To My Fellow Educators: Please Stop Saying Our Kids Are Falling Behind

To members of the U.S. Department of EducationThe National School Boards AssociationNational Association of Elementary School PrincipalsNational Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and AASA, The School Superintendents Association and our nation’s teachers: As a long-time Texas educator, nationally- and internationally-known and respected educational consultant on matters of literacy, and an award-winning author of educational books, I have one piece of advice – not requested but offered with a genuine heart: stop.

Stop any conversation you hear (or might have considered starting) that “our kids are behind” and “they must catch up.” I respectfully ask, “Behind what?” “Catch up to what?” Our kids are not behind as a result of a pandemic, though at some other time I will happily discuss the insidious systemic racial inequalities that have always existed in our schools, inequalities that have kept many with fewer opportunities than others. But our students are not “behind” now because of this pandemic.

What they are is stressed, anxious, lonely, worried, frustrated, and afraid of what happens next. But they are not behind a reading level or a math skill or a science concept. Rarely have I ever encountered any one concept in any classroom that is only taught once. We teach and reteach; we push kids to apply learned skills, strategies, and concepts in increasingly complex ways across the grades. That will continue to happen and anyone who says, “But they should have learned about mixed fractions in third grade and now we’ll have to do it in fourth grade” is too worried about benchmark learning and not focused enough on what learning should actually be about.

In many ways, our students across all grades have learned skills no one would have expected them to learn at their ages. They have been required to sit at a computer screen for 5, 6, 7 hours a day and figure out different learning platforms. They have had to figure out what to do when a school requires they be in their synchronous learning classroom when the sibling or parent is using the one computer in the home. Many have learned to monitor their own learning while watching siblings, preparing meals for siblings, or being scared while they are home alone. Many have finally returned to schools to be told, “Don’t touch,” “Don’t hug,” “Don’t get too close,” “Don’t share,” . . .  In a world where we want them to experience all they can do, they have been put behind see-through plastic screens on desks pushed that have been pushed six feet apart and told all that they can’t do.

Milko/Getty

In spite of all that, they have learned critical skills. They have learned empathy; they have – whether they realize it or not – become global citizens. They have learned what it means to stay inside; to substitute “I want to” with “I should.” And too many have learned what happens when parents lose jobs; too many have learned, at far too young an age, what grief is. They have learned that fear in the pit of your stomach when you hear someone you love has contracted COVID. They have learned how to cope with difficulties we never dreamed of preparing them to learn.

They have learned that some neighborhoods had more neighbors to contract the disease; they have learned that some hospitals received fewer supplies or received them later than other hospitals; they have seen, now, far more white people receive the vaccine than people of color or people of poverty. And they have questions about that. Questions they have been told “Don’t ask” and teachers have been told “Don’t answer.” They have learned that kindness counts. They have learned what it means to be without and how good it feels to help and to receive help. They have learned that in the worst of moments, they survived.

To dare to say our kids are behind, is to demean all the parents and teachers in this nation who have done their best under circumstances we never dared to imagine but experienced each and every day. These circumstances, for many teachers, were made worse when ridiculous requirements such as how long they must be at their computers, what they must do to show they are indeed teaching, how much they must cover of a curriculum that mattered little this year, how they must buy their own personal protection equipment and use their own dollars to supply classrooms with sanitizers, and teach face-to-face with no vaccines were never ending. This year has caused even our most veteran of teachers to question how they keep going and has reduced our novice teachers to questioning if they will stay in teaching. And now, now they are reminded they must never, ever forget the forthcoming TEST.

Stop relying on that ridiculous state test. It doesn’t measure a critical thing about what was learned this year or what was taught. If universities can set aside the lauded SAT/ACT this year, then what are we saying to our children, parents, and teachers when we say, “Oh, yes, we’ll be giving THE TEST this year”? What are we showing we value? Yes, let’s have a long-overdue conversation about this test. But for now, STOP the demands to “Make sure the kids are ready.”

To the U.S. Department of Education, stop waiting for states to ask for waivers to give THE TEST. Step in and stop the insanity.

To Dr. Jill Biden, thank you for your support of teachers and please see if you can perhaps push a little sanity into decisions being made right now.

And to all teachers: Stop listening to those who say your kids are behind. That’s a statement without merit, offered in unprecedented times, that is uttered by those who value testing, not learning, and statistics, not students. To those who say such things, I say they have not seen you delivering food to homes with little or none, staying online to talk to the kid who is alone, accepting work at any point in the unit, crying when one kid finally shows up because your heart has worried about that child/teen, and laughing with your students when a cat arrives to sit upon your shoulders. They haven’t seen all you have done to explain the unexplainable while you, too, wonder at this nation’s insanity.

Dear teachers, stop saying, “I can’t” because you have. You have shown up. You have done what you did not think you could. You have taught your kids under the worst of situations because it’s what you do. You are tired, stressed, anxious, worried, and feeling alone. I wish I could make those feelings go away. But I can remind you that feelings of inadequacy should be shoved aside. Please don’t think you can’t, because you did. You gave our nation’s students needed normalcy (though a new normalcy) and you showed them grace when few extended the same to you.

