By Gaby Rattner
Teach Your Children Well
You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
— Lyrics by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
As September approaches our family, like every other with school-age children, is grappling with back to school. We are all facing a “Morton’s Fork” (a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives): Risk the physical health of students, teachers, and staff, or sacrifice students’ education, growth, and mental well-being.
I say it is an impossible choice because no matter how well conceived, carefully planned, and perfectly delivered a remote learning program might be, it is no substitute for what happens in a live classroom. And no matter how extensive and thoroughly prepared are the protocols for returning to school buildings, an unseen threat can be said to lurk within.
The pros and cons of this particular decision have been well documented. The arguments on both sides are strong, well-reasoned, and must be respected. Likewise, the role that schools play in our communities has been brought vividly to the fore during their absence. Much more than learning centers, our schools provide physical and emotional sustenance, a first barrier against all sorts of external threats. And again, our schools are to be lauded for providing food and other essentials to families in need even while their doors were closed.
In the process of deliberating, angsting, and worrying, we are actually teaching our children. Whether we involve them in the decision-making process or not, we are showing them how we as individuals, families, and communities assess risk in order to make immensely critical decisions.
It seems to me that this is a calculus about balancing a set of averages: the average number of active cases currently extant in our area; the average expected class size; the average quantifiable learning loss suffered by children who have been out of live school for four months plus summer; the average loss of income to families who must choose between childcare, sending their children back to school, or giving up employment to supervise at home learning; the gains to be had if children return to school, and so on.
For single-parent families, for families that already face food and financial insecurity, families such as those we serve at Community Centers, Inc., for parents whose children have learning or developmental challenges, this decision becomes even more fraught. Each family’s “averages”, therefore, will be different. And I join everyone across the country in wishing we did not have to do these calculations.
But I would argue that for all of us, the decision is bigger than any one family, or even any one community. The decisions we reach, individually and collectively, will affect this generation of children profoundly. The one calculation we must all include is not only how the choices we make today affect our children’s current lives, but also their futures. And in analyzing these averages and doing the risk/benefit computations, I continue to come down on the side of the children’s need to be in school.
It has not been an easy decision for our family, and we understand not all will agree. But we feel we must evince courage, keep a steady eye on conditions at school and in our community, and be flexible as needed. Though we wish mightily that our youngsters did not have to confront such difficult circumstances so early and in this way, learning to think through a challenging problem, assess risk and calculate benefits could become an important lesson for whatever lies ahead.
Gaby Rattner is the Executive Director of CCI