UNPRECEDENTED TIMES EQUAL UNPRECEDENTED CHALLENGES

“You never remember who came to the funeral, but you never forget who didn’t.”
Christopher Buckley, Losing Mum and Pup

“The saddest thing about love, Joe, is that not only the love cannot last forever, but even the heartbreak is soon forgotten.”
William Faulkner

 

I stand in the doorway to my 11- year old daughter’s bedroom. It’s a typical sized bedroom in a modest 2k sq foot house, 11 X 12. To give you some context, the minimum size bedroom needed to comfortably fit a queen size bed is 10 feet by 11 feet.

Her room is taken up by a single loft bed with a desk built underneath. On the floor is a gym mat that she often sleeps on, and where she watches her Ipad. These days she’s trying to teach her self Korean through an online course she’s discovered. Scattered around the room is the usual debris of a pre-teen girl – clothes, shoes, books, notebooks, and other sundries.

She’s my messy child, so it’s not uncommon for the room to take on appearances not dissimilar to a natural disaster site. But all is in an order known to her, and she is furiously protective of her room and it’s order. My wife and I continually try to navigate the border between respecting her sense of propriety and declaring the room eligible to be placed on the EPA’s priority list. I’m sure many of you are familiar with these discussions.

Since the pandemic began, she’s tended to spend more time in her room. The virus has inflated an already existing proclivity to spend large swaths of time alone. Her mother and I have frequent conversations about the mental health aspects of her isolation, but not having comparisons, makes it difficult to make accurate deductions about her mental state. She seems happy and well-adjusted – willing to come out and engage when prodded – but surely all of this reduced personal interaction is having an effect on her social-emotional development.

Down the hall is my son’s room. While it is better organized, it’s of similar dimensions. His room is cleaner due to infrequent occupation. He prefers to be in the family room with his Ipad or outdoors engaging in the activities young boys have engaged in since the dawn of time – running, jumping, shooting baskets. I oft refer to him as my border collie, if you don’t run him every day, there will be hell to pay.

The pandemic has made him more gregarious and at times almost manic in his need to be constantly in motion. Is this just part and parcel of being a 9-year old boy on the cusp of reaching his first decade, or something else? Again, sans comparison, we have no way of knowing. Like with his sister, all we can do is observe, adjust where possible, and pray.

As I observe the room, my sprawled out on the mat, engaged in a video.

“What?”, she challenges me looking up from her device. Just being in the doorway sans in invite, is treated as a potential invasion.

“Looking at your room and realizing this is where you’ll be having school.”

“Yea, I told you I’d clean up the desk the day before. I know what I have to do,” she shoots back.

“I know you do”, I respond, “I’m just looking at it and realizing how small it is and that you’ll be in here for 6.5 hours a day for 5 days a week. And your brother in his room. Maybe we should split it up and have you do some of your work be out in the dining room?”

“Why do I want to be out there where all the noise is?”, she asks, “You work on the main computer and while you are working, you play your music and talk out loud,” defensiveness creeping into her voice.

Smiling and softly chuckling, “You say I talk to myself?”

Not picking up on the humor, “Yea. You know I like being in my room. I’m happy in my room, so it’ll be fine.”

I move away from the door, signaling that the conversation is being tabled for another day. I hear what she says, but do I believe it? Will she be all right sitting in 132 sq feet for 6.5 hours a day? Will her brother? How do I know where the boundaries between the effects of puberty and the effects of extended limited social contact are drawn? What will be the long term implications of spending so much time away from peers be on her development? My thoughts are probably not that different from yours, as we try to weigh the long term implications of keeping kids and ourselves safe.

Outside of the urban centers, you’d be surprised at how normal life progresses despite the danger of COVID. People are still going to pools, playing sports, and interacting with neighbors. It is invariable that those children’s development will follow a different trajectory than those who reside in the nation’s cities where kids remain locked in homes, venturing out only for limited interactions. The future implications of that frighten me, especially in light of the unassailable divisions that already exist in this country. Are we just widening the cracks that already exist between the nation’s citizens? Is our single-minded focus on staying alive going to result in a life that is less rich for our offspring?

While I am deeply concerned, I remain unconvinced that returning to face to face school is a feasible strategy, primarily due to the potential health risk to kids and teachers. I realize that the rate of infection among children is incredibly small and instances of children infecting adults remain infrequent. The problem with statistics is that they represent real individuals. So even if the rate of infection is 1 in a million, if that one is your child, it’s really 1 out of 1. If one teacher dies because they contracted COVID, due to a rushed return, that is unacceptable.  Under those assumptions, it is easy to see why educators and parents would choose to err on the side of caution.

But we can’t lose sight that no startegy is going to come without consequences. Children’s mental health, the teaching profession, and public education itself are currently undergoing modifications. Some of which we are cognizant of, some that are transpiring beyond our field of view.

