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August 17, 2022

Let’s Give Our Kids the Schools They Need

It is time to take back our schools for our children and to give them the safe haven that schools were always meant to be.

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By Karen Lee Arthmann

I hardly know where to begin in talking about how challenging this past year has been. It is not just the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that still has us all on edge, but what has resulted from it. Everyone reading this will understand what we have been through and our continuing journey to fix the broken and shattered among us. We are trying to rebuild out of piles of ashes.

When COVID-19 shut down our schools and lives 29 months ago, it was mostly the unknown that gripped us in depression and anxiety. The security and sameness of our everyday lives that we had taken for granted for decades was suddenly destroyed — by a virus and by the things we had to do to protect ourselves from it. The isolation, the rumors, the changing guidance on a daily basis, and the estrangement we felt from our families, neighbors and friends all frustrated us, and impacted our kids greatly. They lost the structure they always raged against but needed. Parents were either working from home and kids were left to their own devices (electronic and otherwise), or parents were out of work and worried what was going to happen to their families. The kids felt the fear and brought it with them when we finally returned to school.

The first year back, it was with smaller numbers and fewer but longer days. Those of us who always said we wished we could work four 10-hour days learned to be careful what we wished for. Packing 40 hours into four days left us even more exhausted and frustrated. Remote learning was both an enemy and a friend. We did not want the kids to lose their education, but we stressed over whether those little boxes, with or without faces in them, were serving the purpose.

Some teachers only taught in school, some only taught remotely, and some taught a combination. Some kids flourished with their parents by their sides monitoring their daily progress and in frequent contact with their teachers. Others fell by the wayside, either because parents were not as able to stay involved or quite simply because of the lack of good Wi-Fi and computers. Everyone did the best they could, but it is always the children who suffer the most. Always.

We got through the first full school year, 2020–21, with some difficulty but a lot of ingenuity, compassion and mental toughness. The second year, this past year, was bad. There’s no other way to say it, and people who tell you differently are fooling themselves.

I have spoken with colleagues from Alaska to Florida and many, many places in between. It is always the same. High schoolers act like middle schoolers, middle schoolers act like elementary kids, and elementary kids … well, it isn’t pretty. I work as a security guard in a diverse suburban high school for grades 10–12. There is not a lot I haven’t seen or heard about in my 36 years here.

The one thing that keeps me coming back — when the language is inappropriate, when students are being willful, disobedient, argumentative or just plain obnoxious — is that they are kids. If they didn’t need me, I wouldn’t have a job; and in spite of everything, I still love my job. So, I keep coming back, as do many of my fellow security guards, teachers, paraprofessionals, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, food service workers … you get the idea.

But things have to change, or we will have lost years of educating children in the best way and teaching them not only the curriculum, but also how to survive and thrive in the world.

One of the biggest complaints I get is that there is no support when dealing with students. We cannot do anything without parental and administrative support. Again, I have heard that throughout the country. Without boundaries and accountability, we have no way of restoring the order that must override this new chaos.

Administrators are caught in a struggle with parents demanding rights for their children and the problems created by children who have gone too long without structure. There used to be consequences for actions, but now too often we have the “Don’t do it again, honey” school of thought. That may be OK for minor infractions and first-time offenses, but the reality is that our children, the ones we are responsible for every day, have been given free rein to bully, terrorize and even destroy other children we also have a responsibility to protect. The duty to keep them safe and nurtured while providing them with a sound education is a sacred trust.

Over the past year, I have witnessed and heard of far too many incidents where students are brutally assaulted. We all sadly know of school and community shootings that take lives, as well as suicides and drug use among our precious children of all ages. It is time to do something about it. We have the knowledge, we have the tools, and we have a wealth of experience that can help us work toward a safer, stronger community.

To make changes that will matter, we need collaboration among parents, administrators and staff. If it takes workshops, meditations or simple sit-downs, they have to start happening.

The time for hand wringing is over. Our kids are depending on us. Is there a quick fix? No. There is a fix, though. If we want to get it done, we need to start now.

Start small. If you work in a school where rules have become a thing of the past and the kids basically run the show, you do not have to be an administrator to come up with a plan and get other staff members on board.

One of our teachers put forth a simple idea. Instead of letting the kids take off out of your homeroom and run wild for 45 minutes, stressing out the staff and annoying the kids trying to learn, refuse to let them leave during the first and last 10 minutes of every homeroom. Then they must sign out and take a color-coded hall pass appropriate for where they’re going. That way, security can tell at a glance where they belong.

I know these aren’t new concepts, but maybe it has been a while and people need a reminder. If everyone does something, it matters so much more than if no one does anything. Use whatever works. You are in charge.

There are, of course, big-picture items we need, such as many more mental health staff, social workers and counselors, school resource officers, mental health programs, calm rooms, and workshops for staff and parents. Teams of parents, administrators and staff can collaborate on solutions. Be an advocate for your school budget, and help elect people to the school board who will fight for the things students need.

Don’t let the inability to do everything stop you from doing anything. I remember a news story in which someone asked: “Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I get that done?” The response: “And how old will you be if you don’t do it?” We can’t keep putting things off waiting for someone else to fix them. And we can’t live on thoughts and prayers. It will take a lot of effort, time and resources to get there, but the more people who become involved, the easier it will be.

It has not always been like this in our schools. It does not have to be like this now. It is time to take back our schools for our children and to give them the safe haven that schools were always meant to be.

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.

Karen Lee Arthmann photo

About the Author

Karen Lee Arthmann has worked for the Rush-Henrietta (N.Y.) Central School District for 36 years, and as a youth assistant (security guard) for the past 26. She is president of the paraprofessional chapter of the Rush-Henrietta Employees’ Association. She has two daughters and six grandchildren. She also serves on the board of directors for New York State United Teachers and on the AFT PSRP program and policy council. She loves her job but says union work is her passion.

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