What will it take to reopen schools? It’s a pressing question quickly turning into a deafening roar.

Whoa! The chaos around creating competent school reopening plans is astounding! I think it stems from our fully gone-rogue, magical thinking culture. It is normal, and perhaps even healthy to believe in things that have no logical basis to them like if I make a wish and blow out the candles my wish will come true. It is magical thinking to say we have a plan to safely reopen schools and learning will continue unless we are willing to invest not only in our children but in their families and their communities. There’s a huge disconnect in what we passionately say is important and what we willingly do to understand and act on our claims of importance. I know this is not a new problem. It’s just seriously kicking our butt right now and not just with regard to reopening schools!

The article, “Schools: What’s it Going to Take?” by Emily Oster thoughtfully lays out questions, ideas, and concerns worth considering. However, it also clarifies this for me: At this moment, just as we don’t have “what it takes” to manage COVID-19, neither do we have “what it takes” to create the coveted, kids-on-campus plan for school reopening. Maybe you’re thinking we do, but that it’s too political, leaders aren’t stepping up, and there aren’t enough resources to make it happen. I don’t disagree but my point then is made.

So, where are we with school re-opening plans? From where I sit today, I see lots of urgent demands, well-intended guiding principles, and magical thinking. The “if-thens” of planning are stuck in circular flows and dead ends. Why? Because the more promising and substantive ideas in consideration require a school and community infrastructure, as well as a level of resources, that don’t exist right now, no matter how much we “will” it to be. We say we value schools but rarely are they truly seen in the fuller view of providing academic, social-emotional, nutritional, child care, community engagement, and other services…until a pandemic comes along. The importance of schools as an essential service, as more than textbooks and test scores, is elevated.

If returning kids back to campus is really a priority, people in government, the community, and pediatric associations would make the effort to understand what it would take. The constraints are glaring and too many to list. (The article by Oster does a good job of naming many of them.) One concern on the frantic minds of parents and teachers is, how much risk are we all willing to accept? How many positive cases should close down a classroom or school? What if the teacher tests positive? What happens next? How will plans be different for elementary schoolers compared to middle and high schoolers, since we know older kids are more likely to spread the virus and less likely to follow precautions? And let’s remember that one professional nurse is assigned to several schools these days. Paraprofessionals are caring for our kids’ bumps and bruises on site. So who, in addition to teachers and office staff, will be monitoring it all?  Since second waves and positive cases are expected, how much toggling from in-school to at-home learning makes sense, knowing learning will be even more disrupted with these changes? And one of the biggest questions is, how do we keep learning going for students with special needs or unable to access learning remotely?

This is about our kids’ safety, social-emotional well-being, and academic growth. No doubt the stakes are high and the demands overwhelming. So when it’s all tossed to school boards, staff, and teachers to figure out in isolation of reality, magical thinking is exposed for what it is. One example: I participated in a parent focus group yesterday. A parent offered that, if other countries can reopen campuses, so can we. Magical thinking at its best! She ignores the fact that they have the virus managed and the data to prove it. They have national public health coordination to quickly quash outbreaks and actively support school reopening with kids. While COVID-19 spread in areas of the U.S. and California varies, it is far from managed, even as other countries prove it can be. If only it was as simple as the “Close bars. Open schools!” idea.

We agree that educating our children as robustly as possible while taking care of their health and social-emotional needs is essential during this pandemic. I see school boards, teachers, staff, administrators, parents, child care and nutrition providers, community partners, and others are working to solve a puzzle with so many missing pieces, that the picture can barely come into meaningful focus. Perhaps we do have what it takes. But it’s time to leave behind the comfort of magical thinking, which is too easily used to dismiss and divide, to buy time and ignore realities. Yes to pragmatism. Absolutely to innovation. Hard no to magical thinking.

Michel Masuda-Nash lives with her loving family in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has spent many years engaged with communities, nonprofits, and schools in various professional capacities. Currently, Michel is an elementary school teacher who is ever curious about it all…from sparking learning connections with her students to addressing educational equity for all students.

2 comments on “Schools Won’t Reopen With Magical Thinking

  1. Michel,
    It is great to see you are still “doing the work” – directly in the classroom it seems.

    I don’t recall whether you knew that Dina passed away a few months ago. She had fought metastatic breast cancer for 8 1/2 years. As you can imagine she is missed.

    Thanks for all your work.

  2. Your article was very informative and practical. There are a lot of considerations and preparations that need to take place before we open our schools.

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