Navigating nuance in the school reopening debate

BY HANNAH MCCLELLAN, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/17/21

When I think back on the last 12 months of the pandemic, I grow concerned with our ability to navigate nuance. That might seem like a trivial concern compared to the many systemic problems facing us, …

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Navigating nuance in the school reopening debate

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When I think back on the last 12 months of the pandemic, I grow concerned with our ability to navigate nuance. That might seem like a trivial concern compared to the many systemic problems facing us, but if anything, the last year has shown that our inability to come together and discuss issues with nuance has prevented us from implementing otherwise available solutions.

As an education reporter, this lack of nuanced discussion feels especially cumbersome in the debate over how and when to open schools for in-person instruction. Our inability to grapple with the reality that two things can be true at the same time has led to important points being missed — or willfully ignored — on both sides. As schools increase in-person instruction, in Chatham and across the state, there is no better time to think with nuance about these issues — many of which will remain long after the pandemic’s effect wanes and a new normalcy is achieved.

I am the daughter of a career public school educator; I’m well acquainted with the fears, exhaustion and concerns many school staff members have felt these last months. In North Carolina, which ranks among the lowest states in average teacher pay, the underappreciation and overworking of school staff only intensified the challenges brought about by the pandemic. Even as most teachers I spoke with for the News + Record reported working 10-15 hours more than usual each week under remote and hybrid learning, a quick perusal of some Chatham community Facebook pages showed a callous disdain for these hardworking employees.

As the reopening debate intensified over the last six months, I’ve seen parents demeaning teachers as “lazy babysitters.” Others respond to concerned teachers with hateful all caps-locked comments. I’ve heard board members and public officials suggest teachers with fears surrounding a return to work are believing “fake news.” All the while, I’ve spoken with teachers — often late at night when they’re done with the school day and their lesson plans — who are tired, scared and upset their voices aren’t often prioritized in the reopening discussions.

And yet, teachers have told me they wanted to return to school as soon as it’s safe to do so. These teachers know their students’ struggles. Before they saw the increased failure rates, decreased exam scores or mental health data, they’ve noticed the students who don’t make it to Zoom meetings, or those who no longer ask questions or turn in work. Most were also well aware of the gaps in learning that existed long before the pandemic.

Why then, are parents and teachers often so pitted against one another in the reopening discussion? Many parents have advocated for a speedy return to daily in-person learning, emphasizing their students’ academic declines and mental health struggles. While students have less of a platform to share their opinions, most have also expressed a desire to return, and soon.

If everyone agrees on getting students back into the school building as quickly as possible, why have such intense disagreements abounded? In my reporting, this division typically comes down to one thing: diverging opinions on safety standards.

In the last year, guidance surrounding COVID-19 has shifted as new information and understanding of the virus’s transmission becomes available; that’s true for school guidance too. Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill allowing middle and high schools to return under Plan A — which doesn’t require six feet of social distancing and previously was only an option for elementary students.

As guidance shifts — and at times conflicts with other reports based on where you look — few acknowledge this shift, or how the shift might make those implicated in the guidance feel. With CDC still recommending six feet of distance elsewhere, and mandating it in other public places, what does that suggest to teachers about how their safety is valued? (The CDC has recently indicated it may shift such guideance.) I’ve read the studies that show schools can safely open with three feet of distance without increased transmission. I’ve also seen the reports of clusters reported at some schools, and in other public places. While most of these clusters are the exception to normally safe gathering, a failure to acknowledge this even slightly increased risk is a failure to communicate with school staff about how their safety and value to the school is being prioritized.

Of course, I’ve also seen some teachers cite outdated data or guidance as a means to stay in remote learning. I suspect some employees, in schools and otherwise, will hesitate to accept new safety measures as vaccines are distributed and public spaces find a new sense of normal in the months to come.

And as we adapt to this new normal, we must all more regularly acknowledge that two things can be true — even if only one supports our case. We can and must value students and teachers. We must be transparent about the decisions made that put one group above the other. We must advocate for struggling students while also uplifting the stories of those who’ve thrived during remote learning by taking classes at Harvard, for example, or explorning an art hobby.

We must be willing to speak and listen with nuance for our sake and others’ — believing that reality is never as simple as the facts we’ve compiled to support our own arguments.

Only by listening can we begin truly to work together.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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