As a teacher and principal, the start of school-year filled me with excitement and enthusiasm for what was to come. Whether it was a group of fifth-graders readying to challenge themselves, each other and me or an entire school community that relied on my leadership from the mundane to the important, setting the stage for day one was all about the hope ahead of us.
Each year proved to be different during the 17 times I greeted 11-year-olds or an entire school back. Sprinkled along the pathway of 180 days of learning there were markers of success, mistakes that surprised me, the banality of school bureaucracy and always smiles to share. Never, ever did I think the first day of school would mark the start of children and their teachers getting sick and dying, but here we are living in a brazen land where somehow refusing to safeguard our children’s’ health buoys political ambitions or feeds fever dreams of oppression that somehow comes with wearing a mask.
Let me repeat, in many parts of our country, we are sending our most vulnerable population, children 12 and under, off to school to get sick and some will, in fact, die from the sickness they contract in school. The numbers aren’t likely to approach the mortality rate for adults at the height of pandemic last winter (we hope), but let me ask, how many students dying from COVID is too many? Strike that, I’ll answer the question in the only sane way – one is too many.
In my current role as a school consultant, I get to see, hear and work alongside incredible leaders. These are people that astound me with their candor, their brilliance and their dedication to the one goal we should all hold dear – developing our most important national resource, children. In typical years, these educators break through low expectations, develop innovative programs, mentor teachers and feed the needy souls of all our children at every level of socio-economic status. They are people you want next to you in a fox hole, a dance hall or a church pew. And I can tell you that many are already exhausted after opening or preparing to open this school year.
In short order, I’ve had leaders from all across this land tell me they feel hopelessly unprepared for the 10 months ahead and are frustrated by communities, local and state boards of education that appallingly fail to do the single most important thing under the control - care for their students. Over the past several months, I’ve had leaders cry in my presence, trail off in conversation while they consider a new crisis and always, they tell me they’ll make school happen as best they can. I want to believe them. I need to believe them. I do believe them. Yet I worry about them, like I never have before.
While we are not marching children off to slaughter, we will allow them to get sick at alarmingly high rates with the educators who take care of them. Proactive measures and planning are nonexistent is some districts, so we can bet reactive school closures are only around the corner. As a country, I’d like to think we are better than this, but we simply are not.
When historians look back on this pandemic, they will be dumbfounded at having to shift through death notices our youngest in an attempt to make sense of people that willingly sacrificed its children, and for what? To start this school year, dread has superseded hope at too, too many schools. I will do my best to support those leaders under my care, it’s the least I can do.