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To Open or Not to Re-Open: That is NOT the Question

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

School... A word so routinely embedded in the fabric of our lives, practically synonymous with birth, or death, or love. So commonplace is the norm of adults going to work and kids going to school, that we take it for granted. So rooted in the range of lifelong experiences as we progress from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, that we couldn't fathom denying school’s influence on our very existence as humans.

Our lives revolve around school. Who doesn’t look forward to back-to-school sales in July/August? Even as adults who have already graduated, it's hard to ignore 40% off. Who doesn’t find comfort in seeing school busses flooding the roadways in August/September? Well, maybe not the traffic, but we definitely recognize the same morning friends huddled with backpacks on the street corner awaiting their daily pickup. And what about spring break in March/April, when older kids flee to Mexico, brush up on college applications, or serve part-time in restaurants, while younger kids join their families for trips to Disney or play time at home, knowing they’ll be grown before their parents can blink? Who could deny the freedom kids relish when the school year ends in June/July, the favorite time for summer camp and weddings?! And then the cycle resumes... Whether we’re young enough to anticipate or old enough to recall the butterflies, we have all experienced those euphoric days when the school year rolls around, again, eager to see old friends and teachers, make new friends and find new passions, or just get out of the house. Whatever the motivation, what is August/September without young people returning to school?

So the question is not whether to re-open. Amidst sincere concerns, strategic and careful planning, and impassioned debates and court lawsuits surrounding our current-day barrage of public health deliberations, stakeholders on all sides of this argument always affirm (after removing their verbal boxing gloves and returning home for dinner, that is) agreement that school should re-open.

The dilemma involves how to re-open safely, right? Actually, that’s not the question, either. Here comes a long overdue, big shout-out and kudos to the phenomenal educational leaders, teachers, families, students, and community members – many of whom I am blessed and honored to call my friends and colleagues – who play vital roles behind-the-scenes all summer long, tirelessly preparing to re-open school safely year after year, with butterflies in our stomachs, smiles on our faces, and arms wide open, ready to receive every child from every background and need, pandemic or no pandemic. No, educators have been re-opening safely for decades. The public debate is simply trying to re-define “safety,” but educators know all about fostering "safe" learning environments and are rising to this moment!

So what is the question? I was never a fan of Shakespeare as a student, but I must admit, I am among the masses who do enjoy quoting Hamlet’s quintessential question whenever a challenge arises – To be or not to be, i.e., to re-open or not to re-open, as the zeitgeist beckons. I was one of those students who was easily deterred by and found it more amusing to count the number of times the words “thee” and “thou” appeared, rather than to understand the text. An aspiring actress at the time, I preferred to hear myself mimic our teacher and giggle with my friends afterward, as I enunciated the phrases “how shalt thou goest” and “how makest thou me to think” in make-believe British accent with stately hand gestures. I was oblivious to the floral rhythms of the brilliant grammatical structures that formed the foundation of what was to become one of the world’s most powerful forms of communication, negotiation, and relationship-building across the centuries – English.

Oddly enough, it was not until much later into adulthood that I began to develop a visceral appreciation and admiration for Shakespeare, while watching one of my favorite actresses in a classic role, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. It was a glorious moment, when all of Eliza Doolittle’s futile attempts to state an apparently meaningless sentence ended in one singular, unforeseen, seemingly endless yet poignant interval of quiet contemplation. It was upon Professor Higgins’s zealous plea to think, imploring her to ponder the significance of the outcome she sought to conquer, far beyond the deceptively mundane words “the rain in Spain lies mainly in the plain,” but deep into the recesses of her child-like heart… that Eliza found the courage to dream.

To re-open or not to re-open, to be safe or to increase risk, to postpone or to persevere, to send my kids to school or to home school, to teach or not to teach, to be or not to be... It's not a question of options or choices. Nor is it a question of preference or power. It's a fundamental question of raison d’être – existence, the very essence of our being. Just as integral to our social, moral, physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional development as humans is the question before us – the very reason for the existence of school.

The question is, What is School? What does re-opening really mean? What do we think we’re going back to? We’ve never thought about it, because when August/September rolls around, the cycle mindlessly continues, and like a light switch we click ourselves back on to repeat our habits, patterns, and routines. Why are we not asking, To learn or not to learn? To dream or not to dream? To re-envision “school” or to perpetuate a model that may very be well outdated? In the words of the father of education, himself, John Dewey, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

The fight on any side of the argument also compels us to ask, What are we holding onto? Are we getting caught in the silliness of the phrase “the rain in Spain” without seeing the significance of the rhythm, rhyme, and interpretation; i.e., are we stuck in traditional grade-level sequences, schedules, and stampeding adolescents through hallways, without recognizing the potential for students to more freely roam into and within their destinies without interruptions from a proverbial bell? Are we narrowing our focus to the accentuation of archaic terms like thee and thou; i.e., are we fixated on desks in rows, large class sizes, and tests that tempt students to cheat because they can Google everything now, rather than expanding our eyes to see the beauty of students’ and teachers’ ideas, experiences, and relationships through new environments and possibilities? Before the pandemic, educators’ most common complaint about the classroom environment was 30+ kids in the room. The dangers and realities of cheating infiltrated every high-stakes test and prestigious reputation. Perhaps physical distancing and adjusting to remote learning environments, albeit stressful, may provide a little relief from those former concerns.

Why not seize the opportunity to look at assessment differently? Why even restrict ourselves to blended (in-person vs. online) classrooms? What are we trying to preserve? What preconceived notions of what we think school is may be blocking our conception of what school could become? Why not continue to expand the learning environment, including stronger connections with home life, informal education, organizational partnerships, and nature (which promotes healthy brain function)? Why not see this challenge as a segment in history, a world of possibility, a legacy, a breakthrough?

To be or not to be; that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them…

Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay…

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.

~ An excerpt from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

What will we learn from this season? How will we transform school on the other side of this moment? What legacy will we leave our children’s children? Will it be as powerful and ubiquitous as the English language? Isn’t learning that imperative? Zooming in on reality is urgent and necessary in the present, and educators are resiliently shining, but overcoming the present realities won’t sustain us or propel us into the future. Zooming out on our vision frees our imagination. Have we forgotten how to dream? Are we so busy asking “How” that we recoil from asking “What If” and “Why Not?”

What if school were different? What if society could perceive educators in new ways, not as babysitters but mentors, not as lecturers but provocateurs, not as objects of complaint, but as recipients of the credit they are due for guiding and inspiring young minds and hearts? What if the past is here and now is the future? What if later generations heralded our creativity with gratitude? We are the John Deweys of this era.

How do we stay current as educational institutions and learning environments, with a forward-thinking vision for 21st Century teaching and learning, while honoring our time-tested values, beliefs, and missions?

What if the world were our classroom? What if we involved our community? What if we developed closer relationships through discipling? What if learning intersected feeling and thinking? What if the arts and health/wellness were considered “core?” Why not? What if questions were the answers and the answers were all around us? What if every child knew their calling and found their voice? What if we could dream bigger, farther, longer, and think even beyond online/blended learning? Why does technology have to be everything? It's not. What if bold educational leaders and visionary teacher teams could have the conversations we’ve been longing for, rather than allowing mindsets and habits to silence originality? What if we kept learning at the center? What could school look like? What is school? What is a teacher? Who are we? What is our purpose?

That is the question. This is our moment.

~ Ronit Carter, President and Lead Consultant, Learning Lens

© 2020 Learning Lens. All Rights Reserved.

Watch the movie clip from My Fair Lady (referenced above).

For more on the topic of "safety" (referenced above), see Safety vs. Safe Learning Environments: We Got This!

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