It’s Complicated!

As a former educator, I am frequently asked my opinion on the great send-the-children-back-to-school-in-the-fall debate.  Will it be safe?  Is it wise?  And the inevitable question: What would you do if they were your kids?

My short answer?  It’s complicated!

I lived the first twenty-two years of my life preparing, as it happened, for a career in education, and I’ve spent the most recent twenty-two years in happy retirement.  The intervening thirty-two years had me working as a teacher, vice-principal, principal, HR superintendent, and finally school district superintendent (director of education) in two jurisdictions.  Those jobs were sometimes more challenging than I might have wished, often more difficult than I could have imagined, yet, thankfully, always rewarding.

During my working years, the security and health of everyone I was responsible for—pupils, teachers, and business operations staff—were of paramount concern to me.  Everyone was entitled to a safe learning environment: one free of harassment in whatever guise; one free of assault or intimidation in any form; one clean and in good repair; one equipped with up-to-date learning materials and curricula; an environment welcoming and open to all.

I don’t say those objectives were always fully met, but any shortcomings were never due to lack of effort and good intent.

Today’s students and education workers learn and teach in an environment similar in many ways to that which I inhabited, the many advances in technology notwithstanding.  But there is one major difference they face just now, a threat the likes of which we have never encountered before to this degree.  The COVID-19 virus is a stealthy, merciless, oft-fatal disease that stalks us all, old or young, especially if we congregate in significant numbers in indoor spaces.

A prime example of such spaces:  schools!

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And so, the great question:  Should we be sending kids back to school this fall?  And I do have a longer answer.

During the final years of my career, the provincial government removed from locally-elected school trustees the power to levy taxes for educational purposes.  This left school districts totally reliant on government grants to pay for the costs associated with the provision of an education appropriate to their local communities—communities often poorly understood by the government decision-makers.  As a result, those grants frequently proved insufficient to the needs, and continue to be inadequate to this day.

Whether the school district was located in a large urban environment, or in a remote, northern rural area, the special needs associated with their discrete makeup were only partially accommodated when funds were allocated.  In the years since I left the profession, although the actual dollar amount of those grants has increased, it has not matched the concomitant cost-of-living growth.

Hence, I believe it is not safe to send kids back to school this fall—nor all those who will accompany them back—without a significant expenditure of money to ensure their health and safety.  And it is the government’s responsibility to do this.

Many school districts across the province already have a staggering backlog of capital repairs that are needed to aging buildings, undertakings they cannot afford with current funding.  Believe it or not, there are still schools burdened with asbestos and lead plumbing, not because people don’t understand the need to replace them, but because they haven’t the funds.  There are schools with leaking roofs, aging wiring, saggy floors, inadequate heating and cooling, and windows that won’t open.

Absent COVID-19, everyone would have been going back into those buildings this fall to cope as best they could with such conditions.  It’s inconceivable to me that they would be allowed back without massive measures to safeguard them against the relentless virus preying on the land.

Scientists and medical professionals know better than I how money might best be spent.  Here is a partial list only, gleaned from my reading of many of their posts—

  • developing ongoing channels of communication with provincial and local health departments to stay updated on COVID-19 transmission and response, including contact tracing in the event of a positive case,
  • making decisions that take into account the level of local community transmission,
  • deep-cleaning and disinfecting school buildings daily, especially water and sanitation facilities,
  • increasing airflow and ventilation in schools,
  • promoting best hand-washing and hygiene practices for everyone, and providing hygiene supplies,
  • providing children with information about how to protect themselves, in ways that are developmentally appropriate,
  • implementing multiple SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies, such as social distancing, cloth face-coverings, and hand hygiene,
  • holding school in shifts to ensure smaller class sizes,
  • staggering mealtimes and breaks at school,
  • re-purposing unused or underutilized school (or community) spaces for classroom use,
  • moving classes to temporary spaces or outdoors,
  • integrating SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies into co-curricular and extra-curricular activities,
  • limiting or cancelling participation in activities where social distancing is not feasible,
  • developing a proactive plan for when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19,
  • supporting the mental health of students and staff, and combating any stigma against people who have been sick, and
  • educating parents and caregivers on the importance of monitoring for and responding to the symptoms of COVID-19 at home.

Most important of all, perhaps, is the need to engage and encourage everyone in the school and community to practice preventive behaviours.  That is the most crucial action to support schools’ safe reopening, and to help them stay open.  Until transmission rates in local communities are reduced to an acceptable level, it will be unsafe to send anyone back.

Most of the experts I’ve read believe children should be going back to school, not just for the sake of our economy, but for their own emotional welfare.  But only if it is safe for them to do so.

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So, how much will all these measures cost?  I confess I have no idea; I am too long departed from the scene.  I have read different estimates from government sources, unions, teacher associations, and parent advocacy groups.  Perhaps a consensus is possible.

