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Opinion: As a teacher, I know school closures are not the answer

Matthew Haack

As a high school teacher and basketball coach for the past 13 years, I have seen a lot in my time roaming the classroom and the sidelines. Like most teachers, I am blessed to work a job that I love, and I know the profound importance of education for our students. 

Building relationships with students is one of the most important things a good teacher can do.

Over the years, I have pushed myself to try and make a personal connection with all of my students — a job that is much easier said than done. Making these personal connections with students has allowed me to determine and try to meet my students’ needs.

While many students come to school with plenty of home supports, there is a large student population that does not. These students are confronted by challenges every day that many of us have never faced: hunger, mental health issues, abuse at home, substance abuse.

At-risk students here in Michigan are feeling the effects of the shutdown disproportionately compared to others, Haack writes. Where is the justice in that?

Put yourself into the shoes of one of these high-risk students and imagine that your governor has just told you that your high school is closed indefinitely. The space where you feel safe is now off limits. The place where you can talk with teachers, principals, counselors and other caring adults is now just part of a “zoom call” with 29 other students listening in.

The chance to talk to your friends and laugh and cry together is gone. The cafeteria where you receive your only two meals of the day is now a distant memory — replaced by carry-out sack lunches, if you have the ability to get to school and pick them up.

At-risk students here in Michigan are feeling the effects of the shutdown disproportionately compared to others. Where is the justice in that?

Unfortunately, the effects of closing schools are not only limited to one student group. Anxiety and depression are issues that affect all students regardless of their socio-economic status. The isolation and physical distancing caused by fully remote learning is causing an increase in these mental health issues that will have effects well beyond the end of this pandemic.

As a veteran teacher, I can think of more than one occasion where I noticed students in my classroom who seemed to be struggling. Their body language and demeanor indicated to me that something was bothering them and allowed me to make a one-on-one connection to check on their well-being.

Sometimes this connection was all that was needed to help the student that day. Other times I needed to help the student make contact with another staff member, such as a counselor or principal, who could provide the extra support needed. With schools closed and all student-teacher interactions happening virtually, some of these struggling students will tragically slip through the cracks.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said numerous times that she hopes to keep people safe and that she is following the science to guide her decision-making process. Yet, the science has shown that schools are not a significant source of COVID-19 spread.

Instead, it often occurs when students congregate away from school without supervision or safety protocols. Yet Whitmer has decided to send home all high school students in the state of Michigan and give them 33 days of unsupervised time away from school. She has sent the students away from a structured environment full of safety protocols and into an environment where there might not be any. 

A young student athlete can still go to a private gym and do laps with strangers in the pool, but if you organize those laps into a swim practice it suddenly becomes dangerous.

In my science classes, it has been deemed too dangerous to allow my students to meet in person and complete a lab experiment on photosynthesis, but if they choose to meet at a local public museum to learn about it, they are considered to be safe.

Even the Michigan Education Association has jumped on the school closure bandwagon, stating in a press release after the initial three-week pause: “We believe it’s in the best interest of all students and school employees for in-person learning to be temporarily suspended for all grades.”

My fellow teachers across our great state want what is best for students. During this difficult time, we might not agree on exactly how that goal is achieved, but I hope more will have an open mind to follow the science and help our students. Let’s re-open Michigan schools and give students and families a choice whether to attend in person or not.

Matthew Haack is a teacher at Allegan High School in Allegan.