School or No-School – A Faustian Choice for Teachers

By  Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

As in Chicago, the goal of reopening schools remains a challenge in most of America’s large cities and states. Teachers keep raising the bogey of dread and death linked to the virus. They ignore studies that point to safety of in-person learning with the right precautionary measures in place.

In the next few weeks, American courts will see a flood of lawsuits asking the courts to adjudicate a growing tussle between students and teachers. The dispute is over the right of children to receive education “in school” and that of teachers to deny them that facility and instead to continue with “remote learning.”

To many of us parents and grandparents, remote learning is a farce and a failure. Digital access and ability to manage distant teaching and learning require a specialized skill that does not come easy to lay teachers or children or their caregivers. Children seem to learn next to nothing from their digital class sessions, and teachers feel equally inadequate about how effectively they are able to teach their courses. Anecdotal evidence from scores of kids suggests they do not take to digital learning with any degree of seriousness. Teachers are too ‘shut in’ and ‘closed-lipped’ for anyone to successfully elicit such candid feedback from them.

Intelligent learning and intelligible teaching both are near impossible, as remote education testing is increasingly proving. By some accounts, our kids have already lost an entire year of learning. In global competitive terms, this could mean that our kids are lagging behind Chinese kids by several years if not by a whole generation! Articles backed by research and media reports based on personal interviews confirm this academic chaos and learning regression. A Stanford study claims the average student has lost at least a third of a year’s worth of learning in reading and three-quarters of a year’s worth of learning in math.

Students across the country seem to have lost their passion for school, and teachers for teaching. Noting the experience of Baltimore, MD schools, Alec MacGillis (writing in ‘Pro Publica’) refers to online classes that were being conducted in which almost no students showed up, last-minute rearrangement of scheduling that was causing confusion, and Zoom links that were inaccessible. In Bay Area, CA as most likely elsewhere, students seem envious of their younger siblings who could gradually get back to attending school, even if for no more than two days a week.

The learning and credibility gaps between public and private (charter, parochial, other) schools have been brutally exposed in the wake of the Corona pandemic. Within the same neighborhood, while public schools remain closed except for digital instruction, kids in private schools are able to attend in person. Importantly, hardly any or negligible numbers have died in those ‘open for business’ settings. True, those schools are advantaged in that they have the resources to plan for safety, and a supportive educated and responsible fraternity of parents who respect the Covid dictated distancing, masking, quarantine and other behavioral and environmental safety rules.

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ) and Dr. Fauci would be proud of such demonstrated, diligent and consistent loyalty to their prescriptions.

But not so teachers and teachers’ unions, as seen in Chicago, where the Teacher’s Union has consistently opposed the return to in-person instruction, citing continued health safety hazards. Notwithstanding budgetary provisions and measures taken that enable the schools to be better protected, the Chicago School District recently had to cancel classes for a week as the Union directed its members to remain home. In December, a Union executive made a video appeal to teachers not to go back to school after the Christmas break. A Chicago teacher used her blog not only to run down CDC recommendations for returning to schools as inadequate but went on to allege that “nice white families” would kill black families with their emphasis on in-person instruction! Most recently, several Chicago dance teachers aired an interpretive dance video to convey their desire for “feeling safe”. The bizarre (to some comical) video ominously ends with the clincher – “Safe return … or no return”.

As the stalemate continues in Chicago, the goal of reopening schools remains a challenge in most of America’s large cities and states. Teachers keep raising the bogey of dread and death linked to the virus. They ignore studies that point to safety of in-person learning with the right precautionary measures in place. Among findings, the most compelling is that children and schools are not super-spreaders of the virus or its petri dishes. One of the largest studies that analyzed in-school infection data from 47 states, found an infection rate of 0.13% among 200,000 students and of 0.24% among 63,000 staff who had returned to school. Attestation to the safety of school reopening with safeguards in place has come from no less than the CDC who have issued a report to that effect. As far back as June 2020, Trump’s Education Secretary had urged resumption of schooling and issued guidelines on the safe opening of schools. Politics topped with unfounded fear came in the way then as it does now.

Teachers and their ‘patrons’ in politics (some prefer to call them ‘hostages’ of teachers’ unions) – ranging from mayors and governors to current President and his advisors – need to think beyond their self-interest and political exigencies. Teachers’ safety is important, but it is subsidiary to student safety and wellbeing. As a society, we need to grasp the full toll of the school shut down on children, not only during their childhood but also in their adulthood, with the higher toll paid by the economically underprivileged among them. The loss of learning, as one study estimates, could reduce the lifetime income of today’s American students by 3%. Another study featured in The Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that increased financial stress resulting from school disruption could be associated with a collective loss of 13.8 million years of life.

Those statistics are disturbing but no way near the heartbreak untold families and kids are experiencing daily from school closures. There are horrendous real costs to real lives of real students. A promising youngster who had 14 college admission offers as a talented player felt so emotionally overwhelmed with the loss of school yard interaction and other socialization benefits of in-person schooling that he chose to end his life. One wishes his would be the lone, rare instance of a tragedy gone viral much like the Covid virus, but sadly he is not. Depression and suicide rates among school-goers have spiraled. Child abuse and child hunger are also on the rise.

Parental patience with recalcitrant teachers and feeble school boards unable to bust teacher union power is declining, and not surprisingly, lawsuits against school districts are in the making. The latest example – and by far the most ironic – is of the city of San Francisco which has filed a lawsuit against its own School District and Board of Education in a move to compel them to reopen in-person instruction! Hopefully more such legal initiatives will shake the teachers out of their irrational fear and opposition, and instead, to unite with children.

Ms. Sohoni is a freelance writer and published author.

Images courtesy of (Photo courtesy WSJ) and thesatimes | Welcome to The South Asian Times

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