But whatever the amount, it is not too much if it ensures the safety and well-being of all who head back to school in September, because there is one thing that has not changed since I last was there—the education of our children is not an expense; it is an investment in the future of our country.

And that fact is not complicated at all!

Privilege and Reward

I remember a glib put-down I overheard a few years back, referring to a casual acquaintance, a self-important scion of a wealthy family, whose attitude conveyed to everyone that he deserved everything he had.

The jerk was born on third base and grew up thinking he’d hit a triple!

The speaker wasn’t so much resentful of the person’s privileged position in life as she was of the fact that he didn’t seem to appreciate the tremendous head-start he’d enjoyed.  Had he at least acknowledged the advantages he’d been born with, she might have been more forgiving.

Over the years, I’ve lost track of both of them, have no idea to what extent they may have succeeded or failed in their respective life-journeys.  But I’ve been reflecting on the comment itself during these troubled times of pandemic, economic woe, and racial upheaval.

In our society, wealth or the lack of it is not the only factor that bestows or denies advantage.  Other dynamic influences include quality of family-life, level of education, type of employment, housing, race/ethnicity, gender-identity, and age.

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Other than that last one (I am past my mid-seventies), I score among the most fortunate in those categories, in that my status lies solidly within the traditionally-accepted norms.

The key phrase in the previous sentence is traditionally-accepted.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

If you doubt that, consider the following hypothetical scenario.  I am arranging a footrace for fifteen young people, mid-twenties, all of whom will compete against me for the prize.  The course is the staircase of my condo building; the starting-line is at the first-floor level; the winner is she or he who arrives on the twenty-fourth floor first.  Given the width of the staircase, the runners will begin in five ranks of three, arrayed behind me, the septuagenarian.

As in many races and competitions, however, handicapping will be a factor.  When everyone is ready and in place, I issue a series of statements to sort the field prior to the gun.

If your parents are both alive and still married, walk up one floor.

Almost everyone obliges, putting them one flight ahead of me.

If you graduated from college or university, walk up one floor.

Perhaps half the group does so, including me.  Several racers are now on the third floor, but a few are still back on the first-floor.

If you are employed full-time, or retired on a pension, walk up one floor.

Although I can’t see them as I climb to the third-floor, I hear some people climbing to the fourth floor.

If you own your own home, walk up one floor.

I am almost the only one who moves, given the age of the group overall.

If you have never been racially-profiled or discriminated against because of skin-colour or religion, walk up one floor.

Those of the fifteen who are not persons of colour advance, including me.  I am now on the fifth-floor landing with two other racers.

If you have never been discriminated against because your gender-identity is straight-male or straight-female, walk up one floor.

Below me, I hear people moving, and I now find myself on the sixth-floor with only one other person.

If you are over the age of thirty, walk up one floor.

This is a sneaky one, because I am the only one able to benefit, of course (age discrimination-in-reverse?), and I happily trudge to the seventh-floor—alone.  After gathering my breath for a few moments, I lean over the railing and call down.

How many people on the first-floor landing?

Five.

How many on the second?

Three.

I quickly learn there are two people on the third-floor, two on the fourth-floor, two on the fifth-floor, and one on the sixth-floor.  The staggered-start to the race is complete, and I have a six-floor advantage over one-third of the field.  That’s equivalent to a one-lap advantage around a 400m track in a 1500m race!

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*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Remember, though, this race was merely hypothetical; it never took place.  But had it been run, it’s likely that some of the fifteen racers would have overcome my advantage over them, my age being too crippling a factor.  I’m sure I would not have finished first—or maybe at all, alas!

But the unfortunate racers who started on the lower levels would have faced an insurmountable obstacle against whomever did win, someone who started perhaps from the fifth- or sixth-floor.  The disadvantages pressed on them by their life-experiences (as represented by my seven handicapping-statements) would have allowed them no chance against their more-advantaged competitors.

One of those racers starting at the first-floor might have been able to climb twenty-two levels in the same time-period the racer who started on the sixth-floor climbed eighteen levels to the finish-line, yet that person would still have failed to win.  Better effort is not always enough to surmount inborn advantage.

Someone starting on the sixth-floor—if they resist the urge to think they deserved it through their own efforts, if they apply themselves—will almost surely attain the prize over those starting on the lower levels.

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That’s life in a nutshell, as we know it.

That’s privilege and reward.

As we read in Ecclesiastes 9:11, …the fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.

Still, for those fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, it behooves us to listen, to try to understand, and to support the cries of those who would seek to change the imbalance of the status quo.

That’s equity.

 

A Graduation

Our grandson, David, one of five grandchildren we are blessed to have—the only boy among four girls, his two sisters and two cousins—has graduated high school.  Because of the pandemic currently assailing the world, he, like so many others, was deprived of the formal commencement he would otherwise have enjoyed.

