COVID-19 offers students ‘extraordinarily powerful lesson’ in caring for others

Caitlin Logan is a middle school English teacher in New York’s Sullivan West Central School District.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been an abundance of articles, op-eds, blog posts and social media rants written by countless individuals who are urging schools to reopen in the fall. They cite an untold number of reasons, ranging from the extremely logical concern of academics and achievement to a number of concerns that I would consider to be in the category of ridiculous.

As an educator, it’s been entertaining to see just how many people seem to have an opinion on education at this moment. On a daily basis, people quibble over what schools should or shouldn’t do.The range and sources of these opinions are illuminating. However, there is a particular brand of article that I’ve seen a lot lately, and I find it not only annoying in a cursory sense, but deeply troubling.

Articles have been circling about the “harm” that sending students back to school wearing masks and maintaining social distance will do to them. It will “kill their joy” or inflict “trauma” or any number of unspeakable ills that apparently are all wrapped up in this piece of cloth. Therefore, these articles conclude that we should spare our children this harm and send them back to school as we normally would  no mask, no social distance, no new rules. After all, the percentage of children affected by this virus is extremely low, so why traumatize our children unduly?

I find this characterization of wearing a mask or keeping social distance both exaggerated and revealing. Wearing a mask and keeping social distance in a school is not ideal. I concede that keeping children socially distanced is not only difficult to enforce, but it truly is not how children are supposed to be. Children are supposed to run, play, even fight sometimes — and all of this requires a physical closeness with others that I believe we all want our children to grow up experiencing.

Except, here’s the thing. They can’t right now, and for a very good reason: to keep themselves and others safe.

As adults, we seem to often forget how much we frame the realities of our children. This moment is a teachable one, a moment where American children as a collective can truly experience what that word really means. Being part of a collective is to cooperate with a group, to act as a whole, to consider the universal truth that we are but one number in this sum of parts.

This is an extraordinarily powerful lesson.

Wearing a mask is no more traumatic for a child than we make it. Social distancing definitely isn’t fun, but it’s not something that should rob children of all their joy unless we, the adults in their lives, tell them it will. It is our job, not theirs, to create moments of joy and learning even from 6 feet apart and through a double layer of cloth. It is our job to address their feelings, but also to foster their resilience and strength as individuals whose actions can and do affect others.

American children are capable of confronting this new, temporary reality head-on and with a clear understanding of their part in this collective. It is a lesson in citizenship and empathy, and to smother this moment with our own interpretation of what will be traumatic illuminates the guise of American individualism and claims of freedom for what they truly are: privilege. 

It’s not lost on me that all the articles I read about trauma and the possibility of trauma being induced by COVID-19 precautions were written by white people. This is not to say that there are no articles written by people of color that might make similar claims, I just have not come across them yet. However, I feel fairly confident going out on this limb to say that the overwhelming majority of these claims of “trauma” were probably made by white Americans. 

This particular moment in our country has cast a glaring spotlight on privilege and what it means to have privilege in America. This privilege has always been there, but the acknowledgement has not been. The contrast between the possible trauma of a face covering and social distance being claimed by white people, and the lived trauma of institutionalized racism, bigotry and sometimes even open hatred experienced by people of color could not be more stark.

While we as white Americans pine over the supposed trauma caused by attending school with spread-out desks, people of color have to explain to their children why yet another Black man was murdered by the police, why their communities don’t receive the same healthcare, and why a disproportionate number of Black and Brown Americans died and are dying during this crisis. People of color in America do not have the privilege of sparing their children from the harshness of this world on any day, not just during this pandemic. Trauma exists in this world, in all forms and for all people.

But this, acting to protect ourselves and others  this is not trauma. This is an opportunity being misjudged and misinterpreted because of privilege.  

So sure, send kids back to school once we figure out the safest way to do it. I saw firsthand the impact that distance learning had on many students. We need to get back to the classroom as soon as we can. But if the safest way ends up meaning that students need to wear masks or stay distanced to slow the spread of this virus that’s decimating communities, even if these communities are not theirs, then I believe that American children are up to this task. They can and should rise to this occasion.

And perhaps this task, the understanding that sometimes you choose to act with the safety of not only yourself, but that of others, in mind is a very tiny step toward the realization of the freedom and equality we have too long touted in this country but never fulfilled. 

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