It has been a surprisingly rich week for me to work in a public high school. I saw my staff’s dedication in a new light, and I saw what school means to kids with the very real possibility of schools being closed.
Let me say upfront that this is not a piece for or against closing schools. My school is in learning and preparation mode: we’re preparing for schools being open with low attendance, or schools being closed—and in both cases, the need for supporting students and families at home.
A week ago, as coronavirus awareness started to spread, a few students asked giddily, “Is school going to be closed?”
“No,” I answered.
“OK, but when will we know if school is closed?” It was like snow-day excitement.
This past Friday, students asked the same question, but differently. “Miss,” a student named Lorita* asked in a low voice, “Can I ask you something? Is school going to be closed?”
“I don’t know,” I responded honestly. “Right now, it’s open, and it’s going to be open next week too.”
“I hope it doesn’t close,” she said smiling nervously. “I want to come to school.”
Jamil, a student who has a reputation for arguing, told me, “School is like my home. It’s like my family. My history teacher is like my dad.”
Even though the city seemed committed to keeping schools open, school closure started to seem real based on our actions. We did an online survey of every student to find out their remote learning capacity: what cell phone or computer devices did they have? Did their homes have wifi access? In classes, teachers had students practice logging onto online learning platforms.
On our online student survey, a lot of students felt schools should be closed: “Please close the schools because of the coronavirus.” “At home, it’s safe.” “I’m ready to take my classes at home to protect myself from the coronavirus.”
Other students wanted schools to stay open: “At home it’s too boring.” “Don’t close the schools pleeeeaaaaasssssseee.”
A few students shared concerns about learning at home: “My phone doesn’t connect to the internet,” “My wifi is slow, can you give us work on paper please?” “Can you give me a computer to use at home?” The survey got us brainstorming: can we use our school budget to buy mobile hotspots for families? Can we give students Chromebooks to take home?
Our student attendance on Monday-Wednesday of this past week hovered around 90%. By Thursday, it was 86%. By Friday, it was 78%. I was still surprised it was still so high given the news cycle. I started to wonder if high attendance was a good thing or a bad thing.
I was struck that 100% of my teachers were present on Friday. Every class I peeked into was engaged, focused on learning. During teacher meetings, staff planned how they could use their online learning resources to teach students from home. I was deeply touched by their commitment.
Like I said, this is not an opinion piece. It’s my realization that is school far more than food, shelter, and classes. School is structure. It’s mental stimulation. It’s safety. It’s friends. And most of all, it’s attention from caring adults. For kids, all of these things are just as important as food. Even kids who profess to dislike school still showed up on Friday, which says something. Whatever happens, we’ll need to stay connected.
The names and identifying features of students have been changed.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman