These are tragic times we are living in, and we will all cope with these current events in different ways; my first instinct is to reflect. I was in the fourth grade when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, and I remember my classroom that day. I remember the loudspeaker steadily calling students – their parents had arrived, they should pack up to go home. I remember understanding the gravity of the situation without knowing the details, and I imagine that is what our students might be experiencing now – more a feeling than an understanding. I was one of the last students to leave my classroom that day. I remember my parents, loving, morose and tiptoeing, as they fielded our questions (my brother was in the second grade at the time) on our short car ride home. This was a moment in time that felt infinite; but it was only a moment. It is the sole event I can compare to the current COVID-19 outbreak, that is only just beginning to ravage our state and country, because it’s the only time in my life that I can remember our schools being so profoundly impacted by current events.
But this is different, not only because I am now on the other side of the desk, but because this is not a moment. These are weeks. These very well may become months, and our schools have had to do more than allow an appropriate amount of time to grieve – our schools have to persevere. So what does that look like? And how do these events help shed light on some of the major deficiencies in our educational systems?
First let me say that I am in no way attempting to be The Voice of Teachers Everywhere or anything so presumptuous. I simply feel the pull to share my thoughts from my field as we attempt to navigate these turbulent waters together. I teach at a private school and private schools undoubtedly have had to deal with these circumstances differently than public or charter schools, so this narrows my view a bit. Disclaimers aside, the thought that comes to mind most frequently when I think about COVID-19 and our schools is how resilient all education staff and institutions have already been. It reminds me of a photograph I saw in a textbook in high school. The subject of the photograph was a group of school children sitting outside in neatly assembled rows with an adult and a chalkboard positioned in front of them. The caption explained that this was an example of an outdoor classroom assembled by the Japanese people after the atomic bombings of World War II (a blog post topic all its own…). The moral? Educators are a special breed – adaptable, caring, willing to think and act creatively, loving, kind, professional, brilliant – and I’m honored to be one, especially now.
The next thought that comes to mind is that digital learning is two things at once:
- It’s a resource we probably haven’t ever utilized properly or to its fullest potential.
- It’s a resource that cannot be relied upon as the primary method of delivering instruction to students.
I teach students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and, while some students are adapting more quickly than others, it has been difficult to replace the input and environment that we create for our students in the classroom via a digital platform. These new circumstances have helped facilitate some excellent opportunities for “teachable moments”. They’ve allowed us to access a level of self-determination learning that is important, I think, but there is undoubtedly a chasm that cannot be bridged over the Internet. So far I have really enjoyed introducing my students to resources that are available to them and creating materials for them to interact with remotely, but I have also felt the guilt in realizing that our students with the higher incidence disabilities are the students that are being left the furthest behind during this crisis, and I can postulate that this is true in all schools and across all settings. In fact, taking that idea further, it is clear that this crisis is going to relentlessly batter those of us in our society that are the most vulnerable. Overall, I do not think that we (in the US) have enough systems, or systems that are efficient enough, or the proper systems, in place to help the people who need it most.
That thought bears a feeling of helplessness that has presided over my every day since our quarantine began. Our systems have failed. They are failing. Our society is unjust. Our government is unprepared, our representatives unfit. Yet still we push on. My peers in the National Guard set up impromptu hospitals. My peers in the arts find ways to lift people up from a safe distance. My peers in healthcare fight what will likely amount to be the fight of their lives. And my peers in education teach, no matter the obstacle. My greatest hope is that our efforts as educators today, and through this pandemic, help to mold the types of people that will go forth and fight for a more just and equitable world. I hope that, as all students do everyday, we as a people learn from the mistakes we have made and make sure, to the best of our ability, that our systems don’t fail in response to a crisis like this again.