As of the writing of this essay, we are just over five weeks away from September. Before you know it, the 2021–2022 school year will be upon us.
I’m very nervous.
When the school doors open again in September (or August for warmer regions of the country) kids will be walking back into buildings they haven’t had consistent exposure to in over a year. For a majority of American students (including college) the routine that is school hasn’t been cohesive since February of 2020. And with the COVID-19 Delta variant currently wreaking havoc in regions across the country, are we ready for another possible disruption or disruptions?
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are (increasingly more and more) regions of the country that are also dealing with environmental disasters. Wildfires, floods, hurricanes and heat waves cause severe damage to entire communities and also impact school. In the last few summers we have seen the literal destruction of whole towns by wildfires, and this includes school buildings*.
This summer has seen suffocating heat waves in regions not used to this. Subsequently, these cities and communities are under equipped in terms of extreme heat protocols. In the state of Washington it was recently so hot that some school district summer school busses were told not to make their runs. They didn’t have air conditioning and it would’ve been too hot for the students. Hurricane season hasn’t even started yet, but some regions of the country have experienced torrential rains and floods so severe they moved cars off the road. These types of events are becoming more intense, and their intensity is now impacting the school year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has effected every facet of life since March, 2020 and yet, there is no national strategy on how we’re going to handle this coming school year. There has been no national panel convened. No national discussion. No protocols. No plans. There is nothing resembling a cohesive plan for the coming school year. Some states are coming up with their own strategies, and some aren’t. School protocols for COVID-19 can, literally, vary from one school district to the next as well as for private schools.
Kids under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for vaccine. This means a huge swath of American school kids are going to walk into buildings unvaccinated. The Delta variant is infecting adults who’ve been vaccinated, and the CDC just announced that people who are fully vaccinated can still transmit COVID to those who are not vaccinated. What’s the plan in your district if there’s a significant Delta outbreak? Are the schools going to close down? Are they going to remain open? Is there a mask mandate? If schools do close down, how long will they close for?
Right now it appears the 2021–2022 school year will not be starting as “normal”. Even if the Delta variant does not impact school, we will still be dealing with students returning having lived through a global humanitarian crisis. Yet, I do not hear anyone talking on a national level about how this year is going to progress. Are we asking the questions that need to be asked? What kinds of plans do we have in place to help kids readapt to school? To put it in corporate terms: Are we developing an on-boarding process?
I give private music lessons to a number of high school kids. Many of them (in very candid moments) have told me how they essentially cheated their way through the 2020–2021 school year. Subsequently, they are now stressed about returning to school and being lost and/or behind. Do we have plans in place that will allow them to catch up? Will we grant “amnesty” if they come clean, and provide them the extra help they need?
What about the social structure of school? This has been significantly impacted and affected. Kids lost old friends and made new friends. In some cases, they lost all of their friends and haven’t made new ones. Social circles were shook up and changed. For many students, whose schools were full-time remote, their social lives have been anything but normal for over a year.
In addition to working extended school year in my district, I also work at a summer day camp. This summer, many of the children are struggling significantly with socialization. These are young kids who have been in their homes for the last year. Being around other peers has been overwhelming for many of them.
My fear is that we are going into this school year with the tone of “Wow! That was crazy! OK…we’ve got a quiz on Wednesday, test on Friday, and here’s your reading assignments for the week…” If we attempt to treat the start of this school year like every other, I feel the results could be really terrible, and not just for the students themselves, but also the teachers. It’s also important to remember that, due to the Delta variant, schools can still be shut down at any time**.
When our kids walk back into school, I believe the first month should be completely non-academic. Kids shoud be given the opportunity to catch up and ask questions in subjects they feel anxious about or lost in. They should be given the opportunity to review any and all subjects they had last year. They should also be given the opportunity to express themselves, and what they’ve been through, in writing, music, and art classes. There should be social groups run by teachers where kids discuss and share things they saw and experienced with their peers. Therapists should be available to all students and staff.
This is a moment like no other — and it’s imporatnt to remember that it’s not over yet. We are still living inside of a pandemic that has killed over 4 million people globally, and more than 600,000 Americans. Every single student who walks into a school, college, or university will do so having experienced something as a result of this massive event. They mave have experienced the death of a family member. Maybe a parent, or parents, lost their job. Maybe they lost their home or apartment. Perhaps one of their friends suffered a loss. Maybe a family member is suffering long term COVID effects. Regardless, we need to have plans in place to accomodate our kids. I do not believe that this is too much to ask.
The schools were built for our kids. One thing we learned during the height of the pandemic is that our schools serve a multitude of purposes within our communities. They are more than just the place where kids go to learn math and science. It turns out they’re a strange and important hybrid of social hub/food bank/emotional support center/daycare center/structural center/performing arts space/sports training facility/school. To begin this coming year believing school is just “school” would be a terrible mistake.
*I posted this essay on August 1st, 2021. On August 4th, the entire town of Greenville, California was destroyed by the Dixie Fire.
**On August 15th the entire Ware County School District in Georgia shut all of their schools downfor two weeks due to a COVID outbreak. 76 students tested positive, 679 were made to quarantine due to exposure, and 67 district faculty members tested positive. The students had been back in school for less than two weeks. The district announced no instruction would take place while the schools were closed. As of this writing (8/23) there is no mask mandate for Georgia or Ware County.