Growing Community: It’s school time – but not as we know it

Every family with children, regardless of their kids’ ages, is braced for the new school year. A time traditionally filled with excitement (of parents!), apprehension (everybody) and expensive forays to Target and Walmart, is, this year, filled instead with crushing dread. And this, for reasons we all know so well by now, that we are not going to mention them –  a bit like not uttering the name “Voldemort.” Oh wait…

Tired of talking about how unprecedented and uncertain the times are during this global pandemic, we want to focus on how on earth we can all get through this school year with peace, love and understanding, and, who knows, maybe even find some bright spots among the fear and gloom that will sustain us even when it’s all over – because it will be, one day. That, at least, is certain.

Nobody is going to be happy.

It’s worth remembering this, because much as we might like to pretend that everything is fine and hunky dory, as we squeeze whatever we can out of the beautiful Aspen summer, it patently isn’t, and any solution to getting our kids their education this year is bound to fall short. The sooner we all accept that – get used to the discomfort, and understand that there are things we can all do together in order to mitigate the damage – the better.

We will start with teachers, who are always, and rightfully, revered in society for their commitment to their chosen profession. Teachers shape our children’s lives. It has therefore been difficult for many to hear that teachers locally, nationally and around the world are worried about, and even resistant to, returning to work in classrooms full of children. Just as difficult to hear is the vitriol and resentment directed at those teachers by some parents and other community members, because of it.

And now let’s think about the parents themselves, who are already stressed after the mostly awful experience of running home schools from March to June and then trying to figure out how to keep their kids busy all summer (and by the way, huge THANKS to all the daycares and camps that operated safely, under constrained and challenging conditions).

Many families have taken a terrifying financial hit. Jobs are being lost, homes threatened, COVID-related unemployment benefits have gone away and we’re heading into the mother – and father – of all recessions. The one thing parents need is for their children to be busy and flourishing at school, so they can go to work and maintain a semblance of normality.

And it isn’t going to happen, in ways that satisfy everyone (or anyone), despite their best, highly commendable, efforts.

To complicate matters further, many teachers are parents. Some – families and teachers – are immuno-compromised and simply cannot risk being exposed. Some are anxious about the virus, others are less worried.

We talk about how technology can solve all our problems, but even though huge advances are likely this school year, nobody believes that remote learning is as good as in-person school. It’s definitely the “least–worst” option.

So here we all are, gambling away in a huge casino, each of us with very different levels of tolerance for risk. And the complicating truth is that everyone’s feelings and convictions are legitimate. These are personal decisions and we mostly make them based on science that is developing and sometimes feels shaky, because so little is known of the horror that cannot be named. We can only do our best. There are no guarantees in life.

So perhaps the only way we will make progress is to accept our own vulnerabilities and practice some tolerance. We need to stay healthy, accept advice from public health departments and contain the spread of the virus. Teachers need to teach. Families need to work. Kids need to learn. We have to pull together.

This is the time to look to our community, friends, family members to help with food assistance, extra academic support, economic benefits, child care and more. Aspen Family Connections, Kids First and many other agencies are here to help. Let’s lower the temperature of our discourse, walk in each other’s shoes, compromise, be compassionate, practical, and find ways to help each other make the best of things.

We’ll get through this with peace, love and understanding.

The “Growing Community” column, submitted in turns by Shirley Ritter, the director of Kids First, and Katherine Sand, the director of Aspen Family Connections, runs on intermittent Wednesdays in the Aspen Daily News. It features topics of interest related to early childhood, parenting and education. To reach the authors, email Shirley at shirley.ritter@cityofaspen.com or Katherine at ksand@aspenk12.net.

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