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This week, we were treated to another spectacle in the long-running saga of reopening U.S. schools when President Donald Trump tweeted that “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” and called for the CDC to revise its guidelines to facilitate this.
What followed, predictably, was immediate excoriation and defense, arguments around safety and the economy and all the reasons to return children to school — reasons that have far more to do with their parents and the American economy.
The decision to reopen schools, as well as how and what to prioritize, is extraordinarily complex. It doesn’t help that in recent weeks the discussions — or, rather, political battles — have converged to a narrow point centered on the relationship between education and economic growth, a relationship that has long created unease in schools.
As a classroom teacher, I am worried that in the push to reopen, we are losing sight of what or whom it is that we are opening for anymore. I can’t help but feel that there is much more at stake than opening safely, or kickstarting the economy.
Let me share with you a conversation I had with a group of my eighth-grade students who lingered on Zoom to chat after class on the last day of school in New York City.
“Will we get to play our music instruments in high school?” they asked. Followed by:
“How do I join a sports team?”
“What after-school clubs are there?”
“What happens in community meetings?”
“Will there be another camping trip for the incoming freshmen to bond?”
“High school is going to be amazing,” I told them, hearing my own yearning as I tried to assure them that things would be better in the fall.
Let me state the obvious: None of my students asked me about how they would meet the standards for the Regents Exams, or prepare themselves for the SAT, or even whether there would be enough hand sanitizer in the fall. It’s not because they do not care about these things. Rather, it’s that they have little reason to doubt such things will be priorities for us as a school, or as an education system. It’s the rest that they — and I — worry about.
Our youth know this: that after-school clubs and activities have long been shuttering as school budgets shrink. That in many cities, including New York, arts programs rise and fall like shrubs. That while our city’s athletics have escaped the pay-to-play barriers that are increasing nationwide, the opportunities are also distributed unequally, with far less access in schools that serve primarily Black and Latinx students. And let’s not talk about that camping trip, or other innovative opportunities for youth leadership or team-building — my school has turned repeatedly to the internet to crowdfund such endeavors, and each year they grow more uncertain. Our children notice.
Related: OPINION: The pressure is building to have learners back in school this fall — here’s how it can work
Even before this month’s single-minded focus on reopening-or-not, much of the public discourse has been noticeably narrow. There have been opinions about safety, of course, alongside initiatives to reimagine schools with new technologies. Much continues to be said about “learning loss” and how we catch up, as if the work consists primarily of cramming more material into young people’s heads at a faster rate. Recognizing that many schools will have limited in-person instruction this fall, policy experts seem already to be assuming that academic “core” classes will be privileged.
But when I ask what I might imagine, what my students might imagine, what we might yearn for — there’s much more we should be talking about. What if reopening schools meant opening our eyes past the myopia we’ve grown accustomed to in this era in which test scores and economic preparedness have become synonymous with education — an era of reform marked by unprecedented school closures long before the coronavirus began its spread. Right now school buildings may be closed only temporarily, but we are closing more and more of what school should be, at an ever-faster rate.
Safety, technology and academic achievement are assuredly important; my intent here is not to denigrate them. But alongside these aims, I suggest three priorities less spoken about that must be given equal weight if we are to reopen with anything other than a bitter and compounding loss: personhood, relationships and equity.
Let me explain the first — which is a call, in this time of vulnerability and division, to place at the center of our work the responsibility to build schools in which all students are treated as persons. Our youth should have educational experiences in school that teach them to settle for nothing less for themselves and others.
Philosopher David Hansen suggests that we might ask what it means to be a person, again and again, to infuse a sense of ethical consideration into our work. For me, being a person speaks to care, and the opportunity to care about and be cared for by others different from oneself. It has to do with belonging, and being valued fully for oneself. It also speaks to freedom and responsibility, to the experience of making decisions that matter and taking ownership of them.
These things don’t always happen naturally in schools. Consider the tension that arises between being valued for oneself and being valued for one’s academic standing — the many ways children are taught not to value themselves. Consider the absurdity of asking students and teachers to care for one another in 45-minute classes of 33 students (the standard in New York City middle schools), where the average amount of time a teacher interacts with each student is under 80 seconds. Consider how students learn freedom and responsibility when served a curriculum whose primary endpoints are exams.
