Elyse Arrington: Students do an astonishing job of learning during pandemic

We have failed our students if they think education only happens in a classroom.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Meadowlark Elementary School teacher John Arthur interacting with his students on Zoom, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Arthur is working through the kinks of teaching his 6th grade kids, many of which don't have internet access, online. He was named the Utah Teacher of the Year.

Dear students of the Salt Lake City School District,

I would like to offer a most sincere, depth-of-my-soul, kind of apology to you. I fear we have failed you. And for that, I am sorry.

If we led you to believe that the only place you can learn is within the four walls of a classroom, we have failed you. You see, the world is your classroom and teachers will come and go throughout your life leaving you doses of truth and wisdom along the way. You are your best teacher if you only stop to reflect on all you have done and have yet to do.

I have worn the mantle of “teacher” for nearly 10 years now and my students stretch from Sugar House to the Bronx. It is a privilege to work with you for the years we are together, but we have failed you if you believe that your learning then comes to an end if we are apart.

You have astonished me these past four months with your tenacity, grit, flexibility and persistence. When we shifted to digital learning, you were forced to master new skills, new online platforms and new ways to learn. You relinquished your composition notebooks and pencils, and, instead, journaled, took notes, annotated texts and engaged in collaborative discussions on Microsoft OneNote.

You set early alarms, brushed your teeth and hair (some of you), and met me in our Zoom class each morning without the sound of a school bell to usher you in. Instead of being able to stop by my room to ask for a missing assignment, you composed an email with a formal greeting, a thanks, and a closing.

You even found a way to still pull high school pranks (I’m looking at you, Mr. “Al Dente” Zoom-bomber).

You have managed to be in your own Zoom class while supporting your three younger siblings simultaneously. During class, your mom has handed you the baby to hold for “just a minute,” inspiring the rest of us to gush over his baby cheeks and then make silly faces to encourage a smile.

You have navigated the social dynamics of virtual class discussions and how to ensure you are unmuted to speak. When your entire family was diagnosed with COVID-19, you took on two extra jobs to support them, one of which is a weekday graveyard shift assembling COVID kits in a warehouse. Yet, you continue to log into Zoom whenever you can and complete your learning cycles at your own pace.

I hope you can see your immense capacity and tremendous ability in all you have done this school year — the many and varied skills you have refined and the deep critical thinking you have demonstrated these past four months. If you cannot see this, then I fear we have failed you, and I fear our society has failed you, too.

But now I must speak to that larger society that has helped shape you and is currently experiencing a crisis in cautious judgment vs. desire.

It has been disheartening for teachers across the Salt Lake City School District to read the barrage of headlines and articles assaulting the hard work of educators and students, and questioning our love and concern for our learning community, equating that concern with a willingness to return to in-person school. These stories have only described the challenges that the Salt Lake City School District has been facing with online learning, never the triumphs.

I support constructive criticism, especially from the media, to expose truth and encourage change when needed. However, the truth depicted in most of The Salt Lake Tribune articles as of late has been increasingly slanted toward hastily reopening schools, claiming our students are “falling behind” and the only solution is to risk their health and that of their teachers by marching us back to in-person learning, despite the science advising otherwise, despite us seeing our sister districts recently close with significantly greater illness, and despite adjacent headlines indicating that intensive care units in the state are at 96% capacity.

We have no airport, no landing strip for this pandemic airplane we are flying (to continue the metaphor from The Tribune editorial) because attempting to maintain our traditional educational structures in the face of a global pandemic has never been tried before; there are no blueprints to follow.

If this pandemic is the first time many of us are opening our eyes and raising concerns about the shortcomings of our education system to ensure equal access and equitable opportunities for all students, welcome! The pandemic only revealed what has always existed.

I wish, lastly, to speak to the parents, guardians and adults working on the front lines, many of you with multiple jobs in our fractured economy, struggling with your own health risks, deeply concerned about the health of your children, haunted by the fear of contracting this vicious virus and the medical bills that would follow. We hear you. We see you. I know I speak for many teachers when I say we wake up each morning with you on our minds.

Thank you for trusting in us.

Elyse Arrington

Elyse Arrington is a Salt Lake City teacher who teaches ninth-grade language arts, reading II and III and Techniques for Tough Times.