Safety is shaping out to be both the great buzzword and confounding mystery of our decade. Almost all public discourse now resembles a distorted game of playground tetherball- each side volleying the ideals of safety back and forth with no structure or end goal until the persons in charge say it’s time to move on to some other activity. In a sense, I will concede Mayor Lightfoot’s argument that the safest place to be for children is inside of a school building. Still, I must also contend that viewing the purpose of schools to be some perverted version of Noah’s Ark was not what I imagined when I signed up for the gig. What is genuinely ridiculous to me in the Mayor’s Friday night tweet is that the word safest is preceded by the word best. In this conflation of words, the Mayor makes a better argument for pausing five days a week in-person learning than the teachers could ever make themselves.
We have prided ourselves on being the country of innovation in every aspect other than the place where we believe innovation is birthed and cultivated. The structure of American education looks eerily similar to what it did at our founding. The Five-days-a-week-fill-em-up-with-knowledge playbook has embarrassing historical and current data points to suggest glaring inadequacies. Our schools are not the best place for children and haven’t been for some time now. There have been attempts at reimagining how to educate children better. The issue is they are all, ultimately, placed solely on the backs of our teachers and educational institutions. When No Child Left Behind arrived to close the math and English gaps, it was the expectation that teachers would take on more responsibility and understanding of the academic holes students had, or else their pay would decrease. When data revealed that relationships and mental health were essential to child development, we expected teachers to find time to master and work in SEL strategies, restorative circles, and Culturally Relevant Teaching. Your argument might be that’s just part of the deal when you get to have eight weeks a year to choose when to take your family to Disney World. I would argue that you will soon have an easier time finding a Mickey Mouse to take pictures with than you will a competent educator to teach your child.
It is not our sole responsibility as school staff members to educate children, and this notion is crushing teachers nationwide. We know physical exercise and communal bonding are essential. Why not invest in sending our children once a week to the YMCA, Yoga studios, or rock climbing in Chelsea Piers? If we know real-life experiences inspire passions and teach applicable skills, why not invest in sending our children once a week to a JP Morgan internship or a beautician school or a college campus? If you want the best for children, our society cannot continue to place the entire burden on the singular structure of our schools and, simultaneously, our teachers. Let me be the first to communicate clearly that this argument is not about school safety but about what is truly best for our children and the people tasked with raising them. We can start recognizing the impossibility of what we are asking the school and teacher to do, invest in other community entities to help carry the burden, or find ourselves with fewer and fewer educators in the decades to come.