Since the scientifically driven announcement in late July that the 2020-2021 school year would start remotely for the Anchorage School District, educators of all experiences and levels have worked tirelessly to provide a positive and successful learning environment for all students and families. Educators, including counselors, teaching assistants, librarians, nurses and so many others, have sacrificed their time, money and health to ensure all students continue to grow as we navigate the most severe global pandemic of the last 100 years. They are calling, Zooming, emailing and texting at all hours of the day and night to check up on students and families. Two-minute check-ins turn into 30-minute group therapy. They are spending hours and hundreds of their own dollars to ensure students have materials for success at home. They are driving door-to-door to drop these off. Sixteen-hour days and migraines are the new normal. They are doing it for the very simple reason they do anything; because it is the best for our students to keep them safe during what looks to be a new peak in a public health crisis.
But the one thing educators, students and families from across the district are not doing is failing. Yet, far too many in our community are saying just that. To say that schools are failing our students is not only disheartening and ultimately harmful to those very same students, it’s also simply not true.
First, how does one define failure during what is turning out to be the largest global health crisis in over a century? How does one define success? It is doing our students and families a disservice to measure failure and success the same way we always have. To focus on what in-building success looked like pre-pandemic is to sell our students and families short for their resiliency, flexibility and overall growth. To say that “grades are plummeting” — without any actual data, mind you — says nothing about the failure or success of students during remote learning. Rather, it is an indictment of the School Board-imposed traditional grading scale in the first place. Students should be getting feedback, not grades, right now. To say that the student finding connection through Zoom with her classmates and learning to regulate emotions and stress while also growing into an independent learner is failing is not only false, it’s insulting and condescending. What about the student attending as many classes as they can and turning in as much work as they can, yet also taking care of multiple siblings or working a part-time job to help pay the bills? I would not say they are failing, but succeeding in learning, and surviving, during a pandemic. Not to mention to thousands of students, families and teachers learning to master technology to better prepare them for the unknown future of school and work.
No, schools have not failed our students. Our community has failed our students.
Our community has failed our students during our current pandemic as well as historically with the chronic underfunding and demonization of public schools.
Our community has failed our students by ignoring the science around masks and social distancing, giving schools no choice but to start and stay remote. Our community has failed our students by continuing sports and other large group activities with extremely inconsistent mitigation practices. If you want your kid back in a packed classroom of 30 in a school of 2,000, make sure they skip the hockey tournament of 300. Communities, especially in Europe, that are cited for successful openings have communities willing to make what is ultimately a minuscule sacrifice by wearing a mask when necessary, keeping an appropriate distance from others and avoiding large gatherings. If members of our community can’t even be bothered to wear a piece of cloth over their mouths for a run to the grocery store, is it really schools that are failing our students? When I think of historical figures and generations known for their sacrifices, I don’t think “stayed 6 feet from others” or “avoided large parties” is too much to ask. Our community has continued to fail our students with an almost cult-like denial of evolving science surrounding COVID-19. But to paraphrase Neil deGrasse-Tyson, the virus doesn’t care whether you believe it in it or not.
From a long-term perspective, our community has been failing our students for years with chronic underfunding. If a community cared about students, they wouldn’t continuously vote for representatives that support budgets leading to classes up to and over 30 in elementary schools and 40 in secondary. Like those countries who are practicing proper safety, those with schools of 10-15 kids in a class have opened safely. If a community cared about students, they wouldn’t vote for representatives that refuse to recruit and retain teachers through a dignified retirement, resulting in an annual teacher turnover over 20% and losses in the tens of millions of dollars. Please don’t blame schools in the middle of a pandemic and suddenly claim to care for the same students you have failed for years.
Our community leadership, especially at the state level, has failed our students with a mixed message of pandemic safety. The very same day Gov. Mike Dunleavy released a video message reminding Alaskans to take the virus seriously, his true feelings were laid bare when he was caught at a maskless indoor fundraiser in Anchorage. This is a moment seen over and over again by local representatives making the election season fundraising circuit. If the governor, or any other political leader in our state, truly cares about failing our students, they can wear a mask and social distance, like so many of us have been doing since March.
No, it is not schools that are failing our students. It is our schools that have been a Band-Aid for the failures in our communities for far too long and only now when the failures of years of poor governing are coming to roost, are truths laid bare. And, like always, educators are burning themselves out covering up for the failures of adults so our students can remain safe, learning, and growing in the time of a global pandemic. And we have dedicated ourselves to continue to do so for as long as it takes to keep our students and families safe. But that depends on our community, not just us.
If you want students back in school buildings, it is time to act like it. Not protest to re-open schools, maskless, or glad-hand at a fundraiser or make comments at a community meeting via Zoom. In the meantime, educators will do what we always do and help our kids continue to succeed as they have in so many different ways these past three months.
Ben Walker is the 2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year and proudly wears a mask, keeps a safe distance, and avoids large gatherings to keep his community safe.
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