As school leaders and communities complete plans for the reopening of schools next month, the only certainty we can agree to is the uncertain nature of almost everything.
Will schools reopen on schedule? Will students and teachers wear masks? Will schools need to stagger academic schedules to promote social distancing? Will we have enough personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies? Will schools be able to provide adequate technology support for students learning from home? Will schools be forced to move back to full-time distance learning at some point? Will teachers and students return to the classroom after a certain number of peers test positive for COVID-19?
The answer to all of these questions is yes, no, maybe or “it depends.” Government officials can’t seem to agree on what needs to be done to blunt the transmission of this awful virus. COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma have increased fivefold in the past 30 days. Fatality rates, as a lagging indicator, will likely begin increasing as we approach the start of school. Will parent and teacher attitudes about school change if cases continue to expand with frightening speed across our state? When it gets closer to home and friends and loved ones start getting sick?
Our community, state and nation are experiencing an unsettled period. Not only are we dealing with an unpredictable and deadly global pandemic, we are also working through smoldering issues rooted in race relations and longstanding social inequities. Add to this what will certainly be a highly contentious political campaign season and we have all the ingredients to fuel the fires of distrust, anger and tribalism.
Recently, I have been disheartened by the level of acrimony associated with some of the discussions surrounding how and when we should reopen our schools — both on social media and in face-to-face conversations. I actively support civil discourse, debate and all the other trappings of free speech. It is what makes America great, and it is a cause I spent 10 years of my life actively supporting as a U.S. Marine. We are each entitled to our own opinions and perceptions and have the absolute right to share them openly. However, what is not productive is firing off words designed to belittle, antagonize and disparage the viewpoints of others with whom we do not agree.
This is a stressful time. Families are legitimately concerned about the health and safety of their children. Students are anxious and fearful about returning to a school environment where normal procedures will be disrupted. People seem to either support the wearing of masks or are against their use altogether. Teachers and staff are worried about their personal health and the safety of vulnerable family members who they may expose. Teachers are also apprehensive about the potential demands that will be placed on them to resume in-person instruction, while simultaneously helping to remediate academic gaps, integrate new technologies, provide support for students who are learning virtually, protect students in their classrooms, address children’s social and emotional needs and support families who may be overwhelmed with this new normal. School leaders are troubled by the prospect of overlooking any step or making any decision which may inadvertently subject a person to this terrible virus.
At the risk of coming across as overly preachy, I am suggesting today that we need to move beyond these relatively minor differences and seek common ground. Part of this relates to agreeing to assume the best intentions of others. To endeavor to use words that unite rather than divide. To commit to the premise that we are all trying to do our best to serve, support and protect our students, community members and employees. To strive to model for our children and each other how to disagree with passion, yet also with respect and courtesy. To bring out the best in all of us and adorn ourselves with the personal qualities of empathy, grace and patience. Even in these challenging times, we can make the best of our circumstances and proceed with dignity, respect and common interest.
With the recent passing of civil rights leader John Lewis, it seems appropriate to end with a quote he made during difficult times: “What I try to tell young people is that if you come together with a mission, and it’s grounded with love and a sense of community, you can make the impossible possible.”
I’m all for giving it a try.
Rob Miller is superintendent of Bixby Public Schools. This is a modified version of a letter shared with Bixby district patrons recently.