So Are Schools Vital or Not?


Oh, what a funny, funny time to be alive! After more than 6 decades of life, it suddenly seems that everything we thought we knew to be true has morphed into something else.

Up is down, dark is light, medical masks cause disease, scientists are diabolical villains and game show hosts are prophets.

I tell you, it can make a Nonni’s head spin.

Let’s think about public schools, for example.

As the mom of three grown children, I have many fond memories of standing in line at the store to buy pencils, crayons, markers, tissues and hand sanitizer for my kids’ classrooms. I didn’t mind donating to the classes, but I did wonder why our country didn’t value education enough to provide the money for basic supplies.

I was a teacher for about 30 years, too. I’ve lived through many years of budget cuts, layoffs of staff and an inability to update materials. I’ve taught in buildings with no air conditioning, windows that couldn’t be opened and bits of ceiling tile falling on our desks.

I even taught in one building where the sixth grade kids had metal buckets on their desks because hot water was leaking from the ceiling pipes.

A couple of decades ago, I served on my local school committee. In that role, I had the interesting experience of trying to convince government officials that schools were essential places.

Hahaha. That was fun.

The federal government only provides about 10% of the public school budget, but they didn’t want to hear that we needed more support for the many special needs kids in the district. They weren’t convinced when we asked for more staff to support those kids and the teachers struggling to meet their needs. They were busy spending money on new aircraft carriers; they didn’t have time to deal with the problems of little kids.

The state government sounded a little more open. Our committee explained to our governor and state legislature that we hadn’t been able to update our technology in years, and that kids lacked access to the internet. They felt bad, but, gosh, they explained, there’s only so much money to go around. They explained that everyone wanted a piece of the pie, but we couldn’t just come in and ask for a bigger piece.

(Humble brag coming: I told Gov. Mitt Romney that he needed a bigger pie.)

The state clearly didn’t find public education to be much of a priority. They ignored our request for help.

And then there was our local government. To be fair, our town is not wealthy. We are a semi-rural town with very little business to add to our tax base. Our property taxes are pretty high, given the economic status of many of our residents.

But the schools were really struggling while I was on the school committee. We weren’t doing well enough on state tests, we had outdated buildings, old books and too few support staff. We tried to convince the townspeople and the selectboard that we needed more funds.

It didn’t go well.

So you see, I have more than 35 years of experience with public schools. I have had decades to recognize how little respect our country has for them. I’ve spent years hearing, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

I’ve heard that schools are too rigid and that they are too lenient. I’ve heard that teachers are lazy. That the curriculum is “dumbed down” and that classrooms are just “babysitting.” I’ve heard that school push too hard and that they don’t push hard enough.

I’ve had engineers, lawyers, truck drivers and dental assistants tell me what I am doing wrong as a teacher. Everyone around me has always seemed to have the belief that they could handle a public school classroom without cracking a sweat.

So you can imagine how amused I am listening to those same people, from my own friends to Betsy DeVos, as they demand that schools reopen RIGHT ON TIME!!

I just heard a well known Senator lamenting about all of the dangerous things that are happening with schools closed. Did you know that without our teachers being on alert, hordes of kids are being abused at home and nobody knows it? And that kids are suffering from depression and anxiety because they are not able to be in classrooms with their friends and teachers?

I hear government officials at every level saying that public schools keep children safe, and that education is absolutely vital. They are insisting that our kids desperately need the support of the mental health staff and nurses at school. I have heard that without the chance to gather together in one place, children will suffer irretrievable loss.

Wow.

All of a sudden, public school is the bedrock upon which all of society stands. All of a sudden, teachers are the most essential line of defense between civilization and it’s utter collapse.

I agree.

But it strikes me as both laughable and sad that it took devastating global crisis for this country to recognize the crucial nature of public schools.

I’m thinking about the fact that most schools don’t have enough space to keep kids apart. And about the huge number of schools that have crappy ventilation. About the huge number that lack modern, sanitary bathroom facilities.

Where was all this interest when teachers were begging for new buildings?

I remember all the times I was told that “now isn’t the right time” to update technology. I was once asking for a new router for our High School and an elderly member of the finance committee scolded me. “I got through school without the internet and I did just fine.”

Where was all the demand for updated technology when we asked for it decades ago?

I’m thinking of the times when our schools didn’t have enough money for more counselors. I’m remembering when we had to cut teaching staff because the funding just wasn’t there to keep us all.

Perhaps if this country had valued public education then as much as it does now, we’d be in better shape to safely reopen. Maybe if we had given our children safe, clean, spacious buildings in which to learn, we could manage a socially distanced teaching model now. Maybe if we had continuously updated access to technology for all schools, we’d be able to move easily into a hybrid education model.

If only we had continued to fund the appropriate support staff, our schools could reopen with the ability to screen kids for all of the trauma caused by the pandemic.

If only.

What a strange time to be alive.