Our nation owes you so much and gives you so little. I wish we would all stop any belittling remarks toward teachers and those administrators who do support them. So, to all of the rest of us; stop saying what your child’s teacher did not do and start thanking that teacher for what was done.

Respectfully,

Kylene Beers, Ed.D.

Co-author with Bob Probst of Forged by Reading, Disrupting Thinking, Notice and Note, and Reading Nonfiction

National Leadership Award recipient by the National Council Teachers of English

Teachers Choice Award recipient for Disrupting Thinking

Past President of the National Council of Teachers of English

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Schools Should Absolutely Let Kids Resubmit Work And Retake Tests

Since my son started virtual school in the fall of 2020, he has been introduced to a new concept in schooling: the ability to resubmit assignments or retake tests. If he’s unhappy with a grade, he has two more chances to try again for a better one.

When I first learned he would have this feature built into his schooling, it sounded like a cop-out to me. Would he really learn that way? Isn’t it almost like cheating to be able to find out what you got wrong and just … go fix it and improve your grade? Wouldn’t everyone make straight A’s if that’s how things worked? And what about the kids who study really hard and get an A on the first try? Shouldn’t their grade record look better than the kid who got a C, then a B, and then an A?

But then I learned that, at least with my son’s virtual school program, it’s not as simple as going back to the assignment or test and fixing the problems he got wrong. He has to redo the entire assignment or test — with the questions shuffled around, some questions removed, and some new questions added in.

It’s not an easy fix. If he wants to actually improve his grade on subsequent tries, he has to put in the time to study. And because he doesn’t want to spend more time than necessary, he is motivated to study hard the first time to get a good grade so he doesn’t have to do it over. He knows I will make him redo assignments and tests if I see his overall grade slipping too much or if it’s obvious he’s not putting in the effort.

And I am seeing that when he redoes an assignment, he is absolutely getting more than just an improved grade out of it. If he bombed an assignment, it’s because he was lazy or distracted or simply missed a critical piece of information somewhere. When he redoes the work, he identifies what he missed, refreshes his memory, and most importantly, retains the information better. Rather than moving on to the next assignment with gaping holes in his knowledge, he pieces together a solid foundation on which to build and gather new information. He gains mastery.

And isn’t mastery supposedly the point?

A pre-pandemic tweet from 2019 about this concept of redoing work has resurfaced recently and made the rounds on social media.

“My parents seem genuinely shocked at my class policies,” said Tracy Edwards in her tweet. “Yes, your 5th grader may redo any test or quiz. No, I don’t care how many times they choose to retake it. Yes, they can turn in that assignment late. I’m a whole adult that requires grace & mercy. I can extend that to kids.”

In light of the pandemic, it seems many teachers have been reconsidering how they grade their students’ schoolwork. Kids have been suffering from anxiety and a general sense of impending doom. Teachers are recognizing this and adjusting their expectations accordingly, allowing kids to resubmit work and retake tests — hence the resurgence of this tweet. Of course, some teachers have been doing this for a while.

Lily, an 11th grade teacher in Massachusetts, says that in her classroom, it’s been standard practice for some time now to allow kids to make up almost all assignments. “Growth comes from revising and editing,” she tells Scary Mommy. “And not allowing students the opportunity is taking away their opportunity to learn from their own mistakes.” Lily also pointed out that the students she teaches come from highly disparate backgrounds. It would be classist, and often racist, to enforce the same rigid expectations with kids who’ve experienced trauma or instability in their lives as kids who are coming from a place of privilege.

April Noelle Grant also employs a “try again” approach in homeschooling her three children in Florida. “When they don’t do well on tests, we sit and discuss it,” the coach and podcast host of The Other Side of 40 tells Scary Mommy. “We figure out what happened. It makes no sense to throw your hands up and push to the next subject if they aren’t clear on the first one.”

Some kids need repetition to reinforce their long-term memory. Some kids have testing anxiety, and the repetition of retaking a test can help them work through those jitters so they can earn the grade that accurately reflects their understanding of the material. Some kids are coming from a first language other than English. There are so many reasons that being rigid with deadlines and final grades isn’t always the right answer, and in fact is sometimes the absolute wrong one.

None of this is meant to suggest that teachers should provide their students with endless opportunities for revision to the point that the teacher ends up tripling or quadrupling their own work. And clearly, part of preparing kids for adulthood means teaching them the importance of deadlines and how to meet them. Building into a curriculum the ability to redo assignments or retake tests does not mean tossing out all accountability. As with all things, balance is key.

Still we talk of preparing kids for the “real world” as if adulthood is a place where growth and second chances don’t exist. But being a competent adult — both in the workplace and out of it — often involves failure, revision, and starting over from scratch. And the point of school may be to gain mastery of a subject, but even more than that, it’s about growth. It’s not just about acquiring information; it’s about learning how to learn.

So why then would we only give kids one chance? Why not allow them the experience of learning from their own failures? If a student is saying, “I think I can do better,” it is incumbent upon us to give them the opportunity to prove to themselves right. As Lily says of her 11th graders, “If a kid wants to work, and work, and work to improve, what the hell kind of teacher would I be if I said no?”

