I received an interesting text message last week from my niece who lives in California.

Well, perhaps interesting is the wrong word. It was actually one of those iconic pictures of small children assembled beneath their school sign as a new school year begins. I enjoyed seeing the smiling kids, one a family member I rarely, if ever, see. But that isn’t what made it especially interesting. What made it so was the fact that she sent me the “new school year begins” picture mid-March.

These children have not stepped inside a school building for one entire calendar year. I was aghast.

I’m not entirely sure why I was stunned, though. After all, I know this has been the reality of the COVID pandemic for tens of millions of children across the country. Learning from home, logging into Zoom meetings, sending assignments back and forth to teachers also assembled before their technology, instead of fathering in the midst of the children they are teaching.

Frankly, I’m not fearful for the educational effects that grade school sabbatical will have on my grandniece. I’m not because her parents have invested money, time, effort and attention at towering levels, made possible by parents who are a physician assistant and a CPA, during the interregnum. It is analogous to the problem of summer vacation, during which socio-economically high-flying parents make sure not only that their progeny don’t regress, but in many cases that they actually advance in their achievement. Meanwhile, families without such resources are more likely to return children in August two to three months behind where they were when they left school in May. I cannot imagine what kind of inequities the time spent for the earth to travel one full orbit around the sun will produce.

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I wonder, as well, what messages states that kept school closed for that length of time sent to their families and public. That school is sufficiently unimportant that the certain losses accompanying closed schools are outweighed by the uncertain effects on children of a pandemic? That when public employees personally deem it worrisome to go to work that they can almost unilaterally make such a decision and still get paid?

For education in such states, the message is a lose-lose scenario. Either school is unimportant or it is vitally important but when the chips are down, educators will retreat behind the firewalls of their home office, buttressed by the fact that the salaries continue to flow. Imagine if health care workers had taken that approach. There are reports of lone physicians and “hospitals” abandoning their patients during pandemics (cholera, bubonic plague, typhus, etc.) in the far distant past but they are not discussed as objects of praise or indifference. They are held up as villains as carpetbaggers, professional swindlers who collect their fees when times are good and skulk out the back door when the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse rides in the front.

As we emerge from this pandemic, one of the topics I find genuinely interesting is what long term impacts, if any, it will have. Is this the dawn of a new era in public health through gene-based vaccines? Will working from home become a new reality for a large part of the workforce, as companies discard the now unnecessary costs of retail buildings and corporate edifices?

The potential issues for education, too are writ large. Virtual schooling already existed prior to COVID but it was a small and slowly growing reality. With its sudden explosion across the country will mean that it will now spread much more quickly or that, due to its being called upon before it was really ready to perform, it will be strangled in the cradle, a victim of its own success? Will school districts and educators earn the permanent ire of parents for their failure to open their doors with appropriate precautions, abandoning a duty when needed the most? Or will this pandemic be viewed as a one-time disruption, one quickly seen only in the rear-view mirror and promptly forgotten?

Truthfully, I have no idea. But what I won’t soon forget is the image of small children having their first day of school on the Ides of March.