Our Children Need Us to Bring the Pandemic Under Control: Only Then Can Public Schools Fully Reopen

Widespread disarray as schools struggle to figure out how to reopen is a catastrophe we have permitted to occur this summer as we all watched. Most of us failed to pay enough attention. On some level, I have begun to worry that, in the midst of all the current partisan political upheaval and the stress of the pandemic, America has forgotten to care enough about our children.

State budgets, which are a primary funder of U.S. public education, collapsed last spring due to a COVID-19 recession. On May 15, to shore up state budgets and public education, the U.S. House passed the HEROES Act, but the U.S. Senate is only now taking up the bill. President Donald Trump has denied the seriousness of the pandemic and failed to coordinate a plan to bring infection levels under control. School leaders have been left scrambling just weeks before school is supposed to start.  Will students be in school full time, or will they learn online as they did last spring, or will schools be forced to create hybrid in-person/online schedules to ensure social distancing in classrooms and on school buses?

Do we in America value our children?  Do we need a reminder of the vision the American philosopher John Dewey described in 1899: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.  All that society has accomplished for itself is put, through the agency of the school, at the disposal of its future members… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, p. 1)

Suddenly in the past couple of weeks, the reopening of public schools this fall has become a big deal, because school district leaders are up against a deadline. But all summer, we just sort of forgot to pay attention. With Congress back in session this week, money for starting school this fall is part of a coronavirus relief bill being debated, but it seems agreement may take several weeks. If Congress finally appropriates billions of dollars, when will the money become available for superintendents to hire teachers and school districts to retrofit ventilation systems?  Nobody knows.

Yesterday, in an analysis published jointly by the NY Times and Chalkbeat, Chalkbeat‘s editor Sarah Darville summarizes what many do not fully grasp: the complexity of reopening public schools this fall:  “Of all the American institutions the pandemic has shut down, none face pressure to reopen quite like schools do. Pediatricians exhort schools to open their doors whenever possible or risk developmental harm to kids. Working parents, particularly mothers, are in crisis, worried about having to leave the work force altogether in the absence of a place to send their young children each day. And President Trump is campaigning for schools to reopen, threatening to withhold funding if they don’t.  The pressure has mounted as school districts have made it clear that they can do no such thing. Across the country… schools are preparing their students and staffs for a continuation of the ‘remote learning’ that began in the spring. In New York City and Chicago, where the virus is more under control, schools are moving toward a hybrid option with remote learning some days, in-person school others. Even in places like Detroit and Memphis, where districts plan to offer in-person school for those who want it, local leaders could change course if the virus cases rise…. The people left to figure it out are superintendents, school board members, teachers and parents, for whom that simple word ‘reopen’ actually entails a dizzying array of interlocking problems.”

Here is how Darville describes what schools do: “Let’s start with child care, which translates, at the barest minimum, to providing every child with a safe place to go so their patents can work and so that they can learn. For schools to play that role, they require two basic ingredients, sufficient physical space and willing and capable adult caregivers… In addition to child care, there is food—another resource schools provide that is both much more necessary and much harder to deliver because of the pandemic.  In normal times, U.S. public schools provide 30 million free or nearly-free meals a day… Our failure to get schools fully open means that meeting students’ mental health needs is even harder. And organizing hybrid schedules or remote learning may sap energy that schools need to serve students’ continuing needs.”

Near the end of her summary, Darville comes to the issue of the necessary funds to open schools safely and at the same time ensure that staff are not laid off in the midst of the serious recession that is currently depleting state school budgets: “Making schools functional will also take money, as states are facing projected shortfalls totaling more than $500 billion over the next three years thanks to the spiraling pandemic.”  Darville cites data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Two other organizations have made serious attempts this summer to raise public awareness about the severity of the fiscal crisis: the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

Nearly three-fourths of the way through her article, Darville reminds readers about the educational role of public schools: “If taking on the child care, food, and the mental health challenges facing American children this fall were not enough, there is also, of course the matter of making sure those children learn.  Providing any form of education this fall means reckoning with an extraordinary version of what educators call ‘summer slide.’… Heading into this school year, these constraints are profound.  After school buildings closed this spring, teachers offered various forms of substitute education from paper packets to video classroom gatherings.  Nevertheless, a small but significant share of students went totally unaccounted for as they struggled to connect to online lessons without reliable internet, took on child care responsibilities for younger siblings, or just tuned out without the familiar support of teachers and counselors. Over all, the best estimates from teachers are that six in 10 students were regularly engaged in their coursework.”

