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Britta Gustafson: Testing the resiliency of our children

Britta Gistafson
Then Again

My memories are so vivid of soft sunlight glowing warm through white linen, with nature’s grass and earth serving as our desks.

Head resting on my left palm, I touched the blades of grass and listened to our teacher reading aloud, feeling the wind’s breath pulsing on the sides of the tent. It’s a time none of us have forgotten. A time when we adapted quickly to school days in tents; the setting for my first semester of sixth grade at Aspen Middle School while asbestos was being removed from the building in the early ’90s.

At the time, I never once considered what it must have taken to erect tent space for an entire middle school, to restructure the learning spaces and adjust to a semester of school outside. From a child’s eye, I recall fondly how good it felt to be outside during those unconventional school days. But for parents and teachers the fear of asbestos must have been drastic enough to be worthy of upending half a school year in order to protect us kids.

Now, as a mother with soon to be sixth and fourth graders and the pending restart to the school year, I’m faced with new fears that seem far more dangerous than asbestos.

We all want schools to reopen; the question is, can it be done safely in a raging pandemic?

School is learning, socializing and preparing for the future. It’s about creating a foundation for the next generation. Protecting our students should be top of the list; safety first right?

Kids are resilient, but just how much are we willing to test that resiliency?

When I was 13, a classmate of mine died in a tragic accident. I remember seeing him the day before, happy and funny — always grinning with his kind eyes. He had been joking around and made me laugh, and then I never saw him again. It cracked a piece of my young soul so irreparably that, to this day, I feel an overwhelming sadness take hold when I remember his smile.

If I could go back and trade a few months of normal life for his life, without question there would be no hesitation. That year was a dark year in my school life with the funeral, the mortality check, the sadness that hung in the hallways.

A few years later when my sister was 10, her classmate Tanner Daily, 10, and his brother Shea, 6, and their mother were all killed in a tragic accident. And now we walk by the bench honoring their memory every day on the way to drop off our own children at Aspen Elementary School. For my sister and her classmates, all the way up to my sphere in the high school community, that tragedy chipped away at our youthful innocence. Our collective hearts were broken. Experiencing that loss of life at a young age becomes a pain that’s always there with no cure.

How could we justify that experience to our own children if just one classmate, one beloved teacher or staff member left this world because we feel the pressure to race against science back to a normal school year this fall?

Our teachers take an oath to take care of children, but how can they be expected to saddle this level of health safety responsibility? That under the added pressure of concern for their own family’s health and well-being?

Teachers are our essential workers, tasked with our future. And they will be essential next year and the year after that. To me, their lives are not statistics.

I can’t imagine Aspen Elementary School without Lisa Mae’s voice ringing out reading aloud from library books, or seeing Kristie Sellmeyer’s smiling eyes, feeling Lisa Dimentos’ warm hugs, hearing Amy Coyle’s contagious laugh, watching Lisa McGuire leading a gaggle of happy kindergarteners, or without any and all of the other wonderful teachers and staff who make up the Aspen School District families. We are so blessed; I love them all. They are worth protecting at all costs.

I think of all the deeply involved grandparents I know; those who are at pickup and drop off and at school plays and events. I can’t imagine how our community would react if their healths were compromised because of our statistical justifications to reopen schools too soon.

And we could never begin to repair the guilt felt by children who might believe themselves responsible for an outbreak that ended a life. I’ve witnessed what a toll it takes on a person who feels responsible for another’s death and no one comes back from that.

Maybe some are ready to follow the executive lead and reopen schools in the traditional sense, but many of us feel more than hesitant, despite what surveys may say — surveys that, by the way, were based primarily on write-in answers and difficult to quantify.

Perhaps we will be led through peer pressure to conform. Those of us who have worked so hard to keep our socializing to a minimum are now being asked to trust the social-separation decision-making of others who are off vacationing and congregating at parties and who genuinely seem ambivalent or even apathetic as much as we trust our own.

I don’t know about you, but I have watched how effective social distancing is with kids. They are social beings and we have taught them empathy, love and social kindness, but now they are beyond confused. How can we expect them to really learn while navigating peer pressure, fear and anxiety on top of unteaching them to be social?

I miss life as we knew it; who doesn’t. But we got it right closing down schools when we did. Let’s reconsider the reopening strategy. This is our town, our friends and families. These people are not statistics. This could be our worst mistake.

I fantasize about a radical re-evaluation of traditional school. This could be our moment, the chance to shift the focus away from “teaching to the test” for funding. Here in Aspen, we could take advantage of our environment to emphasize mindfulness and focus on (literally) out of the box learning. Hold school outside — we did it. It works and has proven benefits, and in a pandemic it’s brilliant. Maybe it’s tents. But the worst of all worlds is to send our kids into an experiment in virus control to see just how resilient they can be if the statistics don’t turn out in our favor.

I guess we could simply ask ourselves, are our school board meetings concerning this topic taking place inside a classroom setting? If not, well then isn’t that the answer?

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at brittag@ymail.com.


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