By Father Casey
The news has been full this week of the debate about reopening schools, in Texas and across the country. Like almost all the conversations happening right now, the discussion about school reopening has been presented as though it is a debate between two options. We do a lot of that in our society, don’t we? Transform complicated matters into overly simplified and opposing choices, so that we can pick sides and fight. But not only is this sort of shallow thinking holding us back from finding solutions to the huge challenges we’re up against, for Christians it is contrary to the way of Jesus. Again and again, Jesus shows the wisdom of the third way, the better option, the course of action that reveals itself when you remain patient and open.
The debate goes like this. There are some who can only see the many compelling reasons not to resume in-person schooling this fall. They recognize that teachers, in addition to their already incredibly hard jobs, would now be forced to regulate student behaviors like mask-wearing and social distancing. They see the difficulty we would face in the (inevitable) event of an infection of a student or teacher. And how do you even find enough teachers to begin with, including substitutes, who are able to teach with so much risk to their health? The obstacles to returning to school during the pandemic are real and huge.
Then there are those who insist that schools must resume in-person, because of the real harm to millions of kids when schools rely completely on distance-learning. There are children who do not have supportive home environments, whose main source of educational development – including learning to read, which if not mastered by third grade is the single best predictor of a lifetime of poverty – happens solely in a classroom. There are 20 million kids who receive their only reliable meals at school, millions of kids who receive their only social and emotional support at school, and countless kids for whom school is their only reliable escape from an abusive home. For their sakes, schools must reopen.
So what do we do?
I honestly don’t know, and it’s far beyond my role to suggest that I do. But what I know is that it’s not a simple choice between two options, which means we need to keep trying to find that third way, that better option. Because the factors supporting both positions are real and important: we have a responsibility to the health and safety of teachers and also to the education and development of kids. We need to do right by all of them, which will be impossible if we stay stuck in the paralyzing simplicity of false debates.
So I hope you’re praying. Pray for the teachers who are afraid of coming back to jobs that were hard enough already and now seem terrifying. Pray for kids who live on the margins of our society, and who were already slipping through the cracks into poverty. Pray for parents, especially all those who must juggle working at home with conducting school for their children. Pray for decision-makers and those in authority, that they have wisdom to patiently seek better solutions and the courage to make the sacrifices that they require. Pray for yourself, listening to the still, small voice of what God is calling you to be and do in response to this crisis and the many challenges we currently face. Pray with humility and hope for how we are to love our neighbors – all of them – in this profoundly difficult moment, because that is where Jesus and his third way will be found.