The year was 1982, and the fear of nuclear war was palpable. I was in 10th grade at Inglemoor High School, a big suburban high school outside of Seattle, Washington. My friend Ivan Smith created a board game to expose the horrors and absurdities of nuclear war.
To play the game, you marched your piece around the board with a dice roll. Once a nuclear missile had been launched, you would land on a square that contained this actual advice for how to survive a nuclear blast from T.K. Jones, deputy under secretary of defense for strategic nuclear forces under President Ronald Reagan:
“Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors, and then throw 3 feet of dirt on top … If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.”
Jones’ advice was widely ridiculed. If you are inside of a hole that has doors on top of it, you can’t shovel dirt on top of those doors at the same time.
I bring up this example of terrible advice for what to do in case of an apocalyptic crisis because this is how I feel about much of the advice we are hearing — from a variety of voices — about how to educate students of Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] during the pandemic.
The pandemic has some similarities to a nuclear blast: the world as we know it has been blown to smithereens. And, yet, we get daily editorials from parents and educational experts about what we should be doing to school our children. As with the shovels in the T.K. Jones advice, it seems that many people think that if there were just enough computers to go around, then all PPS students would be able to get an education just as good — if not better — than the one they were getting before this pandemic hit.
I have two kids in PPS: My son, Jacob, is a 10th grader at the Science and Technology Academy and my daughter, Casey, is a 7th grader at CAPA. I’m an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and, since the massive state education cuts of 2012, I’ve spent much of my spare time trying to save public schools in Pittsburgh and beyond — from budget cuts, from the education reform movement and from high-stakes testing.
I’ve organized dozens of education events, volunteered hundreds of hours at my kids’ K-5 school (Pittsburgh Linden), and helped six different candidates get elected to the PPS school board. I’ve participated in national conferences with like-minded parents and educators who see public schools as the ultimate public good.
One of the reasons that public education is somehow expected to do better in the midst of this calamity is that many of us exist in a bubble. For us, the world continues — not as normal but still with comforts, entertainment and the possibility of growth. If you are reading this article, there is a good chance you are among the Americans who still have jobs and are able to work from home. It’s very possible that you have also been gardening, baking bread, playing board games with your kids, going for long walks in the neighborhood, solving jigsaw puzzles, adopting shelter dogs and binging Netflix.
But outside of our bubble, more than two-thirds (68.6%) of PPS families are economically disadvantaged.
Many of these families lack the needed devices for their children to connect to the internet, not to mention internet service itself. Many of these families were in survival mode before the pandemic, and now even more so; they are scrambling for food, health care, transportation and shelter. As Teen Vogue recently reported, distance learning is nearly impossible for these families.
In addition, these families are the least able to protect themselves from COVID-19 and are the most likely to die from it as well. Imagine being a PPS student already struggling to survive with the added stress that someone in your immediate family could get sick and die from COVID-19.
Another cold hard fact is that one-fifth of PPS students qualify for special education. And if two-thirds (or more) of children who qualify for special education are also economically disadvantaged, imagine how difficult it is going to be for them to access the educational support systems they need to learn.
Here is an unbearable truth that we are going to have to face: We are at the beginning of a world historical crisis that is utterly unique.
If you have children under the age of 10, you can stop reading. All I have to say is I’m sorry and I know you are not OK. Nothing is going to be right again until you have more help — more adults to help teach, love and care for your young children.
But, if you don’t have young children, and you have most or all of the following — adequate income, food, shelter, internet access, a room/desk for every person who lives in your house, as well as computers, smartphones and tablets to go around — I beg of you to please stop telling the rest of us how to educate PPS students during this pandemic.
Here is what I wish you would do instead:
Be patient. The hardship of closed businesses, closed schools and social distancing is likely to continue into the fall and beyond. In fact, let’s forget about this academic year and start helping the district prepare for two to five years of hybrid and distance learning in what could easily become an increasingly dystopian hellscape.
Allow yourself to grieve. You are missing your colleagues, your routines, your friends, your extended family members. You are overwhelmed. You are juggling the needs of your children, partner and household with your own needs and the needs of your continued employment. You are worried that your children are falling behind. This is really hard.
Help your children to grieve. The pain from the loss of their teachers, their peers, their daily routines and their special events is real pain.
Help your children to heal. Help them to remember that they are not alone. Help them to connect to stories and memories of classmates and conversations and observations they’ve had. Help them to maintain that sense of connection that is so essential.
Donate your money or time. The school district’s technology fund and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank are facing greater demand than ever before. Make masks for frontline and essential workers. Donate to and/or volunteer for the campaigns of elected officials who will work to address our region’s gross inequities during the pandemic and afterward.
Join the Pittsburgh education justice movement — the movement that has been fighting for many years for the schools that all of our children deserve. At the statewide level, join the call for a task force on remote learning. The pandemic has made this work so much harder. We need your help, voice and energy now more than ever.
Kathy M. Newman is an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University and has been lucky enough to keep her job during the pandemic. She is sheltering in place with her husband, who is also able to work from home, and their children, Jacob and Casey. Kathy is a longtime advocate and activist for education justice in Pittsburgh and beyond. If you want to send Kathy a message, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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