Opinion: Finding Meaning


Back to School

It was 2 a.m., the Beautiful Wife sweetly asleep, I wide awake. I slipped away, searching for something to read. A favorite book, H.W. Brand’s biography of Benjamin Franklin, “The First American,” came to hand. As is my wont, I read the last paragraph first. It inspired this column.

A Philadelphia matron, at the close of the Constitutional Convention, asks Franklin what had been created in four months of deliberation? Franklin’s wry response summed his lifework: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Keeping our democratic republic requires an educated electorate. In a life nearing eight decades, as parent to six children and twenty grandchildren, I have never been more concerned about the quality of education children receive. This is not a political column, but I have written twice about the importance of resuming personal, not hastily thrown together, distant learning. This is a hot topic; the last column had more reader response than any column I’ve written. Here’s what five said, in the order received:

“This article was amazing and so well done.” Excuse me, ahem, for including that opening compliment, but here’s the conclusion, “How could anyone read it and not acknowledge the fact children need to go to school and that the risk of them getting sick is very low?”

The next was from a mother and physician: “I just wanted to let you know your opinion piece on reopening schools is great. I am a physician and a parent and I feel those making decisions on school closures are uneducated. The data is overwhelming that the kids need to be in school, not virtual.”

Then this from a lawyer, “I, to my regret, am a contrarian, and, not to my regret, a critical reader. I rarely find objection to your articles. Keep up the good, insightful work.”

All good thus far, but two had differing views:

Titled “Omitting facts can have life and death consequence when the topic is about a pandemic,” this person urged that I should include “all the information.” I respectfully responded, pointing out that the column was as packed with facts as I could make it, and noting that the recommendation for kids to return from the classroom wasn’t from me, but from the collector of “all the information”—our federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They see the whole picture and made the critical conclusion that kids are better-off in school than out.

The last was an editorial in this paper titled, “Can we leave this to the Experts?” Actually, by following the guidance of the CDC, the column was heeding the real experts. The letter closed by asking I not “voice opinions that feed discontent.” The reality is that the discontent is widespread. The school board seems unaware but almost everyone I speak with—parents, children, and teaches—want time-proven classroom teaching to resume, though with optional distance learning for those with special risks. This isn’t feeding discontent, it’s recognizing the rights of voters who pay the cost of our now-idle schools. There’s a school board election in 65 days with a chance for a new majority. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip.  He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.  Email:  [email protected]

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  1. I am a high school teacher in the Tustin Unified School District. I’ve worked hard to connect with students on a personal level, introducing Social-Emotional Learning strategies early to my classroom with solid, high-praised results (both administratively, and as positive feedback from my students). It’s with this long-standing concern for students and our staff in mind that I write to voice concerns about implementing on-site instruction right now. “Right now” is an elastic term. Data on the pandemic suggests we have shifted into reverse. Our county’s positive rates are spiking. Death tolls typically lag six weeks behind testing positive for the virus. Sadly, hospitals are just starting to over-crowd.

    To open our county public schools to on-site classroom environments is clearly misguided. Orange County is a destination for tourism. It’s also an urban, high-density district. Children have been exposed, over the summer, to a variety of densely populated environments. I’ve seen it. As a high school teacher, I’ve mostly had teens to witness. They have been my observable group for 16 years. And for 16 years I’ve noticed teenagers are huggers. They lean in on each other. They seek to eliminate distance. They don’t always follow “protocol” – especially if said protocol infringes on their impulses. So– it is with tremendous faith in the consistency of teen behavior that a suggestion to resume on-site schooling be considered. Teen behavior is inconsistent. Rules that assume teens will see their “moral imperative” to protect the lives of their community members are probably going to be broken. It’s not to say teens have no moral compass. It’s to say we’re loading too large a burden on the backs of KIDS.

    Many teens WILL follow the rules, but there is still a margin of error. Any sample size of 300 teens will reveal that not all of them are as diligent about respect or as mindful of the consideration of the rules as their cohorts. This virus preys on inconsistency to thrive. Kids are inconsistent — through no fault of their own. To place the burden of “the safety of the community” on teens right now is not only irresponsible, but it smacks of cruelty.

    Sadly, it seems that those in our community who are most adamant about reopening and approximating normalcy are the very people who have downplayed safety measures early on. Unfortunately, many who are the angriest about following COVID safety measures– wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding public spaces at their most crowded — are often the most vocal advocates of reopening. They, ironically, are often the ones most likely to downplay the death toll. So — it is the children of this most vocal group who will argue hardest to attend school in person in the fall. I’m not sure I trust the health of my students and staff -who have been mindful and safe- in the hands of those who feel this pandemic is “overblown” or – increasingly common in our crowded county – those who see the virus as “a hoax”.

    People are dying. This is obvious. I don’t think it is morally right to pressure those of us who feel afraid of getting sick to “get on board”. It is not morally right to flaunt a disregard for slow, measured caution in the name of resuming “on-site” learning at school. Team sports can wait. Dramatic productions can wait. Academic learning will go on. Online learning is not new to our kids. Colleges demand that students have a comfort level and proficiency in online learning.

    This pandemic is an opportunity to teach students, when faced with moral uncertainly, to choose the consideration of their fellow citizens. This pandemic is a teachable moment. Please avoid treating this teachable moment as a pesky inconvenience.

    Thank you very much.


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