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John Merrow: Bad Reporting about the Pandemic and School Reopenings

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John Merrow is exasperated by the media narrative that it’s only the teachers’ unions that are blocking the reopening of schools.

Of course, students should be in real school, but schools must be safe for adults and students alike.

He writes that teachers should be vaccinated. And communities must prioritize what matters most in school, which is NOT testing.

He writes:

The giant lumbering beast known as the US Economy–akin to a conveyor belt with countless moving parts–wants public schools to reopen.  The beast needs workers, but right now too many adults are at home, supervising their children’s ‘remote learning.’  Open the schools, and the adults can go to work: it’s that simple….

But of course it isn’t simple.  Putting kids back in schools will allow adults to work, and that’s important, but it is what happens inside schools that matters more.  

A quick history lesson: We’ve always sent our children to school for three reasons: 1) Acquisition of knowledge, 2) Socialization, and 3) Custodial care.  The internet has turned that upside down because it puts infinite information at everyone’s fingertips wherever they happen to be and because thousands of apps allow for ‘socialization’ with anyone and everyone.  That left only custodial care as a vital school function, until the pandemic made even that impossible. 

However, students swimming in a sea of infinite information need guidance, because ‘information’ is not knowledge.  It takes a certain skill set to distinguish between wheat and chaff, and a certain value system to choose the wheat over the chaff.  Skilled teachers make that happen.

Socializing via apps, though convenient, is fraught with peril, because that person you believe to be your age and your gender might be an adult with evil intentions. Skilled teachers help students learn to discern. And skilled teachers see that students use this all-powerful technology for useful purposes.

But perhaps the major lesson of remote learning is that young people want and need to be with their peers.  Apps don’t cut it…and the kids are not alright.

The mental health consequences of prolonged isolation are becoming clearer by the day.  “Students are struggling across the board,” said Jennifer Rothman, senior manager for youth and young adult services at the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, to The Washington Post in January.  “It’s the social isolation, the loneliness, the changes in their routines.  Students who might never have had a symptom of a mental health condition before the pandemic now have symptoms.” 

If you read my blog last week, you were shocked by one reader’s response:  “John, I’m wondering if we could have a conversation sometime. I am passionate about this subject. Our 13-year old grandchild just committed suicide after return one single morning to virtual schooling. It was Monday, Jan. 4, first day back, after the holidays. They broke for lunch, Donovan wrote a note…. went outside, and shot himself.”

So when schools reopen, attention must be paid, not to catching up with the curriculum but to the needs of young people.

Now to the present: President Joe Biden has pledged to reopen schools by the end of his first 100 days, a monumental challenge.  Reopening schools is a complex issue, but–sadly and predictably–opportunistic politicians and some in the media are framing the issue as a conflict between the needs of students and the selfish wishes of teachers and, naturally, their unions.  

This false narrative hurts both groups...

What have school boards been doing?  Not much. The San Francisco School Board has spent months arguing whether to rename schools for people more admirable than Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, instead of preparing for reopening or pushing to make sure teachers would be vaccinated.  While that’s pathetically politically correct, the behavior of some school boards was borderline criminal, in at least one case allowing their family members to jump the vaccination line ahead of teachers!

And so, today, not even half of states have prioritized the vaccination of teachers and others who work with children in schools.  That’s an absolute disgrace.  As one teacher noted on Twitter, “…for us it’s been about the lack of care and preparedness of the school district, how they’ve treated the teachers and staff, the lack of communication, and the moving goalposts for how and when to reopen…”

So, yes, schools should reopen as fast as possible–but only after teachers have been vaccinated, classrooms have been provided with adequate ventilation and PPE, and schools have developed safety protocols. In some instances, this will require immediate attention to the physical condition of buildings, because there are public schools in America without hot running water!  

Experts have voiced concerns about what they call ‘Learning Loss,” which they tend to measure in months and sometimes years.  I hope that others find it offensive to define learning in terms of quantity rather than quality, but let’s save that for another day.  That said, it’s absolutely essential that adults stop obsessing about ‘learning loss.’  Cancel the damn standardized tests.  Meet the children where they are.  

Our giant lumbering economy wants schools reopened for another reason: It needs what our schools produce: high school graduates.  After all, America’s education system has been a reliable conveyor belt, moving students along for 12 years before dumping them out into society.  Higher education has come to depend on a fresh supply of close to 2 million freshmen each fall.  Branches of the military need recruits, and so on.

COVID has stopped the conveyor belt entirely in some places, and slowed it down considerably elsewhere, but I believe that many who are demanding that the conveyor belt be restarted are not thinking about either students or teachers. They want to get back to ‘normal.’

That ain’t happening, and we must embrace that reality.  This school year is unlike any other. For those students who have been able to stay on track, congratulations and Godspeed.  But for those whose lives have been turned upside down, you have not failed!  You shouldn’t have to go to summer school, have your ‘learning loss’ measured and published, or be held back.  

You should get a mulligan, a blame-free, no fault do-over.   

And finally, the interests of teachers and students are aligned. They may not sync up with the interests of higher education, restaurants, bars et cetera, but students and teachers are in this together.

John Merrowformer Education Correspondent, PBS NewsHour, and founding  President, Learning Matters, Inc.

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