I suspect this year we will see a mass exodous of educators from the field. Some will leave out of health concerns. Some will find that teaching remotely does not fulfill them in the same manner as f2f teaching. Others will find the lure of tutoring or offering personalized education services in the private sector irresistible. Unfortunately, budget cuts and restructuring may leave others without employment. An unwillingness to expose themselves to increased legal liability will force others to leave.

Social media posts have made claims that teachers are being asked to sign forms that release districts from legal liability should teachers become affected. There are a couple problems with this assertion. The first being that there is no evidence of this taking place in Tennessee. The Tennessee School Board Association has stated that they are not aware of any district in the state implementing this policy. If anyone can produce a sample form, distributed by a district I’d appreciate you sharing it.

Online news magazine the Tennessee Hollar has supposedly produced a form directed by Anderson County Schools towards students absolving the district of liability. Commissioner Tim Parrott, by all indications a supporter of teachers, counters that the form was for students participating in athletics over the summer when school wasn’t in session. Meanwhile, folks who have never stepped foot in Anderson county, and would be hard pressed to identify it on the map, continue to parse over the wording in an effort to challenge his defense. Whatever the case, it remains an anomaly.

In essence, the argument being put forth is that teachers need to retain the ability to sue themselves. Public education is just that, the public. It is funded by the public for the public. God forbid any teacher becomes infected – the state should put forth protections that at minimum cover their health care costs along with lost wages should they become infected – but imagine the consequences of a dozen teachers suing the district. The resulting costs could serve to put school systems out of business.

More importantly, teachers need protections against being held personally liable if students or fellow teachers become infected through them despite following protocols put forth by the district. Back to a previously given example, if Johnny suddenly runs over to Mary and gives her a hug, both become infected, is the teacher liable due to an inability to enforce social distancing protocols? I don’t know, but I’d want protection in writing for such incidents before they were left up to the courts to decide.

What about special education teachers. Fulfilling an IEP under the current conditions is inarguablely extremely difficult. But it is a legally binding agreement, one that holds both the district and the individual educator responsible. Nowhere does the agreement say that it’s only binding when convenient. I’d be very wary as a special education teacher that I didn’t put myself at personal risk due the circumstances beyond my control that prevented an IEP from being adhered to.

Some education reformers are licking their chops over this potential experience shift in the teaching force. Younger teachers are less expensive – due to salary demand, health care costs, retirement benefits – and more malable. Having nothing to compare initiatives too, they are less likely to balk at unproven and untested edicts and more willing to adhere to administrator demands.

The reality though, is that the loss of institutional knowledge will be devastating to classrooms across the country. Study after study shows the irreplaceable value of a quality teacher. Development of a teacher takes more than a year in the classroom, and sans quality mentors, that development could stretch well past the currently recognized norm of 4 -5 years. Those who will ultimately pay the price for the lack of experience in the classroom will be children.

Over the last several decades, public schools themselves have long been subject to attacks from the private sector. This year those attacks will likely intensify as circumstances force families into a deeper evaluation of their children’s education options. Some parents will feel that the mental health risks supersede physical health risks and as a result will search for private schools or charter schools that provide face to face instruction. Some parents will form “pods” with other parents and even as the health threat recedes, decide that they like the personalization offered by virtual schools and chose to continue with them.

Willingly, or not, public schools are going to be forced to adapt in order to survive. They will be forced to alter their delivery methods in order to address the changing needs of their families or risk losing funding through a loss in enrollment. Evolution is difficult during the best of times, but doing so when you are already short on resources is an extremely difficult proposition and requires leaders capable of looking forward while addressing current needs.

Unfortunately over the past decade, MNPS has displayed a tendency to be more reactive than proactive and the current administration is beginning to paint a picture of being different. While the majority of the public is currently willing to give Dr. Battle and her team a pass on accountability, noting that few districts seem to be faring better, that could quickly change if the district fails to adequately anticipate future demands.

Utilizing Florida Virtual School to supply a uniform curriculum during the present crisis, is probably the best choice given present circumstances. But if the curriculum fails to be rigorous enough for all families, or is found lacking in other ways that lead to substantial future departures, the strategy will be considered a failure no matter how well it meets current needs.

Yes, forecasting is a near-impossible job, but that doesn’t negate the reality that public education is in a fight to remain relevant. Engaging in the charter vs traditional school is not a winning strategy. At this juncture, parents are over-anxious, over-taxed, and over-whelmed. In the current environment, the delivery method is even less important than the actual delivery. Now more than ever it’s less important to highlight the shortcomings of the alternative and instead focus on demonstrating the inherent value of the public system. Not just with an eye towards today, but with a vision towards the future.

