The COVID Classroom: Teachers, Students, And The Space In Between

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It is time to face reality and accept that COVID-19 is not going to simply disappear, as we have apparently been counting on for nearly a year now. Even with the vaccines starting to be deployed at this very moment, COVID-19 is here to stay. Most experts say it will be a number of years at the very least, and we absolutely must adapt our lives to this fact, and we must do so now. Every single day we remain in this holding pattern, continuing to hope and wait for herd immunity (whether from a vaccine that everybody can and will enthusiastically and voluntarily take or from natural transmission), we are moving ourselves and our nation closer and closer to a place — a way of life — we absolutely do not want to go. 

We are moving ourselves and our nation closer to a way of life where democracies struggle to stay alive; where religious and ethnic minorities are persecuted, not protected; where failed economies and long-term poverty are accepted as the norm, not overcome; where nations are on the brink of devolving into full-blown, civil-wars.

I know this from having spent nearly fifteen years living and working as a humanitarian in war zones, refugee camps, and countries on the verge of political and economic collapse across the Middle East and North Africa region before returning home to America in 2014. 

During these years abroad in what most consider god-forsaken contexts, I became acutely aware of how nearly every single problem these nations face — violent religious extremists, economic collapse, widespread government corruption, rampant human rights abuses, modern-day slavery, civil-war, extreme political oppression — comes from the same root cause: utterly horrendous public school systems and overall low-quality education for the masses. And it is that very thing — accessible, high-quality education, made available to an entire society — that we as a nation are foolishly letting burn down right before our very eyes.

When America’s schools dismissed for spring break in March 2020, nobody imagined that for more than half of our nation’s school-aged kids, spring break would still be going on nearly a year later. Yet, that is exactly what continues happening in school districts all across America: kids remain at home engaged in so-called “distance-learning” while our schools stay shuttered, all under the guise of protecting students, teachers, faculty and staff from possible exposure to COVID-19. Never mind that nearly all public-health officials the world over emphatically recommend that schools should be open in light of the extensive proof that, with proper health protocols in place, they are not places of high transmission and that younger demographics are not greatly affected from COVID-19.

To make absolutely clear, I do not take this virus, or its potential spread, casually at all. My immediate family where I live in the Pacific Northwest consists of four generations living in close contact, spanning from elementary school-aged up to “Granny” who is in her mid-eighties, has asthma, and just recently lost her brother to COVID-19. Our family by no means believes we are somehow immune to this horrible virus, and sincerely understand the need for ongoing safety protocols, especially for those living in multi-generational contexts and those with compromised immune systems.

Yet at the same time, we must also soberly reflect on the multitude of dangers associated with continuing to keep our public schools closed to in-person learning.

Each and every single day kids remain away from schools and in their houses for distance-learning means there are those being made to stay in potentially unsafe home situations where they face verbal, physical, and even sexual abuse.

Each and every single day kids remain away from schools and in their homes for distance-learning means there are those who are being affected by depression, anxiety, and other mental illness-related issues due to the lack of social interaction and associated isolation.

Each and every single day kids remain away from schools and in their homes for distance-learning means there are those who will fall so far behind academically they will never be able to catch back up, increasing the likelihood they will struggle with poverty for the rest of their lives.

We as a society have deemed grocery store workers, nurses, plumbers, electricians, doctors, firefighters, and those who deliver our new iPhones and Amazon purchases as essential. In other words, we have said those who work in any of these professions should be willing to risk exposure to COVID-19 in order to allow us to continue obtaining the services they provide. We believe our need for that service outweighs the risk associated for the person who provides it.

And it has been an incredibly encouraging thing to watch so many Americans step up to the challenge, mask up, and go out day after day to keep us as a society operating and moving forward. Yet the one profession that continues to lag behind are teachers in our nation’s public school systems. Until now, we continue to see resistance from them — and even more so from the teachers’ unions — who do not want to return to in-person learning.

And this absolutely must change. Just as so many other Americans have done already, it is time for teachers to embrace that they too are essential, and return to teaching.

The long-term ramifications of keeping schools closed, even for the amount of time they already have been, are damaging beyond belief. And while there are dangers associated with returning students to schools for in-person learning, the cumulative dangers posed by keeping schools closed are much, much greater. For the long-term health of our kids, families, and nation as a whole, reopening schools immediately is essential

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