I can’t believe what I’m observing. The top political voices of our country are posturing that schools re-open, with in-person learning, in the coming school year. POTUS is demanding that schools return to pre-pandemic business as usual. The current Secretary of Education (an appointment that I pray is short lived) has joined the President in his ill-advised call that all schools re-engage in on site learning, even going so far as to shame any districts that may have thoughts contrary to hers. Various political prostitutes (there is no other PC word) go along with this unreasoned and unsubstantiated logic. With a new school year merely weeks away, the cacophony of the political arguments is deafening.
Political arguments? Shouldn’t we be talking about kids here? And their teachers?
For eighteen years of my public education career I held the title of “Principal” in two remarkable schools. That role embodies many responsibilities and nuanced expectations. But, the greatest of all, bigger than instructional leader and academic champion, bigger that the protecter of a positive school climate, bigger than building an ever more effective teaching cadre, bigger than the driving force of an inclusive culture, was the responsibility of promised safety. Above all else, I was the person people relied on in the assumption that all of the kids at my school, and all of the teachers and support staff assigned to serve them, would be safe.
Not mostly safe. Not safe on good days. The constituents of these communities held a clear and uncompromising expectation of safety. Physical, intellectual and emotional safety. No wiggle room allowed.
Safety is a preoccupation of our educational system. Rightfully so. We plan for it. We drill for it. To make sure that students might safely and efficiently evacuate our school buildings if there were to be a fire, we conduct mandated “fire drills.” Every month, by statute and regulation, we conducted evacuation exercises to mitigate the 1 in 25,000 chance that a student would experience an actual fire moment; data reported by the National Fire Protection Association.
The United States Department of Education has calculated that students have a 1 in 500,000 chance of being involved in a school shooting incident. These are horrific experiences for anyone involved. No matter how remote such a threat might be, we must have a measure of preparedness against these unfathomable situations. Consequently, and reasonably, we conduct lock out, and lock down, and active shooter drills in the corridors of our schools.
The likelihood of an earthquake is also a reasonable concern, particularly along the fault zones of the western coast of the United States. “Cover and hold” was the theme of the scheduled exercises, while the likelihood of death during an earthquake, according to seismologist Lucy Jones, as she reported during a 2016 earthquake conference in Long Beach, California, is about 1 in 20,000.
The risks are real. To prepare for the chance of fire, earthquake or even a school shooting, educators choose to follow the data and act proactively. We prepare. We practice. We’re informed in order to act.
That’s commendable and appropriate.
So, here we are in the midst of a pandemic, faced with the question of how, and when, to safely re-open schools for in-person learning. Let me be clear. I want our kids back in classrooms, face-to-face with knowledgeable professionals in the quest of learning. We know that’s the best model to address the academic and social needs of our children. Yet, I argue that this may still be the greatest safety risk our system faces, one that has become more of a political football than an issue that is focused on data-driven concerns.
The odds are different here. They are not 1 in 20,000 or 1 in 500,000. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 2,550 school age children will contract the Covid-19 virus, representing 1.7% of the national cases. This percentage has been recently updated and the trend isn’t good. Even honoring the assumption that actual juvenile infection rates may be low, the likelihood of their ability to spread the virus to family members, or their teachers, is a reclusive statistic. This is troubling. Very troubling.
We go out of our way to prepare for, and mitigate, situations that hold a likelihood of 1 in 25,000 challenges. But, we allow political agendas to cloud the ramifications of decisions regarding the re-opening of schools where the risk is significantly greater: perhaps even ten times greater.
In the name of politics? Not when the lives of children are on the line.
Can we assure that students, and teachers, will be safe if they return to in-person learning in the fall? If there is even a moment of hesitation in that response, the answer is clear. It’s “no.” Yet, politics prevail. A number of states have announced plans to resume in-person classes in the fall, including New Jersey and Connecticut. Florida’s Department of Education issued an emergency order requiring all “brick and mortar schools” to open “at least five days per week for all students” in August. However, in California, Los Angeles and San Diego announced this week that they will continue remote-only instruction. In a joint statement, the districts said, “Those countries that have managed to safely reopen schools have done so with declining infection rates and on-demand testing available. California has neither. The skyrocketing infection rates of the past few weeks make it clear that the pandemic is not under control.” Nashville, Atlanta, Arlington, Virginia, and Oakland, California, have also said that they will start the school year remotely.
So where’s the answer? It’s clear. The answer is found in leadership. Leadership that is rooted firmly in integrity: doing the right thing, even if it’s difficult. When I think of consummate leadership, my mind travels back to the remarks of President Barak Obama as he sought to acknowledge and heal the tragic pain caused by the Sandy Hook school massacre. Quoting a portion of his remarks should offer us some clarity and a degree of craved, though absent, leadership, as we consider the re-opening of our nation’s schools.
“That this job of keeping our children safe, and teaching them well, is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community, and the help of a nation. And in that way, we come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we're counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we're all parents; that they're all our children.
This is our first task — caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged.
This is our first task — caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged. (Reiteration and emphasis is mine.)
And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we're all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no.”
It’s really that simple and that complicated. Our looming decision about re-opening schools for in-person learning must not be a political one. It’s a safety question. It’s a leadership question; leadership within a strong foundation of our collective commitment to protect all of our children and those that care for and teach them. It’s a question that will find its answer in leadership that embraces science, common sense, prudence, concern and love.
One more thing . . . do yourself and the rest of us a favor. Wear a mask.