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Here We Go Again: A Comic About Remote Vs. In-Person Learning

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

Remote learning or in-person learning? Suddenly NYC changed its policy: Whatever decision you made, you had to stick to it for the rest of the school year. No backsies. What made it even tougher was deciding whether to stay put at my in-law’s house in the middle of nowhere, or go home to the city.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

Let’s just say Miles’ Dad and I did not see eye to eye on this issue. His anxiety was at an all-time high about exposing our child and family to COVID. The second wave was crashing in and that just put his nervous system over the edge.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

I was more concerned about our child’s social isolation taking an emotional toll. And I was terribly homesick.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

Plus, I had read so many articles with reassuring data that schools were not major spreaders of COVID. And it eased my mind to know so many of our friends in the city were doing in-person learning, and doing it safely and happily.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

BUT to be fair, Miles already had the most amazing remote learning teachers for first grade, or “village” as they like to call themselves. They were completely engaged and ran their classrooms with an unrivaled sense of energy and humor.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

In the beginning Miles was so shy, he wouldn’t even get on camera. After a couple of days, you couldn’t stop him from unmuting himself. I felt guilty about contemplating taking him outside of this new routine. Remote learning gave him a sense of normalcy. It worked for now.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

In the last few months Miles’ public school had to be shut down a number of times due to the rise in COVID cases. Some parents said the on-and-off-again schedule was highly disruptive. Others were just happy to get any days of in-school learning in. Many schools nearby remained open due to the low COVID numbers at their school.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

 

“It’s not like Miles will be missing out on starring in a full-on school production of the Pirates of Penzance!” his Dad debated.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

 

I imagined the assembly room so empty you could hear the echoing school bell. It made me sad to think Miles would miss out on his first grade play.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

“Yes, but at least he could play outside with his friends with his mask on! He doesn’t know a single child here,” I countered.

“But it’s getting so cold, how long will he be able to do that?” he said.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

 

“It’s not like he’s going to be eating with his friends in the lunchroom,” his Dad added.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

“But at least he’ll be close enough to his friends to tell funny jokes,” I said.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

“And what about the fact that we both don’t have patience to master remote learning?” I countered.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

It was tough not seeing eye to eye about your child’s education. But it wasn’t just happening to us. The pivotal question “remote learning or in-person learning?” put a strain on so many families and friends. So many listicles on the many pros and cons for each.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

 

So many parents judging each other which made it even tougher to decide.

Yes, remote learning was breaking parents. Yes, schools kept opening and shutting down as COVID cases surged. Yes, many families depended on schools to remain open. Yes, many teachers did not feel they should have to risk their lives to teach our children. Plus, many of them had their own children. Yes, there was mounting data about schools not causing an increase in COVID. Yes, there were studies about the many effects of social isolation. Yes, many families were still afraid of the unknown.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

We went back and forth. Back and forth. Week after week, we shared our conflicted feelings over what to do with our therapist. We tried not to invalidate each other’s anxieties and feelings. We tried not to always be right or have the last word. And most times, we failed miserably. But week after week, we tried. We shed our stubbornness. We ugly cried.

Courtesy of Lisa Lim

No family has perfect choices. And not every family agrees what to do with their child.

In the end, we chose to continue fully remote learning and stay at our in-law’s. That and agreeing to more social-distance play dates so Miles gets the much needed interaction he’s craving. That meant me going on local Mommy Facebook groups and making playdates. And for that I am beyond grateful.

And when I see the decisions other parents make, I think, I know you’re doing the best you can.

 

This post originally appeared in Mutha Magazine.

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Utah School Allowed Parents To Opt Out Of Black History Month Curriculum

The school has since rescinded the option

A public charter school in Ogden, Utah came under fire earlier this month when it told parents they could have their kids opt out of Black History Month curriculum.

Maria Montessori Academy Director Micah Hirokawa announced the decision on the school’s private Facebook page, according to local news outlet the Standard-Examiner. That post has since been deleted. In it, Hirokawa wrote that he “reluctantly” sent a letter to families stating that administrators were allowing them “to exercise their civil rights to not participate in Black History Month at the school,” noting that a few families inquired about the option for their kids to opt out.

“We should not shield our children from the history of our Nation, the mistreatment of its African American citizens, and the bravery of civil rights leaders, but should educate them about it,” Hirokawa said, adding that the request from families “deeply saddens and disappoints me.”

Hirokawa also told the Standard-Examiner that Black History Month is being incorporated into its regular social studies and history lessons in February, noting that they are looking for ways to celebrate the achievements of African Americans in history.

How can you opt out of a month? from r/BlackPeopleTwitter

According to the Utah State Board of Education, only three of the 322 students at the academy are Black.

Lex Scott, the founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, said the decision, which has now been overturned, is abhorrent.

“You can’t opt out of black history. Black history is American history,” Scott said. “So, it absolutely comes from a place of racism and ignorance.”

