Viral videos and reports from school board meetings in Indiana and across the nation suggest public schools are in an uproar, torn apart as parents battle over mask mandates, critical race theory and more.
While the mask debate has pushed too many Indiana schools to return without the important safeguard that protected students, teachers and staff from the coronavirus last year, don't confuse the school board drama with what's happening in classrooms. Students have returned to their classrooms and learning.
An annual survey of views on public education suggests most Americans believed that would be the case. Phi Delta Kappa, a Bloomington-based professional organization for educators, asked survey respondents how confident they were that public schools in their communities would be prepared to reopen fully. Eighty-one percent were confident they would reopen and 81% also believed it safe for students, teachers and staff to return.
The survey found 63% of public school parents gave their schools a grade of A or B for how they handled the pandemic in the last school year. That was a year disrupted by strict social-distancing requirements and scheduling changes in many districts.
Sandra Vohs, president of the Fort Wayne Education Association, said she wasn't surprised by the results of the annual Phi Delta Kappa poll.
“It was nice to see because what gets out in the press is the people who are railing against their school boards,” she said. “That's a very vocal minority. I think that what that survey shows is that most common-sense people are like, 'Yes, the school is doing the best they can to try and keep kids safe. I appreciate that.' ”
For their part, teachers are happy to be back, but facing new challenges, Vohs said of her union's membership. Elementary-level students had relatively normal schedules last year, but the middle and high school schedules included more virtual instruction to reduce the number of students in the building.
“We're hearing that this year is actually more difficult than last year,” she said. “Now that pretty much everybody is back in person, the social distancing is just not really possible.”
Quarantining, which is required when COVID-19 cases are reported, is creating a challenge, Vohs said. Lunchrooms and extracurricular activities have been the source for most quarantining requirements.
“You have kids who are going out different days and coming back different days,” she said. “Sometimes you have your whole class there; sometimes this corner (of the classroom) is gone. Sometimes half your class is gone.”
She said Gov. Eric Holcomb's order lifting quarantine requirements if everyone is masked will help avoid those disruptions.
New classroom technology in place this year has involved a learning curve for both teachers and students, and some students are still struggling to catch up from learning disruptions.
“I'm hearing that within classrooms, we have kids who are on track – just like they would expect them to be – and we have a lot of kids who are a little bit behind,” Vohs said. “And we have a lot of kids who were a lot behind. ... (Teachers) don't usually have kids coming in with this wide of a gap within a particular classroom. If you haven't been in school for a year, and you're only in second grade, that's a long time and a lot of learning that would normally take place. So even if you were remote or online, it's just different when you get back in the classroom.”
Returning to a sense of normalcy, in terms of classroom behavior, is taking some time, according to Vohs.
The district's mask mandate is not among problems mentioned by teachers, she said.
“Mask-wearing is not a problem with students,” Vohs said. “There's a one-off case every now and then. But generally speaking, it seems to be the masking issue is a lot more of a big deal for adults than it is for the kids.”
As the annual education survey suggests, the real deal is learning, and most realize our public schools are up to the task. The pandemic reinforced the value of schools and teachers, as well as the key roles they play in our economy and community. As recovery continues, they deserve our continued patience and support.
On the web