Biden Is Right, We Need Kids to Go Back to School But Not Like Before

Mar 3, 2021 12:00:00 AM


On March 13, 2020, when Governor Newsom shut down schools in California including in LAUSD where my son is now a senior, I held my breath. The closures, we read, would last at least two weeks. My son dropped his heavy knapsack on the floor with a loud thump and slammed the door to his room. My husband and I stared at each other. Now what?

In the year since, the knapsack has remained by the front door, a daily reminder of the old normal. The door to my son’s room has stayed largely closed and when he cracks it open, my husband and I can glimpse a maelstrom of extreme teenage messiness and a worrisome lack of air and light (the shutters have remained closed too). We examine the breadcrumbs and dirty dishes my son leaves in the kitchen during the night (he’s decided he’d rather sleep during the day) and tiptoe in to clean a little and open the window when he is out, which is not often.

When the door does open, there is a lot of yelling and then I too am awake at night, angry and sometimes in tears, imagining what it would feel like when we can all go somewhere, anywhere. But behind that closed door, unseen to us, something good is happening. [pullquote position="right"]Always a high achiever, my son has bent the circumstances to his will.[/pullquote] In the dark, his screen glows. We hear snippets of laughter and calm, deliberate debate; his network has grown. He is leading his clubs, including the one he founded that’s focused on teen mental health. From time to time, my son has shared some of his essays and I am reading about his interest in politics and his concern for the world in which he and his generation would soon have a say.

“How do you do it?” I ask. He pauses at the end of the line, to consider. (We live in a two-bedroom apartment but communicate via text, phone and Zoom.)

When I think about all the stuff I can’t do, I just say, f**k the pandemic and do it anyway. When I couldn’t reach the co-president of Our Minds Matter club, we found a workaround on What’s App, merged with another mental health club on campus, and are now back on Zoom, bigger than ever.

I know that we’re very, very lucky. In my work life, as head of communications for Teach Plus, a teacher leadership non-profit, I talk to teachers everywhere, all the time. From California to Texas to Massachusetts, things are so tough. Kids are not there on Zoom, they don’t have food and Wi-Fi, they have to work to support their families, and so many have been subjected to the severe trauma that the pandemic has unleashed and that no child should have to endure.

[pullquote]President Biden is right; schools need to open, safely, and soon is not soon enough. But this is also a moment to re-do, re-think and re-imagine.[/pullquote] Kids and teachers know how it’s done. Sometimes you find a workaround and sometimes you break the system apart, with a swear word thrown in for good measure. “What if we made life the curriculum?” wrote one of the teachers I work with. Others are taking inspiration from Tinker Hatfield, a legendary Nike sneaker designer, and turning coffee and Kool-Aid into art and T-shirts into face masks.

[pullquote position="right"]A year in, smart ideas from kids and teachers abound and we need to pay attention, to start listening.[/pullquote] Yes, we want to go back to school and also, some of us are doing better online. Yes, we want to go back to school but we need to build more inclusive classrooms, where every child is welcome and has a voice. Yes and yes, but have you spoken to that teacher in your neighborhood school? She’s saying that we need to be more flexible, that students need to access instruction in a way that works for them, even if that means relaxing the rules and turning off the cameras.

My son turned 18 in January. Is his high school graduation going to be virtual? We don’t know. With vaccinations on the uptick in California, a lot can change between now and June. What we do know is that he is more than ready for college. My husband and I can’t wait, not least so we can open the shutters and finally deep clean that room.

Anya Grottel-Brown

Anya Grottel-Brown is Vice President of Communications and Media at Teach Plus. Anya Grottel-Brown (she/her) leads Teach Plus' communications effort, shaping the brand communications and media strategy at the national level and regionally across 11 states. She oversees the media engagement around Teach Plus teacher leadership programs and impact, and works with Teach Plus teachers nationwide to amplify their voices through op-eds and stories in the media. Anya helms the development and production of a comprehensive portfolio of Teach Plus products, including policy briefs and research reports; op-eds; newsblast and blog; website; and social media. Prior to joining Teach Plus in 2014, Anya was a member of the executive team at two public relations agencies specializing in education and non-profit communications. Anya's work in education communications has been recognized with two PR News NonProfit PR Awards for Best Media Relations and one of the year's Best Marketing Campaign and Best Event PR Awards. A seasoned media trainer, Anya has successfully prepared hundreds of teachers nationwide to work with the press. Her how-to article "The Reluctant Spokesperson," published in the PRNews Media Training Guidebook, offers a roadmap for turning reluctant spokespeople into an audience invested in working with the press. Born in Russia, Anya holds an Honors BA in East Asian Studies from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She spent five years in Japan, where she taught English and reported for a regional newspaper. Anya's cultural commentary was subsequently published in Meet Japan, a quarterly magazine of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Anya has traveled extensively through a dozen countries and has once gone around the world. A long-time New Yorker, she now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.

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