According to Utah law, parents can have their kids opt out of portions of curriculum based on religious beliefs or right of conscience. But a representative with the Utah State Board of Education clarified with FOX 13 that “no student can be waived from state Social Studies Standards, which includes a focus on U.S. history, inequality and race relations.”

Hirokawa sent another email to parents over the weekend apologizing for the option to opt out of Black History Month and noted the school has now officially rescinded that offer. The email states that “at this time no families are opting out of our planned activities and we have removed this option.”

“I was appalled to see the form sent out that allows parents to opt their kids out of this and to hear that this is all because some parents have requested it,” said Rebecca Bennett, a parent of students at the school, said in a comment on the post. “I echo others who are disappointed to hear this was even ever made an issue in the first place by some families in our school’s community.”

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The CDC Released Recommendations To Reopen Most Schools, And I Have Questions

This school year has been extremely difficult for parents everywhere. Whether your child has been going to school virtually, going to school in-person, or if you’ve made alternative arrangements for your kid such as homeschooling or “pod schooling,” it’s been a stressful experience all around. Or to put it another way, a total and complete shitshow.

As the wife of a teacher and mom of two kids who have struggled with virtual learning at times, I have been hyper focused on all the issues at hand. My kids have asthma and we decided to keep them home this year. They are doing well, all things considered, but I know that they would be happier in many ways if they were in school.

As such, I read every article, every piece of data. My kids’ school district is doing a hybrid approach, with both in-person and virtual options, and I scrutinize each COVID positive email we get. Sometimes there are ten COVID positive cases in one day and I wonder if these cases are being transmitted in school or outside school. With no vaccine for kids in sight for some time, I want to know for sure if sending my kids back eventually will be safe. I worry about whether I’ve made the best decision for my kids, and I wonder when the hell the school will look normal again.

And the conclusion I’ve come to is this: no one freaking knows. Why? Because there is very little data when it comes to what is happening in schools. My own school district only sends us data with COVID positive cases (that is, the ones that have been reported), not information about contract tracing. Are the kids and teachers getting COVID in the classroom despite masks and distancing? Are people even fully complying with contact tracing so that we can get a good picture of how the virus is spreading? None of us have any clue.

What about school districts around the country? As The New York Times points out, school districts around the country are taking wildly different approaches to COVID safety, with some requiring masks and distancing, and others not. No school district is testing their kids regularly, and even school districts that are (like NYC, for example) are only testing a small sample of students, not entire schools, and not on a regular basis (NYC tests 20% of school populations once per month). How can you know what is happening in a school when you are not regularly testing all students and staff?

So when the CDC released recommendations today saying that schools should consider reopening where safety measures could be taken, I had questions.

As The Washington Post wrote, the CDC’s statement includes language pointing out that transmission in schools is lower than in other congregate settings such as nursing homes. “The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring,” the CDC wrote in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

I am definitely happy to see that the CDC, under President Biden, is focused on getting kids back to school safely, and wants to give schools funding to do so (it remains to be seen what that funding will be and how it will be allocated). But that idea that schools can be made safe in the middle of a global pandemic where thousands of people are dying a day made me scratch my head.

And why are we comparing in-school transmission to other places where COVID spreads faster? Is this a race? Can we just say that we don’t want COVID to spread freaking anywhere until this pandemic is under control?

As The Washington Post points out, the CDC also published a recent study which looked specifically at in-school transmission at a schools in Wisconsin that took proper precautions when it came to masking.

“A new CDC study, also published Tuesday, looked at 17 rural K-12 schools in Wisconsin and found just seven out of 191 coronavirus cases resulted from in-school transmission,” explained The Washington Post. “Researchers noted that students and staff in these schools wore masks almost all the time.”

Margaret Honein, who was the lead author of the JAMA report, explained the conclusions of that report to The Washington Post. “[W]ith proper prevention efforts … we can keep transmission in schools and educational settings quite low,” she commented. “We didn’t know that at the beginning of the year but the data has really accumulated.”

Okay, so this CDC report found that in schools with good masking protocols, 7 people got infected with COVID while in school? And that’s supposed to be a “good” scenario? Everyone has their own threshold for this stuff, but in my opinion, even one person getting sick with COVID while going to school is one person too many.

What about older teachers? What about bus drivers? What about that one kid who brings COVID home to their grandmother and kills her? Maybe COVID risk is smaller in a well protected, well ventilated school than in a restaurant, but why should we have anything open right now that doesn’t absolutely need to be? You know, when literally thousands of people are dying of COVID a day?

I feel especially concerned about all of this when a vaccine is out and teachers and staff have just started to get vaccinated. Why are we talking about reopening schools when we are on the brink of protecting our precious teachers and staff members? Let them get their vaccines first. Their safety matters. 

Let’s not forget that the idea of properly protecting our teachers and staff with PPE and proper ventilation is not that simple in poorer school districts and districts in large cities. Many of these school districts don’t have the money for textbooks, let alone face masks.

Where is all this money going to come from, and how can we be sure it will be adequate? When my husband worked at an NYC school, he worked in a room with literally no windows and 30 kids practically sitting on top of each other. This was not uncommon. Do people understand the state of our broken education system?

