Sending Your Kids Back To School

A problem with no good solution.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

My mother, a preschool teacher, and my sister, a newly-minted high school freshman, are back in school today. I am grateful that they both are at private schools that can manage their class sizes effectively and provide/mandate a basic level of cleanliness and mask-wearing by everyone involved. I realize though that is the ideal and that we are lucky. Sadly, competent, well-resourced, and well-prepared schools are not the reality for thousands of kids across the country. For many districts, waffling on what going back to school looks like has become the norm, and in some ways, I get it.

It’s a problem with no easy solutions. Parents are working from home now, forced to take care of their kids while still being expected to work a full time job. Teachers are being forced to choose between losing their jobs or risking their life to teach somebody else’s kid. Online learning doesn’t even come close to providing the same time of benefits that having in-person time with a dedicated teacher does and for some special-needs kids, in-person learning is a must.

Teachers are in a lot of cases forced to design their curriculum to cater to online learning and in-person learning at the same time on the fly, all with less time to cover the same amount of material and little to no training on how a mixed learning environments work. Additionally, a recent poll, released by Hart Research Associates for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said that “88 percent of teachers had purchased PPE [for use in school]. The poll indicated that 86 percent of teachers bought the PPE for their own use, while 11 percent bought it for their students.

The whole thing is a mess, and the sad truth is that we, as the richest country in the world, have every single tool at our disposal to provide quality education both online and in-person if we wanted. We can do it. It’s possible, and what more noble goal could there be as a nation than providing quality education for our kids, especially in a historic time of strife like this past year. Unfortunately, a lack of leadership, poorly funded districts, and administrative failures doomed us from the start, and the election in November might be our only hope to change that.

An abysmal lack of national leadership failed students, parents, and teachers across the country.

Betsy DeVos, our current Secretary of Education, has failed every test of leadership put in front of her during the Coronavirus pandemic. This summer, as schools were formulating their plans on what reopening schools might look like, an exasperated Dana Bash, during an appearance on CNN, asked DeVos,

“OK, but I’m not hearing a plan from the Department of Education. Do you have a plan for what schools should do?” Bash asked.

“Schools should do what’s right on the ground, at that time, for their students and for their situation. There is no one uniform approach that we can take, or should take nationwide,” DeVos said.

When given every opportunity to at least provide some guidance on what schools should be doing or even whether or not schools should listen to CDC guidelines at the very least, Betsy DeVos has responded every time with what is tantamount to an unconcerned shrug and a threat to withhold funding from schools who refuse to open.

Let me get this straight. As the highest ranking education official in the country, the only plan she can come up with during this pandemic is putting a gun to every teacher’s head and force them to risk their lives for these children, all the while washing your hands of any real responsibility for what happens. Anyone else would be fired for failing this badly during a crisis.

Imagine, what a competent plan could’ve looked like? It’s infuriating that the Department of Education has chosen to cower away in Washington D.C> than step up to the plate and lead. There are several concrete steps her department could’ve taken to ensure the opening of schools went smoothly.

  • Step One: Issue detailed guidance in consultation with the CDC on what types of precautions schools should be taking should they decide to open up, what levels of infection correlate with levels of opening schools up, what are the ideal class sizes, what protocols should be taken into consideration, etc.
  • Step Two: Create a PPP type program for school districts, giving special consideration to poorer districts and underfunded areas of the country. Mandate the funds be used for PPE equipment for teachers and students as well as any renovations that schools might need to ensure minimal infection and comply with guidance in Step One.
  • Step Three: Create a program that hires out-of-work/retired teachers and experts across the country to create free high quality online classes and curriculum for use by school districts, parents, and students across the country to continue their learning online if they choose.
  • Step Four: Provide technical support and training to teachers who have to transfer to completely online teaching.

The only thing that should have been left up to districts and students is whether or not they wish to choose in-person learning or online. Betsy DeVos and her department should have made it their mission to ensure school districts across the country were fully equipped to deal with both. Instead, she abandoned students and parents in need and bungled the whole execution. In a just world, she’d be fired for criminal negligence.

State governments and local municipalities are hemorrhaging money.

Education leaders across the country in May warned of a looming wave of school budget cuts. According to NPR, “‘In April, school districts nationally furloughed or laid off nearly half a million workers,’ says Michael Leachman at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. ‘That is an astonishing number. It’s many more than lost their jobs through the entirety of the Great Recession. It’s all happened in one month.’”

And that was only beginning of the devastation wrought on school budgets across the country. Cuts as large as twenty five percent were felt across the nation, especially in the country’s poorest districts, areas where every dollar lost would be even more painful to the kids growing there. That means reducing school lunches, laying off of bus drivers, and cutting out extracurricular activities.

It’s a tragedy, and without federal aid, the state and local budget cuts will only get worse, kneecapping our schools and teachers as we head into this school year. It’s no wonder the onus has fallen on teachers to outfit their classrooms and themselves with PPE at significant cost to themselves. Teachers aren’t valued or paid enough to be treated like expendable soldiers. It’s cruel.

The bitter irony is that the Republican couldn’t care less about public education and has worked tirelessly to undermine it over the past two decades. This is all happening while the HEROES Act, a bill that would throw a lifeline to these cash-strapped districts, has sat dormant on Mitch McConnell’s desk for several months. It’s a cruel twist of fate that our top education official, Betsy DeVos, has spent her whole term working the undermine the institution she leads. She’s a heartless fraud, who couldn’t care less about students.

Failures at the state and local level contributed to the confusion as well.

Governors and school administrators have flip flopped on what’s happening with their schools almost up until the day the school year is supposed to begin. New York City has pushed the beginning of their school year two times now just weeks before it was supposed to begin. The reasons vary from opening up state and local economies too soon leading to more shutdowns to overconfident school administrators having to shut down their schools again weeks after opening because of an outbreak.

We all saw those pictures coming out of Georgia. It’s unbelievable. How can anyone see pictures like this and be okay? And the girl who posted them was initially suspended? All of this is total insanity. How have we gotten to the place where saving people’s lives is too high a cost?

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We’re a joke, and the saddest part is that it didn’t have to be this way. Communication and support surrounding schooling has been horrible and ultimately parents and students are the ones that suffer the most. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of country are we if we cant take care of and educate our kids in times of hardships? These people are the future and we are failing them catastrophically. We should be embarrassed.

American exceptionalism was on life support before, but it’s now safe to assume it’s drawn its final breath.

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