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It’s Been a Year of Pandemic Schooling. Now What?

Look, I get it, I really do. We’re now one year into a pandemic that has upended our lives and over which we have no control. The backlash in the form of anger, frustration, and blame directed at schools and teachers is an all too easy rant. Most community members feel they have at least some control over local schools. However, if you have ever worked in a school, like I have, you know that most American teachers have little power when it comes to school policy. How we get kids back in school safely, keep them in school, not add to the 500+ teachers who have died while trying, and meet the needs of parents, is a complex web of interconnectedness requiring a solution far beyond scapegoating. Far beyond venting on social media. Far beyond simply reopening school buildings. Even the passage of the relief package, which brings dollars to school for safety, may continue to frustrate parents if schools operate as they always have.

Asking for children to return to full time onsite school is a band aid, a temporary fix that does not address the heart of the problem, the lack of federal and state programs that left so many parents without support, in impossible situations, and which led to epidemic numbers of women leaving the paid workforce. Such lack of employee friendly paid family and caregiver leave, hurts families and our local economies. If we really want bang for our buck, and a different result which includes healthy schools, healthy families, and a healthy economy, let’s have a different conversation.

We have a chance to reinvent here. What if instead of blaming teachers we banded together and demanded that our federal, state, and local leaders take action to repair the many cracks in the systems revealed by this pandemic? Things like racial and economic inequities, outdated and inadequate ADA and FMLA definitions, paid flex/sick time, inadequate technology access for students, and unemployment practices that can’t sustain families during a national catastrophe. Otherwise, given climate change and possible future pandemics, we will be right back here.

What if we started by asking broader questions? The questions here came from a group of 25 educators from across the nation who want to help parents co-create the education their children deserve.

1. What policies and programs will my child’s school be implementing right now to address racial and economic inequalities exposed by catastrophes like the pandemic and/or climate change events? This includes inequities faced by special education students and English language learners.

2. Standardized testing. Should we be basing financial decisions on the most unusual and non-standard year of instruction? How do we ensure accuracy of results and fairness in the application of those results?

3. How do we create family leave/sick time/childcare/eldercare services that actually service the 2021 and beyond needs of families?

4. What language and benefits need to be amended in the ADA and FMLA definitions to accommodate the needs of families in 2021 and beyond?

5. How do we ensure that unemployment practices help families sufficiently during extended periods of time such as the pandemic as a permanent feature?

6. What data should be collected that wasn’t? What did we need to know that we didn’t know? At what levels?

7. What will my child’s school be implementing that’s different in 2021-22 and beyond?

Using the blame game leads us to chase our tails. A lack of transparency at all levels has stolen our peace of mind and eroded trust. This is a great time to host a collective intelligence workshop which harvests real needs in real time from all stakeholders including students. Discovering new outcomes requires us to commit to raising the bar of current discourse, to listen and speak to each other civilly and empathetically.

History tells us that post pandemic times are typically rich with innovation and invention among different disciplines and within communities who rise to the challenge. Overnight teachers showed us their adaptability, maybe not in a way you liked, maybe not perfectly, by creating online and hybrid lessons, sometimes simultaneously. Some teachers were even pushed back into classrooms without vaccination and/or sufficient PPE or ventilation. The result: 500 teachers that we know of, losing their lives. Bottom line, teachers need parents, parents need teachers. A simple and good start is to ask question number one of your local school principal. With many teachers now receiving their vaccinations, they can return to their school buildings to safely work with your children so that everyone benefits--parents, schools, local businesses, and the economy.

Kristie Schmidt is a writing coach and editor, and high school teacher

Margaret Ryan, WonderWorks Business Advisor and Author.

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