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Budgets, Backpacks and the Lessons of an ‘Unprecedented’ School Year

November 2, 2020

Can a word become so overused it simply ceases to have any meaning at all? This would seem to be the case with “unprecedented.” A word once rarely trotted out by most even-keeled adults has become so common that it now just sounds like a series of meaningless noises, a la every adult voice in those classic “Peanuts” cartoons. That image seems apropos because it sure does feel like the adults are capable of little more than meaningless noises and gestures these days.

I write this at my living room table, or the one-room schoolhouse slash office that is among the millions such setups established in homes all over the world over these pandemic-ridden months. It is about three in the morning, New York time. As many of us work to maintain not only our sanity, but also a roof and food and proper schooling (in whatever form possible) going for our children, we must ask: Are the kids alright? It bodes well that for generations experts have consistently confirmed the resilience and plasticity of children’s development, and of course we know this too shall pass. But when and how much will have been surrendered in terms of learning and growth are the open questions we can’t seem to stop fretting over.

Our school — a small, suburban parochial school located on acres of bucolic hills overlooking the Hudson River — has afforded its students several ways to continue their learning in this, yes, unprecedented year. Students can do fully remote learning or hybrid. We’ve chosen hybrid so there is some social interaction with friends and face time with teachers, but fully more than a month in we are stuck in that first week of school mode, where you have to remember school is back and the routine keeps shifting day to day. 

Still Figuring Out the New Routine

The rush of activity in the morning changes depending on the day of the week. Do we need to scramble for the car, or grab laptops and connect to the internet for attendance? I know this is minor, but the routine is yet another stress point in days that seemingly bring new worries with every breaking headline.

Perhaps the most obvious marker of how different this school year really is can best be exemplified by the backpack. Yes, the humble and often abused backpack should not be taken for granted — it has become a potent, and heavy, reminder of exactly what we are living through. 

Due to safety and hygiene precautions, lockers are not available this year. Not a big deal in and of itself, but that means students are schlepping every book and notebook back and forth from school to home each time they switch to live, in-school instruction. It is like the COVID-19 albatross of the 2020-21 school year and in a very real way burdens children with the entire load of educational expectations we have for them.

While some schools and districts have gone fully digital, literally lightening the load, that path presents other challenges related to equity, internet access and even savviness about using devices effectively. 

It can be easy to forget that half the world still does not have internet access. It can be even easier to forget that your neighbors in the next zip code over cannot afford high-speed Internet access or a fancy laptop. Painful as it may be to watch my two eighth-th graders trudge to and fro with nearly 30 lbs. of books on their backs, it is a good reminder of exactly where we are when it comes to education in this country, to say nothing of the global challenges in the sector.

Finding Lessons in This School Year 

In the plug-and-play world, we have lost touch with the reality that learning and knowledge acquisition take work, and even sweat. It takes full bellies and safe places to sleep at night. It takes loads of books, which represent millennia of human growth and effort. It takes seat time and dedicated space to focus and ponder meaningful questions. It takes trained, professional educators who have committed hours and hours, to say nothing of personal financial investment, in becoming experts in the teaching of our greatest assets: our children. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it takes patience and empathy to really tune in and understand what this school year is truly teaching not only our children but all the adults as well.

In our harried and almost blind commitment to bigger, better, faster — and even the new tagline to ‘build back better’— we seem to have lost the purpose. Are we here for more and more all the time, or are we here to grow and deepen our understanding of ourselves and our world, hopefully leaving things a little better than how we found them? It is a fundamental question I find myself pondering at 3 a.m. as I review budgets, finish up client proposals and email colleagues across the ocean who are already awake and working.

While I hate the chaos and uncertainty my kids, and all the children around the world, are living through, I also appreciate that in every challenge there is a gift to reframe and reconsider. I can only hope the backpacks loaded with so much weight — and meaning — do their real job and remind us that while the kids may be alright, but we can all certainly do a lot better by them, and us.


TAGS: Education

POSTED BY: Marina Stenos

Marina Stenos