Wednesday, March 22, 2023

No Easy Choices Except to Be Kind (and Butt Out!)

If we are to survive the stress and uncertainty of this year’s school reopenings, we are going to have to learn how to lead from a place of grace and empathy. None of this is easy. There are not any good, let alone, perfect options. The conditions on the ground are changing daily and the personal circumstances of each family – whether teacher or student – are different.

And so is their tolerance for risk.

The president, governors and education leaders are obviously free to say that the goal is to get all students back in their school buildings at the start of the year. But they can’t force parents to send them. Unless school districts want to risk a mass exodus of families, a robust distance learning program will need to be on the menu of options.

Some parents, especially those zoned to the most decrepit and poorly maintained buildings, do not have confidence in their schools’ ability to keep their children safe: They understandably say, “if I didn’t feel like they were safe in school before the pandemic, why would I feel differently now?”

That statement resonates most with parents and teachers assigned to schools that have never been clean, well-maintained or even structurally sound. But for parents who have never feared for their children’s safety in school or are unaccustomed to deplorable conditions, it’s hard to relate.

There are parents, some of whom are also teachers, who are frightened by the thought of their children contracting the virus; others, for whatever reason, are less worried. Neither person is right or wrong. They just see an extremely complex, emotional and unprecedented challenge differently.

Children across America suffer from myriad health conditions that can make any virus, let alone COVID-19, scary and dangerous. Perfectly healthy teachers have parents in their 90’s who live in their homes. As one Central Falls teacher shared with me, “I touch my 90-year-old father’s food every day.”

Another husband and wife worry that her breast cancer treatments leave her too vulnerable for her children to be bringing germs home from school that could lead to her contracting the virus.

None of these fears are unreasonable or irrational. It is wrong and even cruel to imply that they are.

And it is equally wrong to imply that the parent or teacher who wants to go back to school somehow wants to “kill children.” The statement is so ridiculous and inflammatory, it barely warrants a response. Distance learning was a massive challenge for a huge swath of kids and families and there is plenty of evidence that getting back to school must be an urgent priority.

Each option has benefits and trade-offs and the calibration of those will vary greatly among parents, administrators and school staff for lots of different reasons.

For better or worse, we live at a time when anyone can find a link to an article or website that supports their preferred side of the argument. People on all sides wield internet links like weapons, often to demean their opponents instead of  persuading or solving problems. It’s sad to see that happening between neighbors and friends during a time that is already so hard.

Have we really decided that it’s acceptable to shame a custodian or bus driver because they are afraid for their health? When I was a high school student, and later a teacher at my alma mater, we had a really grumpy main office, run by women in their 60’s and 70’s. These ladies hardly saw it as their life’s mission to brighten your day or tend to you with top notch customer service (though their hearts were tender once you broke through). As I listen to the conversations about schools reopening, people like them are far too often invisible. And while I absolutely support centering the reopening conversation around what’s best for students, I do not support erasing all the people who work in schools and are at much higher risk of getting sick. It lacks humanity.

I have spent a lifetime believing that we are called to care for the sick, the vulnerable and the weak. And that is very hard to square with what is coming out of the mouths and keyboards of far too many people, whether it be from a Rose Garden podium, parent groups on Facebook, or influential commentators on Twitter.

We need to let people land where they land and, frankly, butt out of other people’s business. If we want to be part of making the fall better for ourselves and others, our business is to learn as much as we can about the options being offered by our districts and elsewhere if we are considering alternatives. Our business is to do what we can to close the digital divide and ensure that all students, whether we know them or not, have access to broadband internet. Our business is to  support — and not judge— our friends and neighbors who are struggling to figure out how to make the fall work. If we have knowledge that could help them, we share it. If we have a network of people who could offer suggestions or wisdom from their experience, we connect them. If there is a bill in Congress or our state legislatures that would help the parents and students who need it the most, we make calls and write emails to try to get it passed. 

Parents will and should do whatever they believe best serves and protects their children and their family. That may mean wanting to ensure that their child doesn’t suffer from the social isolation they felt in the spring or it may mean minimizing exposure to COVID-19 by keeping them home.

Let’s respect their decision.

Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a former educator and elected school committee member. She is also a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Her blog is Good School Hunting and her Substack is Sanzi Says. She occasionally writes for other outlets including Scary Mommy, The 74, and The Hill. She is the mother of three school aged sons and calls Rhode Island home.


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