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Commentary - School During Covid: Mission Impossible

Sydney Null

It has been so frustrating watching the lack of guidance and uncertainty surrounding our education system during the pandemic. And I don't even have that much skin in the game. I feel very lucky to not be one of the parents who worry about sending a child to in-person school or who have had to work at home while leading kids through online school, to say nothing of the nightmare scenario some parents face leaving kids at home for school while they go to work. Our little boy is only a toddler. My husband is a teacher at a rural school, and I've spent five winters substitute teaching. I'm certainly no expert, but I've seen enough during my days in various grades to understand how essential being in school is for kids.

Last spring felt like chaos. Schools went remote and focused on making sure kids were receiving lunches and daily phone calls. Grades went out the window, and everyone just focused on getting through the rest of the semester. As we were just beginning to learn about Covid-19, that was really all we could have asked of our schools.

As the summer went on though, there was time to figure out a better game plan for schools. I wonder how many millions of dollars and staff hours schools have spent disinfecting desks and doorknobs this year. Considering Covid-19 is a respiratory virus, putting a humidifier and air purifier in each classroom would have been a better use of resources than the focus on cleaning surfaces. Having seen how precautions play out in several different schools this winter, I can tell you that, frankly, even a bare minimum of masking and separating classes seems to have prevented any spread of Covid cases.

Of course, we are in a rural area without the overburdened schools more common in big cities. I don’t envy any superintendent right now, especially those in charge of large districts. To take into consideration the risk to older staff members or anyone in the school community with a compromised immune system, the logistics of social distancing for young children…it’s obviously incredibly difficult, especially without the science-based guidelines and investment in more staff that could have come from our government much earlier in the pandemic. In any case, schools did not turn out to be super spreaders. And yet, nationally only 40% of kids were attending in-person school in early March, a full year after the start of the pandemic. I’ve heard the recent reporting about families who plan to keep their kids home even after schools reopen. I can completely understand how some kids feel more comfortable and able to focus at home. But online schooling doesn’t solve racism or level the playing field in our education system. Those problems still exist, in school and in real life.

We know for certain that school is a critical safe haven for so many kids. I’ve seen kids come to school without warm enough clothing. I’ve commiserated with another sub about a little girl whose lunchbox was packed with Halloween candy in December. Another little girl repeatedly wet her pants at the end of the day to stall going home. Sometimes parents aren’t equipped to do the best for their kids. Sometimes their absolute best doesn’t go far enough in our incredibly unequal society. Schools try to fill in the gaps. They scrounge up lost-and-found coats, prepare so many free hot lunches, call Social Services and let them know what they see. It’s not enough to fix everything, but it’s something. And if kids aren’t in school, teachers can’t see very much of what’s going on with their students. On remote learning days around here, some kids are totally missing in action. I get depressed thinking about schools that have been remote all year. Has this been the best we can offer?

But then, is our status quo the best we can offer? The U.S. is way down in the ranking for math and science education for high schoolers. When will we get serious about academics and use a year-round school calendar? How about whitewashed history books and curricula written by for-profit companies? Will we ever recognize the value of teachers and pay them accordingly? Heck, how about actually starting with universal daycare and pre-k? Oh, I forgot about kindergarten. In some states, kindergarten is not even mandatory. In the United States of America, we could at least make it a little easier for schools to try to achieve an impossible task.

Sydney Null is an organic vegetable grower.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.