I was raised by a schoolteacher. I married a schoolteacher. When I look back at some of the most influential people in my life, many of them have been teachers. Suffice it to say, I would have amounted to very little in life were it not for dedicated teachers.
So it brings me no great joy to direct criticism at the president of Seattle’s teachers union, Jennifer Matter, who has cited the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in questioning whether on-site instruction should be allowed this fall.
Matter says she’s concerned for the health and safety of her union’s members. In a narrow vacuum, that’s commendable. But to completely sideline in-person instruction in favor of online “learning” — any parent who tried their hand at home schooling this past spring will understand why that word is in quotes — would amount to a mass dereliction of duty by Seattle’s most important public servants.
When the pandemic forced the closure of schools this past spring, things were understandably pretty messy. But without much useful guidance from their administrators, many teachers eventually stepped up and did the best they could — because that’s just what good teachers do.
But if anyone believes that their kid learned more in lockdown than they would have in an actual school, I’ve got a flying giraffe I’d love to sell you. For most working families, home schooling is an absolute grind — and I say that as a work-from-home, white-collar professional who’s in a relatively privileged situation. As if I didn’t value teachers’ skills enough already, this experience gave me a newfound appreciation for the vital service they provide, day in and day out.
Beyond a survey asking parents whether they’d prefer to have their kid receive remote instruction this fall or a hybrid, in-person/virtual approach, there’s been very little communication between Seattle Public Schools administration and anxious parents, many of whom have some innovative ideas for how school might look in the fall. A summer filled with crickets and throw-in-the-towel attitudes like Matter’s left me extremely frustrated — until I saw that a handful of Seattle School Board members had hatched a proposal to take a couple of hours’ worth of daily classes into the outdoors this fall. Finally, some creative thinking had taken root.
But why just a couple of hours? How about the city designates a park, green space or otherwise unoccupied swath of public land for exclusive use, between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., by a given school or schools, depending on the park’s size? (Lincoln and Seward Park are massive, and how cool would it be if CenturyLink Field and T-Mobile Park could be utilized on off days?) Tents and heaters could be procured to enable sheltered instruction in particularly miserable weather, and a rotating array of food trucks or mobile chefs could be enlisted to approximate cafeteria service — especially for students who rely on the district’s free and reduced meal program.
Now let’s imagine Matter gets her way and there’s no in-person instruction in the fall. As my wife, a former first-grade teacher, puts it, few things are as important as the bond and trust that develops between student and teacher at the beginning of a school year — something that can hardly occur through minimal interaction online. In this worst-case scenario, wouldn’t it be best to simply extend summer break through late November, start on-site schooling the Monday after Thanksgiving, and then commit to having every student attend summer school to round out a proper school year?
The American Academy of Pediatrics and National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine — two organizations not known for partisanship — have staked out positions that, despite the risk to physical health, clearly state that not figuring out a way to safely return children to a face-to-face (with those faces in masks, spaced at least six feet apart) instructional environment could be perilous to both the intellectual and mental health of kids — especially young ones.
Other countries have managed to successfully pull in-person schooling off in the age of coronavirus; it’s time for Seattle Public Schools to bravely — and responsibly — follow in their footsteps. This virus is not to be taken lightly, but it will eventually be overcome. I’m less confident that the same can be said for our children’s long-term well-being should they continue to be deprived of their basic educational rights.