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Threading the needle on opening school

So much has been written in the past few weeks about the challenges and conflicts involved in reopening schools for the 2020-21 school year that, if we still used paper, the full collection would fill the shelves of the Denver Public Library.

It’s refreshing amid the logorrhea to find some wisdom from a practitioner. Mike Miles, CEO of Colorado-based Third Future Schools wrote a letter last week to his teaching staff that lays out the magnitude of the reopening challenge, frames it as a noble undertaking, and takes a compassionate yet tough-minded stand that give an out to educators who decide it would be best to sit this year out.

What’s notable about Miles’ letter is that it’s entirely non-judgmental. Not wanting to return to school this fall is an understandable decision for some educators. They will not be punished for that decision (nor, it should be noted, will they be paid a salary). Miles has managed to thread the needle here, neither calling out teachers who fear for their safety, nor bowing to demands that schools open 100 percent virtually, when the kids who will be hurt worst by that option are precisely the kids Miles’ schools are serving.

Here, without further ado, is the full text of the letter:

For educators, COVID-19 may be the most severe and consequential challenge we have ever faced.  Teachers and all who work in schools are now on the front lines of our collective battle against this pandemic.  We are, and have always been, “essential workers.”  And while educators have always sacrificed much for the common good, we have never been called upon to assume the degree of risk to our health as the situation at present requires. 

As in every time of crisis, not everyone is willing or able to answer the call to action.  Some teachers are needed by ailing parents or have compromised immune systems themselves.  Others want to contribute in other ways – as paramedics, food distributers, or on-line tutors.  Some simply do not believe educating students should be a priority right now or that it is not worth the health risk to students and staff.

No one can blame or criticize those who arrive at a different calculus at this moment.  After all, the employee value proposition just six months ago included no consideration of COVID-19 and the concomitant health risks.

In light of these considerations then, our network is offering an extended leave without pay for one year for any employee, and we will pay for health care benefits while one is on this special leave.  Should you choose to take advantage of this offer, we will give you the same job or an equivalent position and salary when you return next school year.

We recognize that the employee value proposition has changed in significant ways.  For the 2020-2021 school year (and perhaps the following year as well), being a teacher in our network will additionally require one to be willing to:

      • accept the health risks associated with working in schools during a pandemic,
      • learn how to teach students effectively and simultaneously in-person and remotely,
      • stay strong and attend to the needs of our students even during a pandemic that is upsetting our world and personal lives in incalculable ways.

It was already difficult working in a network that has such high expectations and whose teachers have been doing what it really takes to narrow the opportunity gap.  Now, when the chips are down, and the odds against our students are stacked even higher, we ask that you step forward and accept the challenge of a lifetime.

We will enforce strong safety precautions to mitigate the health risk.  But only part of the battle is directly related to health.  Equally challenging will be our efforts to significantly narrow the opportunity gap in the midst of a pandemic.  Returning to school is not a logistics problem for us; it is a student proficiency challenge.  Teaching simultaneously in-person and remotely is not impossible; it is necessary.

If addressing inequity and giving our students a fighting chance of successfully navigating a Year 2030 workplace was critically important before COVID-19 and worthy of our best efforts, it is even more important now.  The mission is the same, the urgency greater, and the need for true heroes vital. 

As always, you have a choice.  We hope you will choose to stay and fight.  If you leave, you go with our respect and blessings.  If you stay, know that this is likely to be a long and difficult year.  But know, too, that your leaders will be on the front lines with you and provide you with the support you need.

And should we reach our destination still standing, knowing in our hearts what it really took, without fanfare or reward, we will look across the way to each other and say, simply, “well done.”

Mike Miles
CEO, First Future Schools