Darville does a good job of summarizing a mass of concerns, but I don’t think she conveys what many of us worry will be missing this fall when too many children will be unable to be back in school full time with their teachers.  Schools are institutions where adults care for children, but it isn’t merely a matter of emotional support or free lunches or childcare that enables parents to go to work.

In a new blog post this week, Mike Rose, the UCLA education professor and fine education writer, explores the pedagogical implications of What It Means to Care. Rose explains: “Care is a central tenet in the helping professions, most fully developed in education by the philosopher Nel Noddings. The way I see it, the care in teaching is a special kind of care, one that, among other qualities, has a significant instructional and cognitive dimension to it. When we watch the teachers I present, we see that their care includes a commitment to help their students develop as readers and writers and thinkers.”

Rose shares a passage from Possible Lives, among the most profound and inspiring books written about education.  Rose wrote Possible Lives to share four years of visiting and observing fine classrooms across the United States.  In the book he reflects on the qualities of the excellent teachers he observed. In the passage Rose shares in his blog post this week, he describes a visit to a school in the border town of Calexico, California: “The central figure is Elena Castro, an extraordinary third grade bilingual education teacher who is also a mentor to first-year teachers at her school… One more person mentioned here is Evangalina Bustamonte Jones, a professor of education at the satellite campus of San Diego State University located in Calexico, and one of my wise and patient guides through the Calexico schools.”

Rose describes Elena Castro’s determination to demand much from her students and always to make school more challenging. He describes a very simple way Castro demonstrates how much she cares about a student’s learning: “Elena was working with a group of students on their marine research when Alex walked over from the Writer’s Table to get her attention: he needed a definition of admire. She looked up, defined it, and, as he was walking away, called to him and asked if he admired the farmer in a story they had read that morning. He turned back and thought for a moment: ‘No.’ No he didn’t, thereby applying the new definition to a familiar character. She was masterful at extending a child’s knowledge at every turn of the classroom day.”

Rose continues, affirming the capacity of good public school teachers to counter biases and stereotypes that limit children: “There is a long history in California schools, and Southwestern schools in general, of Mexican culture, language, and intelligence being deprecated… Bilingual education was not just a method; it was an affirmation of cultural and linguistic worth, an affirmation of the mind of a people.”  Rose continues, describing Castro’s classroom: “The majority of the children I saw in her classroom had entered in September with the designation ‘low achiever’ or, in some cases, ‘slow learner.’  Elena’s response was to assume that they had developed some unproductive habits and were sabotaging their own intelligence. ‘The first two weeks, it was difficult,’ she explained… ‘I’d put them here (at the Writer’s Table) to write—and they’d fool around. It took them a while to figure it out, it took time, with me talking to them. ‘This is your education,’ I’d say… I had to keep some in at recess to finish the work. I had to talk to them.  But… look at them now. They’re bright kids. They’re not underachievers; they’re not slow. They were just used to doing what they could get by with.’  Her room was constructed on work and opportunity.”

The public conversation this month about reopening school in the midst of what is still a raging pandemic omits the kind of reflection Rose provides about the real meaning of education. We need to insist that policymakers do everything possible to ensure that students can return soon to full-time, in-person school. It isn’t a mere matter of the need for childcare or school lunches. Rose describes the kind of caring teacher every child needs.  It cannot happen remotely or via ZOOM.

Public schools cannot fully reopen, however, until the pandemic itself is brought under control.

3 thoughts on “Our Children Need Us to Bring the Pandemic Under Control: Only Then Can Public Schools Fully Reopen

  1. Beautiful blog. You managed to capture the heart of learning that is not avail online. Bravo.

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. As always, Jan, your writing about the classroom and the children and adults in them shows a depth of understanding too often missing, especially in the current debate (debacle) about if, when, and how our young people will go back to their school buildings. Thank you. I must share this with many of my friends, especially those with school-age children.

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