The Long Way Round

We’re coming up on the anniversary of when everything shut down, and we all went inside in hopes of containing this virus, slowing it down, and finding a way to get back into our regular lives. Like Gollum, we were all very much deceived. What we knew a year ago is nothing compared to what we know now, and the progress we’ve made with vaccines is nothing short of historical. Colorado is seeing active cases drop, and in many rural and soon larger cities – a full in-person learning reality has become a reality.

Is the nightmare over? Are we coming around the dark side of the moon and flying towards the warm sun? That very much depends on where you are in the country (and the world, mind). For us here in rural Colorado, we’ve been doing in-person since August, and aside from some quarantines due to exposure, and a brief one or two mitigation weeks to ensure low infection rates – we’re holding on. It hasn’t been easy (nothing in 2020 was), and 2021 hasn’t been without struggles. Our middle school lost several boilers due to oil issues in the system, so they were forced into weeklong remote learning on the fly. An elementary school had to go on a brief remote learning time for various reasons.

If you’ve been reading the news, watching the latest headlines, or browsing Twitter you’ve probably picked up on a theme. It’s a contentious one, and there are lots of feelings, facts, ideas, and perspectives at work from all corners and sides. It’s the ongoing argument on whether we should open schools or not in some of the more major cities and communities.

This isn’t the start of it, but it was my perspective on it.

Opening schools is both complex and simple. It’s paradoxical. You have teacher unions (associations as they call themselves) in one corner asking (some are demanding) each teacher be guaranteed a vaccine. Some groups have added to this list, further complicating the formula being used in this discussion. Others have flat out refused to return, even with vaccines promised to them as soon as possible, and have added further requirements that to some don’t feel remotely connected to the pandemic situation that started it all. The trouble here is something I mentioned in my tweet – the public.

There’s been various polling done on this question and a surprising mix of answers has come back. Depending on the community the teachers are either pushing their luck, holding tenuously onto their hero moniker, receiving polite applause, or getting a rousing standing ovation. The “Danger, Will Robinson” warning that I would echo is this – the voting public both national, state, and local have very long memories. I say this because, for some teachers, we teach in conservative counties, districts, cities, and states. As a former Republican (relabeled myself as a ‘moderate conservative for good measure, natch), I know how folks in that world think, talk, and perceive. The motto I’ve grown to appreciate in life is that “perception often equals reality” and it is something I daily try to appreciate with both students and the folks I work with at my building. I mention this because our voters – the ones that show up on election day – are the ones who are going to decide our financial futures with bond issues, mil levies, tax increases, and more. In the perception of many voters out there, teachers are refusing to go back to work because the unions (associations) are flexing their muscles and power to bring the thunder and lightning down from on high.

Now is that the truth? Not particularly. There are many schools across the country that are open, opening, or just about to go full speed into full in-person learning. Many schools are having success. Is it perfect? No. Is it stressful for teachers? Yes. Is it hard to adapt? Yes. Is it working? I would say mostly.

I know that in-person learning is best for our kids where we are out here in rural Colorado on the North East plains. I know that students find joy, community, and strength with being together. I know with my students in my alternative high school we get a lot more learning going on, and engagement happening when they’re in the room with us. I also know that I signed up for this. I’ll explain.

I was a sophomore at Littleton High School in 1999, just ten or so minutes away from Columbine High School. I wrote a post on the subject a few years back. I was a graduated young adult when September 11th, 2001 occurred. When I was doing my student teaching a “kill list” was discovered on a student’s Google Drive and there was a standing meeting at the end of the day to discuss the implications. In my second year of teaching, a mentally ill woman bought a plane ticket and flew to Colorado to do something around Columbine, bought a shotgun, and sent the Littleton community into lockdown. I had to talk with my 6th-grade students about their safety, and how we were actively ensuring their safety, and how far we were from this person in our small town. I’ve done my share of lockdown drills with students.

I came into this career with both eyes open. I know that in my capacity as a teacher I put myself at risk for various amount of threats physical, mental, and emotional. I’m aware of these risks, and I’ve worked to accept them as a part of my life as an educator. I’ve taken the precautions of wearing a mask all day long, wiping down desks, washing my hands, and ensuring as much as possible that six feet of space exist in my classroom between students. I’ve had two exposures in my building this school year which resulted in quarantine but no infection. I recently received my first dose of the vaccine and will be getting my second in March.

However, even if I hadn’t been moved to the front of the line due to my teacher status, I still would have continued to show up to teach. I know the risks. I take the proper precautions. I ensure the students in my room keep their masks on and keep their distance. I show up because I want to teach, and I want to be there with the students. This is the career I chose and I cannot fathom giving up on these kids, my fellow staff members, or my community. I know the power of education in our community, and I recognize that a student who wields a diploma from our alternative education campus has a better chance at succeeding in life than without it.

Education and community in person is far more successful than remote learning with blank boxes with no faces and very little engagement. Mind you – I’m certain there are teachers out there who have had exceeding success with remote learning. To them, I congratulate you. I celebrate you. You are far better at mastering remote learning than I have been – or would like to be. And that’s OK. There is a growing economy for remote learning in certain communities.

Teaching, and relating to my students face to face helps them in their educational path to success. It works for us, and has been working since August. Our Interim Superintendent has led a daily to weekly to monthly fight to keep us open as much as possible. Between her, and our administrative teams in our buildings – most everyone has been focused on staying open, and with kids in the building. I think that’s what helped – a majority has been keeping their eye on the ball with our district and in person learning. Mind you, we still have to get through to May 21st, and COVID has proven nothing if not wily and cagey when it comes to aggressively subverting expectations.

I am hopeful we can remain open. I am hopeful other communities can find ways to work together to make it possible for more in-person learning to happen. I am hopeful the vaccine will help blunt active cases as we roll towards the lighthouse of Spring Break, and the eventual beach of Summer. I know the power of an education. I know the power it can have in a child’s life when combined with community and relationships.

I want to stress that you don’t have to accept any of my ideas I’ve waxed poetic about in this entry. You can reject them outright after reading. You can also (my favorite metaphor) marinate, wrestle with, and sit in the ideas for a minute or longer…and then toss them out with the baby and bathwater. Or you might agree in part and parcel with me – and that’s OK too! Sometimes there’s a piece of common ground or two we can find in these discussions. These are, after all, just my thoughts on the subject.

The caveat here as I bank this blog-plane towards landing is that things will change, shift, and reform between now and August when we start a new school year. The future was uncertain before, but over the the last 365 or so there’s been a shift in how we perceive that concept. It’s the same with Columbine, September 11th, and other assorted national events – there’s a Before Columbine time and a post Columbine time. Things we thought would never change did, and continued to change with each event. March 13th marks when our paradigm jolted into a mad shift in our community. We’ll continue to navigate the lurches, jolts, shifts, and moves knowing the good things that have happened to help bring us back to a semblance of normal will continue.

One of my favorite ways to close a post has been to quote Captain Jack Sparrow from the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie – it’s the last few seconds before the credits. He snaps his compass closed with a smile, “Bring me that horizon.”

Onward to the horizon. Ever onward.

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