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A Chicago principal asks: ‘What is school without a school?’

Parents and school districts are talking about moving forward, “transitioning to remote learning,” as if that is a real thing we had planned for.

“The reality is that schools do not even know where all their kids are,” writes Seth Lavin. “So many families just aren’t connected. They don’t have the internet. They don’t have computers.”
“The reality is that schools do not even know where all their kids are,” writes Seth Lavin. “So many families just aren’t connected. They don’t have the internet. They don’t have computers.”
Sun-Times Media

I am the principal of a Chicago elementary school. On Friday, March 13, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that all schools in the state would be closed that Tuesday.

We haven’t been back since.

In the first week of quarantine, a kindergarten mother emailed me to ask if our school could give back the supplies that she had sent in September. They were trying to help their 5-year-old, she said, but she and her husband had already been laid off. They were running out of crayons.

Like everyone else, we now are trying to answer the question: “What is school without a school?”

Parents and school districts are talking about moving forward, “transitioning to remote learning,” as if that is a real thing we had planned for.

But here is the ugly truth: this is not a transition. This is a natural disaster. This is teachers forced from their classrooms with what they could carry, trying to do something they are not equipped or trained for, trapped in their homes and suffering the same sense of collective trauma as everyone else.

And right now when a school decides to move forward, it also decides to leave kids behind.

The thing that makes public school good is that we work to make things fairer. We bring kids together, with all their wonder and vitality and difference, and we give them what they need to grow.

But now we are not together. The reality is that schools do not even know where all their kids are. So many families just aren’t connected. They don’t have the internet. They don’t have computers.

There are answers. We’re trying to find our kids and get them devices even as we figure out e-learning. We’re keeping lists of students who haven’t shown up online and calling their friends to try to find them.

Earlier this month, we pulled computers off carts and put them in garbage bags, then drove around the city dropping them off at students’ houses.

But there are still kids missing. And there will be in every school and district, no matter what you read about laptop drives and discounted internet.

So what do we do? We know from past disasters that we have to move forward. It is the right thing even though it’s awful: teach the kids you can find until you can find the rest. But America is a machine that gives to people who have and takes from people who do not, and this is going to make it worse.

What is a school without a school? The mission has to change. We have to move forward, but our priority cannot be schoolwork. Our children are out there. They’re cut off. They need their teachers because that is who cares for them outside their families. They need their classmates because friends are their community.

But the work of schools has to now be finding our kids and connecting: giving them a space to talk, ask questions, and be together. Care first, then academics.

As a principal, I still go into our school building every day, but I’ve stopped spending time in the empty classrooms. They break my heart. Each one is a world created by teacher and children, now frozen in time. On every white board it still says “Monday, March 16.”

My son’s classroom hurts most. He loved first grade. He loved his teacher and classmates. And now that’s gone.

Only, it isn’t. The resilience of children always surprises.

I put first grade in past tense; my son does not. He’s still living his childhood even in quarantine. Grubbing for sweets. Trying to make a claw machine out of cardboard. Smiling biggest when there’s a video call and he sees the faces of his teacher and friends.

They’re still here.

Seth Lavin is the principal at Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy in Logan Square, a Chicago public school.

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