ERIKA SANZI – Laughter helps, but closed schools are no laughing matter

ERIKA SANZI – Laughter helps, but closed schools are no laughing matter

2020 is increasingly feeling like it needs a bit more laughter because sometimes if we don’t laugh, we’ll cry. The importance of laughter is not because COVID-19 is funny or because people aren’t grappling with economic uncertainty and pain. They are. And it goes without saying that parents are stressed to the max as they scramble to figure out how they are going to make the fall work with their kids doing school from home again

We need to laugh because it reminds us that we are not alone in all of this. Of course our risk levels vary and the direness of our situations is not the same, but we can still find humor in knowing that so many of us wish we had an “it’s just allergies” sign to hold up every time we sneeze in public. We can giggle together over the stranger who wants to know if our mask is two-ply or three-ply and then asks if they can try it on for size. And we can commiserate over how the cooler weather means it feels good to finally put on jeans (well, once we can actually get them to go on.)

I had to laugh the other night during the Cumberland School Committee meeting. First, we learned that “vegetation” is literally growing into the ventilation systems of the schools. But the explanation was even better: they wait until the last minute to do the work so that everything looks really good on the first day of school (as if we are talking about a back-to-school haircut and not the grounds of our school buildings).

All joking aside, far too many people across the state are now personally feeling the ramifications of widespread negligence. In the case of my district in Cumberland, broken fan motors, missing belts, overgrown vegetation and unchanged filters are not acceptable excuses for school buildings not to open after five months of being closed. Sure, some of the problems are significant in terms of time and cost – but a considerable number of them require simple, easy, long overdue fixes that fall into the category of basic maintenance and upkeep.

Yes, it’s true that some of the filters needed now because of COVID-19 are different than the ones needed before and predictably, at this late date, are on back-order. Yes it’s a fact that schools were never designed to be “pandemic compliant” (mostly because they aren’t hospitals). And yes, reasonable people can disagree about whether or not schools should even open for in-person instruction at all. But that should be a decision based on the science, epidemiology and infection rate of the virus, not a persistent and decades-long failure to adequately maintain school buildings.

I remember a time when garbage was allowed to pile up so high behind a local elementary school that it looked like an attempt to recreate an actual mountain out of trash. My boys were little then and I can still hear myself yelling “get off the garbage” because understandably, they couldn’t resist trying to scale Trash Mountain.

“Mommy, why is there so much trash here?”

We lose credibility when we tell children that their education is a priority and then allow the physical spaces to convey the opposite message. Now is our chance to promise them – and their teachers – that we will attack the problem with the urgency it deserves and never let it happen again.

Sanzi is a former educator and school committee member who writes about education at Project Forever Free, Good School Hunting and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.