As an educator, every year brings the same moment where excitement, anxiety and stress all flood my body at the same time as I realize how close school is to starting again. What is the trigger of this uproar of feelings? Well, obviously, the early onslaught of back-to-school displays and sales. Additionally, for the second year in a row, a rising level of uncertainty is a part of these emotions as COVID-19 cases rise and we prepare to bring thousands of students back to school buildings. I know with the right mindset and preparation, we can build on what we’ve learned about COVID-19 and have a successful school year. However, as families bargain hunt displays and sales, we as a community need to do some back-to-school “shopping” as well. Our list needs to focus on what we, as adults, can do to ensure student safety and emotional and mental well-being this coming school year.
First and foremost, get vaccinated. Millions of people in the United States have received the vaccine and the data is not only extensive but crystal clear: COVID-19 vaccines are the best defense we have against severe illness, continued spread and future, possibly more contagious and dangerous, variants. Not only that, but, despite misinformation and politicization, they are extremely safe and, best of all, free to everyone. Getting a vaccine is the best way to show your community, especially those under 12 and others who aren’t able to get vaccinated, that you care not only about their physical health but their mental and emotional well-being as the school year starts again. Being a student is stressful enough; our children shouldn’t have to also worry about their physical safety while in the close indoor settings that school requires.
Second, advocate for the Anchorage School District to institute and enforce universal masking for students, staff, and visitors, and until cases decrease and vaccinations increase, vocally support this important policy for the health and safety of our children. As our return to buildings last spring showed us, if we want to have a full year of in-person learning with minimal disruptions, masks and vaccines are, by far, the way to get there. Additionally, as a community, we need to always wear a mask when and where it is recommended. Wearing a mask is an evidence-based, simple and easy way to show thousands of students we care about their health and well-being. By not wearing a mask, we are conveying to those unable to get vaccinated, such as the thousands of elementary students across our district, that, frankly, we don’t care if they get sick, have debilitating symptoms or long-term effects, or, yes, die. Even with a very low chance of fatality in children under 12, almost zero is still not zero, and with thousands of students not able to get a vaccine, there is a very real chance an Anchorage student could get severely ill or die due to COVID-19. It has happened in other states, and nothing about Alaska makes us magically protected.
Third, be very cognizant of how we refer to this last year of pandemic learning. Avoid using phrases based on deficit thinking, such as “learning loss” or “lost year.” The current adult obsession with loss is offensive to the thousands of students, teachers and caregivers who worked tirelessly last year to make the best of learning during a pandemic that has taken more than 4 million lives worldwide and more than 600,000 in the United States. Not only did we survive, but in many ways we thrived and learned more than in previous years. Much of this may not show on the metrics of curriculum and testing companies looking to make a profit off deficit thinking, however, it is just as important and meaningful. Additionally, framing student learning as only happening in schools belittles the role of families and community in a student’s learning. Yes, we need to meet students where they are, but we can celebrate our students and build on the learning that has happened as we also work with students in areas of need.
Fourth, be intentional and reflective as we push to return to normal. Remember the simple joy that comes with learning together. Focus on the lessons learned from our last year and double down on those positives, whether school-related or other. Additionally, discuss with our families, especially those in school, what we should be returning to and what we should be leaving behind for good and advocate for those changes. With so many facets of traditional school being removed or changed last year, now is a perfect time to ask what school should and can be as well as what is a school’s role in a community. Just because it was done in school before COVID-19, doesn’t mean it has a place in school after COVID-19.
Fifth, tone down the rhetoric and increase the civility of our interactions with other members of the community. Be solution-oriented, not blame-oriented. Ask questions and truly listen to understand our fellow community members. There are obviously many valid policy and community discussions that need to take place as we navigate our second COVID-19 year. However, vilifying others and bullying, whether in public spaces or on social media, is not only counterproductive to emerging from a pandemic-dominated world but teaches our children that this bad behavior is acceptable and the new normal, not to mention adds to the already stressful environment of pandemic learning.
If we come together as a community and check off our back-to-school list, we can ensure a safe and successful school year for our students. One full of the simple joys of learning together with limited disruptions and happy and healthy kids. Now, who do I talk to about those much too early back-to-school displays?
Ben Walker has two elementary students in the Anchorage School District and is the 2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year.
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