Copy of The COVID Back to School Discussion We Aren't Having.-2

The rearrangement of life when survival and health are in doubt is as startling as it is swift. Necessities come into sharper focus. Survival becomes the goal. All else is secondary or inconsequential. When my daughter was diagnosed with a chronic illness four years ago, our priorities changed in an instant. The typical concerns a parent has for their child were boiled down to “I just want my daughter to survive.” Preserving her health and stopping the progression of her disease filled my every waking moment. This is all instinctual. When life is threatened, we focus on survival. This is the concept behind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And it’s through this lens that we need to view the risks and benefits of returning to school this year.

Abraham Maslow theorized that human survival can be categorized by five basic needs: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self actualization. The Hierarchy of Needs posits that some needs can only be met when the lower needs are satisfied. Survival supersedes all other needs. Safety matters more than thriving. Health matters more than pleasure. Under normal circumstances, these needs and wants are calculated on an individual level. Assessments are made with little impact on our neighbors and community. But how do we decide which needs are prioritized when we’re experiencing a mutually shared viral threat?

We can do this the same way parents of kids stricken with a devastating disease do. You prioritize surviving above all else. You get creative with ways to make surviving be as pleasant and enriching as possible. You accept, very quickly, that normal is not an option. Not now at least. You adapt. And you tell yourself over and over that this will make you all stronger in the long run. As we consider returning to school, the Hierarchy of Needs is no longer an individual determination. It is communal. To be a safe community, the wants of some cannot be allowed to come at the expense of the health of others.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of leadership, this is the sticky point. The muck of inequities in our communities is stuck to all of us. And it’s hard to ignore when we’re making decisions about what is best for our children.

There are the students who need to be in school for vital services they can only get in person. There are kids who live in homes that are unsafe, homes with no internet, homes with no food. Their needs are more crucial than the child who misses their friends. Their needs should take precedent over the parents who just want their child to have a “normal” school year. There are teachers who are worried about getting sick, dying, or passing it along to their loved ones. There are families who have young children at home and have to work. These are the needs our communities need to be prioritizing. Triage the community, assess who will suffer the most, and take care of them first.

Instead, many Governors and legislators are more concerned about the appearance of normal. And they have put the burden on school officials and teachers and parents to make up for their lack of leadership. Measures that could have been taken to prepare schools better, to ensure the most at-risk students were prioritized, to lessen the spread in the community, were put aside for “normal.” And normal is a luxury we can’t afford right now.

In the weighing of needs when it comes to going back to school during a pandemic, we need to be clear eyed about the situation. Your children’s health and safety is first. The health and safety of their teachers and friends and neighbors is first. All else is secondary. Sound extreme? Ask yourself why the NBA cancelled it’s season last Spring. Why Disney closed it’s parks for months. Why most companies went to remote work models, restructuring how they do business. These are crisis actions. Yet we’re acting as if going to school will be a breeze. A few plexiglass barriers and shuffling around desks will take care of what the most advanced and wealthy corporations couldn’t. Google has shut down their offices until Summer of 2021, but sure, your neighborhood school that is already overcrowded and underfunded will be fiiiiiine.

We have been failed. We have been failed during a deadly worldwide pandemic. And now we’re left to make the hard decisions none of us feel equipped to make. I didn’t feel equipped to decide on treatments and mental healthcare and schooling when my child was diagnosed. I was drowning in terrifying unknowns. But one thing I knew was that pretending like everything was fine would only do more damage. Proceeding as if a horrible disease wasn’t ravaging her body would have been neglectful at best. And right now, we’re dealing with an unknown virus. One that is showing us different information every day. It’s ok if you don’t know exactly what to do. You didn’t choose any of this. But how we deal with it, how we share a common concern for our neighbors and communities and people outside of our own four walls, can make all the difference.

It’s ok to worry about your child’s mental health. We are all rightly concerned about this. We are all weighing how our decisions will affect them.  A monumental assessment. It is crucial to remember that school alone doesn’t solve anxiety and depression. If it did, we wouldn’t have a mental health crisis with our youth. What kids struggling with anxiety and depression don’t need is the pretense of normal. They know things aren’t normal and if the adults in their life are pretending like it is, they will instinctually feel less safe. You don’t have to be negative and cite scary statistics to your kids. But you can be honest about the situation. You can acknowledge that their fears, this time, aren’t imagined. And you can model resilience and strength. But schools are not the cure-all for mental health.

Falling behind is something most of us can check off of our worry list. Yes, really. Most kids will catch up. It’s the at-risk students who are most vulnerable to this being a long term problem. We need to consider if our choices are making room for them or making it harder for them to get the services they need. Most of our kids would be fine if they took a whole year off of school. We have become so attached to the arbitrary goalposts we put on our children that we are considering risking safety and health. Maslow’s Hierarchy. Survival and health is more important than an AP class or graduating on time. Chronically ill children fall behind for years. They still graduate and they still go off to college and they still get jobs. All is not lost by not checking a box in the time frame someone somewhere decided was necessary.

