Although this pandemic has been horrible with respect to the loss of life and its effect on education, the economy, and our mental health, there is one positive thing I hope can be extracted from the experience. 

While many other countries are making decisions to protect the population as a whole, we continue to make individual decisions to meet individual desires. Too many of us still operate under the fallacy that rugged individualism is the American way — do what you think is best for you and yours and don’t worry about others. Energy and resources are focused on a workaround for some rather than a solution for all. 

Admit it or not, our lives are intricately intertwined. Those who seek to gain an advantage can seldom do so without hurting others. The negative effects of this approach are compounded when any group wields an undue level of privilege.

The New York Times provides a prime example of this in their Nice White Parents Podcast, which traces the history of the creation of a “diverse” middle school in New York City. A local example exists in our approach to kindergarten. District 97 went to full-day kindergarten in 2009 — the assumption being that more time spent in instruction would lead to higher long-term achievement, particularly for disadvantaged and low-income students. 

The population of kindergarten students has also grown because of the needs of working parents. But with a specific birthdate determining kindergarten placement, comes an age range of just under one year for students in a grade. Some parents of children with late birthdays, particularly males, are questioning their social and emotional readiness for the expectations of current-day kindergarten. Some have been holding back their sons for an additional year of maturity and/or physical growth for sports — aka “kindergarten redshirting.” This results in classrooms with age ranges of just under 2 years instead of one and presents additional challenges for schools, teachers, and students.

There is a certain amount of privilege associated with being able to make this decision since it has financial and time implications for the family. Consequently, the majority of kindergarten students redshirted are white males from more highly educated and affluent families. This alters the cohorts of students in a diverse school district like D97, which has now disallowed kindergarten redshirting, resulting in a slew of parents who are very upset and protesting and calling for lawsuits. 

The debate is now about parental choice and not the actual needs of children. This often happens when the solution is to do what’s best for individual children and not raise the broader question of why kindergarten is problematic for a number of males. The issue is not actually a personal one; it is a systemic one that is being handled as a personal one. 

The impactful questions are not being asked and the opportunity to improve kindergarten for all D97 kids is wasted. The focus for so long has been on studying why Black, Latinx, and low-income students are not meeting expectations. Perhaps part of the answer lies in looking at how privilege has raised academic performance or whether expectations are reasonable and developmentally appropriate in the first place. 

This pandemic presents us with the opportunity to slow down and assess whether the systems constructed to afford privileges to some are even working for them anymore. Youth anxiety and depression are at an all-time high, even before COVID, and occurring at increasingly younger ages. The need to find kindergarten workarounds is clearly a sign that we are starting off our children’s education on the wrong foot. And yet, this is the standard by which we are judging the success of the less privileged. Perhaps it’s time to redefine success in much healthier and inclusive terms.

Whether it’s the social and emotional well-being of children relegated to online learning or the structure of freshmen curriculum, the key to better solutions lies in asking how we improve the systems that serve all kids and not just our kin. The 40 or so OPRF High School students who got a chance to socialize together have now put in danger a much greater number of community members. 

What if the question were not how a limited number of youth can experience a sense of normalcy, but how we can create safe options for all of our community youth to be socially engaged during this pandemic? What if the Domino effect of wielding privilege resulted in many more benefiting rather than many more having to struggle in the wake of other’s individual success. 

The decision to change paths is up to all of us.

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