The stay-at-home order (both de facto and de jure) that is now approaching the end of its fifth week has me in a very jarring place… for a number of reasons, but one I think at the root of it all is that I am simultaneously holding competing senses and states of being in my mind all. the. time. On the one hand, there is the ever-present sense of urgency that comes from having to work work work to plan our continued professional navigation of the day-to-day in ways that are much more time-consuming and labor-intensive than under normal circumstances.
On the other hand, the urgency has been complicated – and sometimes completely stalled – by the lack of concrete knowledge about where we are heading. As of now, several states (including PA, where I live and where my children go to school) have already closed school buildings statewide for the year. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this stance, the fact that the decision has been made and finalized allows school communities in PA to proceed with making plans for the remainder of the year with the understanding that there will be no more in-person physical classes or gatherings. We may not like it, but at least we know the cards we have been dealt, and can play them accordingly.
We have waited weeks for the 4/17 decision from Gov. Murphy about the scope of continued school closures in NJ. It actually came a day early, but I confess to feeling more frustration than anything else when I heard that the closures were just extended to May 15, with another decision to be made then.
To be clear, I would love nothing more for this to all be a bad dream and for us to get back to school tomorrow, provided we could do so safely and without elevated risk to our students, staff, and surrounding communities. Also, because I have seen some anonymous nobodies on social media calling for educators to take pay cuts or give back parts of their salaries for this year – I am not on vacation and I am not enjoying this. There are some professions and jobs for which telecommuting makes perfect sense. I don’t believe mine is one of them (and let’s be honest, this isn’t even telecommuting; this is crisis teaching, or disaster teaching, as I have seen it referred to elsewhere). My wife and I – along with all the other educators I know – are working three times as hard to deliver the education and services children and families need throughout this pandemic. From a leadership standpoint, we find ourselves having to devote time and energy planning for the most mundane of tasks, and then planning again when we run into obstacles. Even the best of days since the schools have shut down have been stressful and complicated, never mind the worst.
With the uncertainty surrounding the last month or so of the school year – not just classes but all the attendant ceremonies and activities – we find ourselves in a position where long-term planning is… if not impossible, certainly much more challenging than if we knew for sure we’d be closed (or open, for that matter). Again, even under the best of circumstances, these things take an inordinate amount of planning and preparation. Now, and for at least the next four weeks, it’s pretty clear we will be doubling our efforts, making one set of plans for in-person events and at least one other to allow for a closed building and prohibitions on public gatherings. And even if we are physically back, what restrictions, if any, will we have to navigate and accommodate in order to return to a safe school environment (e.g., masks, social distancing, split sessions, etc., all of which have been proposed by various state governors facing public pressure to reopen schools and the economy that relies so heavily on the child supervision component schools provide). Again – nobody is afraid of hard work, but with everything taking three times as long as usual, there are only so many hours in a day to make things happen.
I understand the political and economic factors at play in a decision like this, and it is not my intention to minimize those concerns. I also appreciate how Murphy, as well as other governors from the region such as Wolf, Cuomo, and Carney, have indicated that any economic reopening or recovery plan must and will prioritize public health concerns. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the decision as much as it is a reflection on how the lack of a concrete path forward creates additional challenges.
I work with a fantastic staff who will rise to any challenge, but perhaps one of the most frustrating things about this situation is not being able to do one of the things we do best, which is problem-solve, and certainly not as efficiently or as effectively as we would like, not knowing what the context we will be dealing with in four weeks will be. I know it frustrates people who come to us with questions (and proposed solutions to problems, present or potential) when our response is, “We don’t know” or “we have to wait and see.” It frustrates us having to give those responses. It’s not because we haven’t thought about it, or are blowing them off, or don’t have thoughts about multiple contingencies we could put into play – developing Plans A through X, Y, and Z is what we spend much of our workdays doing these days – it’s that until we know exactly where we’re going, there’s only so much we can do in terms of taking action.