taxes are not a one-for-one proposition. Yes, if you have a child in the school it feels more like you are indeed paying for your child’s education but taxes don’t start in Kindergarten and end at High School graduation. They are an investment to ensure that the doctors, nurses, business owners, plumbers and grocery clerks that will care for us in old age have fundamental skills to actually care for us. That they will understand science, math and critical thinking enough to make good decisions to grow our economy, diagnose our illness, make correct change or measure that pipe. Without quality safe education those things are impossible, without our teachers those things are impossible.

The one thing this crisis should teach us is that we are all in this together, we are only as strong as our weakest link – that is the social contract our taxes are based on. That we as a community should pay into infrastructure that makes safer and stronger to ensure we all remain safe. We need to do the same in our schools – we need to invest and support in our school systems, demand that we provide quality, safe education for all our students, support our young teachers so that they don’t need to hold a second job to pay their mortgage making them likely to leave the profession, support our teachers while they find new ways to teach and connect through screens and we need to commit to pay for those things.

Let’s face it- nothing about 2020 has worked the way we want it to but turning on each other or our teachers is not the answer. Let 2020 be the year that we renew our social contract and pull together.