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Public schools and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. An open letter to school districts around the United States.

As I write this, my local school board is considering a proposal by the new superintendent to pull back from its initial plan to start the school year with a two track system where a hybrid of 2 days in school and 3 days of asynchronous learning would be the default, with families having the option to opt in to a 100% virtual plan with 4 days of synchronous learning. Whatever choice we made by July 20 would be in effect the full school year or until we enter the post-COVID-19 landscape.  All across the country, families are being presented with this impossible choice – attempt sending kids back into classrooms with teachers at incredible risk or keep them home and try to find some way to work and supervise online learning 5 days a week or find childcare to cover days when parents have to be at work outside the home. 

My spouse and I both think that having even 2 weird completely not normal days in a classroom with their teachers and classmates would be the best choice for our children and it is a level of risk that our family is willing to accept in light of the other risks we are avoiding – not yet eating out or going to pools or public parks, etc. However, we are not comfortable with requiring teachers and other school staff members to take on that risk against their wills at the risk of losing their jobs. We, like parents around the country, have been asked to make a terrible choice that could have dire implications far beyond our family or even our bubble of people we still have distant face to face interactions with. Meanwhile, local discussion forums are exploding with anger and frustration about every choice and non-choice and civility is as much of a distant memory as the time when the biggest scheduling drama was whether or not to disrupt people’s vacation schedules by starting school before Labor Day (something rendered moot by the pandemic, by the way).   

That is the backstory. This is a modified version of the letter that I sent the evening before the plan to begin the school year 100% virtual was announced.  

Dear Superintendent, Members of the School Board, District Administration:

I am writing to you as a concerned parent of two local public school students. I have a rising 5th grader and a rising Senior. As I’m sure you can imagine, they are both anxiously awaiting more details on how they might have any of the experience they were hoping for in their final years at their respective schools. I, for my part, am agonizing daily about the choices that the school system has put in parents’ hands.

First off, I want to acknowledge the impossible task forced upon the system, its administrators, the school board, and ultimately, teachers, staff and parents. As a member of my organization’s COVID-19 Crisis Management Team, I have seen firsthand how difficult these decisions can be for employees when the stakes do not include the daily lives, health and potential life or death scenarios for thousands of school children and their families.

I also acknowledge that we are working with information and benchmarks which are constantly moving. Four months ago, almost no one imagined that we would be in mid-July with no end to this pandemic in sight. Just a month or so ago, we all hoped that kids in classrooms would be the obvious norm, with distance learning options offered as the exception for families with specific health concerns. This assumption is reflected in the structure of the proposed learning options for the 20-21 school year, where hybrid is being treated as the default if parents fail to make a choice before July 20.

Instead, we should recognize that the hopeful reasoning of early June was faulty and the default should be what is the clearly safest option for everyone, including teachers and staff – all virtual unless families and teachers and staff opt in to a classroom option.

I strongly believe that rather than trying to require staff to report to classrooms and buildings to meet family demand for in-person instruction, the first step should be to  determine what teachers and staff are able and willing to be present in classrooms and buildings this fall and allocate spots to students who have particular need for in-school instruction based on what schools can accommodate based on that staffing. Parents should be given the option to weight their choices, particularly for the Hybrid scenario, so that we can indicate whether Hybrid is a true need for our families or a preference. I say this as someone who is leaning toward the Hybrid option, because I do truly believe it will be better for my children for different reasons, however, I do not want teachers to be forced to make a choice between their job, their health, and their own families because of something I prefer but do not absolutely need.

I support provide in-school instruction slots first to those students and families who need them most – students with learning disabilities, neurodivergence or other IEP/504 accommodations which would be difficult to achieve in a virtual environment, children of essential workers who otherwise will need to seek out childcare, further extending the risk for all people in contact with their families, and our youngest students and students most in need of intervention and one-to-one instruction.

 It is my fervent hope that we can find a way to change course in a way that can meet the needs of the most students and the most teachers and school staff. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely, etc.

Featured image by Krissy Venosdale via Flickr.

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Emily Sexton

Writer of incomplete novels, entertainment lawyer, mom of two with a wide age spread, blogger here and elsewhere, wannabe vocalist and v/o actress, atheist, weirdo. That last bit went without saying. Find Em on twitter @emandink and maybe she'll use it more.

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