Let’s champion adaptability, not blame, when we talk about a plan for reopening our schools

I read state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff’s recent column on the need to prioritize our children’s safety, not politicize it.

While I believe Rep. Benninghoff is sincere in his concern for children throughout the commonwealth, I think he and many others in his party are missing the mark when they talk about what our children need from us as this school year gets underway.

Also, misconstruing thoughtful consideration for what is best for our students, teachers and other school staff as “politicizing” the issue is disingenuous. Elected officials searching for policy answers and acting swiftly to save lives is not politicizing the issue; it’s doing our jobs.

This deadly virus is spread even by people who have no symptoms. Rep. Benninghoff said in his column that “most people fully recover” from COVID-19, but we don’t yet know the long-term effects of this virus. We do know that it has already claimed the lives of more than 7,400 people across the state, and it would have killed even more if it were not for the swift action Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration took from the beginning of the pandemic.

Before I go further in addressing what I see as shortsighted missteps in Rep. Benninghoff’s misdirected frustration with Gov. Wolf and with the planning of alternatives to in-person learning this school year, I think we owe it to the tens of thousands of teachers and administrators across our state to include them in this conversation.

We have entrusted these teachers and administrators with our children every school year to this point. They have spent their lives serving our children. Many spend their own money on school supplies to provide the tools necessary to our children because they don’t get adequate funding. They work into their evenings – taking time away from their own families – to help our children excel.

When we talk about schools reopening, the least we can do is make sure our teachers and administrators, whose well-being will also be affected by the decisions we make with regard to school reopening plans, are included in that conversation and given the consideration that they, and the family members they live with, deserve.

As for what our children “need,” or “what’s best for our children,” I believe that is subjective and dependent on factors that can change.

Rep. Benninghoff wrote in his column that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently noted that, “Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue reopening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff.”

But that is not the full statement issued by the AAP. One other notable part of the AAP’s statement, which it issued jointly with the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and The School Superintendents Association after President Trump and members of his administration misconstrued a previous statement by the AAP about reopening schools, is this:

“Local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents must be at the center of decisions about how and when to reopen schools, taking into account the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the capacities of school districts to adapt safety protocols to make in-person learning safe and feasible. For instance, schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.

That last line is very poignant when applied to the message in Rep. Benninghoff’s column that parents and students need all schools in Pennsylvania to open this fall and stay open. Rep. Benninghoff calls for a “uniform plan” for reopening schools, but that’s the opposite of what the AAP is advocating.

Rep. Benninghoff also said in his column that, “Children and parents need assurance and predictability.”

While that might be an ideal, I think our children could stand to have models of adaptability and resiliency. We’ve all heard it a million times that change is inevitable. Many of us have heard the saying, “We make plans and God laughs.”

Life is full of challenges and unexpected setbacks.

We can choose to dig our heels in and be angry about what’s happened to us – maybe even look for a villain on whom we can pin the problem and direct our anger.

Or we can choose to exercise a little humanity. Maybe we can use the challenges of this pandemic to show our children that they can be adaptable, that while they might not have control over a given situation, they absolutely have influence over how they respond to challenges. We can choose to teach our children that pointing fingers won’t solve their problems.

I believe that is very much a function of our human condition to want to direct our anger, our frustrations and grief at someone or something tangible. But no one person is responsible for the devastation this virus has caused. The virus is the enemy in all of this. Gov. Wolf and Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, who have done their very best to be adaptable in managing this virus – the likes of which no one working in government has ever seen before – are not our enemies.

Let’s lead by example, take the blame game off the table and show our children that even in the middle of a pandemic, we can be adaptable, we can overcome challenges, and we can do that by working together.