As an educator of almost 50 years in both public schools and colleges, the approach of a new school year, brings with it both nostalgia and a lingering feeling, like an old fire horse that hears the alarm, that I need to get ready for something. I transitioned to college administration in the early ‘90s but always taught a class or two as well.
This year, however, is the first year that I am glad I do not have to report to a classroom.
These life changing times, caused by the coronavirus, mean that administrators, teachers, and staff have to confront the reality that their job might actually kill them. Oh, we joked a lot about the kids driving us mad or the fact we were being worked to death, but I never felt unsafe in a classroom of any kind in my career.
This year, for the first time in my lifetime, teachers, staff, and administrators have to deal with a threat that is not only not human but is invisible. No locked doors or schools guards are going to be proof against this threat. They have to worry about protecting their students, colleagues, and themselves from this menace. And they have to do it while completing the rest of their duties as well. If you have ever taught a class at any level you know how much any distraction can disrupt learning. Worrying about your health and that of others must surely provide a serious distraction.
Superintendents in the area are bombarded with earnest entreaties from all sides. From parents: “Open the schools, I have to have my kids in school so I can go to work, we do not have wi-fi, my kids are bored, my kids have special needs, my child is not learning well with remote education,” or “You need to keep the schools closed, it is not safe and if you open them and I will not send my kids back they will not forgive me, it will cause trauma in our home life.”
From teachers: “Am I going to be safe, how can I make six year olds keep on masks?”
From staff: “Am I going to have protection from contact with masses of students from different households?”
Principals have to not only comply with decisions made by the superintendent and the school board but have to deal with inquiries, concerns, and entreaties from faculty, staff, parents, and students.
Teachers have to confront the reality that they will be in contact, during a time that social distancing is advised, with hundreds of students, dozens of other teachers, and dozens of staff members from diverse backgrounds and home situations daily.
There is no doubt that the schools that are having in-person classes have taken all kinds of precautions to keep the possibility of infection down. There is also, however, no doubt that there is still a lot about this virus that we do not know, that nobody knows, not scientists, not researchers, and certainly not politicians.
Nobody wants to be unpopular. Nobody wants to be the object of criticism and complaint. The bare truth is, however, that as far as schools are concerned this is a no-win proposition. If they do not open but stay with remote learning, they are going to infuriate a segment or segments of their population, if they hold in-person classes and kids, teachers, or staff get sick, which there is virtually no doubt some will, they will be blamed. It is truly a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
I wish my colleagues a safe and peaceful new school year. I have my doubts, however, that my wishes will come true.
Cookie Newsom is a Greene County resident and columnist.