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Public education as we know it is in crisis. As an educator for over 15 years, and now a mom of three school-aged children, this is a topic that I have experienced over many years of my life.
Public schools are the backbone of our society. Not only do they educate all children, they serve to feed them, give them a stable routine and often act as a social safety net to prevent things such as child abuse and human trafficking. Both of these are thought to be on the rise due to schools being closed during quarantine. I have fed my students, taken them shopping and provided emotional support to their parents struggling with personal issues. Teachers do more than just teach.
Teachers, however, have become scapegoats, criticized for having summers off and told how to do their jobs by people who have never run a classroom. Many people believe that, because they once attended school, they know the ins and outs of a modern-day classroom. If they were to spend a day inside one, they would see that many things have changed.
Classrooms are crowded and cramped. Many do not have running water or soap. Little hands are rarely washed. Some classes have insect problems or mold in the walls. Most classrooms prior to COVID-19 were not even cleaned every day or deep cleaned once a week. Many schools do not have a nurse on duty each day. Oftentimes, school staff or volunteers fill in while doing their other work to help sick children. Working parents who can’t miss work often send their sick kids to school, hoping that they can make it through the day. Some kids come to school hungry and sometimes have their only meals at school. Teachers spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars out of their own meager salaries to help. Most supplies in the classroom are shared and touched by many hands all day long. Cuts to educational budgets have hurt schools from their staff to their supplies to their buildings and grounds. In the fifth largest economy in the world, California should have amazingly funded schools, but we don’t.
COVID-19 has been like squeezing lemon juice into a gaping wound for education and parents. Almost overnight, schools closed, kids were home, teachers scrambled to support students with online learning and parents now see no end in sight. As a former teacher, homeschooling has been relatively seamless for me, with some frustration regarding new technology. Some teachers are home with their own kids and also teaching their students. But parents without career educational experience have seen their lack of this laid bare. Not to mention, children often listen more to their teacher than their own parents.
Parents have had newfound appreciation for their child’s teacher and also some frustrations. When you are so closely tied to your children’s teachers, you see their differences, their strengths, as well as their shortcomings. Some parents complain about too much work, some not enough work and others simply want their children to be busy all day. Alas, it may be hard to please everyone.
The reality is, a lot of the school day involves transitions between academics, story time, art, recess, lunch and so on. The academics of a school day can be done at home in two to three hours. But that is not enough to allow parents to work eight or more hours a day while their kids are home. And therein lies the push for schools to open.
Whether it is safe to physically reopen remains to be seen, as we anxiously watch other countries with fewer deaths beginning to open schools. We cannot, however, continue to compare ourselves to other countries that have led on this issue, when the United States very clearly has not. Schools are germ factories even when it is not flu season. The logistics and costs to implement the cleaning and safety measures necessary to maintain a semblance of cleanliness feel very out of reach. Especially when our governor has proposed even further cuts to California’s education budget due to a lack of federal funding as well. Schools that were already struggling financially in pre-COVID times.
We need creativity, flexibility and funding to get us out of this mess. Parents who have the experience or can afford to keep their kids home, should. Not to make guinea pigs of children who must be in school due to parental finances, but to make space and room for those who need to. Credentialed teachers who aren’t currently teaching in a classroom, like me, can take in other children with their own, under the online enrollment of their neighborhood school.
Schools need to enlist volunteers or rearrange budgets for more aides to assist in cleaning and sanitation. Handwashing stations, hand sanitizer, masks and anti-viral wipes must be supplied to every school. Those who can help financially, should.
Parents need schools to give us options. A hybrid model of in-classroom and online education would enable the most flexibility, and would serve as a cushion should we have to go back into quarantine. I know just as many parents who plan to keep their kids home as those who want to send them to school – and neither should be judged. Parents need reliable internet, tech support and to understand that one size fits all has never worked for all kids and families. This has been made even more evident by switching to online schooling.
Teachers need reliable internet, training, better pay and grace as they navigate a career that has been turned upside down. School districts must move fast with solid, executable, flexible plans before we lose many students to online charter schools, and thus funding, and hereby end public education in this state. This is an emergency, and there must be a path forward.
Wendy Wheatcroft is a mom of three, an educator and gun violence prevention advocate.