Education in the Time of the Pandemic

Unlike Rhode Island, Massachusetts left the extent of distance learning up to local districts and discouraged the introduction of new material during this time, so some districts are doing little to nothing at all.  At least in some districts, therefore, the COVID-19 shutdown has meant an extended paid vacation for government-school teachers in Massachusetts.  That puts this story in a particular sort of context:

The unions representing the state’s teachers are now upping the pressure on Gov. Charlie Baker to keep schools closed for the rest of the school year.

School closures last until May 4, and Baker said there is some desire to see schools reopen before the end of the year.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association released a statement Monday night saying in part:

“Understanding that Massachusetts remains a COVID-19 hotspot, it seems unlikely that definitive assurances will be possible to allow for a reopening before the end of this school year,” the group said.

Sure, when there’s essentially zero chance you’ll join the “nearly 30 million Americans [who] have now filed jobless claims in the last five weeks,” you can insist on “definitive assurances.”  Whatever that means, it’s unlikely to include anything like the necessary flexibility to adapt quickly and put adult demands aside for the sake of a generation who is experiencing unprecedented disruption to their educations.

In this aspect of her COVID-19 response, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo has done well.  The Boston Globe’s Dan McGowan reports that the governor is expected to extend “distance learning” through the end of this school year, but that means something different in RI than in MA — something a little closer to severe inconvenience rather than a complete loss.  As the husband of a Rhode Island teacher, I can attest that this is made possible only with the flexibility and dedication of teachers, who gave up a vacation and are in many cases doing more work and spending more of their own money than they otherwise would — especially those who weren’t already familiar with the relevant technology.

As seems to happen more often than its population size should lead one to expect, Tiverton has emerged as an illustration of the broader political point.  Here, the superintendent and school committee just put the local teachers union president, Amy Mullen, on unpaid leave, with the intention not to renew her employment after the school year.  The reason apparently has to do with her behavior as union president while the district was attempting to get up and running with the new reality.

Typically in these circumstances, the law silences the administration as to the details while the unionist is free to say whatever she wants.  Familiarity with the members of the school committee, however, leads me to expect that the firing must have been well justified.  Familiarity with Amy Mullen points toward the same conclusion.  According to the Sakonnet Times, Mullen has been the union president for 20 of the 25 years she’s been a teacher in town, which means that she has very little experience as a teacher without the politics of the union front and center in her activities.

As with so much else, the COVID-19 crisis is bringing to the fore all of the trade-offs we’ve unthinkingly accepted during normal times, and if there is to be a positive turn after the pandemic, perhaps it will come from the education that all of us have been receiving.  If we learn the lessons, we can ensure that our education system, our economy, and our entire state experiences a sort of post-plague renaissance when this is all over.

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