We could have pulled off better return to school with talk that was less about vilification and fear
With the first week of school now in the books, I’d like to look back at how our city thought about, talked about and made decisions about how to do school this fall. I write this not knowing what the “right” decisions might have been. Instead, I write this with great sorrow about the process.
It felt like too much of the summer was spent trying to figure out who the bad guys were: It’s the racist school board! The lazy teachers’ union! That no-good administration! The entitled rich parents! That environment made it more difficult to talk about good and bad ideas, less and more risky policies, and how we come together as a society to do the very best we can for young people. In the process, we lost an opportunity to do more for students.
I was disappointed with where we landed because I have two children on individualized education programs whose federally mandated goals cannot be met remotely. I was disappointed because the majority of all families, including every subgroup of parents asked, wanted children to have at least some in-person learning. How is it, I wondered, that we could open nearly every other business and nonprofit in the city but could not manage to open even an hour of outdoor physical education? How can we stand outside and clap for doctors, hospital custodians and grocery workers, but we can’t see that educators and school staff are essential workers too – that in-person schools are essential?
Still, as a longtime member of the teachers union in New York City, as a parent of three children in Cambridge and as someone whose work has been upended by Covid-19, I appreciated the difficulty of the choice and tried to breathe deeply and pray.
Then I saw that the Department of Human Services found a way to offer three hours of outdoor activities per day for students. And I heard that the city was looking for ways to staff spaces for students to do remote learning when doing so at home was not possible. It made me wonder why the city was able to do what the schools could not. One of the differences that jumped out at me is that those spaces and programs are run by far lower-paid staff who are far more likely to be non-white than the well-paid and overwhelmingly white staff of our schools.
How is it that our city as a whole has found a way to open and run bars, gym, stores, restaurants, day care centers, assisted living facilities, art galleries, soccer leagues, charter schools and private schools, and yet we can’t find a way to open the schools? For even an hour of art. Or a welcome back morning in a park. Not for even for the youngest children. Not for children with disabilities. Not for children with profound mental health challenges. How did this happen? What are the kinds of conversations we were not allowed to have? Where is the out-of-the-box thinking we were not allowed to engage in?
I say that as an overweight, 53-year-old woman with borderline diabetes. I am about to return as a volunteer at the medium security prison at Concord two days a week to teach in a college program there. I understand the risks to my safety, and to my family, and I understand the risks to the imprisoned men posed by me when I return. Prison populations are always vulnerable, and the coronavirus makes them more so.
But if our city is going to look out for the most vulnerable, then we have to make risk assessments with the knowledge that there are no risk-free solutions. If I stay home, I will be safer in some respects. But our society as a whole will not. And the intellectual, psychological and spiritual health of the men will suffer. This is the same calculation the custodians and the nurses at Massachusetts General Hospital have to make. It is the calculation of bus drivers and the day care workers and teachers in therapeutic schools that never closed. Love always requires sacrifice, and this pandemic brings that fact into stark relief.
The plan we have now does not protect our community. It leaves many, many children, my own included, vulnerable to lifelong negative outcomes – academically, financially and in terms of mental and physical health. The balance of sacrifice feels off to me. And somehow, in a community I love, if I question this, I risk being called names. There are no longer ideas to disagree with; there are only people to vilify. If you simply question if the ventilation system is adequate, you are a union hack who doesn’t want to work and doesn’t care about kids. If you note that several teachers who protested coming back to work in person have sent their children to private and charter schools, then you don’t care about the health and well-being of teachers. No one wins in this game.
Certainly not the children.
But they are not the only ones. Teachers cannot be effective in a city that does not respect them. School Committee members cannot govern if they are harassed for pointing out racism. And parents cannot make good decisions for their families if they are not allowed to ask hard questions.
Our city can do better. We can talk about risk with the understanding that there are no risk-free solutions. We can speak openly about who is being asked to work directly with children and who is not. We can think creatively about solutions that might require flexibility in rules and contracts. And we can ask that people make sacrifices in the name of love. We can do better.
Tara Edelschick, Cambridgeport