“We” must imagine a better COVID-19 path for schools reopening
My youngest daughter is back at home after Thanksgiving for virtual learning, and I’m both relieved and concerned—once again.
Like many other parents of children in Metro Nashville Public Schools, my wife and I have done our absolute best to be team players. We are both graduates of Metropolitan Nashville Public schools. Our oldest daughter is an MNPS graduate. Our oldest son was in that wave of kids who graduated through the window of their parents’ car or mini-van last semester due to the Corona Virus. The virus pretty much canceled the best parts of his long-awaited Senior Year of high school.
Our youngest three children attend three different schools on three different levels: elementary, middle, and high school. It’s safe to say that we’re a pretty good sample of what navigating MNPS is like during an unprecedented pandemic.
And this right here isn’t for the weak of heart.
We’ve joined Parent Teacher Organizations, two of which my wife founded over the years in schools with very little parental engagement before her efforts. She could—and should—write a “how-to” book for future generations and ways to spark parental engagement. Name the drive, and we’ve taken the wheel: candy sales, t-shirt sales, school uniform for the needy, spaghetti suppers, tutoring sessions, summer arts academies.
Every year, we strap on the whole armor worn by soldiering parents who lack the public eduction advantage of an economically prosperous zip code. We struggle to ensure that our kids are assigned to a supportive class, teacher, or school. When you aren’t vigilant, you risk your child being guided ever so gently into the school-to-prison pipeline by people who refuse to see the humanity in their variously-shaded colored faces.
With our street credibility established, I have to tell you that parents are pretty exhausted right about now.
We’ve had to get used to the daily political theatre and the drama associated with MNPS. We’ve watched school board meetings and the entertaining—yet disheartening—ad hominem volleys that have been lobbed back and forth by too many voices to count over the years.
We’ve seen various groups, from teachers’ unions to advocacy organizations, swing verbal axes at each other’s throats, all while claiming to represent the righteous cause of “the children.”
We’ve watched local government squander our tax dollars to launch faux job searches for superintendents, police chiefs, and appointees of the mayor’s office, only to do, as the late Queen Mother Zulee Ursery once proclaimed, “whatever the Hell they want to do anyway.”
Watching this drama play out—having, admittedly, played a pretty vital role at some point in the most recent round of casting—it’s pretty clear that there is a growing disconnect between the politicos and the people.
I know this has been an extraordinary, unprecedented year. We began with a tornado that decimated homes, schools, and families. We moved, immediately, into the lockdowns of COVID-19, and, while still navigating a virtual world, a whopping 34% property tax increase hit us in the real one.
I tuned out the usual suspects who always criticize the system without offering alternatives. From my experience as a problem-solver, I issued The Infinity Plan, a broad initiative that would address policing, affordable housing, disaster relief, the arts, and yes, Metro Schools. As a battle-tested parent, the goal was to develop a way to navigate COVID-19 with the safety of our children, teachers, and administrators in mind.
The Infinity Plan was featured in news stories and talk shows. I received calls, texts, and emails from a broad range of political insiders, elected officials, staff, teachers, and parents who were grateful to at least see something—anything—that provided a coherent vision. No one wanted to publicly break ranks from the bureaucracy, however, so Limbo is where it lives.
It’s not that parents don’t support MNPS, it’s that we are not being heard or seen, and at times it feels like all the decisions that are being made are being made by people whose children are either in private schools, high performing schools, or aren’t old enough to be in school yet.
The “Surveys” Make Their Rounds
Throughout last summer, results from an MNPS survey revealed thoughts and concerns over what virtual and in-person school might look like. Many of us factored into our thought process for decision-making the touted synchronous and asynchronous learning environments. As we spoke with other parents and teachers, a new “survey” arrived, and upon careful examination, we realized it wasn’t a survey after all. Our backs were against the wall, and It was an either/or selection:
- Send our youngest back to school to stay connected to her awesome teacher, one of the many out there who had found some amazing creative ways to engage her students through a computer screen, or
- Keep her at home and roll the dice on a new teacher who would be assigned multiple grade levels to manage at once.
We purchased more PPE and opted for consistency for the sake of our child’s social, emotional, and academic development.
After a few experimental weeks, we’re right where we predicted we’d be: back at home. We now, once again, have a chance at getting this right, under different circumstances.
When I first wrote The Infinity Plan, city government was sitting on over $100 Million in CARES Act funds. Over 24 million had already been allocated to purchase laptops and hotspots for virtual learning, especially for our most vulnerable populations. Providing safe environments for our children could have been covered, without additional costs, by simply engaging community partners to become a part of the educational process—an acceptable legal use of funds according to the stated guidelines.
The landscape now has changed, much of the money has been allocated, and the remaining 24 million and change dances in a unique political ballet that most likely will lead to a legal cleansing process that will create a newly politicized well of funds for early 2021 for the politically connected to scrap over.
In the meantime, parents are still singing the Yolanda Adams Song, What About The Children?
A recent tweet by Councilman Freddie O’Connell states, “If we’re smart, we’ll spend the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve exploring every avenue to reopen K-4 at a minimum and accelerate reopening.”
It is that very “If” that we’ve been struggling with for much of 2020. We had an entire Spring Break to plan. We had an entire Summer to plan. Instead of a very clear and consistent vision, we received strings of emails from MNPS that alternated between confusing and condescending. Just last week, we received the gift of a shiny new COVID-19 Tracker thermometer tool to keep us entertained during the current intermission.
I think about some of the younger children, who learn virtually from grandparents’ and relatives’ tables, or struggle to wake themselves up and get dressed because only big brother or sister is home to watch them. I wonder how they will feel about the new tool that will sit in an unopened email.
“If we’re smart,” (and by “we’re,” I’m saying the people who are getting paid very well to actually provide vision and leadership) “we’ll” begin to realize that there is a large population of children whose schools cannot accommodate 6 feet between chairs; who do not have a rapid response plan in place because of their existing relationships with medical institutions in town; who struggle to not only hold on to excellent teachers, but do not have the resources to train their teachers to take on the additional burden of being disease control experts.
Politicos will point out, fairly, that younger populations are less affected by the Coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, roughly 8.5% of reported cases involve children under 18. This isn’t a political issue. This is about those young people, the teachers, and staff taking a virus home that could a) infect an entire household and b) wreak havoc on vulnerable populations who are more at risk.
“We’ve” got to think about everyone on this one.
To address these inequities courageously, “we’re” going to have to do things differently, drop the politics, and engage our collective and communal imagination. Einstein is credited with saying, “Imagination is more important than knowledge; for knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
If “we” are smart, “we” will utilize our collective imagination to get beyond the political theatrics and into the heart of problem-solving.
Once again, “we’ve” got planning time, so “we” might as well do something with it this time around.
-jeff obafemi carr