Every time school and union officials kept school doors shut last year in places like Philadelphia, I thought about one of the students I had when I was a teacher – a third grader I’ll call Justin.  

Justin had a tough home life. Both of his parents were in and out of jail with substance abuse issues, and he usually bounced between the homes of his elderly grandmother and his aunt. He was often responsible for his younger brother. Neither of them had many adults in their lives they could count on. When I emptied his backpack on Monday, it was often full of the same papers and letters that were sent home the week before. 

Life was unstable for Justin, and he could be a challenge in the classroom. He had trouble staying focused and on task and needed constant redirection. 

But I’ve never had another student who loved school more than Justin did. He especially loved celebrating the last day of school because we had pizza and ice cream and played with water balloons on the playground. For a few hours he could be just a carefree kid. 

At 3:15 p.m. that day, all of the other kids said their goodbyes and ran out the door to enjoy their summers. Justin lingered. He sat at his desk, and I asked him if he was excited for summer vacation. He very seriously told me, “Not really. When I come to school, I know I will get food, and I don’t have to worry about my brother.”

Last year, after leaving the teaching profession and struggling to oversee my own children’s education, I often thought about Justin. School was his safe place—the place where he didn’t have to think about where his food was coming from or worry if his brother needed him. But I’m afraid that last year kids like Justin—and there are millions of them—fell into a hole from which it will be hard to climb out. And I worry they won’t trust us again. 

As a parent and former teacher, I know the losses children experienced over the last school year went beyond academics. The initial disruption was difficult, but it might have been easier to overcome if things had normalized. Instead, unions and elected officials kept moving the goalposts on how and when schools should open and operate, sowing chaos in schools across the country and eroding the trust of school-aged children and their parents. 

But I’m afraid that last year kids like Justin—and there are millions of them—fell into a hole from which it will be hard to climb out. And I worry they won’t trust us again.

It doesn’t help that there are still lingering, unresolved issues in Pennsylvania schools around mask and vaccine mandates that could lead to more school closures. 

Trust is the most valuable currency between a teacher and the children in her classroom. When we give children like Justin more instability instead of less, of course it will affect their ability to learn. 

We know from Right to Know requests and news reports that union leaders played a direct role in keeping schools closed in places like Bucks County and Philadelphia. It does not come as a surprise to this former teacher that union officials do not have the needs of children forefront in their minds as they lobby the state and school districts. Now, unsurprisingly, the Pennsylvania State Education Association wants to help direct the $5 billion the federal government will send to Pennsylvania for public education over the next few years. 

“That’s why we must have a seat at the table where important decisions are made. We are the experts. We know better than anyone what our students need,” PSEA President Rich Askey said in a video on the union’s website. 

Not so. Teachers know what students need. Unions have proven that they will put their own interests above children. 

National test scores show many children have fallen behind over the last year. What is more alarming is the kids who have just gone “missing.” There are efforts underway to find these children, but how do we address the lost trust? 

I understand that there was a time at the beginning of the pandemic when the unknown forced us to shut schools, but this year we cannot allow politics to continue hurting kids like Justin. This year, lawmakers should stop listening to unions and pay attention to parents and teachers.

Brigette Herbst, a former New York public school teacher, is organizing director for Americans for Fair Treatment, a nonprofit that helps educate and empower public-sector employees to exercise their first amendment rights. Learn more at www.Americansforfairtreatment.org

One thought on “Brigette Herbst: School uncertainty erodes the trust of our most vulnerable students”

  1. If right wingers weren’t irresponsibly spreading misinformation about why you should eat horse paste instead of taking the vaccine, maybe we’d be far enough along to more fully and confidently open schools. Just a thought.

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