Then Paul said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. At the feet of Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.” - Acts 22:3
As we come to the end of August, the news is full of plans for “back to school”. How do we go back to the classroom while we are still unable to eat at a restaurant indoors. Sitting in an enclosed room for an hour to eat will cause a “spike” in corona virus infections, but sitting for 6 hours in a room with kids who have trouble keeping a mask on for more than 10 minutes is OK? Even if (and this is a big if) children have a lesser rate of infection and symptoms, what about the teachers, bus drivers, custodians, office staff, and cafeteria workers? How do we keep them safe?
I’ve seen a lot of different reports of what various school districts are doing around the country and a few things have become clear. This will not be school as we knew it back in September of 2019. Perhaps the biggest difference will be in the social aspect of school. Most schools will not have cafeteria service and students will eat at their desks maintaining the requisite 6 ft. distancing from each other. No more sitting with friends around the lunch table. For the younger kids, recess is canceled as are sports and clubs for the older crowd. For many students this is the main reason to go to school, to see and socialize with friends - also the cause of much school aged anxieties. Is it still school without the social aspects?
Back in March there was a rapid transition to online learning with the end result of many parents saying there is too much “screen time” and not all children are visual learners. It doesn’t look like this will change much come autumn. We can’t use books as there’s no way to sanitize paper without destroying it. Teachers can’t pass out or collect homework sheets due to concerns about disease transmission, and with the greater distances between students and students and teachers, some kids will have even more trouble seeing or hearing the teacher. So what’s left? Having the kids pull out their Chromebooks (or other tablet) at their desk and submit all homework in electronic fashion. This isn’t very different from what was happening at home.
The other thing most educators and officials agree on, though not often told to parents, is that the likelihood of another shut-down / closure is very high. Georgia is the first state to reopen their schools and EVERY district has had to shut down again to do contact tracing, testing, “deep cleaning”, and in some cases quarantining of students. These are usually only 2-3 day shut-downs, but they happen frequently. Will this happen in NJ where we have a lower transmission rate? Only time will tell.
There are also concerns about teacher shortages and qualifications. If the math teacher gets sick, or is exposed and so has to quarantine at home for two weeks, who will teach. Do we want the English teacher guiding the class through trigonometry?
Will the physical education teacher be able to lead students through Romeo and Juliet? There are also many teachers who due to health conditions or age are at high risk for complications or death from Covid-19 and so may opt for early retirement. Despite government comments to the contrary, teachers never signed up to be “front line workers” in the fight against this virus. Don’t even get me started on their abysmal pay or the lack of respect for teachers in schools today!
So what do we do? How are we to teach our children what they need to know to function and prosper in today’s world? It is worth remembering that basic education for all is a relatively new concept in human history. We’ve only been doing mandatory, guaranteed, public, education for about 175 years (mid 1800’s were first public schools). When I served in Nebraska in the 1990’s, many of the older farmers spoke with pride of having gotten up to 6th grade - as that was all that was required in rural areas in the 1930’s. When we look at global education, we find that 40% of the earth’s population cannot read or write or do simple arithmetic. Yet the world continued to revolve around the sun and spin on its axis.
Prior to the 1840’s, basic education was done at home. There would be the learning of letters and numbers, how to write (as there was no texting or email), as well as some vocational training. Sons would often learn their father’s trade (much like Jesus learned the trade of Joseph), and daughters would learn how to manage a household and make sure everyone was fed, clothed, medicated, etc. Today we call this sexist (misogynistic I think is the term in vogue) and old fashioned, but it worked for thousands of years of human civilization.
Another aspect to this at home, unstructured, learning, was the moral component. From Socrates teaching at the symposium in Athens, to Luther’s Small Catechism, to “student handbooks” of today, an understanding of morals and ethics was part of the educational experience. Paul too would be taught the law of God by the great Pharisee Gamaliel. This was not theoretical metaphysics, this was day to day, real world, practical actions and thought patterns. The third generation Socrator (disciple of Socrates), Aristotle, spent most of his instructional time with the young Prince of Macedon (Alexander the Great) teaching him ethics. How to live a virtuous life, pleasing to the gods, was far more important than calculating the parabolic arc of a catapult shot. Education in the Christian era also focused first and foremost on knowing God and His expectations for us, what we now call “character development”. Even in public schools, the Bible was a source for learning how to read (long before the Dick and Jane series or Magic School bus). That all changed in the 1960’s and we’re reaping the results of that as a society now. But teaching at home one can incorporate the Biblical world view into all other realms of learning.
So what will schools look like when they reopen here in another 3 weeks or so? That’s the great unknown. We have no more idea of what October will look like at this point than we knew about April back in January. Amid all the changes of this school year, one thing remains the same. Children learn more from their parents (and other primary caregivers) than from anyone else. Okay, maybe you aren’t teaching them the Pythagorean theorem, but you are imparting life lessons by your example and how you live your life. You are teaching your children or grandchildren what is important in life with every interaction you have with them.
In closing then, I would turn you to a more modern paraphrase of Deuteronomy 6, that of Crosby, Stills, and Nash where we are encouraged to “Teach, your children well…” Whatever may happen with the public schools this year, we have the opportunity (and duty) to be teachers to the children in our care. May God bless you in this endeavor. Next week we will take a look at our Redeemer Preschool and why this is such a vital ministry not just for the preschoolers, but for us as a congregation as well.
Until then, may God’s peace be upon you.
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.