In summary

I’ve watched the achievement gap in my class grow wider, and it is only going to keep growing if we don’t reopen.

By Tracey Schwengel, Special to CalMatters

Tracey Schwengel is a third grade teacher at Will Rogers Learning Community, a public elementary school in Santa Monica, tschwengel@smmmusd.org and on Instagram @santamonicateacher.

Like teachers across the country, I’ve been on Zoom for what feels like forever. And while I do my best to fill my third grade class with positivity and silliness, I know many of my students are struggling. 

When their cameras go off, it’s often because they are holding back tears. Parents tell me their children are depressed. The kids tell me too, in one-on-one lessons sprinkled through the day that often turn into mini-therapy sessions. All they want is to go back.

Often, they’ve asked me why we haven’t gone back, and I’ve struggled to come up with an answer. These are kids with parents working full-time in offices, hospitals, hair salons and supermarkets. They see stores and restaurants open in their neighborhood, and they struggle to understand why school is the big exception.

Telling these kids that it’s not safe – or that it’s safe to return only a few hours a week, as my district is preparing to do on March 15 – feels inadequate. 

Elementary schools in adjacent neighborhoods are open and operating, which means many of my fellow teachers are back full-time. Community spread is now under control, and my county, Los Angeles County, says elementary schools are clear to reopen their doors.

I’d love to go back Monday-Friday, right now. I’m aware, of course, that many teachers don’t agree, or feel hesitant to jump in until they know that safety protocols are in place and working. I’m aware, too, that arguments over reopening have become contentious and divisive; many parents don’t feel heard, and many teachers don’t feel valued.

Still, parents and teachers have never disagreed that distance learning is not giving our kids the education they deserve and the social-emotional support they desperately need. 

Often, the ones struggling most are the ones you’d never suspect. When one of my students has a birthday, we all try to come up with an imaginative idea for a present – and one of the most common is “a vaccine so we can go back to school.”

My fellow teachers hear much the same. We’ve all worked tirelessly to deliver curriculum and prevent learning loss, and we’ve all chalked up our successes. But I’ve also watched students become apathetic and distracted.  Without a teacher looking over their shoulder, some simply aren’t working up to their potential. 

My school, Will Rogers in Santa Monica, is a Title I school, and I’ve watched the achievement gap in my own class grow ever wider. That gap is only going to keep growing if we don’t ramp up reopening to catch up with the private schools and the districts running ahead of us.

I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, and as a classroom teacher I’m not sure it’s my job to. We need effective leaders who not only give us a return date, but tell us how to make it work. We need imagination and funding to create safe, workable outdoor classroom spaces, and much more. We need a timetable to get teachers vaccinated quickly and to reassure those more apprehensive than I am. We need a mechanism for high-risk teachers and students to keep working at a distance. 

As a healthy 50-year-old I’m not high risk, but I have a 19-year-old son with a medical condition who is. Our family has certainly learned to weigh the risks. How much more vulnerable can you be than with your mouth wide open to a dentist who’s been tending multiple open mouths before you? Still, we got our teeth cleaned.

The risk is there, but it is small and far outweighed by the damage to our students’ academics and emotional health. I want my kids to experience what a 3rd grader at private school experienced a couple of weeks ago. As her mother described it, she was skipping with joy to be going back and didn’t stop smiling and dancing for hours. 

It’s time, for all of us.

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