Sunday, September 6, 2020

Back to School 2020

Most New Jersey public schools are scheduled to open this week, and like much of the rest of the country, districts are generally hoping that cases don't spike and that students follow the health guidelines that the adults have set for them.

In reality, this is all one big science experiment.

To our credit, and to Governor Phil Murphy's, New Jersey is in fairly good shape as far as the virus is concerned. Our transmission rate is low, cases numbers are dropping, and although we are tragically seeing deaths from Covid-19, we are in an environment that is far different from the carnage of March and April. Much of this occurred because we distanced ourselves, wore masks, and generally stayed home. Now that's going to change.

There has been copious and wide-ranging news coverage of the debate between those who called for opening schools for student and faculty attendance, and those who wanted them closed and for education to be delivered remotely. Each district has made their own call. Now we'll see what happens.

It's inevitable that we will see more cases in districts where students attend schools, either as a cohort on certain days or five days per week. The major issue will be the number of cases a district will tolerate before they go to all remote teaching. I'm thinking that we'll get through September, but with a 14 day lag time between virus and symptoms, the end of the month and the beginning of October will guide us.

For teachers, this has been nothing less than a summer filled with anxiety and stress. News reports citing research that showed that students need to be in school for their own learning, and for parents to be able to go back to work, minimized arguments that it is the teachers, the adults, who will be more negatively impacted by the virus. We were told to be like the medical workers who put their lives on the line for their patients. We were told, finally, that we are essential, but far many wrong reasons. Add in a national administration tilted heavily against public schools and a president who wants normalcy but does nothing to support it, and even threatens to withhold funds in the face of rising cases in many states if schools don't fully open, and you are guaranteed to have a school opening that is both chaotic and dangerous. And education becomes null and void when conditions are chaotic and dangerous.

What to do? In a word, teach. Do your best. Engage students in the curriculum. Keep in touch with parents. Be available for extra help. But more important, be safe, and if you believe you are not safe, say something. New Jersey, among too few states, has a robust association in the NJEA and its local affiliates. If you are not safe, then you need to say something to your local leadership, and they need to either address the issue or escalate it to the county or state level. 

If you believe that the district is not following the health protocols or if students are not wearing masks or distancing or coming to school sick, then you must say something. If you have been denied an accommodation because of your health or the potential for you infecting a vulnerable member of your family, then say something. Get a doctor's note. Push the district on health grounds. There is no other way.

I understand that teachers without tenure are fearful that they will lose their jobs if they push too hard. Speak with your leadership and find the most effective strategy to overcome that. Unfortunately, some districts are more punitive than others.

This pandemic has shone a bright light on the failings of the nation's education system. We need more money to implement new teaching and learning techniques. Every child should have a computer and a functioning Internet connection. Every school building should have adequate ventilation and physical supports. If teachers are being asked to put our lives on the line like medical professionals, then we must have the same up-to-date equipment that they do. New technology. Modern facilities. Desks that are comfortable. Air conditioning (!). Books. Training. Respect from the political system. 

And that leads us to the more disgraceful of the reasons to reopen schools. Schools should not be the last refuge for children needing food, shelter, protection from physical harm, health care, and emotional support. Those should come from a society that values children and families rather than one that blames them or discriminates against them or demonizes them based on their ethnicity, gender, race, beliefs, economic status or any other metric.

Perhaps this pandemic will be the catalyst for change. I hope so. That change, though, is going to have to come from teachers. We will need to speak out, and to agitate, agitate, agitate. No, this will not be an easy year or even a year that is kind to personal fulfillment. It will be a year of difficult choices,  imperfect solutions, improvisation, and mistakes made twice. It will also be another year where the country's teachers again lead the way, educating our students, advocating for children, and fighting for social justice.

After all, that's what we really signed up for.

Have the best year you can.

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