In a previous column, I wrote about finding my maternal grandmother’s diary a few years ago and discovering several poignant entries she had written in 1918 about the Spanish Flu pandemic when she was a 17-year-old girl.
After the COVID pandemic struck this country, I dug out her diary again and re-read her entries. I was amazed by the similarities between then and now when she discussed the closings of schools, theaters, churches, and various businesses. But, I was also struck by the many differences between then and now, one of which is how schools are dealing with the situation today.
In 1918, many schools closed down and remained closed for long periods of time. Obviously, there was no “distance learning” then, not even something akin to correspondence school where students could receive homework and submit it by mail. Schools simply shut down and learning stopped. How different the educational landscape is today!
One of the ISD 31 principals recently shared a story with me that she read on a website called, The Daily Five. In the article, writer Lori Sabo describes a young student who was starting school for the first time during this school year. This youngster had two big brothers who had started attending school a few years before him, and now it was finally his turn to start. Then the pandemic hit, which meant that his first public-school experience was distance learning, sitting next to his father, who helped him with his schoolwork.
Two months later, he was finally able to attend in-person school two days a week -- Mondays and Tuesdays. His parents, who, in previous years, had sent the two other boys off to their first days of school, said it was the strangest thing to replace the usual first-day-of-school “pep talk” with instructions on how to wear his mask, how to find and use hand sanitizer, and what six feet apart looks like.
During his first few days of in-person school, this young first-grader began experiencing school life during a pandemic, followed by a school lockdown because of an active-shooter threat in the neighborhood of the school. On his fourth day, the electrical power in the entire town was out. However, school officials decided it was important to keep school in session. As a result, students started the day in classes, hallways and lunchrooms that were dimly lit with fluorescent lights powered by a school generator.
When his dad picked him up, he said, “You’re going to school during a pandemic, you’ve experienced a lockdown, and today you went to school mostly in the dark. How are you feeling about all of that?”
The child replied, “It was no different than any other day at school. We just kept learning today. It was no big deal.”
This is a lesson to us all about how resilient children are and how much schools and educators are doing to ensure a sense of normalcy and routine during extraordinary times. It is also a reminder to us about how important school is for children. Finally, I am keenly aware that, during any time of difficulty and challenge, children watch and learn from how we handle situations.
During this pandemic, we have all felt overwhelmed at times, especially our teachers. But, when school is in session, we make it our goal to remain calm, to provide an important sense of routine for our students, and we remind our students how important it is to be in school and to learn. What we are doing in our schools is crucial for the future of our students and for our society.
When this pandemic is over, my hope is that we will all be able to look back on this crazy time and reflect that we stayed calm, and that we treated each other with respect, grace and dignity. I also hope we will be able to say, “We just kept teaching and learning!”
Tim Lutz is superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.