• Mon. Apr 12th, 2021


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A Teacher and Congresswoman Confronts School Reopenings

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Credit…Jessica Hill for The New York Times

In Washington, D.C., Monday was the first day of school for public school students. In my house, that meant virtual kindergarten went from being an academic “how will we manage it” thought exercise to real life. The first order of business was teaching our 5-year-old how to mute and unmute himself on his school-issued laptop — not how the first day of school is supposed to work.

Our situation is hardly unusual and, frankly, my kids have it pretty good. Millions of American schoolchildren don’t have good internet or adequate computers or parents whose jobs allow them to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet that doesn’t make any of this easy.

No one has the answers. But to talk about some of the questions facing parents in this new reality, on Monday I called Representative Jahana Hayes, a Connecticut Democrat who in 2016 was honored as National Teacher of the Year by President Barack Obama.

As always, our conversation has been edited and condensed.

What should parents be thinking about in trying to get our kids through this?

As you can imagine, this is a really difficult time for me, because I have spent a lot of time in the classroom and I know the reality of what goes on in the classroom. I immediately had so many questions about what school reopening would look like and how we would handle that.

What parents should be doing is voicing their concerns immediately so we don’t have these huge deltas, or gaps in communication. I am still very concerned, because while many districts have done the best they can, and we have openings that run the gamut from virtual to hybrid to all in-person, I think there are so many challenges still.

Parents have to make some really tough decisions, because many of them have to go back to work. I think that a slow reopening is the best way to go, that we really take it a couple weeks at a time and make sure that what we’re doing is working and then continue to build. To just kind of close in March, and then to reopen with very little change in the information, the data, the funding, and think that things will just proceed as normal is unrealistic.

I can’t stop thinking about children who don’t have parents at home or don’t have good internet access. You probably saw the picture of the kids sitting outside a Taco Bell because it had free Wi-Fi and it was the only way they could attend their virtual school.

The fact that so many of our kids, we’ve lost contact with them or they were in these digital deserts or didn’t have the equipment, means that we need to rebuild our infrastructure, we need to make sure that we are providing internet to kids in our most vulnerable communities.

This idea that people thought that all you had to do was turn on a computer and continue to teach in the same way does not give any credence to the fact that being an educator is a profession and people train a lifetime to do this, that you have to work hard and practice to get good at it and teaching remotely is a very different skill set.

Where is the point at which you think it would be safe to send kids back to schools?

I can’t think of any other segment of the economy that even proposed reopening at full capacity. Not airlines, not restaurants, not theaters, nothing. And to have that even be a part of the conversation when it came to schools — and not be supported by the science or the data — I think is completely irresponsible.

I’ve been in a school where we lost a student [before the pandemic]. One student is too many. The reciprocal effect of that on the faculty, on the student body, the families and the community is one of those intangibles that unless you’ve lived it you don’t truly understand it.

What is your advice for millions of American parents of schoolchildren who suddenly find themselves proctoring their students’ education?

My son is 12 years old and I’m not sending him back for the first couple weeks because I want to see that it works. And this is going to present a challenge because my husband and I work. There are so many levels of difficulty there, but when I do a cost-benefit analysis, I can catch him up on a couple months of school, but I can’t even imagine the health consequences [if he goes back too soon]. For all of those parents, it is hard. I get it that people have to go to work. Our first concern should be the safety of children.

Your son’s school is opening?

They’re doing a hybrid model, they’re giving parents the option. They had a meeting last night, and people are very nervous. They said that parents can change over time as they become more comfortable.

I just need more information before I put my child in that situation. As a member of the House, I have colleagues who refuse to follow the C.D.C. guidance, and they’re adults. To expect that children will follow these guidelines when we see that adults refuse to?

You’ve said a national strategy needs to be in place before it is safe to have schools reopen.

If we had a national strategy where it was understood that wearing a mask was a best practice and if you needed to be tested you could be tested and there was contact tracing, we could pinpoint these outbreaks or these hot spots. There is very little confidence because we keep seeing the guidelines change, different districts are handling it differently, different communities are handling it differently. In some places around the country, even though it’s a hot spot, you see leaders insist that schools open and kids go back.

That does not instill confidence. If you’re telling people, “We’re doing what’s best for you and were following the guidelines,” and they say, “Yeah, but I’m watching the news every night and I see the spikes and I see that we don’t have the federal funding,” and the answer is, “We’re still going back,” that is deeply concerning to me.

Do you think it’s possible to safely reopen schools while Donald Trump is the president?

I hope so. We all want our kids back in school, and it’s unfortunate that this has been politicized because this should be something we can all agree on.

I would support the president in any measure to safely reopen schools. What I cannot support is this idea that absent the science, absent the data, absent all of the consultation of the experts in this field, we are reopening schools because this is meant to hurt a political campaign. I can’t support that.

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Thank you to The Hollywood Reporter for curating photos of adorable children staging Black Panther funerals with their action figures.

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