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Photo by Jungwoo Hong on Unsplash

“You can’t change a school without changing the neighborhood” -James Baldwin

The decision to keep schools shuttered this September is the right call to make. If we force children and adults to return to their poorly ventilated and over-crowded buildings, people will die. No amount of creative scheduling or logistical wizardry will keep the virus from spreading throughout the community and snuffing out human life. This basic truth hasn’t stopped folks from demanding that schools re-open.

In the community where I teach, the announcement that schools would remain entirely virtual in the fall was met with a predictable range of responses. Some folks expressed relief at the news. Others unleashed vicious tirades, condemning teachers, administrators, and school boards for being derelict in their duties. For instance:

We obviously can’t wait for a vaccine, so what are the metrics we use for returning to school?

What about parents who have to work? The economy can’t bounce back unless schools are open.

Essential workers and restaurant staff have to return, therefore so should teachers.

Keeping schools shuttered in the fall will increase child homelessness and child abuse.

Teachers, their unions, and special interest groups are to blame for what will happen.

The people behind these arguments come from a variety of backgrounds and social positions. They know that what they’re advocating for will lead to some loss of life. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s just that they care about other things more.

Their arguments to return to full-time schooling rest on the premise that schools and teachers are responsible for creating and maintaining a healthy society. And that the only thing standing between us and social collapse is whether or not schools are open.

This is far from a fringe position. In fact, the notion that schools are “the great equalizer of the conditions of men” has been a central tenet of North American public education since the 19th century when Horace Mann realized the best way to fund his schools was to promote them as the primary mechanism for improving society. And there was plenty to improve. After all, it was the Gilded Age, a time when the unchecked forces of capitalism, slavery, and racism transformed the growing country into an economic powerhouse built on enslaved labor. Mann was able to skirt these “controversial” issues by holding up schooling as a panacea.

Since then, every generation’s politicians have been more than happy to perpetuate the fantasy that schools can do the impossible.

Here’s the thing: schools didn’t create these problems and schools sure as hell can’t solve them. Schools can’t save the economy. Schools can’t stop children from being abused. Teachers and administrators, no matter how hard we work, cannot reverse the course of centuries of oppression. Schools are institutional microcosms that reinscribe the social, political, and economic forces that undergird our nation.

Put in simpler terms, schools reflect society, not transform it. How could they? For schools to be anything other than what they currently are would require massive shifts in how this country funds public education. It would require a robust welfare state with the concomitant promise from our political leaders that no one human life is disposable. And, perhaps most importantly, it would require a critical mass of people to stand up and demand more from the government.

This is where I want to suggest that the folks who make the kinds of statements I included above hold onto their anger, because they’re right: the situation right now is dire as fuck. Homelessness, child abuse, and poverty are on the rise. The paltry funds the government set aside for families are gone and in ten days rent is due. We should be upset. We should be sickened. But not at schools and not at the teachers who are being pushed into a situation that forces them to decide between life and a paycheck.

When we place this burden on schools and teachers, we let our governments off the hook. We must aim higher and expand the discourse of how schools function to include more realistic analyses of what they can and can’t do. Push the rhetoric beyond the routine patterns of blame that keep us locked at each other’s throats. To do otherwise is to miss the real target.

Instead, parents, teachers, and building level administrators must lock arms to demand and achieve the impossible: fully funded schools, universal basic income, free or affordable healthcare, and a pandemic response that prioritizes the health and well-being of every member of society. Because as Bettina Love reminds us, “There are no saviors. There is only a village, a community, and a goal:” protecting and growing children’s potential.

Closer than you think.

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