Canaries in the Mine

An influenza pandemic spreads across the nation in 1918 and 1919. As the cases grow, officials across the country decide to close schools. New York and Chicago decide to keep their schools open and send health care workers into the schools to closely monitor the conditions of the students and hygiene practices. In nine cities across the nation, inter-agency conflict erupts. The Board of Health in Baltimore orders schools to be reopened. The Board of Education defies the order and closes the schools indefinitely in the midst of the pandemic. In some communities, Italian immigrants are blamed for spreading the virus. The nation was in turmoil and the agencies tasked with unraveling the conundrum were at odds with one another as the plight of the nation and its children hung the balance.

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A crowd gathers outside a school board meeting in downtown Augusta on an unusually warm July afternoon in 2020 to make their voices heard. The temperatures and the months of restrictions are beginning to heighten the tension. The crowd consists of people of all ethnicities and ages. The district’s board of education is inside conducting a meeting while just outside the doors a group assembles, some masked, some unmasked, to express their frustration with the decision to cancel graduations. It’s a scene that is playing out simultaneously in cities across the country. The mayor has issued a mask mandate, but the governor has countered that it can’t be enforced. Meanwhile, the governor has allowed for restaurants and salons to reopen statewide. Two hundred miles west in Atlanta, a similar conflict is playing out between Georgia’s governor and Atlanta’s mayor. While the governor has not mandated masks be worn by the general public, the Mayor Bottoms has issued a mandate that masks be worn given the spike in Covid-19 cases and CDC projections.

It is virtual insanity as agencies and policies collide. Parents find themselves caught in the crosshairs of what’s best for their children’s health, educational progress and what’s feasible for their work schedules. Some explore homeschool options, others are in desperate need of schools to reopen so that they can resume work in coming weeks. When polled, the responses from parents are equally split between a return to traditional classes, a hybrid model of instruction, and virtual instruction for the start of the school year. There is not easy solution at hand.

Five months into the global pandemic, the 45th occupant of the White House threatens to withhold funding to schools unless they reopen. The Secretary of Education contradicts the recommendations of the CDC and makes a press run downplaying the risk of reopening schools. Meanwhile the CDC reports that there have been over three million cases of Covid-19 and over 135,000 confirmed deaths as a result of Covid-19. These astonishing numbers are continuing to rise even as schools remain closed since mid-March.

 The push to reopen schools without ongoing discussions inclusive of the professionals directly impacted by these decisions negates the protections needed for our teachers, administrators and most importantly our children. The reduction in school nurses in public schools has put our schools at a strategic disadvantage in monitoring and responding to the healthcare needs of children at school. This is not another task we can add to the plates of teachers. Some have talked about having teachers take the temperatures of students as they enter classrooms. Details are still inconsistent on what a traditional classroom would look like under the recommendations provided by the CDC.

Canaries in the Mine

We can’t rush back to a normal existence because normal no longer exists. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that 20% of U.S. teachers are 55 years or older. Many of the educators that fall into this group suffer from underlying health conditions, putting them at greater risk of infection. The principal’s first task is to ensure the safety of the students and staff under our leadership. Keeping them safe means keeping them apart for now and launching into virtual learning to start the school year. It’s the best course of action until we see significant decreases in cases and mortality nationwide.

We must not allow our students to be used as the litmus test for herd immunity from Covid-19. What the Trump administration is suggesting is reminiscent of the use of canaries in British coal mines, a practice that started as early as 1911. Miners would take canaries into the mines because if there was carbon monoxide present or other poisonous gases, the canaries would be affected first, signaling to the miners that they needed to exit the mine. This moment requires educational leaders willing to take a stand on behalf of our most vulnerable. Our children and schools can’t be intimidated and coerced into placing educators and families in harm’s way as the federal government tries to figure it out. The interagency conflict of the early 1900’s has revisited us. Health officials are under fire for making points of clarification on news outlets in an effort to better inform the public.

With every challenge, we have an opportunity to create better outcomes. In the face of this challenge we will create virtual spaces to reach our students, and when the appropriate time comes, we will continue moving public education into a space where other advanced nations and American higher education has been for decades – a fully-equipped hybrid educational model for P-12. Research has proven that all students learn differently. Every child does not need to walk into a school building each day to receive a high quality education. There are some students who need that structure and socialization each day, but there are groups of students who would thrive much better in a different type of structure that we will now be able to provide as an option moving forward.  The teaching ranks are filled with educators who have earned advanced degrees through online courses. It is time to extend that option to our students on a broader scale. For far too long we’ve lagged behind the private sector in the way we use technology in public education. Let’s revamp the profession from the inside out starting with teacher preparation in colleges, professional development in districts, and ongoing professional learning for leaders.

I miss all of my students, but I’m especially disappointed in not being able to welcome our newest Pre-K and Kindergarten students. I imagine a five-year old who is looking forward to the first day of Pre-K or Kindergarten, but sadly won’t have the experience of holding mom and dad’s hand as they walk to the classroom for the first time. They won’t get to sit on the carpet this fall and talk about their summer. The playgrounds will remain empty for a time. Buses will remain parked. But in this expansive chess match of politics and policy, they will be safer at home as young kings and queens in quarantine and not pawns in peril. We will not allow them to be canaries in a mine.

Soundtrack: Virtual Insanity by Jamiroquai

Published by Andre Benito Mountain

Andre Benito Mountain is an elementary principal in the metro-Atlanta area. He is the founder of Def-ED Clothing and the author of "The Mountain Principles" (2018) and The Brilliance Beneath (2016). His forthcoming book is "Principals Don't Walk on Water: They Walk Through It" (2020).

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