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OPINION | PETULA DVORAK: School daze

by PETULA DVORAK THE WASHINGTON POST | February 13, 2021 at 10:52 a.m.

My son sat alone in the classroom this week, surrounded by empty desks in a silent formation. Even the teacher’s desk up front was forlorn.

“This is stupid,” he texted me. “I’m here all dressed up. everyone else is at home in sweats.”

The mid-pandemic return to the classroom is totally weird, and there are no easy answers.

As the coronavirus continues to infect millions and kill hundreds of thousands in the United States, returning kids to their scholastic normalcy is proving to be a halting, difficult process.

There are teachers in Chicago who are holding class outside as parents bring them hot coffee and build fire pits, and teachers in Washington, D.C., wearing masks, visors and clothes they sanitize after a full day inside buildings they fear aren’t properly ventilated.

There are kindergartners who have never met a teacher in real life and, on the other end of the scale, high-schoolers who’ve been back in classrooms for weeks.

Even when schools opt for hybrid learning the way my son’s school did, a largely unvaccinated nation—only about 10 percent of our population has received at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—is confused and conflicted about whether kids should show up.

Maybe it’s because the wealthier wards have higher vaccination rates than the lower-income wards, whose residents are primarily people of color.

And because coronavirus infection and death rates have hit American Black and Brown communities and lower-income neighborhoods harder, it would make sense that those families aren’t comfortable sending their kids back to school yet.

But it doesn’t have to be about income, race or ZIP code to divide a school on the return.

Even though my son’s private Jesuit school spent a fortune on tech and logistics creating a hybrid schedule rotating three cohorts into the classroom, my son kept finding himself alone or among just a few to go to class in person.

There are many reasons for this. Some students have parents or siblings with health issues who can’t risk exposure to the virus. Some families have grown used to a pandemic schedule—Mom and Dad aren’t going into the office—so they decide that everyone should just stay home. And some kids prefer learning from home, sleeping in and wearing sweatpants to virtual class.

It’s the same story I heard from a friend in New Jersey. Her kid, like mine, was suffering under the isolation and flatness of distance learning and couldn’t wait to go back in.

But when their public school district opened up for hybrid learning, most of her daughter’s peers decided to stay online and at home. On top of that, schools opened and then closed again at whiplash speed. Closed because of a positive case. Now open. Wait, closed.

The most important thing we can do for the kids, besides push for every possible way to speed up the nationwide vaccination effort, is to keep in mind that whatever they end up doing in these crazy times, they are not losing a year of learning. They’re gaining a year of firsthand experience in resilience, flexibility and grit that’s rarely part of a lesson plan.

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