When we first encountered COVID, most of us expected it wouldn’t affect us. When we realized it would, we hoped for a brief pause in our daily activities. Instead, COVD became an enduring threat to us, our families, and our communities. We thought the disruption might extend for months, then put our hopes in vaccines to end COVID’s effects. Now, we know that COVID is here to stay. It shapes every area of our public discourse and has exposed fault lines in national, state, and local politics. It affects aspects of even our closest relationships, between families and neighbors. When we are under threat, we find it harder and harder to listen to one another, to empathize. Instead, we dig in our heels, put up our defenses, and fight. As a result, we are engaged in contentious, acrimonious, even violent debates at all levels of society. There are debates about masks and vaccination. But even among those who agree on those topics, we bitterly dissent on other matters.

School districts, students, parents, and communities are currently grappling with whether students should be attending school in person. Most districts are opting for in-person school, but some have paused, going remote for what they hope is only two or three weeks. Even in the vast majority of districts who have decided to keep students in school buildings, there is a lot of controversy. In the Chicago Public Schools, the district is adamant that students are safe in schools, but on Tuesday the Chicago Teachers Union is scheduled to hold a vote on whether teachers will report to schools in-person on Wednesday or whether they will only teach remotely. Since the district is insisting on in-person instruction, this could result in a complete shutdown of the district unless one side concedes. In the town of Oak Park where I live, the district is also maintaining in-person schooling, although two elementary schools are going remote for two days due to staffing issues caused by COVID. 

I know many people on both sides of this debate – parents and teachers who are either adamant that students remain in-person, as well as those who are adamant that they should only be in remote schooling right now.  And I really do see both sides of this issue. I am the parent of a school-age child, and I feel the conflict within what is right for our own family.

Those who advocate for in-person schooling say that most students didn’t learn as well remotely as they do in person, and I think that was proven many times over during the 2020-21 school year. And that this was especially true for students of color, poor students, English Language Learners, and those students called diverse learners or students with special needs. That’s not to say that we need to catch any students up or stress anyone out over alleged “learning loss” that happened that school year, but it is to say that we know that most students didn’t thrive in the remote learning environment. We also know that many, many students struggled socially and emotionally, especially middle-school and high-school students. In addition, parents really struggle when students are home all day. Even if remote instruction is happening, we essentially become default teachers. Parents’ own emotional health suffers. And if one or both parents have to work – especially outside the home – the struggle becomes more intense still.

Those who advocate for remote schooling say that schools – especially when operating at full capacity – are unsafe spaces for COVID transmission, and that this concern has intensified because of the Omicron variant. And I think that concern is justified as well. There is not enough testing capacity in our nation or locally in the Chicago area for all students to be tested regularly. Students are packed into classrooms as they were before the pandemic, even though we know that no person, child or adult, will wear their mask perfectly. And schools are struggling with staffing because many teachers and other staff members are sick with COVID themselves. Again, the impacts are highest for students of color and poor students. 

I don’t know what the right decision is. I can see the rationale for both, and every lens I use – academic achievement, emotional health, physical health – makes one or the other option seem preferable. I wish that we all could look at those advocating for the other side in this debate and see where they are coming from. I am not appealing here for civility – simply being nice to one another – as that serves no purpose other than making us feel good. I am advocating for perspective-taking – that we imagine why someone on the other side of this debate could arrive there ethically, emotionally, and logically. Don’t get me wrong – some people are only thinking of themselves and their own families, failing to take in the needs of the community. In fact, there are times when each of us is focused on our own needs to the exclusion of others. But it is possible for us to advocate for ourselves while also thinking of others.  

We are under threat of many kinds – physical, social, moral – and that makes it more likely that we come apart rather than together. And we all feel these threats in different ways and at different levels. In the face of these threats, I ask that we hold our own and others’ needs in our minds and our hearts. I ask that we honestly and openly listen to others’ points of view. And when we sense that others are operating from a similar stance – thinking of both their needs and others’ needs, trying to understand – I ask that we lean toward one another. This is not civility. This is understanding. This is community. This is what we need to do to get through this together, however long it lasts.

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