This is our moment to decide who we are. As a generation, as a country. As people who care beyond our own needs.

We fondly recall the times in history when people came together to fight a shared enemy. The Greatest Generation earned their title. They rose to the occasion, together. They sacrificed. They adapted. They made do. They didn’t prioritize wants over needs when it came to rationing food or working in production lines or storming a beach under gunfire. COVID is not the same as a war. It’s a slower, less visible threat. But no less deadly or serious. The bombing of Pearl Harbor resulted in 2,403 U.S. deaths. Since March, over 170,000 Americans have died of COVID. Over 60 Pearl Harbors. Yet we’re still debating how much sacrifice is too much to prevent more deaths. We’re still prioritizing thriving over surviving. We’re still expecting teachers and staff to put their lives and health on the line to cover the inequities we’ve allowed to fester.

The back to school discussion is exposing the gulf in our schools and communities. It’s showing where priorities for one can bump up against the needs of others. Some parents are fearing their child’s health if they attend school. Or the health and life of their household family members. Many teachers are asking us to consider their lives as important in this equation. Reminding us that they will shield our children with their bodies against a school shooter, but that’s very different from sending them into a deadly battle that isn’t necessary.

Socialization for children is important. Their mental health is vital. But the notion that school is the only way to meet those needs is false. Parents of chronically ill children have always had to work within these limitations. When health and safety are at stake, creativity and ingenuity are called for. It is making the best of a bad situation, it’s adapting. Is this not the story we tell ourselves? That we are strong? That Americans look threats in the eye and say not on my watch? Why are we not bringing this energy to the fight against COVID and returning to schools? We are just going to give up and shrug off more deaths? We’re going to ignore the sacrifice it took for other countries to beat the virus? And why do we think it’s ok to push teachers and staff and at-risk kids into the front lines while we stay safely behind enjoying our pretense of normalcy?

The greed for “normal” at the expense of someone else’s safety is a cruel plot twist in a COVID world. And it seems to be what our leaders are operating under: pretend all is fine. Act as if opening school won’t result in death or illness. Proceed as if the consequences won’t be devastating.

There’s a very “let them eat cake” feel to many of the back to school plans. The tyranny of the wants over the needs. Parents of privilege are able to form learning pods, while other parents have no choice but to send their child to school and hope they will not be harmed. Neither parent is wrong. They were both failed by the people we elect to protect us. But it’s disingenuous to act as if who survives and who thrives is  not largely based on class and race.

There are no good options. But some are worse than others. Prioritizing normal over life and health is worse. Taking care of the most vulnerable is best. We like to believe we are a fiercely independent people. Being independent means we get creative with our options. We don’t depend on others to sacrifice for us. Serve us. Make our lives more comfortable, while their own lives are at stake. For most of us, our legislators have neglected their jobs. Case numbers are rising and they are ignoring the dangers, knowing that schools will shut down soon after opening. They are giving you the pretense of normal before pulling the rug out from under you. And that brief time in between? People will get sick. People will die. People will have to stay home from work for two week quarantines. All so the leaders can feign shock when putting thousands of kids under one roof results in outbreaks. It is maddening and heartbreaking. But we aren’t powerless. We can demand that they do better. That they keep schools closed while they work to take care of the most needy students. We can each assess our own actions and how they may affect others in our communities. This is the Self Actualization that Maslow places at the top of the hierarchy. The meaning is implied, helping others leads to a better quality of life for you.

The only sustainable way out of this is together. Going from I got mine to How can we do this together? When schools and teachers are being asked to shore up all of our defenses, we need to figure out how best to take care of those who’s needs are at the bottom of the pyramid. Holding off on our wants until their safety and survival is secured. We’ve been asked to do hard things before. Taking care of and recognizing the needs of others should be the easiest hard thing we’ve ever been asked to do.

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Last year I went to a Parent-Teacher conference with my daughter’s G.T. (Gifted and Talented) teacher. She sang my daughter’s praises. I basked in her glowing words and swelled with pride. Until she said this:

“She’s really good in math. Probably one of my best math students. Even better than the boys in the class.” – said by a real, live teacher. One that teaches kids.

Cue record screech. I immediately snapped to. I wish I could tell you that I questioned this teacher’s perceptions. I wish I could tell you that I pointed out to her that the very statement she meant as a huge compliment was in itself sexist. But I didn’t. I muttered something along the lines of “She’s always been a natural at math,” and something about “number sense.”

