Richard Swerdlow: Back to School

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 (Richard Swerdlow)

The return to school is testing – and exhilarating – students and teachers alike. Richard Swerdlow has this Perspective.

Last month, schools in San Francisco re-opened for in-person learning after more than a year of online school. With an already existing teacher shortage worsened by the pandemic, I was sent to cover a kindergarten class for a few days.

Walking into a school after all these months, I was nervous. Five-year-olds are germy. But the school district had strict safety protocols, with daily health screenings for parents and students, and testing and vaccinations for staff.

This first day of school may have been in April, but it wasn't so different from any kindergarten day. A couple kids cried, a few couldn't decide between clay, Legos or puzzles at free time, and by 1:30, everyone was so worn out they needed a nap, including me.

But some things have changed. The jar of goldfish crackers for snack time is gone, replaced by individual packages, and masked kids sat alone and socially distanced at round tables spread far apart. The day began with hand sanitizer instead of the “Good Morning” song, since singing spreads infectious aerosols.

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Playing close together was not allowed and nobody shared crayons or tossed a ball. In hallways, teachers reminded kids to keep masks on and students extended arms like airplane wings as they walked, to stay distant.

But one thing that hasn't changed is the joy of learning. These 5-year-olds were so happy to be with other kids in a real school, not on a screen, they absorbed lessons like sponges. By day two, they had all mastered writing names and simple adding and take-away and couldn't wait to come back. “I love school!” one student told me when the bell rang. And I knew what she meant. Schools may look different now, but the cheerful energy of a building full of kids is still there, under the masks.

History is not taught in kindergarten curriculum.

But these youngsters are learning history by living through history. And years from now, when their own children start school, maybe these students will tell them the story of the COVID generation starting kindergarten, masked and distant, in the great pandemic of 2021.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.