The contrast is stark. In reflecting back on my days in the classroom, I can vividly recall watching the trepidation that coexisted with reason and judgement when it came to school closing decisions. The hemming, the hawing. What if we close and it just flurries, and a whole day of instruction is lost?
So it was stunning to watch events unfold this past week as communities shuttered their schools in an instant, for the foreseeable future and possibly for the rest of the academic year. No hemming. No hawing. We had our priorities in place, where they needed to be, where they should always be - but all too often aren’t.
I lived this personally when I thought I’d need to sleep overnight at school during a bad storm, as all the roads and bridges around us were being washed out in what was a preview of climate-related storms to come. Of course, one of my colleagues who lived locally would have housed me, but this isn’t the point. Despite rising waters and deteriorating conditions, the administration would not allow teachers who needed to commute home through these areas to leave early. Was I an effective educator that afternoon? Hardly. Was I distracted and upset that my safety and well-being didn’t seem to matter? Very.
There are many conversations unfolding about how much learning is going to be lost through virtual instruction; how many students will be set back and lose hard-earned skills; how much teaching time will be lost. There is unarguable truth to all of this. It is just one of many, many difficult realities that we are all clamoring to grasp during this unprecedented, incredibly surreal time. But I would like to shed light on what our children could learn through this experience, and learn well if we rise to the occasion.
Without argument, health and safety have become our preeminent focus, and the need to acknowledge this has never been more evident. Kids are seeing this play out with exquisite seriousness as the world around us literally shuts down in an effort to protect us all and flatten the curve. Through it all we are experiencing collective trauma that will take a long time to process and recover from. We will need each other more than ever as feelings of isolation set in, and then afterwards as we endeavor to get back to normal. Ironically, social distancing will bring us together in other ways. (Just make sure it’s virtual!)
There are so many layers of losses that we are trying to process as we struggle to adjust to the new abnormal of what daily life has abruptly become: the loss of activities of all kinds; the cancellation of life cycle events and celebrations; the absence of human contact and touch, a sense of normalcy and feelings of security; the desperate shopping runs for the supplies we need for living that we are afraid of running out of. The situation is acute. Survival is the mindset. No one could argue with this.
It’s a stretch right now, but let’s try to see through to the other side of the present moment. Will we go back to being the same? Will our priorities and expectations change, along with our outlook on how we should live our lives?
When life goes back to being subacute, if we don’t take the lessons of what matters with us and allow those lessons to guide us in decision-making and expectation-rendering, then we risk perpetuating the under-acknowledged epidemic of unwell results that are endangering the welfare of our children. These have stemmed from ignoring priorities. I’m referring to those same priorities that are staring us in the face right now with blinding intensity.
To illustrate, consider what went into the decision to close schools in many places across the United States. The concerns that were discussed were not only academic in nature. They were about how scores of children would go hungry because they would be missing out on meals the school districts provide. These concerns also addressed how scores of homeless children would be without their day home, an oasis of shelter that provides them with some measure of security in an otherwise insecure existence.
These discussions were, in summary, about how vulnerable children are going to be at risk if we close schools. And why? Because schools have become places to shore up the health and safety of our children since we live in a society that doesn’t provide families with the support and resources to be able to do this themselves. And yet, schools are in a constant state of lack. Serious lack. Education is not given the priority it needs and deserves in this country, yet is relied upon to solve the failings of our skewed societal priorities.
Let this awful, unfathomable situation we are in right now be a wake-up call. Because if this doesn’t get our attention and drive home what is important when we are not in a crisis, I don’t want to think about what would.
No, our children will most certainly not learn in the same way as if they were in school. But we could trade canned curricula filled with irrelevant content for valuable life lessons filled with some of the most important virtues we want our children to have:
Let our children see people helping each other – all people.
Help our children learn what it means to take good care of ourselves so that we can stay healthy, always.
Model for our children that being healthy and safe are the most important riches of all.
Allow our children to explore subject matter that they are interested in, hone their research and observation skills, and begin to build a foundation of lifelong learning and curiosity.
Help our children stretch their wonder muscles and explore the world by taking advantage of the many virtual resources being shared by so many who want to support and nurture them through these trying circumstances.
Up until this past week, our children were getting a very different message. They have been for years. It has been communicated through our ailing education system in subtle and not so subtle ways: exercise, fresh air, and play are not important; kids can’t go to sleep at a decent hour no matter how tired they are because they have to finish mountains of homework or their grades will suffer; the arts are not as important as other subjects; character and a moral compass are not as important as school teaches, because these don’t seem to matter as much in the real world.
If partisanship can be put on hold in a crisis in order to save lives, as occurred with Hurricane Sandy, then why can’t it always? Imagine what we could accomplish if political gaming ceased and everyone came together for the greater good – always. How many lives affected by innumerable unseen crises that have become mundanely normative – though no less significant - would be saved? No one could argue with this, and yet, the arguing ensues ad nauseum.
To put it in clearer terms, the innumerable crises I’m referring to include children who go hungry or sleep on the street, who one day snap under the indescribable stress and strain of it all and lash out in their communities.
These consequences demand our attention. What if we lived in a society that gives serious priority to making sure all its citizens are capable of having basic needs for sustenance met, so that we could be the best versions of ourselves? I like to imagine what this kind of world would be like.
Try this solution on for size. Despite all our inventions, advances, and innovations, food insecurity is a monumental problem, as is unemployment. So, what if we put people to work growing food? This is not an idea that originated with me. Google it and you will find much. We're talking about actual grassroots, and nothing describes this strategy better. We should be devoting every inch of empty space to community gardens run by employed community farmers. The individual and communal physical and mental health benefits would be boundless, immeasurable. It would collectively heal us on so many levels. More solutions like this one are not only possible, but limitless when we put our creative energy to work for us, and who could argue with this?
Will we go back to being the same? I hope not. Will our priorities and expectations change, along with our outlook on how we should live our lives? I hope so. Is it up to us? Yes, very much so.