In a recent frenzy of spring cleaning, I unzipped my son’s long-forgotten backpack.
Inside was his red vinyl homework folder. I opened it up. In the pocket marked “Return to School” he had tucked in his reading and math homework. In pencil, he had written the date: March 11, 2020.
The double-sided sheet of paper was like a relic from a bygone era, back when we sent our children off to school each morning and ate in restaurants and didn’t wear surgical masks to go grocery shopping.
On the evening of Wednesday, March 11, my children were in the bath when my phone pinged at 7:07 p.m. with a text from Sag Harbor Elementary School: “Please check your email for an important message from the Sag Harbor School District.”
Typically, such alerts were the provenance of lockdown drills and snow days, back when winters on the East End meant inches upon inches of fresh snowfall in a single night. But I digress.
I often think back fondly on that innocent night, tucking my two children, then 7 and 4, into bed. By the second week in March, the world was already undergoing a seismic shift, though we didn’t yet know the magnitude of what was to come. Words like “social distancing” and “stay at home” and “P.P.E.” hadn’t yet entered our lexicon. This was weeks before historic job losses and 100,000 dead Americans and peaceful and violent protests, condemning police brutality, became our new reality.
Along with many parents across the East End, we soon learned that school was closed until March 22. Over the coming weeks, the closure date kept being extended, until May 1, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo put an end to the uncertainty of the 2019-20 school year once and for all: Throughout New York State, schools would remain shuttered until fall.
To Sag Harbor’s credit, administrators and teachers shared with parents a “Remote Learning Plan” within 36 hours of the start of the quarantine, separated by grade level. Special area teachers (Spanish, technology, art, science, and physical education) provided weekly lesson plans as well.
In the three months since we started home schooling our children, the global pandemic has made me feel like a 1950s housewife, sequestered at home with her colicky newborn, while also being a failing schoolteacher and homesteader, while simultaneously being catapulted to the year 2020 — and juggling the responsibilities of a modern-day working woman, leaning into her career. All while America is on fire, burning to a crisp, hopefully to be remade anew.
My son, who is in second grade, happens to be an autonomous, self-directed learner. He completes a day’s worth of academic learning within 90 minutes, give or take. Boredom is his most frequent complaint. I fret that not one assignment has been corrected or evaluated since mid-March. As a former teacher and education reporter, I worry for the students who don’t have the luxury of a parent hovering nearby, assiduously correcting their work and fixing technological glitches.
Lately, though, uncorrected work and the absence of differentiated instruction has become the least of my worries.
Flash-forward to June 1, 2020. On the Monday following historic protests in dozens of American cities — from New York to Los Angeles, and Miami to Seattle — I was dismayed to see that Sag Harbor’s online lesson plans hadn’t pivoted accordingly. As per usual, a YouTube link directed us to a prerecorded morning program. It was a sunny Monday. We said the Pledge of Allegiance and celebrated birthdays and learned a new idiom.
Yes, we must protect our youngest children from the harshness of the world. The hope is that they eventually learn of the darker truths, like an onion being unraveled, one cruel layer at a time. (That’s probably my white privilege talking.) But if we expect this next generation of young people to navigate the world with a greater degree of inclusiveness, was there ever a better moment, during June’s writing and social studies assignments, for instance, to explore the issue of institutionalized racism?
Earlier this school year, during a unit on civil rights, my son became newly obsessed with the topic of segregation. “Mama, if I had been born at a different time in history, would I have attended a school for black children?” he wanted to know. My son is half-white and half-Indian. Apparently, my biracial son had learned that segregation no longer exists — that it was a 400-year-old problem America had already conquered and that it lived in the distant past.
Insofar as the virtual learning experiment goes, the South Fork of Long Island is an interesting case study to consider. From Southampton to Montauk, it’s a hodgepodge of self-contained districts, from tiny one-room schoolhouses (see: Sagaponack) to districts grappling with the struggles of overcrowding (see: Springs), not to mention the array of small private schools that educate the year-round population (from toddlers to teenagers).
Despite our differences and divergent resources, there are lessons and best practices, which can and must be shared. This summer is the perfect time for educators and community members to come together and devise a better path forward. Come September, as classes resume, whether in-person or virtually (or likely some combination of the two), our local schools, public and private, must band together to share best practices — from what was a resounding success to what was an abysmal failure.
The class of 2020, whether graduating from preschool, fifth grade, high school, or college, is about to inherit a more divided and unequal world than their predecessors. This global pandemic has exposed our country’s longstanding weaknesses — from policing to health care to housing to education — and simply reverting back to business as usual is no longer an option.
As the youth of America courageously take to the streets and demand change, we need to equip our children with the curriculum and the language to not only feel comfortable joining the conversation, but, if they so choose, join the fight.
Over this past week, the problem has felt enormous. Start small, they say. Start local, they say. But merely showing up at local protests and posting black squares on Instagram and sending out statements in support of #blacklivesmatter isn’t enough.
As for me, I plan on joining the Sag Harbor School District’s diversity and inclusion committee. Though the 500-student Sag Harbor Elementary School is relatively diverse, there is not one teacher of color among its teaching staff. Our elected school boards are similar bastions of whiteness.
We can and must do better.
Amanda M. Fairbanks is a former Teach for America corps member and East Hampton Star staff writer. She is finishing her first nonfiction book, “The Lost Boys of Montauk: A True Story of The Wind Blown, Four Men Who Vanished at Sea, and the Survivors They Left Behind,” which will be published next summer by Gallery Books.