Going Forward (Not Back) to School

Remarks offered by Gesell Executive Director, Dr. Peg Oliveira to her own local Board of Education in New Haven, Connecticut, who has voted to begin the year remotely, with some push back at every level. Every district has a story and unique needs. Here is just one story.

Remarks by Peg Oliveira, PhD
Executive Director, Gesell Program in Early Childhood at the Yale Child Study Center
Aug. 10, 2020

Hello Madame President and members of the New Haven Board of Education, Dr. Tracey and thank you to all NHPS staff and families engaging in this important discussion. My name is Peg Oliveira and I am the parent of a Hooker School middle school student and the spouse of a NHPS high school teacher. I am also the Director of the Gesell Program in Early Childhood at the Yale Child Study Center.

As a parent of a NHPS student it is my personal opinion that sending my child back to school is NOT a personal choice. If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic it is that there are few choices that do not impact our neighbors. Like wearing a mask, it is a public duty to agree, as a community, to make uncomfortable choices to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable members. I stand as one proud Hooker parent prepared to do so.

I applaud NHPS leadership as well as the Board of Education for investing so passionately in this decision. This is your decision to make and for that, I feel for you deeply! However, as an education and child development professional working with schools across the nation, I can share my professional perspective, and hope it serves to inform, rather than muddy, this complicated situation.

First, school as we left it in March, should not be our North Star. It is not worthy nor is it possible. We cannot, under any model, “return” to school as we knew it.

This emergency requires a rethinking of school. Talent and resources are squandered if spent on spackling the cracks in the remains of the old school model, ravaged by this pandemic, just to raise up on Sept. 3 a good enough version of what we all recognize as school. I want that first day of school photo in front of the building as much as any parent. But let’s be clear, just as that
picture never tells the full story of the first day of school, the building is not school.

Contrary to Governor Lamont’s fears, it does not NEED to be an inevitability that our children will “lose a year of education” by not returning to a school building. If our true goal is to ensure continued learning for all children, that we can achieve. But we must get out of our own way. We must drop the sentimental memories of what school was. We must wrap our heads around investing taxpayer dollars in people doing innovative things in unusual spaces that support whole child development. This may look unfamiliar to those of us schooled in rows of desks. It
may be hard to imagine that math can happen in the forest or collaboration can happen on a virtual meeting. But we must start from the premise that kids learn in many ways and in many environments.

Let’s drop the hubris that allows us to think that what’s good about New Haven Public School’s is its buildings. That’s way too easy. What children miss about school is relationships. What makes schools amazing, are people. We need to shift our focus from some romanticized return to the school building and start investing in the people that can make school happen outside of that box.

I heard the list of unanswered problems of in person schooling raised during last week’s Board of Education meeting. And I read the counter list, offered by our Superintendent, of unanswered problems with remote learning. There is no perfect answer on the table. So I encourage us to push away from this table of less than ideal solutions. We can do better. Let’s use the resources we have and the bought time of two months to reconsider the problems to be solved and redefine the goal. There are ways that teachers can teach without school buildings. There are ways that parents can be supported to go to work without school buildings. And there is no doubt in my mind that children can be inspired to inquire and learn without school buildings. All that remains is the courage to put new solutions in place, rather than spackle in the cracks.

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