Back to School? What Does That Even Mean?

Pam and Lauren hugging. Back to School- What Does That Even Mean

In the absence of any national or statewide “return to learning” strategy, local school administrators are being asked to make impossible choices with very limited resources — especially in communities like Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs, where the public school systems have been disadvantaged by a broken funding model for decades.

What I can tell you, based on conversations and insights from local superintendents, school board members, education advocates, and curriculum development professionals, is that leaders like Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon and Euclid City Schools superintendent Chris Papouras see this as a historic opportunity to advocate for their students, and they are rising to the challenge.

Some students should go to school, most should stay home.” In this aptly titled and widely shared article written by social worker and education expert Shayla Griffin, MSW, Ph.D., she eloquently and boldly reflects on the difficult decisions that parents and educators are facing. “The truth is, schooling as we knew it six months ago is over. We are being given the opportunity to re-envision education in a way that works for those we have historically failed. We should try to do so,” says Griffin. This notion has inspired me more than anything I have heard or read since March 13, 2020, when my children abruptly left their school buildings under an emergency order from Governor Mike DeWine.

Could this finally be our moment to rethink education in America?

My personal decisions about what “back to school” should look like for our three children waver on a near-daily basis. Our best-case scenario is also different for each child, based on their personality, emotional development and learning style. One child, normally an honors student, was highly resistant to online learning. The other two thrived at the chance to log on, get their work done quickly, and move on with their day. Last weekend, we felt confident in our school choices for each of the kids. Then more information about virtual learning options prompted us to revisit all of our plans. Tomorrow, our most recent decision could easily snowball into something that feels much riskier.

What should parents do if we care about teachers and kids, social justice and public health? Griffin’s article offers six strategies for an equitable and safe return to school plan, one of which is a robust collaboration with mental health professionals for the support of students, teachers, and families, no matter where and how learning happens.

“If we focus only on the school losses — academics, social connections, services — we ignore the possibility that our efforts to educate students might kill them or their parents, teachers, siblings, friends — the very people upon which they depend for sustenance and support. And if we are most worried about the spread of this deadly disease, we risk huge numbers of students seeing whatever possible futures they had envisioned going down the drain. And both of these issues are leading to a third — a mental health crisis of a generation of Americans.”

In our house, the hierarchy of school-related decision making puts mental health first and foremost — no one can succeed in school or life without a sense of safety, security, coping skills, and resilience. For our family, academic achievement in the traditional sense comes second to integrity, work ethic, and personal responsibility. I am much less concerned with standardized test scores, grade point averages, and similarly inept measures of a student’s potential than I am with the kind of person my child will grow up to be.

This leads to my third criterion for educational decision-making — a personal responsibility to insist on and participate in a more just and equitable future for all children, i.e. strong public schools. If my child can accomplish the first two criteria while also supporting public education, then that is our family’s goal.

What criteria is most important to you?

Whatever your family decides, please make sure that public schools are one of the options you consider. And mental health and self-care also need to be a non-negotiable part of the plan. To learn more about the resources available to support students and schools throughout northeast Ohio, visit the Start Smart. Stay Smart website — a return to school resource supported by the Educational Service Center of Northeast Ohio and our local news partners at WKYC.

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