Earlier this week, LBUSD announced that we will continue with distance learning until at least March 1, postponing our previous re-opening date of Jan. 28. I heard the news during my 5th period class on Monday, and I shared it with my students.
“How’re you guys feeling right now?” I asked, and they responded in the Zoom chat, which has become our primary mode of communication since the beginning of the school year. It was a predictable mix of incredulity, sadness, and elation. In that way, it was a callback to March 13, when we first found out that our campuses would be closing. In many other ways, of course, our world and our “classroom” looks nothing like it did on that day.
As for me? I told my students the truth: I was surprised to feel a sense of relief. With the COVID numbers surging in LA County and the recent stay-at-home order, I had been feeling like we weren’t going to be ready to go back at the end of January. From a personal perspective, I feel much more comfortable in new situations when I can clearly picture how it’s going to go — I definitely don’t know enough about the detailed logistics to be able to picture a day with students with COVID protocols.
I didn’t believe that we’d be ready to go back on Jan. 28. But it feels possible that we’ll be ready by March 1. It feels like a reasonable goal, and that gives me hope.
So, what are we going to do between now and then? In last week’s column, I shared some of my deep concern about the emotional and mental welfare of our students. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out some concrete ways we can support our students — as parents and as educators — while we continue on this distance learning road. I talked with some friends and colleagues on my campus and around the district, and we tried, in shining a light on the problems, to start to brainstorm solutions.
I saw a nugget of wisdom on social media this week that feels right to me: “Why you want to do something is more important than ‘how.’” So: what is our “why” with education during this time? What is our role as educators?
Are we signing on to Zoom each day to uphold rigor and proceed through the content standards as if it were any other year? Are we primarily serving as gatekeepers, to make sure any unmotivated and apathetic students don’t escape with an unearned passing grade? Is our job to find and nurture the high-achievers so that we can pass them on to the next level, whether that’s college or career? Are we basically state-sponsored childcare, allowing parents to go to work?
The answer, as has been revealed over the past nine months, seems to be some of each. And, between the 12,000 LBUSD employees and the families of 70,000 students, you’ll probably get just as many different answers of what the correct balance of these factors should be.
As for me, I think about the other times our education system has been disrupted severely. The 1918 flu epidemic, for one. The 1933 earthquake, for another. In the past, before technology gave us amazing advantages in the realm of connectivity, teachers, those heroes of Long Beach history, focused on doing what they could to provide stability and community to their charges. Not that academics weren’t important — more that academics were a way to throw a lifeline to students in a survival situation, to help them understand the world around them and become the best versions of themselves.
In 1998, when the tornado hit Long Beach, I was a student in Mr. Haggerty’s eighth grade Algebra class at Stanford Middle School. We went into lockdown and weren’t allowed to leave to go to our next classes (mine was PE, so I wasn’t complaining). Without the internet or smart phones, we didn’t have much idea of what was going on — just that it was scary, and that we didn’t know what was going to happen next.
Mr. Haggerty didn’t keep teaching us Algebra. Nor did my PE teacher send over lesson plans for us to complete while frightened and anxious. Instead, Mr. Haggerty told us what he knew about the emergency outside our walls. He teased us and made self-deprecating jokes, and shared anecdotes about his life until we felt like ourselves again. Then, the next day, when it was safe, we got back to work.
All these years later, I think back on that strange afternoon and I think: that’s the kind of teacher that I want to be.