In pandemic, put public health before politics

By Kathy Knecht
Posted 7/20/20

Thoughtful and intelligent leaders know there is no easy path through the COVID-19 crisis.

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In pandemic, put public health before politics

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Thoughtful and intelligent leaders know there is no easy path through the COVID-19 crisis. There is no “right” answer, no quick fix, no painless solution. Experienced leaders know that in the absence of precedence, we must do our best to predict the outcomes of our actions or inactions. We must heed the advice of experts in multiple fields.

We must recognize that everything is connected. And, we must work together, as a unified community. If we learn we have done too little or made missteps, we need to own it, change course, and do better.

Schools have (again) become pawns in electoral politics.

This is wrong. Like healthcare workers and first responders, professional educators are dedicated public servants who work tirelessly to ensure a brighter future for all. Effective teaching and learning is the pathway to economic prosperity and a knowledgeable society. To diminish it with politics is contemptible.

We are absolutely right to want kids back in school. We are wrong to think we can return to school without first addressing COVID-19.

We are wrong to consider schools separate from the community at large; schools are part of our community. Students, teachers, principals, bus drivers, crossing guards and school staff all live in our community. These folks can carry the virus into schools and they can take it home from schools. There is no magical invisible barrier between schools and the rest of our cities. If the virus is raging outside of schools, it will rage inside of them where — if we went back to “normal” — children and educators would spend six hours a day together in close quarters.

And yes, this all stinks.

Virtual learning is no comparison to in-person instruction. It’s devastating to lose in-person collaboration, socialization and learning time. For some children, school means a meal and a trusted, stable adult in their lives. Managing children’s learning from home can be challenging at best, disastrous at worst. Some families simply don’t have the ability to access online instruction.

I know superintendents are developing two, three and even four contingency plans while responding to rightfully fearful, frustrated, and sometimes angry parents.

I am inspired by leaders like Dr. Chad Gestson of one of the state’s largest school districts, Phoenix Union (PXU).

Dr. Gestson’s decision to hold off on in-person learning until it’s “safe, reasonable and responsible to do so” means no in-person classes for that district until at least October. The clearly tough, courageous decision spares staff, students, and their families uncertainty from week to week. It allows them to plan better for teaching, employment and childcare. It means that Phoenix Union classrooms will not be places where the virus multiplies and spreads back out into our homes and businesses.

What is painful to admit is that there won’t be a “normal” for businesses, for schools, for our social lives, or anything, until we get control of the virus.

The longer our leaders fail to control the virus, the longer and more painful our journey will be. Every spike is a setback that costs time, money and precious lives. But each personal sacrifice we make and each containment plan we implement successfully will bring us all a little closer to the day we can send our kids back off to school and football practice, we can work with co-workers safely all day, and we can meet friends at a restaurant after work.

We need state leaders who take the health of our community seriously, and who will also ensure that we don’t lose a generation of learners to COVID-19. We need leaders who won’t put politics above public health, who will listen to experts, and who will make difficult decisions so that we can get back to rebuilding our economy and enjoying the quality of our lives.

Kathy Knecht is president of the West Valley Arts Council Board and a former board member of Peoria Unified School District.

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