Catching Up

My son returned to full time, face-to-face instruction today. When the pandemic hit last March, his school moved instruction online for all of its students. When the new school year started last fall, the school employed a hybrid remote model where half of the students participated synchronously while the other half attended physically. Depending on the day of the week, different students participated virtually or physically.

If you’re a parent of a school-aged child, that description probably sounds familiar. Many schools employed some version of that instructional model for their schedule this year. Some schools adjusted this model based on the grade level of students or the physical space or professional staff to which they had access. But now that vaccination rates have increased and infection rates are beginning to decrease, schools are starting to return to more face-to-face instruction. And today is my son’s first day of school.

It’s odd to think of a random day in April as the first day of school, but that’s what I’m hoping many people adopt. Today is the first day my son will be in classes with all of his friends. Today is the first day that the teachers will have all of the students together. Today is the first day in over a year that the students are returning to a version of school that resembles normalcy.

I’m not kidding myself. It’s not really the first day of school. They’ve been attending classes since late August. But my fear is that teachers and administrators are going to see the return to face-to-face instruction as the chance to “catch up.” I’ve spoken to tons of teachers and administrators who feel they weren’t able to accomplish as much academically as they usually do by this time of the year. The hybrid remote model caused them to teach differently and they feel like they’re a chapter or unit (or more) behind. And some of them are staring down the remaining few weeks of the school year and thinking this is their chance to get caught up. Maybe if they cover things a little more quickly, they’ll be able to catch up to the curricular benchmarks they usually meet.

And that’s why I think adopting my “first day” metaphor is so important. It changes how we view “catching up.” Rather than seeing this as the time to get caught up curricularly, let’s view this as a time to get caught up personally. On a normal first day of school, teachers take a few minutes to find out what people did during their summer vacations. They would build in opportunities for classmates to meet one another. They would lay the foundation for the academic year because they knew the students had spent the last few months apart.

And that’s how we should view today. It’s the first day of school.

In some ways, catching up today is more important than ever. Our students aren’t returning from summer vacation. They didn’t spend a week at the beach. They didn’t get to travel to Disney World. They’re returning from all sorts of experiences that we need to honor. Consider this essay written by Teresa Thayer Snyder, a former superintendent in upstate New York.

“When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history.”

I know this year has been challenging for everyone, but it’s not made easier by ignoring those difficult experiences. And while my son may be three quarters of the way through this academic year, it’s not a random school day in April. It’s his first day of school.

Now, let’s catch up.

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