With obstruction efforts being launched from the very top on down, there’s never been a more difficult time to be in education.
Whether you’re a classroom teacher or an administrator, navigating the coronavirus pandemic has created challenges too numerous to mention. And while the federal government has thrown a lot of money at the situation — some of which has actually helped — it seems like the answer from most is to create, rather than helping to clear, the obstacles in the path.
As a percentage of the total number of new coronavirus cases, the number of school-aged children getting sick right now is higher than it’s ever been, both in Scott County and across Tennessee.
Some of that is expected. Elementary-aged students are ineligible for the covid vaccine, and only a very small percentage of students age 12 and up have received the vaccine. As a greater percentage of older adults continue to be vaccinated, and as Covid-19 continues to infect the unvaccinated at greater rates than the vaccinated, it’s only natural that kids will make up greater percentages of the new cases of the virus.
But last Wednesday saw more school-aged children reported sick with covid in Scott County than any other single day since the pandemic began: 27 in all, beating out the previous record of 22 on Dec. 10, 2020. Of the six days with the greatest number of school-aged children reported with covid in Scott County since the pandemic began, four occurred between Aug. 18 and Aug. 25. Make no mistake: More children are becoming sick with covid right now than ever before.
That’s just one aspect of the virus that schools are dealing with. Because the vast majority of young covid patients will recover with only mild illness, by far the greatest impact of this latest surge of the virus, as it relates to education, is the number of teachers who are absent. Whether they’re sick themselves or whether they’re required to quarantine because they’ve been exposed to someone else with covid, teachers are literally dropping from the classroom like flies, with few subs available to replace them.
In some cases, classes are being combined so that the teachers that are left can cover all the kids. In other cases, classes are being switched to remote learning due to a lack of available teachers to stand in. Messages like the one Burchfield School Principal Tonja Bond posted to Facebook over the weekend — announcing that the school’s fourth and fifth grade students would be staying home this week — are becoming increasingly common.
What’s the answer? Whatever it is, it isn’t easy.
The data from the extended school closures that occurred early in the pandemic clearly shows that students need to be in the classroom. Weary parents — especially those that work and have to make childcare arrangements when schools are closed — need their students to be in the classroom. And educators, who are enduring the unique challenges to instruction that remote teaching presents, need to be in their natural environment — the classroom.
On the other hand, it will not be physically possible to continue to keep the doors to the schoolhouse open if the sickness numbers — which include seasonal illnesses like flu and strep, in addition to covid — continue to rise. Even though the state isn’t going to be able to penalize schools for excessive numbers of absences as it normally would, you cannot generate teachers where there are none. And combining two classes into one isn’t conducive for learning. As one local school administrator said last week, if and when schools do close temporarily, it won’t be because of the number of sick kids so much as it will be because of the number of sick teachers.
Inevitably, the announcement that schools are going to close for a while — and it now seems likely such an announcement will eventually come, whether it be this week or next or the next — will be met with much criticism on social media. Not that the current efforts to keep the doors open aren’t being met with much criticism on social media.
The English monk John Lydgate was exactly right when he said that you “can’t please all of the people all of the time,” though he was probably wrong when he preceded that statement with “you can please all of the people some of the time.” In just about every profession and every walk of life, any decision will be met with acceptance from some and disapproval from others. And, sometimes, the same people will choose both sides of the argument. It’s not an exaggeration to say that during this pandemic, there were those who railed against schools for being reluctant to close in March 2020 as a handful of covid cases began to be reported in Tennessee — and those exact same people were railing against schools for being slow to reinstate school activities in May as pandemic weariness began to set in.
So, the bottom line is that some people will complain that schools aren’t closing, while others will complain if school does go. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
And for every decision that is made, there will be other rumblings of discontent. A story was being told last week of a local school administrator who was confronted by a parent who insisted that schools be closed. When the administrator cautioned that if schools close, students could lose spring break, the parent quickly changed their tune, saying there’s no way spring break should be jeopardized.
Yet that’s exactly the dilemma created by state leaders. In their overzealousness to combat lengthy school closings in metro school districts like Memphis, and to get students back into the classroom, state education officials and lawmakers adopted measures preventing schools from pivoting to remote learning as a way to slow the spread of covid, like they did last year. Instead, schools forced to close due to high levels of illness were required to use their built-in inclement weather days.
In addition to placing schools between a rock and a hard place, the new requirements actually created potential for causing the very harm they are intended to negate. State leaders say students need to physically be in school, so that they can learn. Yet, by requiring school districts to close rather than switch to remote learning, they ensured that students would spend fewer days involved in instruction. Under last year’s rules, students continued to learn at home if schools were forced to close for, say, a week due to a covid outbreak. It’s less than ideal, sure, but at least some attempt at instruction was still taking place. Under this year’s rules, students will simply take a week off and play video games if schools are forced to close for a week.
To be clear, schools aren’t likely to have to sacrifice their inclement weather days — or spring break — if covid necessitates closures. The state’s commissioner of education, Penny Schwinn, responded to pressure from a growing number of school systems on Friday by saying that her department would consider waivers for schools that are forced to close.
But the reality is that Schwinn’s about-face should have never been necessary. It’s foolishness to adopt one-size-fits-all policies that hold rural school districts to the same standards as metro school districts because you’re mad that the state’s largest school districts won’t play by your rules. Some lawmakers, like Crossville’s Cameron Sexton, have even threatened to withhold funding from schools that have to close because of covid — or that require students to wear masks — which is even greater insanity. Perhaps the greatest insanity of all is that we spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money last year — and countless hours of training — for schools to be able to teach students remotely, only to remove that tool from their toolbox this year.
Meanwhile, education administrators are left confused by ever-changing guidance from Nashville and ever-moving goal posts that could be as far out in right field next week as they are in left field this week. Through it all is a shockingly thorough example of weak-kneed leadership from the folks who are charged with leading the state as a whole. Rather than taking firm stands that empower local schools to do the best they can by their students, they’re hamstringing schools and school administrators by weakening their ability to make decisions that are best for their students.
These are trying times. Everyone is frustrated. We’re impatient for normalcy that seems increasingly far away. State lawmakers aren’t wrong to fear the consequences of extended disruptions to in-person learning. And parents aren’t wrong to be concerned about their child’s education, or the health safety of their child, depending on which side of the argument they fall on.
But whether schools are opened or closed, whether students are learning in a classroom setting or remotely or not at all, there is no one better equipped to make the best decisions for our children than the people who are in charge of our schools and our school systems. That doesn’t mean their decisions should be free of critical examination, but at some point all of us — from lawmakers in Nashville to parents here at home — have to tone it down a couple of notches and let our teachers and school administrators do what they’ve been trained and prepared to do, and that’s to make calls about what they feel is right to get our students through this school year by balancing safety and learning needs.