In normal times, the nervous excitement of kids returning to school would fill the air. But this year is different. Our schools and classrooms remain closed. The failure to reopen schools is a mistake I fear will damage our kids and public schools for years to come. We need to reunite kids and teachers in classrooms as quickly and safely as possible — particularly students in early grades. This pandemic, while serious and stubborn, is temporary. An education is forever.
I’m not pointing fingers or casting blame for decisions that have been made. Too much of that is already happening. I am urging a collaborative and more creative approach to reunite as many kids as possible with teachers in classrooms or classroom settings. I believe the risk of keeping kids away from classroom learning, particularly in early grades, now outweighs the current health risks for students and teachers. This is our barn-raising moment where political, cultural and economic divisions should be set-aside in the face of a common threat and common cause. We can do this.
Two of my children graduated from Bend-La Pine Schools and my youngest is currently in the fifth grade. I’ve experienced education up close as a parent, eight-year school board member and state lawmaker. But special experience isn’t needed to know that no matter how well-intended or planned, distance learning is not a substitute for the in-person classroom experience. This is true for students and teachers.
Early education grades K-3 are critical — laying the basic learning skills for the grades that follow. Yet no students are hurt more from closed classrooms than our K-3 students. This is especially true for children with limited internet access, language barriers, disabilities and parents unable to sufficiently supervise at-home schooling. In recent years, our community has rightly focused on improving access to a quality education for all students — to ensure that all students have an equal shot at a quality education. Our commitment to equity and equality in education must be maintained, not undone. But closed schools take a sledgehammer to equity and equality. Some school rituals are dispensable — but not the classroom intimacy of the student-teacher relationship.
My husband and I own two local restaurants. With economic survival on the line, our incredible team of co-workers has had to innovate and adapt just to survive. I am confident our talented local teachers, administrators, parents and students can do the same. We shouldn’t let the perfect or the familiar be the enemy of the good or the untried. We shouldn’t let old rules keep us from trying new things.
For all of us who care about public education — this is an existential moment. If we don’t lead, act and change — moms and dads, grandparents and guardians will rightly take matters into their own hands. They already are — forming private pods, moving to more home-schooling and sending kids out of state to attend school. This is happening now.
I refuse to accept the current false choice of public health vs public education. I know we can follow science and take smart precautions and accomplish both — safely and wisely. One of the unique features of America is our commitment to K-12 public education for all students, regardless of background, income, ZIP code or skin-color. Let’s not let this pandemic, polarized politics, fear of change or a lack of resolve bring an end to this treasured American value and shortchange an entire generation of students. Nothing is more important.