Yes, ideally we would have all our kids in school. There are legitimately kids who need to be in school right now—kids of essential workers, kids with special needs, kids who live in abusive homes, or in homes with food insecurity. 

But we are in the middle of a global freaking pandemic and things aren’t exactly going great in that department right now. There are people who can’t be bothered to wear a mask to CVS, and we’re expecting all 56 million of our nations school kids to comply? And don’t even get me started on playdates and parties. How are we to trust COVID won’t spread in schools when people are still gathering with friends, and can’t be bothered to abide by current guidelines? 

In my opinion, the reopening school debate is one we should postpone for now. Let’s get this goddamn pandemic under control. Let’s vaccinate all teachers and staff. Let’s wait till even more data comes out about best practices and how to ensure that even the lower income schools can implement them. Let’s wait till we can get to a place where overall transmission is down, placing the number of in-school transmissions even lower as well. 

Because, as much as it’s important for our kids to be in school right now, none of it is worth risking more lives. None of it. Period.

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Teachers Should Get COVID-19 Vaccine Priority

Back in November, my wife spent three weeks in the hospital after a bad case of pneumonia turned into septic shock. She spent three days in the ICU, and at one point a doctor told us that if we’d waited any longer to bring her to the hospital, she’d have died. Now, in December, we are face to face with a long list of follow up appointments, and one of the first things her doctor told her was “you need to avoid people because your immune system took a pretty hard hit.” Naturally, avoiding COVID-19 infection is going to be essential to her recovery — but all of that gets pretty complicated when we factor in that Mel works as a teaching assistant in a 5th grade class. Up until she went into the hospital, she was expected to teach online from the school building.

There is no doubt about it, Mel wants to get back to teaching in the school building. In fact, I think most teachers do. Parents also want their children attending classes, so that they can focus on getting back to work. But the reality is, we cannot do that if it means placing teachers at risk. I don’t want to speak for all working parents, but I think it’s pretty easy to say without hesitation that kids going back to school would be a huge boost to the economy, meaning that teachers should be getting vaccine priority.

The Wall Street Journal had this to say about teachers getting vaccinated: “Some stakeholders, ranging from teachers to state representatives to governors, have pushed to give priority to educators for coronavirus vaccines as the pandemic destabilizes education for more than 50 million children and their families.” And according to USA Today, the vaccine is being rolled out in several phases. 1A is being given to medical personnel. And phase 1B will include people 75 and older and front-line essential workers. But “essential workers” is a much broader swath of working Americans than you might think. According to the Wall Street Journal, school staff are a portion of the 87 million essential workers—including grocers, farmworkers, taxi drivers, firefighters, meatpacking factory workers and aviation employees. And leaders are lobbying for teachers to be at the top of that list.

kali9/Getty

The sooner we can get children in school again, safely, the sooner working parents can breathe and get re-adjusted to a “normal” work-life. As a working father, I have mixed feelings. I will be the first to admit that I have spent more time with my children this year than ever before. This year has been hard, no doubt about it. I almost lost my wife to sepsis. My mental health has been in the dirt, and I’ve been a ball of anxiety, waiting for budget cuts to hit my job. Despite all the hardship, I cannot help but look back on this year and feel a new, stronger connection with my three children.

But my goodness, I want them back in school. I want to go back to being able to focus on my job, while not also trying to educate my children. Giving teachers priority when it comes to access to the COVID-19 vaccine seems like movement in the right direction. And many state legislators agree.

Going back to the the Wall Street Journal, “Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said he asked his state’s health department to give priority to teachers and school staff, placing them first in line for essential workers in Phase 1b. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt announced Thursday that school staff would be moved higher up. State superintendents in Louisiana and Maryland sent letters to their governors. In Kentucky, Governor Andy Beshear asked superintendents to begin collecting lists of staff who hope to get vaccinated. Republican lawmakers in Minnesota introduced a bill this week to push teachers forward.”

As the husband of a teacher, and a father of young children, I can’t help but agree with what these states are proposing. After my wife’s doctor told her that she was at high risk for COVID infection complications, she reached out to her employer, and was allowed to work from home. But to say that she wants to be back in the classroom, working with her students, is an understatement. And the only way for her to do that safely is if she were to get vaccinated.

No, vaccination of teachers is not a magic bullet when it comes to safely reopening schools. Children under 17 cannot get vaccinated yet because they weren’t included in the original trials. Furthermore, it is essential to take into account that the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t a one shot deal. You can’t just get the one shot and come charging into school as if everything is awesome. It’s actually takes two doses, with a couple weeks between shots, to be fully vaccinated. And because it’s not clear if being vaccinated stops you from spreading the virus to others, teachers (as well as anyone vaccinated) will still have to wear masks and socially distance until herd immunity is reached.

Still, vaccinating teachers early is a huge step in the direction of getting children back in school, and getting the world working the way it used to. And for those of us with a high risk partner working in a school, getting teachers vaccinated will allow us to breathe a little easier.

