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Siddiqi: School reopening challenges: A little grace could go a long way

Siddiqi: School reopening challenges: A little grace could go a long way

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By Dr. Javaid Siddiqi

Siddiqi is President & CEO of The Hunt Institute, a nonprofit focused on education policy located in Cary, N.C. He was Virginia Secretary of Education under Gov. Bob McDonnell.

In the past few weeks, school districts around the country have announced their plans for reopening and some have even begun to reopen amidst a raging pandemic. What has become immediately clear is that no one is satisfied with the plans. Teachers say they won’t come back without more protections, parents are considering pulling (or have pulled) their children due to safety concerns, political leaders are facing the heat, and possibly pushing for something even they personally can’t get behind. And as I see the storms raging and the fires brewing, what I continue coming back to is, can’t we all just get along?

As a former teacher, principal, school board member, current president of a national nonprofit education policy organization, and perhaps most importantly a parent, I sympathize with all sides. I understand what teachers, parents, school leaders, and elected officials are facing in making these decisions as I have worn (and in some cases continue to wear) many of those hats. And with that perspective, that is why I’d humbly ask that we all give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Let’s start with the basic premise that we all want what’s right for our children. Yes, there may be the occasional bad actor with an ulterior motive, but the vast majority of us are trying to make the best decisions we can under extraordinary circumstances.

Based on my experience, school board members are listening carefully to parent, teacher, and community concerns while also paying attention to the science. They are also looking at the budget – can their district afford to reopen with all the additional safety protocols that will need to be in place? And on a practical level, they may be thinking about their decision-making in light of the platform they ran on and whether they are staying true to their values.

State level policymakers are grappling with bills to fund (or not) the many areas of concern brought on from COVID-19, and not just those related to the field of education. While providing the appropriate level of support to schools is important, I am sure they are also struggling with what can realistically get passed in this current hyper-partisan environment, while also listening closely to their constituents.

Principals are focused on the complicated issues related to overseeing the day-to-day operations of a school with whatever reopening plan has been decided upon. They are thinking about how much money is needed to implement social distancing requirements, how physically to do so with the existing imprint of the school, and/or how to expand in creative ways. They are struggling with the pros and cons of remote versus in-person learning. First and foremost, however, they are thinking about how to keep all students, staff, and teachers safe in this current environment.

Teachers are worried about how to be effective in whatever medium is chosen – some take better to remote learning than others. They struggle with the concerns about their personal health and safety in an in-person environment, but also the physical and mental well-being of their students (not to mention academics) if their school begins the year remotely.

Finally, parents struggle with how this pandemic has affected and will continue to affect the physical and mental health of their children. They are worried about the implications of learning loss and isolation in a remote environment, but at the same time, could they trust their kids to follow safety protocols during in-person learning? They may be thinking about other school options if they are not comfortable with the district choice, which could put a strain on already tightened budgets. They could be wondering how to manage their work schedule and logistics if the kids are home again – do they have the capacity to serve as a teacher like they may have done in the spring?

Bottom line, these are extraordinary times, and as such, require extraordinary compassion. For our own sanity, let’s try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and work together as much as possible to get through this moment in our history with our humanity intact.

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