My daughter doesn’t think she’s good at math. She thinks it’s her worst subject.

We’ve tried to remedy this. We’ve tried to give her confidence in all areas and avoid the trap of focusing primarily on her beauty. We try to shine a light on her strengths as much as we can.

But I worry it’s not enough.

I worry it’s not enough because in spite of what we might say or the encouragement we might offer, she’s receiving a message from all around her that is much larger. She’s absorbing the myth.

The myth that boys are better at math and science. The myth that her brain is not built for science or technology or engineering or math (STEM).

It’s an idea that has been around for centuries. That nature (gender) determines a person’s cognitive strengths or weaknesses. That girls are better at reading and writing. Boys are naturally better at math and science.

Wrong.

Researchers are speaking up and coming out against these misguided ideas. Scientists have refuted what they are referring to as junk science or the  psuedeo-science of neuro-sexism.

There is no difference between the brains of girls and boys. There is only individual differences. These are not based on gender. Or race. Or social class.

Signs are pointing to nurture playing a bigger role in girls’ attitudes towards STEM.

Girls often start off liking math and science. In elementary school 66% of girls say they are good in math. By high school that number drops to 18%. Girls are not showing up in STEM in high school and college.

And that is a problem.

According to recent studies, confidence is key when it comes to girls pursuing math and science.

Some factors that affect girls’ confidence in these subjects:

The soft-sexism of low expectations: The attitudes and assumptions of parents. Of teachers. Without even realizing it we are perpetuating the false notion of girls’ weakness in these subjects. It’s in the things we say to girls (as evidenced by my daughter’s well-meaning teacher). It’s pervasive.

In studies, teachers have shown a bias in how they grade students in math based on gender. When asked to indicate their gender on tests, girls are shown to score 20% lower. Teachers have been shown to discourage girls from pursuing higher levels of math and science while encouraging boys. When girls’ grades are lower they conclude that they are not smart. And what people think, especially people that girls look up to, influences the way girls perceive themselves.

STEMStereotypes

 

(My daughter’s school inexplicably took Science out of the GT program and replaced it with Language Arts. Baffling considering that STEM job growth is outpacing the rest of the economy by 300%).

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The Politeness Trap. Girls are taught first and foremost to be good. To be polite. And yes, boys are often taught these lessons. But there is a premium on politeness in girls and being sweet and “lady-like” that teaches them to lower their voice, to not interrupt, to defer when someone else is talking. “Boys will be boys” is often cited as an excuse for behavior that would not be excused so easily for girls. Boys are taught to be bold, assertive, independent. If at times they are loud and interrupt, so be it. The result is girls being silenced or not heard. In the classroom especially.

Perfectionism. Girls in our society are raised to be pleasers. Our society has always looked to the women to be the nurturers. They will be the caretakers. Then there’s the pressure to look a certain way. How you dress matters. Looking cute matters. There is infinitely more pressure on girls in this area than boys. Boys don’t have to sit still to have their hair braided. Boys don’t have to worry about dirtying their cute outfit or losing their hair bow. This is so much a part of our culture that we don’t even realize that these things are being absorbed and registered by girls at a very young age. It is imprinting on their brains. It is affecting their sense of self.

Perfect has no place in math and science. Hand writing can be perfect. Speech and reading can be perfect. But math and science rely on failure. Trial and error. If a child is under pressure in so many other areas it is logical that the idea of “freedom to fail” is contradictory to everything else they learn. The “error” portion of trial and error or developing a hypothesis that may be proven wrong are antithetical to so many things that girls are taught.

(This video powerfully illustrates how we are doing a disservice to our girls every day.)

All of these things add up to girls hearing the message loud and clear. Science and math are not their “natural” habitat. All of these things should make you angry. We have been boxing our daughters into a corner of limited options by our willingness to buy into these prejudices. By our ignorance and obliviousness to all of the things we say and do, all of the things they see and hear, all around them, from the day they are born. This makes me angry. Angry at myself for not realizing it sooner. Angry that I have been unknowingly guilty of buying into an ignorant and outdated mindset. Angry that our society still operates under archaic assumptions.

It’s time to un-learn what we’ve been told. It’s time to pay attention to the messages we’re sending. We need to take the pressure off of girls to be “perfect” and “polite” and “nice.” We have to stop quibbling over whether “bossy” is a bad word and simply allow girls to express themselves loudly and boldly and without apology.

Attempts are being made to bring more girls to STEM. There are initiatives and campaigns directed at motivating girls and encouraging them. But I worry that this will be a whisper under the roar of long held ideas about gender and socialization. Confidence is key. The question is how do we unlock it? 

What obstacles do you think stand in the way of girls pursuing STEM subjects and careers? What are your personal experiences with science and math? What do you think can be done to change this trend?