By Rep. Kelly Albright
State House District 95
The Mid-Del School Board has introduced their pandemic preparedness plan for this fall. As other school districts’ plans have trickled in, I observed mostly criticism. Some say a district’s plans don’t go far enough to mitigate risk, while others say they go too far. It reminds me of those puzzling depictions where the image looks like a beautiful woman, but turned a slightly different way, by looking at the negative space, it becomes a witch. I’m most interested in examining the negative space—and I don’t mean the line of patrons in the queue to complain—because it seems too often that negative space and context is lost in the conversation.
First, it’s important to note the role of administrators. The criticism they endure sometimes fails to empathize with their many diverse considerations. We in Mid-Del are lucky to have one of the greatest in Superintendent Dr. Cobb. He listens to every concern and works hard to find what’s truly in the best interest of our children and families. I understand the monumental task he has ahead which seems like a no-win situation. I liken it to the end of The Lord of the Rings when they’re riding into battle knowing they must help their friends, but also that the outlook is grim. Earlier in the series, a conversation between Gandalf and Frodo enlightens: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Or perhaps the administrator’s role is more like the captain going down with the Titanic. Cue the string quartet playing melancholy tunes. Let’s hope our ending is better than Captain Smith’s, and more like Frodo’s when the Riders of Rohan unexpectedly come in at the last moment to save the day.
Parents are rightly concerned with the academic success of their children, and any interruption of in-person education hampers academic gains. There are families where all guardians must report to work, so leaving their children at home to learn online isn’t an option. They cannot afford childcare, they don’t have the time to facilitate online learning, and they cannot afford to not work. For our especially under-resourced families, schools fulfill needs that must be met. Multiple hot meals, enough packaged food to last the weekend, counseling services, healthcare screenings, after school care, clothing, and more would go unserved without schools. Think for a moment of the enormity of what schools do. It’s more than just a building of knowledge. It’s a home built of love. Schools are a community hub and serve a critical role in reaching all the many needs of our children and families.
Students need social-emotional safety. They miss their friends, benefit from socialization, and that requires being around other kids. They’re concerned with missing field trips, prom, and graduation. They’re longing for the connections found in sports, band, choir, and clubs. They need a safe space to process their worries, and a mental health facilitator to navigate them. They need the arts and humanities, movement and drama classes, and so much more. Public schools have fulfilled these extracurricular needs, and continue to adapt to a 21st century world where the goalpost is constantly moving at breakneck speeds. Perhaps if any lesson is learned through this ordeal, it’s that the primary directive of schools isn’t simply about imparting knowledge, but rather a sacred communion of connectedness and community. The “Three Rs: Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic” are merely the vessels by which we travel to and from the lakes of love, the deserts of desperation, fjords of friendship, canyons of collaboration, and avoid the sinkhole of solitude. These lessons are more valuable to society in the long run.
Teachers’ biggest concern is largely their health while working and their healthcare coverage. Teachers want to help their students more than anything, but we shouldn’t take for granted their love of students by making them sacrifice their health during a pandemic. Many teachers are at a high risk and cannot simply find another job. This is cruel and unfair. In addition to their duties to educate children, teachers are expected to sacrifice their safety to protect children in a potential school shooting, an epidemic that has been sadly normalized for decades now. Can we really look teachers in the eye and ask them to continue to walk into huge class sizes with few resources? We already have an exodus of teachers nationwide. The response to this pandemic will surely be the final nail in the coffin for public schools if we continually fail to listen to teachers.
So, looking at the context and the negative space within education, we see both the witch, the beautiful woman, and perhaps something more all in the same image. There are opposing forces that seemingly cannot reconcile this idea of reopening schools without leaving us with “haves” and “have nots.” Parents who have other childcare options need to know their children are keeping up academically. Working parents need a place to keep their kids during the day. Children need a safe space to build social-emotional skills. Teachers need to know their safety is a priority. These solutions require what some have flippantly called “throwing money at the problem,” but without adequate funding, schools continue to be disadvantaged. Smaller class sizes for better spacing would demand more teachers and hazard pay at that. Cleaning supplies cost money. Masks cost money, even though they present challenges as well. Even so, they are the best defense we currently have in mitigating the spread of the virus. It’s no simple solution, but if education cannot be done safely and equitably, we must address the reasons why. We must be flexible and address the needs that have become glaringly exposed by this pandemic. It takes all of us coming together to agree that while we may see different images of the problem, we are stronger together with our combined perspectives to solve it. As a lifelong Midwest City resident, I know we’ll meet this challenge, as we have before, with courage and grace. However, do we really want to reopen schools without getting buy-in from everyone involved? Is that the Oklahoma Standard?