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Postcards from the Pandemic IX (Tales of the Masked Shepherds of Fall)

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Classroom Scene, 1946

By William Henry Johnson

Mixed media

It’s been about three weeks into the 20-21 school year, yet another season in the new normal. Strangeness abound, for the first time in 12 years, I don’t have to chase a child out the door for school. I’ve begun to resume my usual assignments at the High School, so I’ve had a taste of the flavor of the everchanging protocols of education and “distance learning”. Granted, my youngest son was Class of 2020 and finished the last 4 months of school from home before he had his sad uneventful stroll across the bleachers that doubled as a graduation ceremony.

From High School on down, everyone in our education system was caught flat footed, as was everyone else. While schools everywhere floundered to adapt, the reality is that administrators, teachers, support staff, students and parents struggled to pivot fast enough to make distance learning a successful venture. In the end, everyone got a pass. Now, having 2 ½ months to regroup and establish protocols for what this school year will look like, there’s a rigid framework for academic expectations. It’s a blend of distance learning and limited in school instruction. In all, schools have about half the normal number of students attending either Monday – Thursday or Tuesday – Friday. Wednesday being designated for cleaning and disinfecting.

Classroom Painting, 2018

By Irina Gulyakina

Acrylic on canvas

Now, I can speak to what it looks like within our High School, and it’s not good. Can’t imagine what the middle school or elementary schools look like. Elementary schools in particular, socialization is just as important as the execution of lesson plans. Little kids aren’t meant to be quarantined from playgrounds, schools, and extracurricular activities. Adding a pandemic to the virtual hell that is middle school is just unconscionable. Middle school ordinarily sucks for all those involved anyway but adding a pandemic to adolescent defiance and raging hormones, doesn’t bode well for social distancing. Oh, did I mention the god-awful hygiene habits? Truth be told, I was shitty when I was in middle school (junior high, it was called then) and yes, so were you! We all were. Being the parent of two boys that went through middle school was equally shitty.

Classroom Teacher & Her Students, 2019

By Carlin Blahnik

Watercolor, 23.5" x 19.5"

Still, it’s an unwavering commitment of our fiercely dedicated teachers, staff and administrators, and let’s not forget the parents already struggling to work from home, that are making the absolute best of this new normal. Having said that, the above-mentioned pillars of our education system are starting to crack. Within the high school the dissention is palpable. The pressure put upon teachers to track students and their progress is ramping up. I hear the candid rants in the lounge and mumbled under masks in the quiet corner of the hallways. Normally mild-mannered staff dropping “F” bombs and the like. They’re getting increasingly frustrated with trying to implement functional lesson plans.

When you get little or no cooperation from despondent or otherwise lazy students and overworked parents (working more hours from home and are unable to monitor their kid’s progress), because of their own challenges, there is an overall system failure. Allow me to paint a picture. The teachers all put the work in to prepare the online curriculum for the students that are ALL given laptops loaded with the most current versions of Microsoft Office (and multiple licenses). All the student has to do is login and complete that day’s assignment and summit electronically. Then, said materials are reinforced and covered in in-person class in an abbreviated 2-day school week. Easy enough, right?

Happy Birthday Miss Jones, 1956

Norman Rockwell

Illustration (Saturday Evening Post)

The chief complaint and reccurring diatribe is around tracking students who simply don’t do anything and parents who enable them to do nothing. See, school is normally a good place to camouflage many things, from both diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities or socioeconomic factors that make it difficult for child to exist, let alone, thrive academically. You have a glut of “C” or subpar students that ordinarily skate by unnoticed with barely passing grades. Thus, you have shaky ground giving way and creating a gulf between success and failure.

Again, from the firsthand accounts of the teachers I’m with is that, let’s say you have 20 students in a class. 6 of those students have elected to exclusively work from home. The other 14 students are then divided in half for the 2-day school week. Out of the 7 people in that class you may have 2-3 absences. Because of protocols, the teacher needs to check on those students via call home or carefully crafted email. Those 6 remote learners I mentioned. They are probably the worst candidates for any sort of remote instruction. They are students who are poster children for the failed “No Child Left Behind” debacle. They’re chronically absent (even before COVID), disciplinary problems that put little or no effort into their learning. Yes, sadly there are those that don’t have the support in place to deal with those issues to boot. So then, the teacher’s day is spent trying to track that student down (who hasn’t turned in any assignments since the middle of September) or the parent who may have given up the ghost because, in the end, their child will be shuffled along to the next grade without the threat of repeating. As a result, the teachers are hamstrung to execute lesson plans. A good portion of their day is spent unsuccessfully trying to correspond with families that just don’t care. The frustration is mounting and it’s only mid October.