Related: A semester of trauma, sickness and death at a New York school
Reopening without attention to personhood risks exacerbating these tensions. Imagine instead a reopening in which we prioritize student ownership by making clubs and sports core to the work of teachers. Or one in which we invest in spaces where students come together explicitly to be in community: the gradewide community meeting spaces and town halls occasionally found in schools where students build a shared culture and organize for change greater than themselves. I suggest, too, that we privilege the small advisories and “crew” spaces in which every student is known well and learns ways to lead and care for others.
Imagine a hiatus from testing and its flawed focus on content coverage and student deficits — and that we invest our energies in bringing important skills and content standards to bear in a living and powerful curriculum for our students, one that feels like it matters.
Let’s be real: Standardized tests have always served as a flawed mechanism for both assessment and accountability — for measuring what students know, or for holding teachers and students to a standard.
Here, then, is a second priority for reopening: a focus on building relationships, and recognizing that the accountability we might have to one another — between teachers, teacher and student, and students — has always been more vital to our growth than the supposed accountability of tests.
The loss of this kind of accountability has hit me hard these past few months while teaching via Zoom. I miss the ways my music students, in particular, evidence a mutual accountability when performing songs together in groups — the ways they challenge one another into attempting something more ambitious, the palpable need not to let your bandmates down.
Related: OPINION: It’s time to change the conversation around music education to its positive impact on student success
In early April, one of my students commented about remote learning: “I’m doing the assignments, but I’m not learning anything.” It wasn’t that he wasn’t learning anything per se — it was that, absent a community of learners, the work didn’t seem to matter. It wasn’t recognizable as learning because it was no longer held in common with others. This was compounded by a curriculum considerably weakened as teachers grew more isolated, fumbling to collaborate and build a learning experience worthy of our students and their struggles.
As we seek to reopen schools, we must ask how to build even stronger connections among students than ever before — where the learning feels like something we owe to one another. Where students and teachers are able to fully care for the quality of one another’s work and well-being. We can do this by attending to spaces inside and outside the classroom for making friends, for laughing and sharing who we are, for team-building, for engaging in collaborative problem-solving tasks — and knowing that the math assignment will be better for it.
Finally, as I imagine my school’s reopening, it is clear we need to privilege the students who have been most poorly served by remote learning. To pretend that the past months were equally burdensome across families is to indulge in an obscene and willful ignorance. Part of reimagining a school system in which all students are seen as individuals requires us to interrupt the systems that render some children as more worthy of care than others.
We need to ensure that resources and in-person opportunities go first to students who have struggled to adapt to remote learning, including those with limited technological access. In my school, many of my students with special needs and my emergent bilingual students struggled mightily with remote learning’s extraordinary challenges. So, too, did students who suffered depression from long hours spent alone at home, as well as the trauma of sickness and death. We need to be ready to say, more than we ever have before, how we are prepared to serve these students better. This assuredly means more individual support from teachers and counselors, structures for positive social interactions, first access to physical school spaces and, yes, better technology. How do we design a reopening for equity?
Related: OPINION: Music is ‘more than sound’ for students seeking safe spaces, human connections and their own voices
We must also recognize that some schools face a far more difficult path forward than others. Budget cuts should not prevent us from setting aside, immediately, targeted funds for hard-hit schools. Nor should they prevent cities from adjusting funding formulas to ensure that we privilege schools that serve struggling students — even as we advocate for additional funding, and particularly Title 1 federal funding, for our neediest schools. My colleagues and I are desperately fundraising online to buy more computers for our students, having already delivered every laptop in our building to them but come up short.
There is austerity from budget cuts, and there is austerity from narrowing our vision of what schools mean and do for our children. Educator Frank Pignatelli writes about a “sense of futility” among educators “in the face of forces that undermine our capacity to care for and respond to another’s needs and hopes.” The sense of futility at this moment is all too real, but our capacity to care, and to imagine better, remains. Let’s build on it.
This story about reimagining and reopening schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Eric Shieh is a middle-school music teacher at Q167, the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, in Queens.
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