We are rightly focusing attention on the unfair circumstance that our high school seniors face as the final third of their final year of school was abruptly lopped off by COVID-19. The mid-March email announcing school would be temporarily shuttered did not lead to immediate worries about prom, graduation and the tender transition to life after OPRF, Trinity, and Fenwick being axed. But that realization has gradually taken hold as virtually everyone has accepted that the only way through this pandemic is to deny it the transmission that comes when we move about and gather up.
The news last week that Gov. J.B. Pritzker had taken the prudent step — really the only acceptable step — and closed all Illinois schools for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year makes our predicament very real.
But it is not just the seniors who are being deprived. This wrenching change has profound impact on all students, on all parents, on all teachers. And during what is formally recognized as Teacher Appreciation Week, we’d like to shout out not just to teachers but to the fundamental place of schools in our individual and collective lives.
It is the ultimate taking for granted that, with all their strengths and many imperfections, we don’t actively appreciate that five days a week, 10 months a year children from age 3 to 19 are taught, fed, socialized, loved and disciplined in a communal setting, hewing in evolving ways to our shared values.
Credit to the valiant efforts of teachers and administrators who have willed eLearning into something of genuine, if uneven, purpose. Credit to parents who have taken work/life balance into new realms as they work with their children to sustain learning while also working from home, or more remarkably, working outside the home on the frontlines and still somehow, some damned way, holding life together.
There are heroes among us.
Whether a child is small or is on the verge of adulthood, preschool, middle school, high school or homebound college kid, we have lost the rhythm of school. We have lost the one, sometimes two meals, necessary for sustenance. We have lost access to Spring Sings, the spring sports season, casual conversations in the hallway, human connections to adults other than parents, profound special ed services not replicated at home, ready access to physical and mental health care.
And with those losses and so many others, we may not immediately recognize that we have brought unknown stresses to children, families and institutions.
Also though, in this crucible we’ve invented teaching and learning approaches — many involving technology — that will serve us well and be incorporated into curricula going forward. We’ve come to appreciate the importance of the bond between teachers, parents and children.
Finally, since every crisis offers opportunity, perhaps we can learn a lesson with school as we know it having been ripped away. Here are two. In education, as in every aspect of our lives, there are profound inequities at work every day. Those are laid bare in this circumstance, whether it is access to meals, to technology, to hours of support from parents able to work from home. Finally, perversely, life interrupted should also make us think, especially as kids grow older, about the intense pressures we bring to education. The standardized testing, the tracking, social cliques, the right college, the right clothes. It’s really too much.
This enforced absence is a moment to rethink priorities.