Teacher Slams School Closures: Student Trauma Will Last Years, ‘We Broke Their Trust’

Empty Classroom
Chris Campbell/Flickr

As public school systems closed and refused to offer consistent and safe schooling to all children over the past year, many “suffered trauma and disconnection that will take years to repair,” according to Lelac Almagor, a fourth-grade public charter school teacher in Washington, D.C. who wrote a lengthy New York Times op-ed on Wednesday.

Describing the pre-pandemic public school system as “imperfect,” Almagor claimed it was “also a little miraculous” and a place where “children from different backgrounds could stow their backpacks in adjacent cubbies, sit in a circle and learn in community.”

Almagor, who is in her 18th year of classroom teaching, described the school she teaches in, and which her own child also attends, as “diverse.” 

“The whole point was that our families chose to do it together — knowing that it meant we would be grappling with our differences and biases well before our children could tie their own shoes,” she wrote.

After the coronavirus pandemic struck, Almagor lamented how “overnight,” school communities “fragmented and segregated.” 

“The wealthiest parents snapped up teachers for ‘microschools,’ reviving the Victorian custom of hiring a governess and a music master,” she wrote. “Others left for private school without a backward glance.”

She noted how some middle-class parents working remotely “toughed it out at home,” as they checked in between virtual meetings, while those with younger kids or in-person jobs “scraped together education and child care — an outdoor play pod or a camp counselor to supervise hours of Zoom classes.”

Almagor also pointed out that such closures did little to solve the problems they were intended to and, in fact, created dilemmas for families unable to afford alternatives.

“With schools closed, the health risks and child care hours didn’t disappear,” she wrote. “They simply shifted from well-educated, unionized, tax-funded professional teachers to hourly-wage, no-benefit workers serving only those who could afford to pay.”

Families with less means were “left with nothing,” according to Almagor, save for “the pallid virtual editions of essential services like occupational or speech therapy.” 

Noting the infeasibility involved in virtual schooling, she claimed that families with fewer resources could attain very little.

“If they could work out the logistics, their kids got a couple of hours a day of Zoom school,” she wrote. “If they couldn’t, they got attendance warnings.”

Almagor also described the commotion outside of the classroom which greatly impeded students’ education.

“In my fourth-grade class, I had students calling in from the car while their mom delivered groceries, or from the toddler room of their mom’s busy day care center,” she wrote.

She added that students “struggled to focus” throughout, as they were often at home with siblings or cousins distracting them, while others chose to lie in bed while watching television or playing video games. 

To make matters worse, Almagor wrote that she was forced to carefully repeat instructions throughout the day as students struggled to comprehend her amid fuzzy audio and lagging video.

She lamented that even “under optimal conditions,” virtual schooling meant substituting the “collaborative magic of the classroom” for a mere “instructional video.”

“Stripped of classroom discussion, human connection, art materials, classroom libraries and time and space to play, virtual school was not school,” she wrote, “it was busywork obscuring the ‘rubber-rooming’ of the entire school system.”

Amlagor hit back at educators who “sneered” that complaining parents merely sought “babysitting” free-of-charge.

“I’m not ashamed to say that child care is at the heart of the work I do. I teach children reading and writing, yes, but I also watch over them, remind them to be kind and stay safe, plan games and activities to help them grow,” she wrote. 

“Children deserve attentive care. That’s the core of our commitment to them,” she added.

Claiming she was still “bewildered and horrified” that society “walked away from this responsibility,” Almagor was left puzzled as to why school was deemed inessential and families were left to “fend” for themselves, while other functions continued as usual.

“Meanwhile nurses, bus drivers and grocery workers all went to work in person — most of my students’ parents went to work in person — not because it was safe but because their work is essential,” she wrote. 

She then noted how many children have suffered considerably as a result of the school closures, despite attempts to portray the situation as harmless or positive.

“Spare me your ‘the kids are all right’ Facebook memes,” she wrote. “Some children may have learned to do laundry or enjoy nature during the pandemic. Many others suffered trauma and disconnection that will take years to repair.”

Admitting that she is no health expert, Almagor pointed to actions that were taken by private schools and some public ones in other areas which ensured students would return quickly and safely.

“I don’t know the first thing about public health,” she admitted, adding she “won’t venture an opinion on what impact the school closures had on controlling the spread of Covid.” 

“What I do know is that the private schools in our city quickly got to work upgrading HVAC systems, putting up tents, cutting class sizes and rearranging schedules so that they could reopen in relative safety,” she wrote.

“Public schools in other states and countries did the same,” she added.

Almagor then criticized the lack of action on part of public school systems to do the same.

“More of our public school systems should have likewise moved mountains — repurposed buildings, reassigned staff, redesigned programming, reallocated funding — to offer consistent public schooling, as safely as possible, to all children,” she wrote.

She then called attention to the hypocrisy of having opened other venues as schools remained closed.

“Instead we opened restaurants and gyms and bars while kids stayed home, or got complicated hybrid schedules that many parents turned down because they offered even less stability than virtual school,” she wrote. 

With states seeing major declines in coronavirus infections, she also suggested that attributing families remaining “reluctant to send their kids back” to the school system having broken their trust.

Acknowledging that virtual learning may work for some, Almagor claimed that “so does home-schooling, or not attending school at all,” however she notes that she is “profoundly relieved that most districts, including my own, plan to shut down or restrict the online option.”

She also stated her hope that ending or limiting virtual schooling is the beginning of a renewal of “our collective commitment to true public education,” adding that, “Children, families and teachers will all need time to rebuild relationships with our institutions.”

Almagor concluded by describing what a return to school will provide students. She wrote:

We’ll be back together, in the same building, eating the same food. We’ll find that the friend who helps us in the morning might need our help in the afternoon. We’ll have soccer arguments at recess and patch them up in closing circle. We’ll sing songs, tell stories, plant seeds and watch them grow. 

“That’s schooling in real life. That’s what public school is for,” she added.

In March, voters overwhelmingly opposed the Democrats continuing to keep schools closed, according to a survey by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). 

In January, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report found, “There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

Last month, newly-released documents suggested that one of the country’s most powerful teachers’ unions shaped Biden administration policies on the reopening of schools, despite President Joe Biden’s pledge to “follow the science” on pandemic policy.

The documents, obtained by the conservative group Americans for Public Trust through a Freedom of Information Act request, were reported by the New York Post. They show the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) lobbying the CDC — and succeeding in having some of their recommendations adopted.

The teachers’ unions had long opposed a rapid reopening of schools, even when science said there was no significant risk. The Los Angeles teachers’ union also claimed that a statewide school reopening plan would reinforce “structural racism.”

Follow Joshua Klein on Twitter @JoshuaKlein.

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