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My Son Didn’t Get To Go To Kindergarten This Year — But There’s A Silver Lining

This year has been challenging for people across the globe. Our family is no exception. In addition to multiple family members contracting COVID, including my five-year-old autistic son, our family experienced loss, medical complications, disruptions in education, periods of unemployment, and more. I am sure you can relate. But, thankfully, 2020 is nearing its finale. And as tough as it’s been, there have been silver linings, especially for my son on the autism spectrum.

Before COVID, my son was in an ESE PreK class in the public school system. When schools went digital in the spring, we quickly discovered learning online would be difficult for him. In the fall of 2020, he started Kindergarten at an autism charter school. The school year began using distance learning. Again, this did not go well.

In our county, students aren’t required to begin school until age six. So we decided to let him wait the extra year. He would remain at his behavior therapy center that he had been attending regularly since age three. At least we could keep something consistent for him during these disruptive and uncertain times. Soon COVID swept through the center. My son contracted the virus, spreading it to our immediate family. Fortunately, our family didn’t have severe symptoms and everyone recovered quickly.

Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty

Once my son’s COVID symptoms subsided and the quarantine time passed, he returned to therapy. At the center, he has been with the same therapist since the beginning of the pandemic. And although having him attend Kindergarten this year was our family’s goal, seeing the progress he’s made with another full year of behavior therapy has been amazing.

During my son’s bonus year of therapy, he acquired skills that once he goes to Kindergarten I know will enable him to thrive. He learned skills such as playing with peers, waiting his turn, sharing items, working independently, working cooperatively, tolerating no, listening to a story, following simple directions, using a writing utensil, feeding himself, toileting independently, and more.

Most children learn these skills organically. However, for children on the autism spectrum, like my son, these skills take significant effort and time to learn. Had my son gone to Kindergarten in 2020, he would not have been equipped with the necessary tools to be as successful as possible.

While our immediate family continues due diligence isolating ourselves from extended family and friends as vaccines slowly roll out, I continue to cling to each silver lining. I remind myself this is a temporary new normal, and eventually, we will reclaim our old normal. Students will return face-to-face instruction in a classroom full of peers. “I do’s” will once again be celebrated with hundreds of cheerful guests. Dozens of laughing children will return to dominate birthday parties, and holidays will again safely include beloved grandparents. It may seem as if we are in a long, dark tunnel, but there is finally visible light at the end.

In every dark cloud, there truly is a silver lining. To find the silver lining in your challenges, shift your perspective. – Author Unknown

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Op-Ed: Want Schools To Open Safely? In-School COVID Testing Is Necessary

When Mayor Bill deBlasio announced New York City schools would reopen with new COVID testing protocols in place, reactions were mixed. Some parents were thrilled that their children would be going back. Others were thankful for the additional safety measures, but — if my school’s private Facebook page is any indication of the general consensus — most were furious. This was an infringement on their children’s rights. Their “freedoms.” In-school testing, they said, overstepped bounds. But the discussion didn’t end there. The conversation shifted from one of anger to entitlement. Many parents announced their intentions to get their (healthy) children exempt by completing medical exemption forms. 

Yes, dozens of parents openly announced their plans to falsify claims.

Now I know what you’re thinking: How do I know their child is healthy? Many medical conditions are hidden. They remain unseen. And you’re right. Most diseases don’t have “a look.” But I know they were filing false forms because they were discussing the matter, publicly and openly. Parents posted links to said forms so they could figure out how to have their child excused, citing anxiety and stress. Some even said the tests could puncture their child’s nasal cavity. As if. Hell, a fellow mom told me she was worried about the testing because she didn’t know what the school would do with her child’s DNA.

Yes, really.

To say I was livid would be an understatement. Why? Because 1) their selfishness would put others at risk. 300,000 Americans have died — and millions more worldwide —  from COVID-19 but what’s one more? After all, we’ve got to protect precious Timmy’s freedoms, and his nose. Because 2) in seeking a false medical exemption they would overwhelm Department of Education staffers. They would inundate workers and cause there to be a serious processing delay. And because 3) their false claims would take attention away from real ones. From the kids who truly do need exceptions and/or accommodations. And that’s bullshit.

Scratch that: It is privileged bullshit at its finest.

Of course, this isn’t the first time people have (falsely) claimed the need for a medical exemption during the COVID crisis. In June, individuals across the country began carrying face mask exemption cards, which reportedly absolved them from wearing facial coverings, masks, or shields due to mental and/or physical risk. The good news is the validity of these cards was disproven, quickly and swiftly. On June 30, the Department of Justice issued a statement regarding these cards and other like documents.

Paul Biris/Getty

“Cards and other documents bearing the Department of Justice seal and claiming that individuals are exempt from face mask requirements are fraudulent,” the release read. But the damage was done.

The path was paved for lies, leeway, and loopholes.

That said, there are genuine reasons why an individual should not wear a facial covering. Masks, for example, are not recommended for children under two. Individuals with severe skin conditions may find facial coverings irritating. Some deformities can make mask wearing difficult, and according to the CDC, “cloth face coverings should not be placed on… anyone who is [actively having] trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.” Those with sensory, cognitive, and/or behavioral issues may also have difficulties. And, I’m sure there are genuine reasons why an individual should be exempt from New York’s mandated COVID-19 tests.

