School districts and parents across the country face a looming and vexing question: What to do about reopening for the 2020-21 academic year.
Looming, because for some districts the assumed start date is just a couple of weeks away. Vexing, because of the still present – and in some places growing – threat of the coronavirus.
The president is not vexed. He seldom is. In pretty much any situation he professes to divine a way through the fog, as he has in this situation:
“We want to reopen the schools,” he says. “Everybody wants it. The moms want it, the dads want it, the kids want it. It’s time to do it.”
Generally speaking, a prudent course can be laid on any issue by listening carefully to whatever this president proposes, then doing the opposite. But the opposite is not clear in this case.
Delay openings? How long? Reopen, but only on certain days of the week? Reopen fully, but with elaborate safety precautions?
Or, as Nashville has elected, reopen on time, but remotely?
I don’t profess to be an expert on this topic. And, lacking offspring, I have no skin in the game, so to speak. So I consulted someone who is fully invested in the school-opening decision, someone whose immediate future and for some years to come is intricately entwined with education.
Her name is Jayne. She is 8.
A worldly 8, in some respects, having encountered at that tender age a worldwide health crisis the likes of which even we old-timers had never seen before. It wrought havoc with her second-grade year.
“I didn’t get to finish it,” she says. One day in March, she was a full-fledged student at her Sumner County elementary. “The next morning, we got a heads-up that we wouldn’t come back.”
Remaining classwork was to be completed online, somehow.
“And I positively HATED it,” Jayne says. “It was awful. It’s kind of hard to explain,” she adds, pausing to search for a way, and then realizing she already had it:
The course of study she recounted was perhaps not how professional educators described it in their lesson plans. But I’ve found that, as with wine, in kids there is truth.
“We sometimes did Zoom meetings where some of the class was there,” she explained. “And the work was like math and reading and it got pretty hard. It basically just gave us questions, and we had to answer.”
Lots of questions, apparently.
“I’m not kidding, it had more than 60 things on it,” she says. And at an age when the number 60 applied to anything is a concept approaching infinity, that’s a whole bunch of information to be expected to produce.
If officials in her district were to go with that same approach again when school restarts, what would she say to them, I asked.
“WHY????” she responds.
As an alternative to the chaos of Zoom and math and reading and 60 questions, does she think it’s a good idea to go back to school?
“No,” she says. “Personally, me, no.”
Even with elaborate and precise safety measures? Still no.
“Because even if they do make rules that you have to wear masks, they’re 8-year-olds, they’re kindergartners, they’re THIRD GRADERS,” she says. “And I, personally, I have a heat stroke with a mask,” she continues. “I have to do like that [mimics pulling a mask away from her nose] every second to not have a heat stroke because they’re so hot. So I don’t think kids are going to keep them on.
“And plus, again, they’re kids. They’re not going to stay 6 feet apart. Some kids don’t even know what 6 feet apart is. Truth.”
Jayne knows what 6 feet apart is.
“Mom just said it was a dad, laying on the ground. And that’s a long ways away.”
Some form of distance-learning from home might be a better option, she says, provided it’s different from before and “they don’t do that junk over again.”
How long should that approach be tried? Until a safer time, she suggests, though a truly safe time is becoming ever harder to imagine.
“I know it’s not going to go away, because, did flu ever go away?” she says of the coronavirus. “No. But it’s gotten less crazy,” with fewer people saying “AW, WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE! So yeah, I mean if it does get better I think it would be OK to go back, but if it doesn’t ... I don’t know.”
She does allow one possibility for a safe return to in-person school: The development of an effective vaccine against the virus.
“I hate shots,” Jayne says. “But if there’s a shot that means I can’t carry it or nobody can get it, I’m gooood.”
Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at email@example.com.