Let me get this out of the way first thing: I am a public school teacher, and I wish I were in the classroom right now with your children. However, I am teaching remotely from my home office—five classes of eighth grade math, with 30 students or so per class. There is nothing ideal about this situation, and I cannot wait for the day I meet them face to face.
Let me get this out of the way, too. I think my district made the right decision going virtual. I am so relieved that we are starting the year this way.
Before you send complaints my way, let me also say that I am a parent. I have four children—a sixth grader, a fourth grader, a second grader and a preschooler. My wife and I have spent the summer in knots trying to decide what is best for them, thinking about their education and safety, running the calculus over and over, choosing one thing, and changing our minds multiple times a week.
And, lest you think I am one of those independently wealthy teachers, it is worth noting that my wife works as well, and we must arrange childcare for the preschooler on top of everything else. I wish schools were open, in no small part, because it would be easier for my wife and me to work. Private schools and learning pods aren’t an option for us; we already have too many bills to pay. We, like most of you, are on our own.
In short, America, I am a lot like you—a frustrated parent trying to figure out how to get my job done while also wondering where my at-home children will fit into the picture. Just as much as you do, I wish things were different. I wish COVID-19 had gone away over the summer, as our president promised, “like a miracle.” I wish we had a vaccine, but we don’t, and even at lightning speed, science will take a while to develop one.
The truth is, things aren’t different, and magical thinking isn’t making them any better. When President Trump threatened in early July that he might cut off funding if schools don’t reopen, he wasn’t helping. When Governor Ron DeSantis, chief executive of the current global hotspot, issued an emergency order calling on all Florida schools to reopen five days a week come August, he wasn’t helping. When the president’s press secretary said, advocating for them both, that “the science should not stand in the way of this,” she wasn’t helping. They were peddling magical thinking, no better than a handful of beans traded by the side of the road.
America, I know you are frustrated. I know this is complicated. I know you are stretched to the breaking point, trying to make all these decisions about how to work and care for your children. I know because I am frustrated, too. But you have to understand that the decision-makers in your district are thinking about the health and safety of your children and their teachers. They are planning for your family, even if the decisions they make are hard to handle. Nobody who works with children is taking this lightly.
I know some of you are in school face-to-face, and I admit to being jealous. Smaller districts certainly can make decisions that larger ones can’t—this is the beauty of our local control system. Hopefully, as the year goes on more districts will be able to get more children back into the classroom with their teachers, who are desperate to be there with them. It is not for nothing that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends putting younger children back in the building; we all know it is important, and we all want it as soon as possible.
However, consider two recent newsworthy re-openings—the NBA and the MLB. The NBA has decided to play all their games in what they call “the bubble,” quarantining off the entire league in Orlando to keep the virus out. So far, so good for basketball. On the other hand, the MLB tried to do business as usual with rigorous promises to test and trace. One week in, though, two significantoutbreaks had already occurred. The future of the season is in doubt, with only a handful of games under wraps.
Schools can’t be in a bubble; we can’t emulate the NBA. We need to look at the MLB as a cautionary tale of what happens when we move too quickly in the name of “getting back to normal.”
There are some bright spots here, America, although it might not appear so at first blush. As Churchill said, “never let a good crisis go to waste”—what could we take out of this moment? For starters, we could look at the desperate state of child care in this country, how reliant on the public schools we are to keep our economy running (even as we underfund said schools). Or we could discover how many jobs might be performed just as well from a home computer, break the back once and for all of “going to the office.” Think of the possibilities when we finally do return to “real life.”
Teaching won’t be one of those jobs, thankfully—as I said, I genuinely am longing to be face to face in front of my students. But let’s try to take comfort in the type of innovation millions of teachers around the country and I will be doing in the upcoming year.
What changes might we make to our pedagogy in terms of remote learning that will improve learning outcomes for all students once we finally return face to face? Think of it: no longer will an illness, a family emergency, or some sort of chronic condition cause a child to fall behind. There will no longer be any excuse but to keep children included even at a distance. Summer learning loss might go away once and for all.
We are inventing the future even as we speak.
America, I know you are tired. Many of you haven’t started the school year yet and are still in the flip-flopping-plans portion of your summer. I get it. Just know, though, that for each child you are thinking of, there are half a dozen teachers thinking of them, waiting for the day they get back into the classroom and meet them face-to-face.
Until then, we will do what we do at a distance. Safely. For the health of us and your children.
Be well. Stay safe. Good luck with your decisions.
Jay Wamsted has taught math at Benjamin E. Mays High School in southwest Atlanta for fourteen years. His writing has been featured in various journals and magazines, including "Harvard Educational Review," "Mathematics Teacher" and "Sojourners." He can be found online at "The Southeast Review," "Under the Sun" and the "TEDx" YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “