Who remembers the “Great American Solar Eclipse” of August 2017? People all over the country drove for hours to the best viewing locations to see it. It was the first total solar eclipse visible in the United States from coast to coast since 1918.
This once-in-a-lifetime event happened to fall on Gateway’s first day of school that year. We wanted our students to be able to experience the eclipse, but we also needed to ensure their health and safety. We were worried because public health officials sternly warned people to avoid looking directly at the sun without wearing protective glasses, even when the sun was obscured by the moon. I remember watching in horror as the president himself peeked up at the sky without glasses on. I thought, “If he doesn’t model the importance of wearing protective glasses, how can we expect our students to?”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Today, I am preoccupied and weighed down by school reopening questions and responsibilities in light of the COVID-19 surge. What will the first day of school look like? How will we ensure the health and safety of all members of our community, while simultaneously providing an education to our students that meets their needs, emphatically reinforces that they matter, and opens doors for their futures? What happens if students or teachers get sick?
School reopening has become a charged political debate. Very few people question the educational value of bringing students back to school, and frankly we educators really miss them. However, there are so many other factors to weigh:
- all that we do not yet know about COVID-19
- the sharp increase in COVID-19 infections
- the cost of PPE and additional cleaning necessary to sufficiently protect against germs
- the risk to vulnerable school employees, students, and families caused by in-person instruction
- students’ ability and willingness to follow social distancing guidelines and other protocols
- the availability and safety of public transportation
- families’ need and ability to return to work
- access to childcare
- access to school meals
- the importance and support of in-school relationships with classmates, teachers, school counselors and administrators
- the longterm effects of further disruptions to student learning
These are all important considerations, and I assure you that educators feel the weight of each. There is nothing simple about determining the best path forward, nothing that can be captured in an all-caps tweet or proclamation. It was just a couple of months ago that, as a society, we seemed to all realize the importance of teachers. And yet today, I worry that their needs and wellbeing are not an important enough part of the equation. I worry that politicians are not leading; instead, they are counting votes and dollars.
Back to the picture for a moment – I love the ease and joy depicted in this photograph: students casually strolling across the schoolyard and embracing as they reconnect after the summer break; Joyce McMinn, one of Gateway’s founding mothers, and I cheesing for the camera in our solar glasses. Those were different times.