THE VIRTUAL PATH FORTH

Last night the MNPS school board approved a 5 year/5 million dollar contract with the Florida Virtual School to provide an online curriculum that also includes a small provision that allows for Florida Virtual School to staff online teachers in the case of teacher vacancies locally, though director Dr. Battle has gone on the record saying the district has no plans not to staff all open positions in Metro Schools. I’m still in the process of reviewing exactly what was said last night during the school board discussion around the contract, but one nugget from the Tennessean did catch my eye,

State education department officials said that free, department-provided instructional resources will be available for districts to use this fall and worry about the appropriateness of online courses for students in younger grades.

The article fails to identify which department officials and specific concerns. I can only assume that concerns are centered around how closely Tennessee standards align with Florida standards. It’ll be interesting to see what the crosswalk between the two looks like. I still maintain that each is still Common Core standards, just with different “t’s” crossed and “I’s” dotted. But politically that would be a hard admission for Governor Lee to make since he has invested so much capital in arguing against Common Core.

I suspect that some of the push back from the stake is derived from the fact that they’ve worked extremely hard in creating a friendly field of play for their preferred vendors, and now here comes an interloper from the south throwing a wrench into the works. Most of the previous online curriculum the state has made available is derived from Amplify’s Core Knowledge Arts curriculum, a company of which the department has a very cozy relationship. FVS relies on the following vendors for curriculum,

2018-19 to 2021-22 school years for grades K-12

2018-19 to 2021-22 school years for grades 6-12

2020-21 to 2022-23 school years for grades 6-12

2018-19 to 2021-22 school years for grades K-12

2020-21 to 2022-23 school years for grades 6-12

2018-19 to 2020-21 school years for grades 6-12
With Memphis also considering using offerings from FVS, that’s nearly a quarter of the states kids potentially moving away from Tennessee’s preferred vendors. Near as I can tell, none of FVS’s vendors are on the state-approved list for ELA materials and as such, I suppose a waiver will be required. The good news is, that granting of the waiver will be up to the state board of education and not the TNDOE. The board takes a much more neutral stance when it comes to vendor relations.
There has also been discussion around department created suplamentary curriculum for lower elementary grades. Ignoring the question around the appropriateness of the department of education being in the curriculum business, I would wonder how well the state created material aligns with the FVS offerings. Potentially alot of work for naught.
Hopefully, by Friday, I’ll have some more observations ti share.

SHORTCUTS

Yesterday, I tuned into the MNPS School Board school naming committee meeting. The meeting was scheduled to discuss the creation of biographies on all individuals current schools are named for, the possibility of re-naming some schools, and to review proposed policy for the naming of new schools and associated properties. Here’s the short version of what transpired. The biographies will take upwards of a year to complete and should be longer than what’s on a historical marker but not so lengthy that people don’t read them. Re-naming schools is a very difficult process that requires the petitioning of the state and as result will not likely happen in the next decade. The re-worked proposed policy for naming schools going forth isn’t bad and it pushes for the names of future district properties to be more inclusive, voicing a need for schools named after women and minorities. That’s it in a nutshell, can we now return to what’s vital – the delivering of educational services to the city’s children in the midst of a pandemic?

Yesterday the Tennessee Lookout reported that Memphis legislator Antonio Parkinson had penned a letter to Metro Council Members urging them not to appoint candidate John Little to the vacant school board seat for district 5. The letter lists the ways that Little has worked with the charter school industry over the years before concluding,

“The litany of instances in which Little has worked against public education in Memphis and Nashville is too long to recount in this letter. But if you need more information or would like to discuss the matter, please feel free to contact me.”

Excuse me if I worked under the assumption that Memphis has enough of its own issues to address without it’s elected officials wading into Nashville’s issue. While I too oppose Little receiving the appointment, it has less to do with his past transgressions and more to do with the fact that there is a better candidate in Stephanie Bradford. Hopefully, Metro Council won’t need Parkinson’s letter to recognize that. It’s high time Nashville starts making decisions based on the best candidate and not out of opposition to someone else.

Per ChalkbeatTN, the state is issuing millions of face masks to Tennessee teachers and students. Who knew? I didn’t. According to the online education news magazine,

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency last week began delivering 298,000 masks to school districts for the state’s 66,000 public school teachers and other school staff.

As for its 1 million school children, the state is gathering information from district leaders whether they prefer to receive four reusable cloth masks or 40 disposable masks per student.

That should be welcome news to most.

Also welcome news is that in response to our missing persons alert, TNDOE Human Capital Chief David Donaldson appears to have resurfaced. No word on what he’s been up to of late, but we’d just like to be among the first to say, “Welcome back.”

That’s it for today if you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

 



Categories: Education

1 reply

  1. “There’s a place where I can go and tell my secrets to
    In my room …. in my room ….. in my room ….
    -Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys

    Do not worry. She will be fine!!

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