The COVID-19 pandemic has turned things once taken for granted — like the simple act of children going to school — into something heartfelt and controversial.
That’s understandable, because emotions quickly spill out when it comes to children, their health and their future success — all of which require a good education. And it’s obviously important to consider the health of teachers and staff who work with children in school.
I think most of us have a new appreciation for teachers. Their skills and importance became abundantly clear when schools closed and our children and grandchildren had to stay home. The daily routines of many depend on children being in school and parents being able to work.
As schools reopen, the next few weeks are going to be very important, and also perhaps very stressful, for children, parents, teachers and administrators.
Education leaders, including teachers, have worked incredibly hard to develop plans, processes and rules so the vast majority of students can return to school. They are committed to provide flexibility and allow families to decide their course of action.
The response to schools opening has been mixed, as parents, teachers and citizens hold strong and sometimes differing opinions. Some parents want their children in school five days a week. Some don’t want in-person schooling at all. Some teachers don’t feel safe to return to work. Some are anxious to get back, but believe more precautions are needed.
Clearly, choice and flexibility are critical. Parents should be empowered to do what they think is best for their children.
Personally, I believe we should make in-person schooling, whether it be public, private or charter, the default choice for as many families as possible. Not only do the benefits of school warrant the risks, we must also ask where will the children be if not in school — is there a safer alternative? I fear not.
And I agree with a New York Times editorial: “American children need public schools to reopen in the fall. Reading, writing and arithmetic are not even the half of it. Kids need to learn to compete and to cooperate. They need food and friendships; books and basketball courts; time away from family and a safe place to spend it.
“Parents need public schools, too. They need help raising their children, and they need to work.”
The consulting firm McKinsey noted that 27 million American workers need child care. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports children returning to school.
It is expected that online learning will be better this school year than it was at the end of last year when schools, teachers, parents, and students were not well prepared.
But even if online learning works for some families, I worry about children whose parents, often single moms, juggle work and other responsibilities and are not able to adequately teach their children or lack internet access or the necessary computers. Without open schools, too many children will fall through the cracks.
In a long-running crisis like this one, it’s normal to go through stages. First, we want and expect to get this over with quickly and return to our previous lives. It’s understandable to be angry at disruptions. Then, as the crisis drags on, we become stressed out and resentful as we tire of the inconveniences. It’s easy to try to assess blame.
But at some point we have to settle in and accept that life is going to be different, that the old normal isn’t coming back anytime soon, if ever. Once we accept that reality, we must work collaboratively to reach a new point of equilibrium at a high level and quality of life.
The pandemic isn’t going away, and children must go back to school. Preparing the next generation — not just for the workforce, but for life — is one of this generation’s highest callings and most important responsibilities.
It’s so important that we must make a monumental effort to open schools safely and effectively. Let’s rise to this challenge. The future of our children is at stake.
A. Scott Anderson is CEO and president of Zions Bank.