We’re Not Ready for School

How we as a country prepare for and deal with the upcoming school year will reflect our values and priorities.

Photo from Shutterstock

Do we value each other, and by each other I mean all us, whites and people of color, women and men, children and senior citizens, essential workers and teachers and medical professionals, the sick and the healthy?

Or are we slaves to the almighty dollar and our perceived freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want, unwilling to make sacrifices for the greater good, at any cost, including our very lives?

We’re about to find out.

Our collective response to the rapidly approaching school year will be like a mirror reflecting back to us what we truly value.

Now’s the Time to Show (Not Say) We Care About Women

Unemployment because of the pandemic has hurt women more than men, and the women who have held onto their jobs now face the possibility of a widening of the persistent, unfair gender pay-gap.

Black women have carried more than their fair share of the economic impact, being twice as likely as white men to suffer financially.

We celebrated Mother’s Day just weeks ago. But it’s working mothers who have been impacted by the pandemic the most. Not only are mothers losing their jobs more than men, they are shouldering more of the burden of housework than men, including home schooling.

The coming school year, though, could make things much worse. As early as April, almost 15% of working women considered leaving their jobs because of the pandemic, basically finding it impossible to manage the loads of working and parenting (which for parents now includes full-time educating).

Men are not shouldering the responsibility of home-schooling and parenting equally during the pandemic. With school now added to the list of home labor, the inequality that exists in the gender gap is threatening to widen also in the home.

What we choose to do now — like today, immediately, because the school year in some places starts in just over a month — will impact the lives and careers of women for years to come.

That impact will hit women worse.

It’s not like we don’t see this coming. It’s not like people aren’t screaming to take this seriously. Many are, begging the government to see the upcoming school year as the emergency that it is.

Do We Truly Care About Our Children?

We give lots of lip service to kids. They are the future, after all. But what do we as a society really do to make sure kids have the upbringing they need? We create a model where public schools are funded by local property taxes, so that children from wealthy families have better public schools.

And we don’t do nearly enough to guarantee pre-school education so that kids get the start in reading and learning and socializing that they need.

And those are the conditions in normal times.

With the pandemic forcing students home, we’ve reached a crisis point in our children’s development.

Kids need school, from both the educational perspective and socializing perspective. Schools aren’t glorified day-care centers (though we need more sustainable, self-reliant day care centers, too) where kids can go so their parents can work. Schools, you know, actually teach and help develop our kids.

The early reports for our children, not unlike what we’re seeing for the economic and professional impacts on women, are not encouraging.

Simply put, students are falling behind. Children are healthier, both mentally and physically, when they are in school.

And just because it’s cliché doesn’t make it not true: kids (pretty much like the rest of us, frankly) are enduring far too many hours of screen time.

Even the best scenarios for school’s return in the fall will require or include, for kids of all ages, more online learning, of which there seems to be universal agreement is less than ideal at best, and hellish at worst.

Racism and inequality will again rear their ugly heads, because they always do, and Black children will fare worse than others due to the effects of the pandemic. Like the gendered-wage gap, the achievement-gap has been made worse by the pandemic.

From the start, the pandemic has spotlighted the weaknesses, cracks and divides in our society. And then over time, it has made each of those worse.

It’s not just the kids’ minds we have to worry, about. It’s their physical health, too. With schools closed, more children are experiencing hunger — and more of it. There is great uncertainty about the future of school lunch programs as well. While some red tape has been cut, nutrition directors in school districts need greater flexibility to properly respond to evolving needs.

While school closures have driven up food insecurity, they have driven down the reporting of child abuse, since teachers and staff aren’t seeing the kids anymore and thus reporting suspicions of abuse.

Oh, Yeah, Don’t Forget About Teachers

It’s not like we send kids to school to hang out by themselves without any adult supervision. If we re-open schools, we’ll be expecting some adults to be in those schools, whether they are teachers, school administrators or other staff.

The pandemic has worsened a teacher’s crisis that was already present.

That was before walking into a classroom or school was a potentially life-threatening act. Now, many teachers, for a variety of obvious reasons, either can’t or won’t return to the classroom when schools re-open.

This is not a blithe concern. Up to a third of our teachers are at higher risk to the coronavirus.

From North Carolina (where one in five teachers may not return) to El Paso (where more than half of teachers responding to a survey said they would not return unless they feel safe) to California, where pediatricians urge students to return to school but teachers, again obviously, want a say in ensuring schools are safe for kids and teachers alike, the next school year is one big question mark.

Even if kids do return to school, the experience there, sadly, will not be a familiar one.

What Will It Cost? Who Cares? Put It On the Card

We absolutely have to get serious, today, about what we’re going to do about school.

It will take a lot of creativity, and patience, and understanding, and flexibility and experimentation to actually pull off a school year.

The good news is, we know exactly how much it will cost.

About one billion dollars. Well, actually, that just covers Michigan.

For the country, we’re looking at a price tag of around $116 billion.

To which I say, sold! Deal! Let’s do it.

We get to send kids and their teachers back to school, safely, relieve some stress from parents, reduce the amount of horrid online learning, just for $116 billion? This deal won’t last all summer. We should take it, now.

First, the adults have to get their own act in order. We have to keep distancing, wear the masks and do all that’s necessary to reduce community spread.

Once we do that, then it’s time to spend as if our lives, our children’s lives and our futures depend on it.

Remember this sign?

This national debit clock is in New York City (numbers in photo not current) and calculates our national debt and what each family’s share is.

We should get a bigger clock. We should make one that stretches a whole city block. We should embark on a national challenge to see just how high we can grow our national debt.

Because we don’t have a choice. Our federal government is going to have to dig deep and help us out. This is not something local communities can do on their own, even if we do suppress the spread of the virus.

And because of what it will take to slow that spread, the government needs to step in to do more in terms of unemployment and health insurance.

But anyone will tell you this in response to life now: I’m not sure how much longer I can go on like this.

This isn’t about haircuts (though I really need one) and going to bars (I really would like that, too).

This is about kids and their families. Because of them, re-opening schools safely should be our top priority right now.

Parents do all they can for their kids. We must as a society act the same way. Why wouldn’t we, when doing so makes the rest of our lives during this pandemic more stable as well?

Our kids look to us, the grown-ups, to make sure they feel safe, so that they can grow, and learn, and become the adult humans they want to be. And we also strive to deliver them an environment where they can do that and also experience joy, friendship, the thrill of learning and exploring their curiosities.

The pandemic is the real world now. This is reality. We have to face it. Time, as it relates to the school year, is not on our side.

We should spend whatever we have to in order to get kids safely back to school. We should do whatever we have to do — like stay inside the house during summer — so that the spread of the virus is contained enough to allow schools to re-open.

This is our pop-quiz. This is our test.

Do you want to look into a kid’s eyes and tell them we failed?

Because if we don’t get it right, and have to tell our kids we failed, our next task will be to look in the mirror and tell ourselves the same thing.

Have any feedback? I can be reached at scottmgilman @ gmail.com.

Thinking and writing about my place in the world, and making myself (and the world) a little bit better.

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