However, the exemptions are few and far between. Implying otherwise is absurd. It’s dangerous. Skirting safety rules and regulations endangers lives. It also hurts members of the medically frail community.

It hurts your asthmatic uncle, your immunocompromised neighbor, your cancer-ridden grandmother, and your grandfather with COPD.

Are nasal swabs uncomfortable? Sure. They can be annoying, aggravating, and agitating. In some cases, COVID-19 tests have caused headaches and nosebleeds. Are masks annoying? Abso-fucking-lutely. I hate the fact that I cannot wipe my nose when I am out — or that there is a perpetual feeling of moisture on my face. My discomfort is palpable. Sometimes, I become anxious and struggle to breathe. I also hate seeing my children in masks. I mourn the loss of their childhood. Of innocence.

But we wear masks because they keep us — and others — safe. We consented to testing at school because it reduces the risk of community spread. Having accurate information is the only way to truly stay on top of the COVID crisis. And yes, we will take the vaccine when it becomes available because we care about humanity. Because we, like millions of others, want a sense of normalcy back. We want to return to “life.”

So stop with the bullshit. Stop with the lies. And stop teaching your children the rules don’t apply to them. Instead, teach them empathy, and what it means to be a good human being.

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NYC Is Reopening Its Public Schools … For White Students

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced with great fanfare that he will reopen the New York City schools for pre-K through fifth grade and students with special needs. For some New Yorkers, this was cause for celebration. Ever since the schools closed in mid-November due to rising cases of COVID-19, a vociferous group of parents were loudly advocating for a speedy reopening.

But reopening the school buildings makes no difference to the majority of New York City public school kids, the approximately 74% citywide who are fully remote for the rest of the school year. In the neighborhood where I used to teach, that number is closer to 80%. According to The New York Times, the families who have opted out of in-person school are overwhelmingly Black, Latino, and Asian—the same communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Basically, when they say “We’re reopening the schools,” they mean the white schools.

As the CDC points out, people of color are disproportionately affected by coronavirus throughout the U.S., in terms of case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths. This is due to a number of factors. For one, lower socioeconomic status means less access to health care, and more underlying health conditions. Another is that people of color are more likely to have jobs as frontline or essential workers, which means more daily risk of exposure to the virus. Talk to anyone who lives in a predominantly Black or Latino community—in New York or anywhere. They’ll tell you what the virus has done to their neighborhood.

The communities that have been most severely impacted by the pandemic are, understandably, now the least likely to send their kids back to school. The result is a two-tiered system, where the white families are celebrating their grand reopening while people of color are looking at another seven months of pandemic-style learning. Is this really cause for celebration?

While remote learning can be challenging for any family, it is especially problematic for households of color. Remote learning often depends on having reliable WiFi and dependable Internet devices. Statistics confirm what I remember well from my days as a teacher in NYC: in communities of color, kids are less likely to have the iPads, laptops, and desktop computers that are common in white New York City households.

Black and Latino kids are also more likely to live in smaller spaces with more family members, which makes it difficult for every child to have a dedicated space for learning. Some of my old students, in the pre-COVID days, used to do their homework on the subway, balancing their books in their laps, because they knew it would be too distracting to try to do it at home.

Michael Loccisano/Getty

The cruel irony is that the families that are most needful of the protections that schools provide—the ones who struggle to afford childcare during the school day, who depend on the schools to feed their kids breakfast and lunch, who want to know their kids will be in a safe, wholesome environment every day—are the families with the most reason to fear the rise in COVID cases. Not only were their communities hit the hardest, but their neighborhood schools are the most overcrowded, least ventilated, least sanitized facilities. (These schools were not properly cleaned pre-COVID days, and a lot of folks doubted that would change, even in a pandemic.) In short, theirs are the buildings that are most susceptible to an outbreak.

The city should be laser-focused on these challenges, and coming up with creative solutions. Maybe not every single problem gets solved, but these are the things the mayor should be talking about in public. He certainly shouldn’t be patting himself on the back because he opened the schools for a paltry 26% of the population. What will he do to improve remote learning? Where is the concern for the majority of kids in the city who are staying home?

Xinhua/Wang Ying/Getty

There is already a significant achievement gap between the upper middle class schools in New York City, which are predominantly white, and the schools in Black and Latino neighborhoods. The predominantly white schools have higher graduation rates, higher GPAs, higher college acceptance rates. The gap emerges as early as kindergarten and it only widens over the years. The new de facto segregation of the COVID era—white kids roaming the spacious, socially-distanced halls of their school buildings, while Black and Latino kids struggle to get their schoolwork done at home—will only exacerbate the existing achievement gap. Next year, when all those kids return to in-person learning, how will the schools help them make up for lost time? How can they compete with the students who have gained on them by almost a whole year?

Mayor de Blasio has basically acknowledged that in-person learning is a superior system, and that the challenges of remote learning won’t be fully addressed by the end of the school year. The idea seems to be that, with a vaccine on the horizon, the problem will more or less work itself out. We will muddle through with this two-tiered system until the pandemic ends and we go back to normal.

