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Commentary: What if we put our energy into supporting and improving schools?

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Rebekah Buchanan

Since the start of the pandemic, education has been at the forefront of the news and public debate. We learned to navigate a new learning environment where parents and caregivers had to become much more involved in the day-to-day aspects of schooling. We have seen teachers and schools work to make changes to try to ensure safe learning spaces and as much continuity as possible as a rapidly evolving virus took over our lives.

In Macomb, some parents are demanding changes in schools, especially when it comes to wearing masks. I am in support of informed, engaged, and active citizens. I think that we cannot have a strong democracy without multiple voices at the table. But I question what is happening right now with the way parents are responding to school districts and teachers. The language and rhetoric being used in this debate is hurtful and combative. It does not address the schooling struggles exacerbated by the COVID crisis and instead just focuses on dress codes while pushing for individual rights at the sacrifice of public health.

What if, instead of pushing for surface-level dress-code change that does not address any of the systematic issues that we are seeing in education currently, we come together to fight for changes that will truly support a stronger school, community, and citizenry?

The pandemic has caused many young people to fall behind and making tutoring available and accessible for students in structured and rigorous ways would help to address learning needs. What if we fought for tutors for all students who were performing below grade level? What might it look like if we demanded funding for students who were struggling—high quality tutoring—and they were supported and assisted in their academic achievement?

What if we fought for smaller class sizes? Educators have long known that smaller class sizes benefit students and teachers. Students have more access to their teachers, classes become communities, students get more feedback, teachers can create more focused and student-centered projects and classroom activities and there are overall better learning results. Think about what our district would look like if we pushed for funding to hire more teachers so that the average class size was no more than 12 students? Think about how this would benefit both students and teachers.

What if we fought to continue free lunches for all students, regardless of income? If everyone had access to free lunch, there would not be a stigma attached to income-based programs like free and reduced meals. If everyone had access to free, nutritious meals during school think of how much better their performance throughout the day could be. Continuing district-wide free meals would go a long way in supporting equity in the classroom.

What if we fought to support alternative learning programs? What if we had more opportunities for students to explore internships, do project-based learning, have more technical and career training, more access to college and college prep courses, and more outdoor and experiential learning? We should be fighting for innovative schooling, funding for more programing, and more opportunities for teacher training to support these programs. Think of all the experiences we could provide for our youth that would support them as they moved into the workplace, college, and adulthood.

What if we treated teachers like professionals, providing support and training like we do for other professions? Did you know that teachers make 60% less than similarly educated professionals and put in more time and personal investment in professionalization and training? What if instead of criticizing teachers we had strong programs in place to recruit and retain highly qualified educators? What if we gave teachers the support they need during the school day, more time for planning and working with small groups of students, and breaks to support mental and physical health? Think of all the ways supported and appreciated teachers would be empowered to give back to their students and create innovative learning opportunities.

There seems to be great concern about the mental health of students during this pandemic. I agree. But what in-school mental health services and support have we asked to be provided? Why are we not asking for changes in how we approach mental health and wellness in schools? Where are the parents who are asking for more counselors in all our schools? What if we fought for hiring additional mental health professionals for each grade and had dedicated professionals that would work with students and their families as supports and advocates throughout this time and beyond? Think about what it would look like if every child had a counselor to go to who had a caseload that allowed working with young people in more dedicated ways.

For years there have been calls for education reform and support for more equitable schools. For years teachers have longed for systems and supports to help them work with all children. So why is it that young people being required to wear masks in school was the thing that is finally inspiring some people to get involved? How will unmasking students change anything if you are not willing to stand up and fight for the health, safety, and education of young people and their teachers in real sustainable ways? If you are not willing to fight for all students and teachers and a better education system and experience, then are you really fighting for freedom and democracy?

Rebekah Buchanan is an Associate Professor of English at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.