Dear Gov. Murphy: As a Teacher, I Think We’re Reopening Schools Too Soon.

This is a guest post by Mark Joseph, a sixth-grade math teacher at KIPP Rise Academy in Newark, where he has taught for thirteen years. For Mark’s other posts, see herehereherehere, here, and here.

I desperately want to return to school in the fall and be with my kids.

In the most non-melodramatic, non-trivial way possible, I am lost without them.

I imagine it’s somewhat similar to how Christopher McCandless felt towards the end of Into the Wild when he wrote in the margins of a book, “Happiness [is] only real when shared.”

I want to make TikTok videos with my kids during morning advisory and discuss The Poet X with them during reading block and learn more about Jesmyn Ward with them during assembly and listen to their stories during lunch and play tag with them during recess and solve challenging problems with them during math class and laugh with them during transitions and sing “Why We Tell the Story” with them during Performing Arts and wait for the 96 bus with them during dismissal and return their calls and texts during the evening, and so much more.

I want to have a barbecue with my kids in August and run cross country with them in September and organize a dance with them in October and go roller skating with them in November and stay up all night at a Lock-In with them in December and go snow tubing with them in January and celebrate Black Excellence with them in February and eat pie [1] with them in March and do flips with them in April and ride roller coasters with them in May and hike Mount Chocorua with them in June, and so much more.

I want to imperfectly exist with them, in person, through all types of moments – good and bad, exhilarating and mundane, inspiring and trying.

However, I am legitimately concerned about their safety, the safety of their families, and the safety of my colleagues [2] if we return too soon.

The specter of COVID-19 looms over this school year like the specter of the prison-industrial complex looms over this country – both are insidious, both disproportionately affect Black and brown lives, and both require constant vigilance and scrutiny in order to eradicate.

I know that Governor Murphy has established guidelines to reopen schools in the fall (which, admittedly, are subject to change) and I know that New Jersey has seen a significant decrease in new cases of COVID-19 over the past few months. Nonetheless, the number of new cases nationally is higher than ever (almost double the number of new cases in April) and over 137,300 people [3] have tragically died because of our federal government’s haphazard, negligent, and unscientific response to the virus.

If we return to school in the fall and even one kid or family member or colleague falls victim to virus, then we have savagely failed as public servants (both politically and educationally), especially because it is our job to keep those in our care safe and protected and strong.

I would rather take a more guarded, more patient approach in light of the uncertainty that returning to school in the fall will bring. In my non-expert opinion (and I’m sure Governor Murphy has many experts advising him), starting with online learning until October and then reevaluating the situation would be a more reasonable course of action. [4]

But I also recognize that if this approach is to really work, then the policies of our society must be fundamentally transformed.

Yes, I want to delay the opening of the school building and (!!) I want all kids and their families to have access to free internet and free laptops, free public transportation and free healthcare (both physical and mental health), more books and more affordable housing, more power and more freedom, more neighborhood grocery stores and more job opportunities, regular stimulus checks and reparations, better schools and better wages, zero police brutality and zero discrimination (in both law and common practice), and so much more.

Online learning is only a small piece of the revolutionary work required to do right by kids and their families during this pandemic / in general.

Unfortunately, the response to this is usually something like a conversation I had the other day –

Them: Well… this [all of the above] just isn’t realistic. [5]

Us: At one point in history it was unrealistic to think that slavery would be abolished and yet that still happened because of the collective effort of so many people.

Them: Okay. But you’re losing focus on the real issue at hand.

Us: What, COVID?

Them: Yes!

Us: But COVID intersects with everything! It’s impossible to disentangle it from history, healthcare, housing, you name it.

Them: Yes, but we don’t have the time or the resources for all that.

Us: Shouldn’t we though? How can we talk about online learning if don’t talk about everything that affects the lives of those who are learning online?

Them: We’re doing the best we can, you know? It might be slow but we’re making progress.

Us: Why does “the best we can” always seem like the bare minimum?

(Or, in the words of Angela Davis in The Meaning of Freedom, “This is something that the United States has basically offered to the world: a way of managing social problems by refusing to confront them.”)

I still remember the last day of normal school vividly – Friday, March 13. We spent the final hour of the day outside on the field – the weather was perfect, the temperature in the high 60s, the sun shining bright and warm.

Some kids were playing football, others soccer; some kids were dancing, others taking pictures; some kids were running with no particular destination in mind, others lounging on the grass; all of us (kids and teachers alike) young and alive and infinite.

I go back to that afternoon often when I miss my kids.

They deserve everything.

They deserve to be free.

(A special shout-out to Ray James for his continued support, ideas, and feedback on these pieces.)

[1] For Pi Day (March 14; also known as 3.14).

[2] My colleagues who are parents themselves are the real MVPs (in the words of Kevin Durant).

[3] As of July 16, according to The New York Times.

[4] As of July 16 the families in my school network have the ability to opt into 100% online learning, which I really appreciate.

[5] When did “realistic” become indebted to the status quo?

What do you think?

More Comments