 

But in the meantime, what is being done to support the children who are trying to learn at home? The negligence here is inexcusable. Every teacher’s duty is to care for every soul whose name appears on your roster, to move heaven and earth to ensure the success of every child. No educator, no public official, no human being should accept this flagrant racial injustice. To celebrate the (predominantly white) 26% who are returning to school is to ignore the struggles of the majority who are being left behind.

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Remote Learning Is Not Working For My Teen

It took me only about a week to realize that distance learning was not meant for my 9th-grade son.

He has a 504 plan, a plan devised to keep him on track academically and provide accommodations for testing or homework, aiming to address a few of his special needs. He requires frequent breaks (to address his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), time with his school social worker (to address his Autism Spectrum Disorder), and the ability to have a manipulative, such as a stress ball (to address his anxiety disorder).

Today, in the United States 1 in 54 children are on the Autism spectrum, and 3.3 million children ages 12-17 are living with ADHD — and having a comorbidity, like anxiety, is par for the course. For someone like my son, who had support in school and thrives when other adults in his life can mirror real life back to him, so much is lost due to remote learning. He needs more than what our dining room table can provide him with, or that I can provide him with, or what Google Classroom can give. He needs more than the socialization he gets from hanging out with his five-year-old sisters. 

He has two moms, and my God, does he need both of us. My wife, a former middle school teacher, understands his academic needs. She also has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), so she understands him on an even deeper level than I do. Together, we put in the work to get him what he needs — even as we all navigate our anxiety about what will come in the weeks ahead, about remote learning, about the mental health of our teenager. We also are the teachers for our five-year-old twin daughters, work full-time, and try to make it all function well. We all are trying to do our best and work with the reality in front of us.

Two weeks ago his first quarter as a 9th grader was officially behind us all, as bumpy a ride as it’s been, with the canceled school, the in-school, in-person learning. But the grades which showed up on his digital report card surprised us all — four Fs in subjects he’d once liked, like history. I wanted to scold and nag him and lecture him: “You’re able to get higher grades!” “You like history, what happened?” We all knew what happened. We all blamed remote learning for our son’s grades (and YouTube).

Like many parents of kids with special needs, at the beginning of the remote learning fiasco, I was simply in survival mode. 1,001 questions raced through my mind: How will I parent and teach my kid, how will he get what he needs socially when we can’t even go outside, how will he get to trust and know his teachers, will he learn anything this year?

Some six or so months into this new normal, I am still feeling the growing pains and so is my son. He’s a teenager, and like so many teens, he’s obsessed with YouTube, a phenomenon I am still trying to wrap my own almost 40-year-old brain around. But having access to the internet all day has quickly become a hindrance in his life, getting in the way of his education and the achievement of his goals because his brain just isn’t wired to be online all day long. None of us are wired this way, but especially not those who have trouble with executive functioning. 

In my home state of Connecticut, there are 18,716 — or 1 in 28 — students who are diagnosed with autism, emotional disturbance, or intellectual disability in our school system. My son is part of that statistic, and his special needs make distance learning almost impossible. But here we are. I imagine the other parents of these kids are feeling the same way.

In the weeks ahead we are going to need to figure out how to not only bring up our son’s grades, but how to keep him socially engaged during the quarantine. Our state’s education commissioner, Miguel Cardona, was quoted in the Connecticut Mirror, as saying, “For the parents of students of special needs: I see you and I hear you. Right now our efforts are going to be focused on making sure we are providing services and support to students with special needs, to our English learners and our youngest learners in early childhood programs.”

As a parent, I am still waiting to hear what kind of services are being put into place for my son’s education. For any student entering into 9th grade, it is a hard year no matter what — but being in school to navigate it all, a student can grasp the realities of showing up, in person, day after day. With the support of guidance counselors, teachers, social workers, cafeteria staff, principals and school custodians, our kids are stronger and more capable humans because of the variety of individuals in their lives. For my special needs son, this is doubly true.

His homeroom begins every day at 7:30 a.m.; he logs on and is expected to be marked for his attendance by his teacher on Google Classroom. Most mornings, he is distracted by YouTube before even navigating his mouse to get to his homeroom class on time. With 80-minute periods and teachers who aren’t entirely sure how to work Zoom themselves, they rarely succeed in holding his attention. By the second period, he is fully engaged in some YouTuber’s story rather than his academics.

Could I be more available for him and monitor him more? Yes. Would my work suffer because of it? Yes. Even if his performance went up, mine would decrease. And monitoring him more, sitting beside him while in science class, would drastically alter the dynamic between my teen and me.

This reality that we are all navigating is not meant to be what is normal, what helps us succeed as humans — and at the end of the day, that is what I want for my son. I want him to succeed, to be an individual who understands others, who knows the importance of putting hard work in, and how to appropriately engage with people in the world. For these experiences, I cannot depend on his school to serve its traditional purpose in the ways I’ve been able to lean on in the past. It’s up to us now, in varying degrees, to help him succeed even as a special needs student. I just hope we can figure it out.

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