This commentary is by Bibba Kahn, a world languages teacher at Main Street Middle School in Montpelier, and the 2020 Vermont Teacher of the Year.
Throughout the heartbreak of 2020, I was consoled by one thought: At least now the world realizes how crucial schools are.
Less than a month into school closures, the internet was ablaze with caregivers grappling with the daunting task of managing their children’s learning. Within seconds, you could find blog posts with tips from “homeschool moms,” book lists for all ages, and selfie videos of parents in varying stages of panic, hilarity and despair. News media ran stories on just how many students rely on schools for food, health care and safety. We saw homebound students struggle with depression, isolation — and we worried about the increase in reports of domestic violence.
By the summer, these worries had coalesced, along with concerns about child development and academic growth, into a state- and nationwide push to reopen schools. “Kids need to be in school,” was a resounding sentiment.
In meetings with families in August, I heard the same messages again and again: “She struggled to engage with remote learning,” “He really missed interacting with teachers and peers,” and “She learns best working in person with teachers.”
As a parent, I observed all of these in my two children — and, frankly, I needed a place for them to go if I was going to return to work full time. Turns out, schools are crucial to a functioning economy as well.
In Vermont, our leadership has extolled the importance of schools. In November, Gov. Scott dramatically restricted social and recreational gatherings, citing the importance of keeping our community transmission low so that we could prioritize essential services, such as health care and education. The pediatric and medical community concurred, imploring people to comply with the mandate, referring to the role of schools in fostering development and protecting mental health.
Given the undeniable value of schools over the past 11 months, I have been taken aback by recent decisions by the state of Vermont. In December, Gov. Scott broke with the CDC guidelines recommending essential workers (including educators) be prioritized for vaccination against Covid-19. There is currently no plan for the vaccination of school staff, many of whom have been in-person working directly with students since September.
Days later, while Vermont’s Covid-19 case numbers soared and reports of a new, highly contagious strain circulated, Scott announced in his inaugural address that the state would be working on a plan to have all students back to school in-person by April.
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And, most recently, Treasurer Beth Pearce has proposed “painful cuts” in educator pensions, as well as hikes in what is taken out of our paychecks, as a solution to a budgetary shortfall.
Here’s the thing. The magic of schools is not about the buildings. What engages kids, and provides safety and connection, what fosters their growth and inspires them to reach for their goals — it’s not the buildings. It’s educators. It’s teachers and special educators and instructional assistants and counselors and social workers and school nurses and administrators and bus drivers and cafeteria workers all working together to build community and create successful, supportive learning environments.
What makes schools “essential” is the people. To reap the benefits of schools, leaders and lawmakers need to promote policies and practices that honor and value educators and all school staff.
Budgets and policy conversations are complex, and there are myriad details to consider. But it is also true that budgets and policies reflect our values and our priorities. So, as we step into the possibility afforded by 2021, let’s shift our focus.
Let’s begin with the knowledge that education and educators are the cornerstone of our society. Instead of rationalizing policies that chip away at teachers’ benefits as well as their resolve, let’s ask, “How can we support educators as they carry out this important work?” “What can we do to attract young people to this vital profession?” “What do educators need in order to enhance student learning?”
I have some longer-term suggestions, but I think providing for teachers’ safety and financial security is an excellent place to start.
Teachers and school staff need to be able to support students without worrying about our health. The Agency of Human Services and Agency of Education should begin working on the logistics for vaccinating educators, so that when enough doses are available, it can be done as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Gov. Scott needs to listen to teachers, superintendents and school nurses about the barriers to full-time in-person learning and let reality and transmission data drive reopening plans. And the office of the state treasurer must devise other ways to fix this budget deficit that do not require further sacrifices on the part of educators.