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And so—undeterred by the Covid-constraints, but mindful of the necessary precautions—fifteen of us gathered recently for a by-invitation-only, less-formal ceremony to honour his achievement.  Three generations of family attended—four grandparents, two parents, two pairs of aunts and uncles, and his sisters and cousins.

Oh, and one rambunctious dog!

For Nana and me, he is the second of our grandchildren to graduate, his older cousin having done so last year.  But for his paternal grandparents, he is the first.  It was a joyous celebration, properly socially-distanced, held outdoors on the grounds of their expansive home on a glorious, sunlit afternoon.  The dress was summer-casual, no caps and gowns to be seen, but the sense of occasion was as high as it would have been in the most somber, traditional commencement exercise.

Our families have always prized education and lifelong learning, a value that has, to our immense satisfaction, been assimilated by the youngest among us.

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Almost everyone took the opportunity to address the graduate, commending him for his achievement.  But it was I who was granted the honour of delivering the more formal remarks, a task I gladly embraced.  Given the relaxed setting, I wanted to find a suitable mix of lightness and seriousness, of witticism and import, something that might be enjoyed at the time and remembered long after.

And of course, I did not want to ramble on too long, knowing that once the dog lost interest, so, too, might the rest of my audience.

 I began by welcoming the graduate to an exclusive club—

If we trace a straight line to you from Granddad and Grandma, from Nana and me, through your parents, you are the seventh member to join this exclusive club of high school graduates.

There are other high school grads here today, of course, but none of them runs down that same line of succession as you.  There are no secret handshakes for this club, no secret passwords, no class ring; but there is one mandatory ritual to which you must adhere, now that you are a member—namely, whenever one of the older members wants a hug, you must stand and deliver.

A few chuckles greeted this opening, along with a smile and nod from our grandson.  Hugs have always been popular in our extended family.

After describing and commending him for his scholastic achievements, graduating with high honours, I spoke about his parents—

I want to mention two people who have reason to be prouder than any of us today—your Dad and your Mum.  You’re drawing from a pretty amazing genetic pool, as I’m sure you know, and you are blessed to have them as parents.  

If I had a magic wand, and if I could wave it over all the children in the world, my wish would be that every one of them could have a father like your Dad and a mother like your Mum.

I dared not look at either of them at this point, for fear of choking up myself, and I managed to continue—

Long before Granddad, Grandma, Nana, and I were grandparents, we were parents.  And so, we have a pretty good understanding of how your Dad and Mum feel about you because we have had the same feelings for our own children.  For as long as your parents live, you will be their pride and joy because, just as you are blessed, so, too, are you a blessing to them—and to all of us in your extended family.

I went on to spend a few moments talking about that extended family, because I believe it is important for this young man to appreciate his heritage—

David, you bear a very proud name—Whittington.  And you carry in equal measure the names of three other proud families—Wigglesworth, Eaton, Burt.  You are the sole, male iteration of these four families going forward.  For the rest of your life, you will carry all of us within you.

Another reason for including that was to recognize the contributions made by all four families to the person he has become.  His four grandparents do not delude ourselves into believing we deserve the credit; that goes rightly to his parents and to the young man himself.  But the nurturing of extended family does count for something, after all.

I concluded my remarks by telling the graduate what we, his family members, expect of him as he steps into the next phase of his life—

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With that in mind, I have two thoughts to leave you with, and I hope I can speak for all four families.  First, we expect you—we expect you—to conduct yourself always with honour—honouring our families, honouring your parents and your sisters, and honouring yourself. 

To paraphrase the poet, Gibran, we do not seek to make you like us, for life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday. But if past is prologue, we are confident you will forever justify our faith in you.

Fusce honorem omnium!  Choose honour above all!

By this time, my eyes were more than moist and my throat was closing up with emotion, but I managed to choke out my final words—

Second, perhaps most importantly, we want you to know this, to remember this—wherever you go, whatever paths you choose to follow, whatever you do with your life, if ever there comes a time when you need help or support:  All of us, w’ve got your back. We’ve got your back!

We love you, David!  Congratulations!

A ripple of applause and an echoing chorus of congratulations washed over us as we touched elbows—no hug, unfortunately, during this pandemic period.  The noise woke the dog—who, apparently, had been less-than-inspired by my address—and his rollicking antics quickly dissolved the formality of the moment into the shambolic ambiance that is more typical of our family gatherings.

And he got all the hugs!

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It has been almost sixty years since my own high school graduation, and I confess I have no memory of the commencement ceremony I must have attended.  But I harbour the hope that our grandson will long remember his, not for my speech, but for the love his family has for him, the love that brought us all together to honour him.

Carpe diem!