July 27, 2020 marks the day that many of my educator friends returned physically to school buildings armed with masks, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and well wishes or prayers from their social media community support systems. The beginning of the school year is generally a time exploding with excitement and hope for a year of growth and accomplishment for students, teachers and parents. This is a time teachers polish their skills, learn new techniques, purchase new classroom decor with their hard earned money. Back to school is a time for students to set goals, find favorite outfits, craft learning expectations, make new friends, or meet favorite teachers… it’s a time of renewal and reinvention.
2020 has replaced that nostalgic feeling of back to school with horror. Yes, of course, for obvious reasons. There are still loose ends in terms of operational details fleshed out for simple needs such as bathroom breaks. There are no concrete procedures to what happens when a person brings COVID in the building. Teachers are terrified to bring the virus they desperately worked hard to keep out of their homes back to loved ones who may be vulnerable. There’s no concrete solutions for the role of roving faculty who work in multiple schools such as myself—specialists, administrators, coaches, substitutes. Bus transportation has not been specifically figured out. Masks are unrealistically expected to be worn seven or more hours a day. Parents are worried about the extra mobility of teenagers during the day in hybrid or alternating day scenarios. On top of all of this, there is no other option but to ask people with masters degrees and beyond to forsake their love of teaching and content expertise to literally watch after students all day supervising work they didn’t assign with students they may not even know.
There can be no special handshakes or music filling the hallways, lunch chats with friends, or basketball at recess. No concerts. No talent shows. No student council meetings. No gym class. No small group work. Nothing. Just places we won’t even recognize. The soul of so many school communities will be deflated in the name of “rebounding the economy” for politicians seeking re-election while simultaneously impacting people’s lives. It’s unfathomable. It’s stressful. It’s unfair.
Beyond that though, the most horrific aspect of “back to school” in 2020 is the impending loss our school communities are about to experience if schools reopen too quickly. While many school districts have opted to atleast start the school year with remote instruction, there are many, many, looking towards September to reevaluate. Some school districts are even micromanaging teachers by having remote instruction with teachers physically in the building. Other school districts, particularly in the South, are enforcing a physical return to school.
Yet, throughout all of these different approaches to providing students the education they have an absolute right to, the haste is of course not in our families’ or teachers’ best interests whatsoever. Whether it is greed or political expediency, the fact of the matter is that enough very honest and realistic conversations about what really lies ahead for all returning in person in any capacity faces: The reality of momentous loss in our school communities.
In my seventeen years as an educator, I have experienced my fair share of loss. I don’t wish it on any teacher, any student, any parent, any mentor, any administrator.
I think of Madreecus. I think of how he had never been diagnosed with a reading difficulty by his tenth grade year. I tested him for dyslexia and found what color overlay his eyes were less sensitive to- the color blue. It was like a world had been unlocked for him. Every morning, he came and borrowed my blue colored overlay and thanked me every afternoon. A few of his teachers started printing his assignments on blue paper. And in an instant, right when we were fighting it all out, he was gone.
Or, I think of Ms. Hamer, the heart and soul of our school’s community. She worked tirelessly to raise money through our concessions, came to every single event, knew every family. Came back from a holiday break, and she was gone.
I still become emotional about Derica. My pride and joy as a student. The student everyone wish they can have replicated. Derica was a track star and was destined to be the first in her family to go to college on a full scholarship. Derica sacrificed free time with her friends to stay after school in my classroom a few times a week to finish a blog entry or write an AP essay because she didn’t have a computer at home. Once, we traveled to the state track championships- and even in that moment on a mini-vacation where we celebrated her victory on the track, she sat in a corner reading the Huckleberry Finn assignment I had given her. Derica was a shining example of determination and commitment to her future. On Christmas Day, she was gunned down in the passenger seat of a car. Her computer she was receiving that day never opened.
Derica’s death changed me as a teacher. When my class returned after Christmas, we all just sat in sorrow, leaving her seat untouched for the rest of the year. 10 years later, I cannot celebrate Christmas however I used to. I can’t visit Memphis without visiting her and thinking of what would’ve been. I still have her papers to this day.
I think of Mr. Welch. I think of Ms. Kinzer. I think of Tyrese. I think of so many students and teachers who have lost their lives during the school year. I think of the communities their deaths impacted. I think of the death of innocence everytime death touches our schools.
Are we ready for loss like this to our school communities? Are schools equipped to handle the loss of beloved students or staff members at a time in this country where hugs are nonexistent? Can grief counselors even come into multiple classrooms to offer support? Are parents ready to explain to their young ones why their teacher won’t be back? Has any school district prepared for this grim reality we face?
This will be another heartbreaking chapter in the story of 2020 for so many school communities if we continue to allow politicians to fight scientific fact. This will be the result behind ineptitude. And as always, schools will be left to fend for itself as media moves on to the next sensational story or while politicians and their lods stay at home to continue to self-isolate in the safety of their privilege.
Our students absolutely must continue to receive an education. It is critical we continue to provide the kind of quality education that will produce critical thinkers who contribute to our society productively. As a literacy specialist, I know far too well the consequences that lay ahead if we do not continue to close gaps in literacy, in equity, in access through every subject they go without. It is detrimental to the future of our nation that our students are educated— this, I believe is a fundamental belief we probably all share across this country.
But at what cost?