I sat in on a Zoom meeting the other evening. It was run by our school district, and the purpose was to discuss any issues surrounding the plan to return at least some of the student body back to in-person instruction come December.
We have no plans to send R back as of now. He is a senior and is missing a lot, but better healthy than infected. And we are back at record breaking Covid numbers, so I am not playing games here. I did not birth this kid and see him through ten thousand things, only to lose sight of the big picture on the cusp of his much anticipated adulthood. But I still wanted to know what the schools have in mind, so okay, back to my impressions.
We had already been informed that a number of teachers would still be teaching remotely, so there is a good chance that returning students might still end up in class but with a teacher on screen, and a sub sitting with them to be a body in the room.
What I am about to say is not because I am trying to point fingers at people in our district. Rather, I believe, based on online and text discussions with other parents of special needs children, that the things I heard some people say in the meeting are utterly commonplace, and their very banality is staggering.
Because I cannot be writing a novel late at night over here (WHY NOT??? I can hear some of you snerking…I know who you are, and you can out yourselves later), I will list the things that stood out:
One–Unhappiness with the several teachers who are opting to continue remotely. There was some sense of teachers shirking their duties and possibly not having “valid” reasons to work from home. I don’t want to repeat the details because my blog is not for gossip, but they shocked me.
My reaction: Having actively listened to some of the instruction R has received, because I am nosy, and very much enjoying the rare insight into what American public high school is like, it is by no means possible to claim that duties are being shirked. My god, these teachers are present and engaged in every way that matters.
Caveat: I know that seniors already know how to navigate stuff, and the teachers know them, so I get why younger kids might struggle more with remote learning issues, and not feel able to speak up when they are lost.
However, we are in the throes of trying to contain a mismanaged pandemic, so I cannot understand why “AVOIDING COVID” is not a valid reason for every single teacher. I can see around me people who are not treating school as the only acceptable exposure; they are also socializing and eating out and etc, so the potential viral load is pretty much at unacceptable levels in this country as far as I am concerned. With the holidays approaching, even contact tracing is going to be complicated.
Two–There were expressions of concern about students’ mental health, and also about special ed kids.
My reaction: I do wish people wouldn’t blanket include my kids in these expressions of concern. Yes, A is not doing well, but keeping him home is not some cowardly move. It is, for us, the only sensible, fact-based response to the Covid data. And as someone with a chronic health condition, I am uninterested in him bringing home the virus to me. I would not fare well, and I care about my life, and quality thereof. No one else but us is planning to look after A anyway, so we need our health. If you have a pandemic pod that would come through for you, that’s great, but some of us don’t.
Caveat: I know that many parents of special ed kids feel differently from me, and are concerned about regression, and that’s why it isn’t right to badger us into a unilateral education plan. I too am disheartened by A’s regression, but Covid being so serious is not the school’s fault.
After the meeting, I thought about how waiting is hard. That was the crux of what the angry parents were saying. We all feel despair, and that there is no end in sight. But I don’t want that despair to be the catalyst for decisions that might infect and decimate our town.
It’s hard for parents of special ed kids to form a sense of community, let alone feel connected to the mainstream. Our kids’ needs are complex, and often have little to do with other special ed kids’. So while we may feel the same emotions, we hardly ever arrive at the same solutions.
That night, I was trying to process my sadness. At how it felt like the teachers were being expected to put themselves in danger. And how that made me feel even more disconnected from my town than I already do, if that’s even possible. Since I am at heart a religious person, I mulled over the religious value system that we might apply to this moment. Setting aside my own default Hindu world view, I mulled over what ideas people who are from here and who have grown up in other faiths might bring to bear.
Almost coincidentally, I was listening to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s podcast. He was talking about this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, and about Abraham in particular. Rabbi Sacks framed the question of why Abraham is seen as a role model for leadership in terms of three types of responsibility–personal, moral, and collective.
In contrast to Adam and Eve, who deflect personal responsibility, and deny being the authors of their own actions, thus misusing freedom and its attendant obligations; in contrast to Cain, who shoves off the idea of moral responsibility towards his brother; and in contrast to Noah, who pedantically performs only the tasks demanded of him, but does not plead for the lives of those God might have spared, thus ignoring our collective responsibility–Abraham steps up to all three aspects of responsibility. The podcast episode is only about ten minutes, if you want to listen.
What struck me was what we owe to one another. Both Noah and Abraham are given advance information about God’s plan to cause destruction, and only Abraham (and later Moses and the Prophets) pleads the cause of fellow humans. Having that kind of access to power, and using it for the welfare of others–that’s what leadership is.
Rabbi Sacks talks about how, despite having no nation to lead, Abraham initiates the pattern of challenging the world in the name of the world that ought to be. He is told by God to walk ahead of God. Why? Because it is a call to responsibility.
So how does one apply these three ideals?
One: We are personally responsible for our children, so we must make decisions that will preserve their lives during a pandemic.
Two: We are morally responsible for others’ safety during the pandemic, so we should be following all precautions, and also not forcing teachers to place their lives at risk.
Three: We are collectively responsible for what happens from here. Electing effective leaders is one duty. But the other is figuring out how to make things less awful for our children, who have not had access to meaningful social interaction for months.
You know what I am going to say here: You all owe a greater collective responsibility to the special needs children and adults in your community. They need people to do more than the bare minimum. But I won’t ever agree that endangering their teachers and support staff is the answer.
I believe a very different kind of conversation needs to happen.
Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. “Vayera 5781: Answering the Call.” The Office of Rabbi Sacks, Spotify, 4 Nov. 2020, https://rabbisacks.org/vayera-5781/.