As mentioned, it was strange enough getting attendance sheets and not having one of my boys or their friends on it. Not seeing one of them when I coast around one of the hallway corners with friends that were fixtures at my dining room table for the last 5 years. Yet, this strange is different, as well it should be. Everything everywhere is different, the brand of different that only a pandemic can serve up.

We all are slowly getting our “sea legs” in regards to what learning is now within the new normal. I imagine in another month when the weather takes a turn, there will be plenty to keep kids home. There’s no way to discern between the garden variety cold, and allergies or flu and yes, COVID. At which point, is it even worth keeping schools open, which are grossly underfunded already, elementary schools withstanding? In my opinion, you should only have the option to exclusively do distance learning if you have a “B” average. Only those students that have demonstrated good work ethic and study habits as reflected by those grade point averages. They possess the discipline and dedication to an independent learning style. Giving subpar students who don’t care and are waiting to get pushed through the system the option for distance learning is like giving an obese person the option for pizza at a salad bar. Those students with educational variances shouldn’t have the option to exclusively distance learn either. If the resources they need to succeed are available at school, (as agreed upon in 504 plan), then that’s where they need to be, period.

Like life, kids will either find a way through the system or a way around it. it’s always been that way. Every day we are sculpting what the new normal will be in the future, even past vaccines and herd immunity. How we learn, where we learn, how we work and where and when we work. Do you really need to be in an office 40 hours a week? For that matter, companies are going to take a hard look at how much physical space do they need for offices and the money that can be saved by leasing and owning smaller spaces because of people working from home.

There is no doubt this whole thing has taken a toll on families. Collectively, we’re slowly getting a handle on that learning curve. Everything from how we work and go to school to how we play and socialize is going to be different moving forward. How we shop and spend to how we do business and provide services. Face coverings are now like socks, used to accent our wardrobes. Personal space is no longer a source of social debate but a necessity. As social sentient beings, how we connect to each other and forge new relationships will change. A change started by the internet and technology now further fueled by a pandemic. There will be a generation that doesn’t know what it’s like to end a job interview with a firm handshake. To hug a complete stranger at a bar or ballgame because your team just won the big game. To embrace an old high school buddy at the grocery store that you haven’t seen in years. The price of progress in the pandemic era I suppose.

Finally, a quick tie in to painting and the paint and sip thing. Art itself is the physical manifestation of an individual’s ideals, feelings and life experience. It’s an extension, a product that represents culmination of all those things with even some room for your interpretation. While art can bring people together, it can be private in nature, with obvious exceptions to opera, theater, music, etc. Thus, social distancing isn’t that big of a deal, well again, with the above exceptions. The paint and sip business is completely different. Truth be told, I don’t like virtual classes, it’s counterintuitive to the very business model. The whole nature of the activity is proximity and closeness. Sharing a bottle of wine and laughing, making memories via paint and canvas. This cottage industry will have to evolve as well, at least for the time being. While teaching a basic landscape step by step is half of it, for which you probably don’t need a party to do, it’s more than that. It’s me and to a degree my family. I’m not trying to sound egotistical, but rather speak to what Roc Paint Sip is. It’s me getting to each individual and encouraging them. It’s my corny one liners and after 5pm double entendras. It’s my wife reassuring customers that I’m like this at home while subtly reminding you not to wipe paint on our aprons. It’s my kids overpouring paint while telling you your crescent moon looks like a lake trout. All those little funny private moments that make up a memory. You just can’t replicate that on a zoom meeting, but so it goes.

So, to come full circle, I guess what I’m saying is if you have kids in school, be patient. We’re all struggling to adjust to the whole thing. We don’t get angry at frontline healthcare workers or first responders, in fact, their heralded. Our teachers, our shepherds of the fall, are just as worthy of that admiration. We will all gain traction as we tread up the pandemic hill to the pasture of the new norm.

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