Holly Richardson: Back-to-school, 2020 style

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sellika Reese, a first grade English teacher who teaches phonics, wears what she would need to teach which would make it very difficult for her students to understand her as she joined hundreds of Granite School district teachers gathered at the Granite School District office on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. The teachers were protesting the district’s plans for reopening, which will allow students back into the classroom, like normal, five days a week.

Remember when schools shut down quickly and Utah’s school teachers were expected to pivot to online education with virtually no warning and no prep time?

Remember the memes that praised teachers and advocated raising their salaries to a million dollars a year, since they clearly were the most essential of all workers?

That didn’t last long, did it?

We have moved from “We love you, teachers!” to “Sacrifice it all, teachers, because these kids aren’t staying home” in pretty rapid order.

Like many of you, I am trying to prepare kids for “back to school” this year and even as a parent, it’s kind of a crap shoot. New school clothes? Check. Matching masks? Check. Hand sanitizer? Check.

We are also thinking about contingency plans if there’s a big surge in new COVID-19 cases and a change in status for the schools. Depending on where you live in the state, that could look really different.

Already, going back to school looks different. My school district, Alpine, is sticking with an early start date of Aug. 18 and, for elementary school kids, it’s either all in-person, five-days a week, or all online. Salt Lake City schools are pushing their start date back to September, while Davis County schools are doing two days in-person and three days at home.

The pandemic has laid bare complexities that have too often been overlooked and have laid out disparities too often ignored. What happens in two-parent families when both parents work and lack flexibility in their hours or location of work, as often happens in lower-income families? What about single-parent families?

How do we help children with special needs access much-needed services if they can’t attend school? Or feed children who get their only reliable meals of the day at school -- and ride the bus to get there? Or reach the ones for whom English is a second language?

How do you transition to online education in areas with spotty Internet or where there are no computers or tablets in the home?

There are also numerous questions about the social, emotional and mental well-being of both parent and child.

There is no question that the question of schooling during a pandemic is a difficult one for parents.

Now imagine how difficult it must be for teachers, aides, staff, administrators and school board members. They are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. They are dealing with angry activists on both sides, hearing simultaneously that it’s way too early to reopen schools and that everything should be as it was prior to March, with no adaptations at all.

We are asking them to look into a crystal ball and make plans for a certain future, when right now, it is anything but. I get it. I like to plan and know what to expect. Everyone does. Desiring certainty is a quintessentially human trait (albeit not a very realistic one).

But these times ask something different of us. They ask us to become comfortable with uncertainty and resilient in times of change.

As a parent, I am immensely grateful for the Herculean efforts that everyone in the education community is making. They are working to thread the needle to keep kids and teachers safe, provide engaging and appropriate educational content, look after the physical and emotional well-being of their young charges, prevent their own burnout and deal with angry and frightened parents.

This year, I hope our back-to-school preparations include contingency plans for if (when) the policies of school attendance are changed and the fortitude to roll with those changes with grace.

I also fervently hope our back-to-school preparations include heaping measures of kindness, patience and understanding for those teachers, administrators and others who are doing the best they can in very difficult circumstances.

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.