I have been a proud teacher, with a few breaks here and there, for 26 years. In the midst of the single-most defining and unmatched moment of our collective lives—a global pandemic—I have witnessed the indefensible social-media vitriol hurled in the direction of teachers and school districts for not reopening schools in person.
In my Texas city of El Paso, we are nine weeks into the school year. We are in the midst of a second virus surge, and it’s serious. As of Oct. 27, there were more than 13,000 reported active cases of COVID-19 in the city, and our local hospitals are at capacity. Non-COVID-19 patients who are critically ill are being airlifted to other cities for care, and our daily positive caseload has broken records for two weeks. We are under a countywide curfew, and the mayor has called for residents to stay at home except for essential business and errands.
Considering the gravity of the situation, there are undoubtedly many, many parents, students, and teachers who are grateful for our school district’s approach to remote learning, which has consisted of synchronous class meetings four days a week, and asynchronous work or intervention classes one day a week. However, in our divisive era, there is so often a backlash that foments unrest and dissatisfaction. In my community, that backlash arises from a loud, relatively small group of coronavirus-deniers whose sole aim seems to be to cause strife and unrest between parents and teachers here in El Paso. Oh, they want to open schools now.
Remote learning, as it has been rolled out in most of our districts, is a marvel of human ingenuity and persistence. It was relatively nonexistent in its current form 20 years ago. It’s not perfect, but it’s a relative miracle. Yes, educators are well aware that many students currently struggle because of inequitable access to resources and technology across the country.
We also understand that countless parents struggle because they must work and, well, who will watch the younger kids? We know students need peer interactions for their development and we know that for many students, their participation in extracurriculars is what keeps them in school. We hear and heed the claims made that development will be inhibited, depression will rise, educational progress halted, and that some older students are undoubtedly taking care of their younger brothers and sisters as they attempt to complete their own schoolwork.
But take a moment to recognize the phenomenon that made distance learning a possibility and understand that with persistence, science, and a little bit of faith, out of these bleak times our students will rise. Because that is what they do.
Let’s shift our thinking for just a moment, however, and understand that, as a society, we have always asked public schools to act as a catchall social-safety net—even before the pandemic.
Public schools are the hearts of our communities, but we have failed to fund and staff them as such. If you’ve lurked on Facebook long enough, you have undoubtedly run into a post about how Sweden returned to face-to-face school with “no issues whatsoever” (a claim that would be misleading at best even if it were a fair comparison). Any cursory internet search reveals Sweden pretty much provides cradle-to-grave social services and has a population of 10 million. The United States has a population of some 328 million, with social services and systems that are disjointed and strained on a good day, much less during a pandemic.
For decades, schools in the United States have been asked to function as more than just academic institutions. Students need to be nourished; schools feed them. Students need physical activity; schools provide that through physical education and sports programs. Students need parents who are involved and invested in their education; schools form PTA organizations and hire parent-engagement coordinators. Students need protection from abuse and neglect; teachers make calls, work with intervention specialists, and help get them the support they need. Students need medical care; schools and teachers put them in touch with, and sometimes find funds for, physicians and treatment.
Further, positive behavioral interventions and supports and social-emotional learning have become a substantial addition to our school’s curriculum, with the goal of protecting and developing students’ social and emotional skills in addition to their cognition. Since social and emotional learning was rolled out in my district in 2017, I have served on our PBIS/SEL team, focusing on helping our students manage their emotions, show empathy, set goals, identify their strengths, and make responsible decisions. I love working on this team, but it plainly adds to the limitless list of responsibilities heaped on schools, administrators, and teachers year after year.
It is easy to see that in 2020, public schools operate as much more than educational organizations. Imagine, then, a world where we supported, valued, staffed, and funded them appropriately.
Imagine every public school as a community center where classes run from morning until evening, offering parents opportunities to participate in their own continuing education after work. Imagine schools that routinely provide adult exercise classes, after-school yoga, and social workers and counselors who are available to help put community members in touch with important social services.
Imagine schools where community meetings are held on the regular, and music programs for kids and adults are made available. Imagine school libraries that stay open well past 3:00 p.m. to further students’ (and adults’) literacy levels. And, yes, imagine public schools that house day care, to give parents a community option for preschool child care.
Perhaps most importantly, imagine schools with a 10-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio and large enough classrooms so social distancing wouldn’t be cumbersome. Imagine if we equipped teachers with sufficient personal protection equipment to return to school as safely as possible during a pandemic.
Every year, we ask public schools and teachers to do more, to be more. It’s past time that we support them, value them, and universally fund them. We have reached a tipping point in the turmoil fueled by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s time we elect leaders at every level who recognize that an educated citizenry must be our country’s first priority, and it’s also time for our leaders and elected officials to commit to helping design and create the revolutionary change needed for public education to succeed and flourish after this pandemic is over.