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  • Jan Flynn

Reopening Schools

When the Kids Come Back

One of the pandemic’s greatest casualties is the school year

The California public middle school where I work held its last day of classes, ironically enough, on Friday, March 13. We didn’t know that at the time.

At 3:30 that afternoon I oversaw students leaving campus as I usually do. And as I do on most Fridays, I wished them all a good weekend. With the updates I’d been reading all week from the school district and the county public health office, I wasn’t sure if I should include my usual cheery, “See you Monday!”

By the time I returned to my office, the order had come down: our district was closed for two weeks.

Long before those two weeks ran out, they were extended. Then on April 1, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that California’s public schools would be closed for the remainder of the school year. That’s now true in at least 42 states, with others considering the option.

At every stage, as we and the rest of the country — indeed, the rest of the world — reeled at the scope, the seriousness, and the speed of the coronavirus’ spread, our administrators and teachers scrambled as they pivoted to distance learning. This meant essentially revamping our entire approach to education on the fly.

Everything has had to be rethought

Curriculum. Communication.Technology. Accessibility, assessments, grading. And most of all, expectations. What is reasonable to ask of families who are enclosed together, with parents either struggling to keep up with work from home or who have lost jobs or seen their businesses wither?

What can we expect of young adolescents who have been thrown into this unsettling new world? They can’t take part in the activities that up until now have given their lives shape. No sports, no school plays, no band. No clubs, no field trips, no eighth-grade trip to Yosemite. No hanging out with friends or navigating the perilous but crucial social complexities of middle school firsthand, at a stage in their development when friends are so desperately important.

And no classrooms. No three-dimensional teachers. Google meetups and online office hours, as diligently and creatively as our teachers provide them, are a pale substitute.

Families think we’re asking too much, or not nearly enough

We hear from parents who are frustrated because they don’t have the level of computer skills their kids do and so don’t know how to access lesson plans or find out what their kids are supposed to be doing. Life is hard enough right now without us expecting moms and dads to fill in as teachers, they point out. They can hardly get their kids, who are dazed and irritable from weeks of isolation, to do anything anyway.

Other parents can’t understand why we don’t have Zoom classes going at full tilt six hours a day, with homework and grades as per usual.

And all of us want to know when schools can open again

As some states begin to relax their restrictions or at least consider what’s required to do so, we hear about certain businesses resuming some form of operations. Golf courses and driving ranges here, barbers and nail salons there (as inadvisable as that strikes me). But so far, no word on when and how schools will resume their place as a crucial component in a functional society.

Make no mistake, life will not be able to return to any semblance of normalcy until the kids can go back to school. For many families, schools provide more than education. They offer critical social supports, such as vision and hearing tests, counseling, and nutrition services. And they provide a safe, structured place for kids to spend their days while parents are earning a living.

Although few leaders and legislators are talking about it, the reality is that getting the kids back to school is a big part of restarting the country’s economic engines.

But how do we do that without risking our kids?

Our school year typically begins in the middle of August. We hope that by then the viral landscape will allow us to do so this year, but we know we can’t count on it. Daily we read about the prospect of shelter-in-place restrictions needing to continue, at least in some form, through the summer and into the fall. And we hear increasing warnings about the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 infections at the same time as the annual flu season gets underway in November.

Among our administration and teachers, there is much speculation about what the next school year may look like: socially-distanced classrooms, with desks placed at least six feet apart; staggered class schedules so too many kids aren’t in the hallways at one time; gloves and masks for all or part of the day; and who knows how we’re going to handle recess and lunch breaks?

No matter how diligent we are, there is a real possibility that we will face more disruptions, more rounds of school closures as the virus reasserts itself — though, hopefully, not for as long. Fostering and maintaining any kind of learning momentum under such circumstances is going to be a monumental undertaking.

Let’s not strain students’ resilience to the breaking point

While we’re doing our best to compensate for whatever gaps in learning the coronavirus has wrought on the 2020–2021 academic year, we run a big risk if we ignore the enormous adjustment kids will have to make as they return to school.

Simply getting back to the typical, rigorous schedule of a school day will be tough for students who have had little structure for six months or more. Readjusting to the behavioral expectations of the classroom and the campus will be another stretch. Expecting kids to hit the ground running, with a full load of classes, homework, practice, and standardized testing after this unprecedented interruption is likely to backfire.

We’re going to have to find a balance between high expectations and academic rigor — as important as those things are — and the capacity of kids to reenter a demanding system. That capacity will be different for individual students, and it will demand the utmost in skill and sensitivity from teachers, who will be undergoing their own adjustments.

I don’t know how all that will look

At this point, my colleagues and I are developing plans for the upcoming school year. Given that we don’t know yet when that will be or how it will be structured, it’s a daunting task. But it’s one we have to tackle with all the skill, flexibility, and determination we can muster — while doing all we can to keep our kids safe and provide them with the education they deserve.

No doubt we’re going to have to cut them a little slack. We hope most parents will do the same for us, as challenging as this is no doubt going to be.

Meanwhile, we miss our students. And we hope they’re getting to bed on time.

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