I Desperately Want to Get Back to School, But My Students’ Safety Is My First Priority Right Now

I desperately want to return to school in the fall and be with my kids. In the most non-melodramatic, non-trivial way possible—I am lost without them.

I imagine it’s somewhat similar to how Christopher McCandless felt towards the end of “Into the Wild” when he wrote in the margins of a book, “Happiness [is] only real when shared.”

I want to make TikTok videos with my kids during morning advisory and discuss “The Poet X” with them during reading block and learn more about Jesmyn Ward with them during assembly and listen to their stories during lunch and play tag with them during recess and solve challenging problems with them during math class and laugh with them during transitions and sing “Why We Tell the Story” with them during performing arts and wait for the 96 bus with them during dismissal and return their calls and texts during the evening, and so much more.

I want to have a barbecue with my kids in August and run cross country with them in September and organize a dance with them in October and go roller-skating with them in November and stay up all night at a Lock-In with them in December and go snow tubing with them in January and celebrate Black Excellence with them in February and eat pie with them on “Pi Day” in March and do flips with them in April and ride roller coasters with them in May and hike Mount Chocorua with them in June, and so much more.

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I want to imperfectly exist with them, in person, through all types of moments—good and bad, exhilarating and mundane, inspiring and trying.

However, I am legitimately concerned about their safety, the safety of their families, and the safety of my colleagues if we return too soon.

I know that Governor Phil Murphy has established guidelines to reopen schools in the fall (which, admittedly, are subject to change) and I know that New Jersey has seen a significant decrease in new cases of COVID-19 over the past few months. Nonetheless, the number of new cases nationally is higher than ever (almost double the number of new cases in April) and over 160,000 people have tragically died because of our federal government’s haphazard, negligent and unscientific response to the virus.

If we return to school in the fall and even one kid or family member or colleague falls victim to virus, then we have savagely failed as public servants—both politically and educationally—especially because it is our job to keep those in our care safe and protected and strong.

I would rather take a more guarded, more patient approach in light of the uncertainty that returning to school in the fall will bring. In my non-expert opinion (and I’m sure Governor Murphy has many experts advising him), starting with online learning and then reevaluating the situation would be a more reasonable course of action. Thankfully, the families in my school network have the ability to opt into 100% online learning this year.

Nevertheless, I recognize that if this more measured approach is to really work, then the policies of our society must be fundamentally transformed as well.

We Can’t Manage Social Problems By Refusing to Confront Them

Yes, I want to delay the opening of the school building and I want more. I want all kids and their families to have access to free internet and free laptops, free public transportation and free healthcare. I want them to have more books and more affordable housing, more power and more freedom, more neighborhood grocery stores and more job opportunities. I want them to benefit from regular stimulus checks and reparations, better schools and better wages, zero police brutality and zero discrimination, and so much more.

Online learning is only a small piece of the revolutionary work required to do right by kids and their families during this pandemic and in general.

Unfortunately, the response to this is usually something like a conversation I had recently:

Them: Well … this just isn’t realistic.

Us: At one point in history it was unrealistic to think that slavery would be abolished and yet that still happened because of the collective effort of so many people.

Them: Okay. But you’re losing focus on the real issue at hand.

Us: What, COVID-19?

Them: Yes!

Us: But COVID-19 intersects with everything! It’s impossible to disentangle it from history, healthcare, housing … you name it.

Them: Yes, but we don’t have the time or the resources for all that.

Us: Shouldn’t we though? How can we talk about online learning if don’t talk about everything that affects the lives of those who are learning online?

Them: We’re doing the best we can, you know? It might be slow but we’re making progress.

Us: Why does “the best we can” always seem like the bare minimum?

In the words of Angela Davis in The Meaning of Freedom, “This is something that the United States has basically offered to the world: a way of managing social problems by refusing to confront them.”

I still remember the last day of normal school vividly—Friday, March 13. We spent the final hour of the day outside on the field—the weather was perfect, the temperature in the high 60s, the sun shining bright and warm.

Some kids were playing football, others soccer; some kids were dancing, others taking pictures; some kids were running with no particular destination in mind, others lounging on the grass; all of us (kids and teachers alike) young and alive and infinite.

I go back to that afternoon often when I miss my kids.

They deserve more than the bare minimum.

They deserve everything.

This post originally appeared on Medium as “Should We Return to School in the Fall?“.
Photos courtesy of the author.

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