Ranting

Our kids are under house arrest

February 5th, 2021

Classroom

(published in The Daily Memphian)

I don’t generally agree with state senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) about, well, pretty much anything. This time I do.

I don’t generally agree with our state legislature about, say, the time of day. This time I do.

I don’t generally agree with the Greater Memphis Chamber about viewing everything through the lens of business interest. This time I do.

In this space and in my life outside of it I have consistently supported public education in Memphis and stood with the Shelby County Schools and teachers against the constant assault of Mr. Kelsey and the legions in Nashville who would destroy it.

As much as it hurts, this time I don’t.

Our kids, Memphis kids, our tomorrow, have to get back in classrooms. Today. Period.

Every day they don’t is another day falling further behind, another day that single parents – in too many cases grandparents – working full-time – in too many cases working more than one job – have to find someone to supervise or just simply sit with children struggling with cold screens and lifeless keyboards.

In far too many cases, they are left alone, their attention wandering from the device in front of them, left to their own devices to fill their time, left to wander figuratively and literally far from the lesson presented to what’s being taught on the street.

They are being left behind by all of us. Tens of thousands of them in the largest public school district in Tennessee, one of the largest in the country.

As much as we should all appreciate the monumental challenge facing the Shelby County School Board and Superintendent Joris Ray, the size of the challenge is nothing compared to the consequences of not meeting it.

As much as we all should appreciate getting tablets and laptops to children and getting food to them, hiding behind the in-person health threats of a pandemic feeds the effects of that pandemic in the potential loss of a generation.

Our kids, Memphis kids, our tomorrow, have to get back in classrooms. Today. Period.

Tell is what you need, Mr. Ray, to get this done. Put the younger children in the classroom and employ a hybrid model for the older children mixing virtual and classroom instruction. Show us the plan. Instead of pushing back, push forward. Ask Memphis businesses and institutions to help.

Bowing to unreasonable demands, including teachers – such as requiring all children and teachers to be vaccinated before they return to the classroom – is just an abdication of responsibility.

Those same teachers don’t bow to the demands of their students – such as requiring student approval before a test. Those same teachers are aware that requiring vaccinations, and vaccinations themselves, are substantial barriers in a substantial number of Shelby County homes. Those same teachers should serve as an example by promoting vaccinations in their own ranks, and, in fact, demand that any teacher refusing a vaccination should not be a teacher. The Shelby County School Board should do the same.

Suppose all the people on the front lines of fighting COVID made demands on par with what we’re hearing from Shelby County Schools, using threat of exposure as their excuse. No doctors, no nurses, no paramedics, no firefighters, no police – in fact, no one across a counter or a table, no plumber or electrician – would show up for work in person but they would still expect to get paid.

No one ever goes through life remembering the monitor that made a difference for them. No one ever writes a note later in life to their favorite keyboard thanking that keyboard for its inspiration.

Teachers in the same room with kids. Kids in the same room with each other. Education is a team sport, and the game at its best isn’t played online.

None of this justifies state education committee chair Kelsey’s and the state’s ham-handed ‘put the kids back in school or we’ll take away all your money’ approach. They might as well have cut that message out of a magazine letter-by-letter in a pasted ransom note. I agree with children back in school, not with the usual unhelpful threats and bullying from Nashville.

And as for agreeing with the Chamber, and for those of you who prefer a nice academic reference to go along with your common sense, I refer you to this from Chamber president and CEO Beverly Robertson’s excellent January 30 letter to Ray and the school board:

“In November, 2020, PEW Charitable Trusts published information about a study conducted by Emily Oster PhD, Brown University Economics Professor, who tracked the rate of COVID-19 spread in a small sample of the nation’s more than 130,000 public schools, 3 million students and 422,000 teachers. School buildings tend to be substantially safer than most other settings in the community. About the pandemic, Professor Brown notes, ‘We’ve ranked schools far too low in terms of their intrinsic value and far too high in terms of the COVID risk.’”

Full disclosure. Beverly is a longtime friend and fellow warrior in a number of battles. I’ve been in many meetings with her. When she wants to make a point, her experience as a former Shelby County public school teacher comes through. The point is well-made. And you’d best pay attention.

It’s supposed to be about the kids. Now it seems to be about whether or not they’re worth the risk and the trouble of meeting it.

I’m a Memphian, and our kids, Memphis kids, our tomorrow, have to get back in classrooms. Today. Period.

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