Social Justice Saturday time. Time for another topic that has risen to the top of many people’s priority lists thanks to the pandemic: schools and the role they play in our societies. They have risen to the top of people’s lists for many reasons:
- Parents. Suddenly, out of nowhere, sometime in March, parents all across the globe found themselves in various forms of lockdown, with kids ranging from preschool to high schoolers all stuck at home and all needing to be schooled at home. Homeschooled! Learning at home using technology that many homes don’t have access to and many other homes with access but with parents who aren’t comfortable with the technology. And with parents who are suddenly working from home themselves. Perhaps parents who are teachers, trying to teach remotely while their kids are learning remotely. Or perhaps parents who are suddenly furloughed and not receiving a paycheque. What an unbelievably stressful situation. The miracle is that as many parents and their kids have done as well as they have.
- Teachers. I can only hope that many more people now appreciate the challenging and critically important role teachers play in teaching, caring for, and molding our children, some of whom respond less well to old-style one-method-fits-all approaches to learning and some who have special needs. I can only hope that many more people now understand, after trying to oversee their children’s at-home learning and keep their attention, just how stressful their teachers’ jobs are. Teachers work hard to do the best for every child. Often without sufficient resources. Often wishing they could do more. Occasionally constrained in trying to do more by district, state/province, or national regulations.
- Politicians. Disappointingly, it seems that some politicians, including a few presidents and prime ministers, view schooling primarily as child care, wanting to get students back in the classrooms ASAP so that people can get back to work. It would be nice if all of them would at least preface their remarks by acknowledging the full value that schools and teachers provide, rather than just categorically state that we need the kids back in school F-T so that we can get our economies going again. Despite the continuing threat of the virus. Despite the threat to teachers’ health. Despite the threat to the health of kids with vulnerabilities. Despite the threat to the families the kids and teachers may bring the virus home to.
- Our children. The significant impact on our children from these school closures has not been lost on most people. People who last attended school themselves ‘thousands’ of years ago can still remember how important their school lives were to them, every day. That’s where kids’ lives are. Figuring out how to make friends, get along with friends, and deal with ‘non-friends’. Being exposed to new ideas and new challenges, sometimes without even realizing it, and rising to the challenge. Finding a mentor in a teacher who may change a student’s life forever, again, maybe without even realizing it. Finding a sport, musical instrument, or something else that speaks to a young student. Growing as a person. Gosh, all this learning and shaping of lives, and all that’s on our minds when we send our kids out the door is that now we can leave for work. The teachers are providing this environment for our kids. Let’s not forget that. In many places they do so with inadequate resources and inadequate compensation. In some places with less-than-helpful regulations from Education Officers, i.e. government dictates.
- Our most vulnerable. Decades ago, most of the more vulnerable kids didn’t go to the public schools. They went to special schools, and none of the rest of us knew anything about it. Now we live in more inclusive and much more complex times. Our teachers teach, motivate, nurture, and provide individual supports for children with all kinds of special needs. How they do this is beyond me. Some undoubtedly must cope better than others, and I’m sure there’s a burnout rate. But when kids are at school, there’s some sense that the ones who arrive hungry get fed. There’s some sense that those who come from dysfunctional families get spotted and nurtured by at least some teachers. There’s a sense that there are (certainly should be) special assistants for kids with learning disabilities and other serious needs. Regardless of how well or how inadequately a school is equipped for all these societal challenges, it’s a healthier environment for most of these children than the alternative of staying at home in isolation.
When it became apparent that schools would have to close, teachers (and university professors) had to switch from in-class teaching, for which they are well trained and experienced, to teaching their students online and through remote discussions (Zoom, Team, etc.) in a matter of days. No materials ready, no prior training in the technology themselves, no special equipment at home, where they were often sharing a home computer with their own children and their teachers. No easy ability to establish the sense of connectedness that one has in a classroom. But they did their best. They worked hard to try to figure out the best way to continue with their students in an incredibly challenging situation and often with limited resources or support from their districts. They contacted students directly via Zoom or FaceTime to discuss their students’ progress and concerns. This didn’t always work well, but it wasn’t for lack of trying by the teachers.
Along with their principals, teachers found creative ways to provide graduating students at all levels with novel graduation ‘ceremonies’ in the absence of open schools and helped celebrate the achievements of their grads.
I cannot begin to imagine the challenges of planning for schools to reopen. There are the challenges of social distancing on school buses. The challenge of wearing masks to prevent the spread of the virus with a percentage of the population refusing to do so (???!). The challenge of protecting teachers, who are used to close physical proximity with their students in a classroom setting, but need protection. There’s the importance of having a Plan B – and a Plan C – for if/when it becomes clear that schools have to be closed down again for a while. I don’t want to even think about the additional costs involved. Huge.
At least now students, teachers, and parents have all had some experience with remote learning and can work to fine tune their materials and approaches. But it remains a work in progress. And most teachers don’t even yet know what the final decisions for their schools will be for this fall. They have to plan for every eventuality. Our teachers deserve a huge shoutout – and our continuing gratitude and respect – for the learning environments they work to provide for their students. Our children. And let’s not forget, their students are society’s future!
As we watch and wait to see how successful various parts of the world can be in reopening schools, in their own way and their own time, please let’s not forget what we have learned about the value of our schools during these strange pandemic times. Yes, they serve as child care insofar as our children have a place to be every day. But that is not why we have schools. We have schools so our children can be taught the subjects that each society considers an important foundation for ensuring a well-educated work force and responsible citizenry. Our schools provide an environment in which our children can learn socialization skills and can grow as individuals. For some children it is a haven in their storm.
As PM Jacinda Ardern has reminded audiences on several occasions, the societal well-being of a nation goes hand in hand with its economic well-being. Economic success with worsening social outcomes is not success, it’s failure. As it so happens, the cornerstone for both societal and economic well-being in a country is a strong, vibrant, well-supported public school system. To have successful societies we need our schools to succeed for our children. For all children.