The COVID-19 pandemic has been almost universal in destroying balance, bringing disruption, and separating us from traditional interactions. If you want to demonstrate that human beings are truly social animals, observe what happens during a pandemic.

Add to that the stresses of 2020 as an election year, with a fractured American public at war as to the fundamental nature of truth and reality, and you have a perfect storm. Misinformation, disinformation, nation-state-funded campaigns designed to destabilize democracy; the fabric of our imperfect but ever-evolving nation is stained and torn but remains mostly intact.

2020 was a year of vertigo and chaos. 2021 seems to be—slowly—bringing recovery and order. Education is no exception.

Schools, including Districts 65 and 202 in Evanston and Skokie, have battled to find balance in an unbalanced time in creating curricula and in planning to bring children back-to-school is a Sisyphean one. Waves of infection ebb and flow, with children all around the country coming back to school and then being sent home because infection rates skyrocket.

As parents, we see our primary responsibilities as protecting our children from harm, easing their pain, and ensuring that they are the best version of themselves that they can be. When you combine the traumas of the last year, with the daily stresses of the prior administration’s inaction and willful destruction of the economic, environmental, social, and cultural norms with the forced isolation of COVID-19, many of us have struggled to protect our children (and ourselves) from a sense of hopelessness, loneliness, anxiety, and despair.

While some of this can be blamed on the lack of social interaction caused by remote schooling, it is a dangerous mistake to use that as the basis for a demand to return to full time school. Contrary to some interpretations, the CDC has not said that it is safe to return to school; instead, it has said that with caveats, restrictions, and qualifications, a return to school is the desired state. From the NY Times article “Should Your School Be Fully Open? Here’s What the C.D.C. Says” (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/03/02/us/covid-schools-reopen-cdc.html?referringSource=articleShare) on March 2,2021:

“Only 4 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren live in counties where coronavirus transmission is low enough for full-time in-person learning without additional restrictions, according to the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an analysis of the agency’s latest figures.”

TL;DR: D65 and D202 aren’t ready to go back to school.

There is also an argument that the teachers, staff, and administration will adopt mitigation measures, and that many of them have been vaccinated. The truth is that in schools as old as most of ours, HEPA filters in air handling units and other measures available in newer schools are not available. The risk is still there. The data are not sufficient, and the danger still too high.

With children in elementary and middle school in District 65, we are very much in touch with the dual fears of potentially sending our children to school to become infected (or to infect us) and not sending our children to school and risking depression and a loss of social learning. It is a deeply compelling and nearly impossible navigation between the desire to protect our own children and to acknowledge the socioeconomic realities and risks inherent to others.

Of course parents advocate for a return when they have a child who is suffering mentally or academically, COVID or not, because we all have operational blindness when it comes to protecting those we love. At this point in time, though, returning students to school carries enormous risk to staff, faculty, students, and their families. The greater good must be considered.

Demanding a return to school is simply exhibiting that most parental of instincts: a deeply ingrained sense of protectiveness for our children. It is normal and natural. But those demands for all students to return for the benefit of a very few risk being at best insensitive and tone deaf and at worst succumbing to the default of both white and economic privilege, minimizing the current and historic realities for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and others.

It’s not a question of being “woke;” it’s a question of staying “woke” even when it’s not convenient or when you have your own front and center issues at home and just want to do the right thing by your child or children. We’ve just survived as a country four years of institutional selfishness and seen what it can do to a country. Even with that attempt to subvert the movement toward justice and equality for all, there has been so much momentum gained by BLM, #MeToo, and other movements.

Our D65 and D202 administrators, staff, and faculty have never been without plans to go back to school when it is safe for everyone involved and have kept their eyes wide open while trying to address the almost impossibly diverse needs of their charges and their families.

There are many reasons not to return to school for the foreseeable future, especially the stark statistics that African American and Latinx communities are far more likely to contract COVID-19 and even more apt to die from it.

Also, children are not exempt from contracting the virus. In fact, children above age 12 become more susceptible to both catching and transmitting COVID-19.

Education leaders must be aware of and mitigate those factors, which they have done admirably during the pandemic. They have also worked diligently to address economic realities and disparities in access to technology and connectivity in our diverse Evanston population. They have done exactly what we expect them to do, which is protect all of the students, faculty, staff, and administration.  

To return to the NY Times from March 3, 2021, in “Plan to Ditch the Mask After Vaccination? Not So Fast (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/health/coronavirus-vaccination-transmission.html):

“Scientists do not know whether vaccinated people spread the virus to those who are unvaccinated. While all of the Covid-19 vaccines are spectacularly good at shielding people from severe illness and death, the research is unclear on exactly how well they stop the virus from taking root in an immunized person’s nose and then spreading to others.”

Trust us. We want our kids to go back to school just as much as anyone else does. But we only want to go when we’re all protected, and when we don’t risk the lives of others because of race or socioeconomic status.   

Vaccinations are moving forward at a rapid pace. It will only get better for us from here on out. COVID could likely become like the flu, something that we take an annual shot for the year’s variants and mutations. Regardless, right now patience and perspective, compassion and perseverance, are required from us all.

— Keri Ambrosio and Matt Johnson