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Op-ed

Baltimore teacher: Return to virtual learning temporarily to protect students | GUEST COMMENTARY

They all say they want the best for the kids — the politicians, the CEOs, the school district, the neighbors. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone. But how many people have actually walked into or spent any significant amount of time in a school building on any given day, much less in the throes of a pandemic? Imagine overcoming the many, sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles necessary to get yourself to school and then spending the rest of the day trying to learn all while waiting for the intercom to announce the next set of names, the next set of students being sent home for one reason or another. Maybe they’ve tested positive for COVID, maybe they’re close contacts. The announcements come on, and you watch your classmates pack up and leave and your classes get smaller and smaller. The stress and anxiety is palpable. It lingers in the air, distracting you from engaging with the book in front of you or from writing that thesis statement, much less the essay. Everyone is worried about something. Everyone.

Those are the realities of going to school in a pandemic. But people with the privilege of commenting and making policy from afar, from the safety of their homes, talk about the threat of learning loss. Let me be clear: Learning loss is inevitable. Whether you insist that we endanger ourselves and our families by walking into a school building or whether we attempt to learn from home, no amount of pretending will make the emotional stress and turmoil of this pandemic go away. And we cannot learn, we cannot teach, when we are crippled with anxiety and fear. What we should be talking about and focusing on is the social emotional impact of asking both teachers and students to be present and productive during these unprecedented times. Our world, our nation, our state is currently experiencing a pandemic peak of epic proportions, and yet we are pushing our young people and our faculty back into classrooms in a performative attempt to ensure continuity of learning.

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But continuity is a myth. By the time we headed into winter break, our COVID cases were up, and our attendance was low. Since then, COVID cases have spiked to a pandemic high and, as expected, our list of absentees steadily grows. While the Maryland State Department of Education has repeatedly expressed a commitment to, “safe, full-time, in-person instruction with minimal disruptions,” the reality is that disruptions are inevitable. In fact, they are even more likely and even more difficult to manage from school, where we are being asked to react and respond (or more accurately, not react and not respond) to new, unsettling pieces of information every minute of every day.

In-person learning is not synonymous with continuous, disruption free, learning. At this point in time, a temporary return to virtual instruction is the most effective option, one that doesn’t require us to alter or modify our plans on a daily basis to reflect our ever-changing circumstances and our increasingly limited resources. Requiring our kids to go back to school in-person in a moment of peak COVID positivity and transmission in the name of continuity of learning is not only misguided and naive, but it is also irresponsible and unconscionable.

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Pandemic learning loss is inevitable, disruptions are inevitable, but what we can do is take control over the ways in which we respond to that inevitability. What we can do is choose to prioritize the physical and social emotional well-being of our kids, our faculty and our staff. We can always reteach, and we can always relearn, but we cannot allow ourselves to be used as pawns in political theater. And we cannot pretend that everything is fine. Because it is not fine. And we are not OK.

Lena Tashjian (lenatashjian@gmail.com) is an English teacher at Baltimore City College High School.


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