EDITORIAL: Local teachers and other school workers deserve thanks after a tough year

As we emerge from the pandemic, the community ought to unite in praise of school employees who helped pull us through. School houses are quieting down for the summer. Students, parents and employees all are certainly glad to see the year end.

“Good riddance” is the first thought that comes to mind. But then consider what’s happened in the past 12 months. Overnight, schools had to close their doors. Students stayed home, day in and day out. Parents and other caregivers adjusted – and fast. A year ago, no one knew how serious the coronavirus would be – or if it was. A year ago, uncertainty was the only certainty about life in Malheur County.

Suddenly, teachers had to figure out how to teach from afar. They had to exchange that in-person connection for teaching to tiny faces on small screens. They had to slow down their presentations to allow everyone to keep up. They had to adapt – essentially overnight – what lessons they could cram into shortened school days.

Think of administrators – superintendents, principals, athletic directors, and others. They launched into the unknown of the pandemic, worried about unexpected costs ahead, about what would become of students and their families. Early on, they had to work with little guidance from state and federal authorities – and that often shifted by the day. They had to keep employees working, buildings secure, transportation and meal services at the ready.

Consider those counselors and others specifically tasked to help the most challenged of our students. They could no longer pull a student in for a chat, or monitor behavior in the hallways. Think of those who prepare meals, tend to medical needs, and keep buildings clean and in good repair. Their jobs, too, all changed. They operated under plans seemingly done in pencil, erased and rewritten time after time.

But every day, at every step, those teachers, custodians, principals invented on the go. They adapted to provide not a perfect education – but some education, to keep forward momentum. They spent more time reaching out to students who seemed to drop out of sight. The reasons why students were out of touch were myriad, each with its own resolution. Was it no computer at home? A family fearing the virus? A decision to try homeschooling?

As the virus and the restrictions lingered, the unrest among some in the community grew. The demands to open school gained volume. Parents who never attended a school board meeting now found their voice, and they meant to be heard.

They squeezed school officials, who themselves were trapped by the government. Those in charge of protecting students in those schools had no choice but to obey – masks, social distancing, no classroom sessions for the time being. They had to withstand potent community forces while heeding the commands of those hundreds and often thousands of miles away.

Yet, day by day, those in our school systems did the best they could with what liberty and extra money they had. The temptation to retire or just walk away was certainly there for some. But the determination not to fail Johnny or Suzy was even more compelling.

Teachers and administrators worked long, hard hours. They had to. There was no way to keep up with students without that one-on-one contact that became a substitute for being watchful in the classroom. They adapted technology – many learning its intricacies just ahead of their students – to keep teaching.

No one would claim that the past year was an academic success. There’s no fair or real way to measure that, it seems. No question, thousands of students aren’t as far in their learning as they could have been. But that they learned anything at all is a marvel. And from this disrupted year, perhaps educators and board members and even parents learned their own lessons. Perhaps out of this disarray can come innovation to help the next class of students do better than ever.

For now, though, the community should thank each and every school employee. And special thanks go to those who willingly gave up their summer – the first free summer in a year – to help expand summer teaching.

To all of them, we say thanks for not giving up, not yielding to despair, for keeping at all times your focus where it belonged – on the kids whose fate you held in your remote connections.      – LZ

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