There is no one who agrees more about the importance of in-person school than educators.
No one knows more than we do that in the absence of personal connection, content is nothing. No one knows more than we do that when a student is passionate about learning and about our content, we love nothing more than seeing their eyes light up during a lesson. No one knows more than we do how much we miss hanging around after class with a student to talk about a great book to read. No one knows more than a teacher how much we are missing this year.
Therefore, when friends, community members, or politicians speak disparagingly of educators when we express frustration with our current situations, it stings. It does more than sting.
Every day I walk into a building with a passion for the young people who appear before me. Every day I walk into a building with a passion for my content and a desire to ignite that passion within my students. Every day I walk into a building knowing that my risk of exposure increases in ways that could affect my own family, but with a hope that it does not. Every day I walk into a building hoping that my community is making choices that will protect me and my students so that we can continue to maximize that in-person learning that we all know to be so beneficial.
Here’s the thing. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t argue that school needs to be in person, while simultaneously refusing to support the schools that are desperately trying to make that happen. We don’t get to blame school systems for closing schools when there is a COVID-19 case, while simultaneously protesting mask mandates. We don’t get to accuse a school system of overreacting to positive cases when there is limited testing, contact tracing, and support available to that system to manage an unprecedented pandemic.
On Nov. 17, Gov. Chris Sununu said that “schools need to dig deep” so we can continue to support in-person learning. I beg your pardon, Governor, but schools need to “dig deep”? Schools, which were running on fumes pre-pandemic, which have been the victims of systemic, structural, and economic inequities due to an outdated funding system, need to dig deeper? Schools, which are already overcrowded, struggling to find substitute teachers, and relying on GoFundMe and Donors Choose in order to buy markers and paper, are the ones who need to step up to the plate?
With all due respect, my reaction to that concept is best summed up by David from Schitt’s Creek: “I am very uninterested in that opinion.”
Our schools don’t need to dig deeper than they already have been. Our schools need everyone else to dig deep. This is the moment when our schools need our communities to step up and to show us that they value the children and the adults who work inside of them. This is the moment when our communities need to show the passion for in-person learning that they claim to have by doing everything in their power to allow that to happen.
If we want our schools to prioritize in-person learning, then there need to be restrictions on everything else. We cannot have in-person dining in restaurants. We cannot go to bars. We cannot go to the gym. We cannot fly on an airplane. We cannot host a 20-person dinner. We need to make safe choices – teachers included – outside of school. We need a mask mandate that includes K-12 schools. As parents, we need to report the results of positive COVID-19 cases to our school districts. We need to agree to contact tracing when contacted by the Department of Health and Human Services.
This might seem extreme, but in other countries, this is already happening. In Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy, public policy is focusing on avoiding the negative impacts of COVID-19 on children by seeking to create an environment that allows schools to stay open.
However, in the U.S., we keep our bars and restaurants open but then criticize our schools when they are forced to close.
For example, in Boston and Washington, D.C., schools are remote, but indoor dining is still allowed. In Detroit, indoor dining and bars are authorized at 50% capacity while schools remain remote. In Florida and Texas, most businesses remain open despite exponentially rising cases of COVID-19 in communities and within school systems. School districts don’t want to pivot to remote learning, but if we remain unsupported by the community, then there is nothing else that we can do.
Closer to home, Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that if “you want to get your schools open . . . you have a choice. You can either close the bars or close the schools.” He further says that “our responsibility doesn’t end at the schoolroom door, it’s throughout your entire existence. To say ‘I want my child to be safe in school,’ or, ‘I want to be the teacher who feels safe in school,’ then when you go home you go inside and have a party with 30 of your best friends with no mask, that doesn’t make sense.”
Public health is not a partisan issue. If our communities and our elected officials continue to allow it to be so divisive, then it leaves our school districts with no other choice. In New Hampshire, our school districts are run by superintendents and volunteer school boards, none of whom are public health officials. Their roles are to support students and teachers and to create the best environment for learning.
I’m curious about how a school is supposed to dig deep when 15 teachers have to quarantine because of exposure to a COVID-19 positive student? Or when the entire administrative team has to quarantine? Or when a school has been remote for a few days to contact trace, returns to school, learns of another positive case, and must pivot back to remote again that same day? All of these things happened in public schools in N.H. last week. To say that our schools, our teachers, our students, our families need to “dig deeper” is insulting.
What we do know is that the best way to navigate a crisis is through compassion and empathy. In this season of gratitude, I hope that you will join me in showing support, and not judgment, of our school systems. You can show that support by wearing a mask, staying at home, and encouraging others to do the same.
Gov. Sununu, I hope that you will join me in supporting the remarkable schools in New Hampshire by crafting policy that allows both students and the educators who support them to succeed despite the obstacles that come our way. I hope that you will put public health above partisan issues. I hope that you will see that the young people of New Hampshire are our future, and any investment in their success is an investment in the health and success of New Hampshire.
(Heidi Crumrine, the 2018 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, teaches English at Concord High School.)