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When I was in sixth grade, my class was bad. Not just your run-of-the-mill typical kids being bad and disrespecting teachers and each other. So bad, that teachers were behind on teaching us because we wouldn't pay attention and focus. Students were constantly talking, goofing off, and refusing to listen to the teachers. We were behind and our teachers were fed up.
One day, we came to school, went to the classroom, got settled in, and our teachers said, "Grab all your things. We are going to be in the cafeteria all day." We were very confused--this was nothing any of us had experienced before. When we made it to the cafeteria, the first person we saw was our principal/superintendent. We were in serious trouble.
"Boys and girls," she began, "your behavior so far this year has been unacceptable. You have been disrespectful to your teachers, to the staff of the school, and to each other. Your behavior has made it impossible to learn. So since you all don't want to learn new things and you're behind, you're going to spend the week in basically group ISS. You will all sit spaced out, you will not talk, you will go to the restroom in a line in complete silence and go to use the restroom one at a time. You will have a packet of work. Once you finish that work, you will sit quietly and read a book or put your head down and nap. There will be no recess and at lunch you will stay in these spots and not speak to anyone. If things improve by the end of this week, then you will get to go back to class."
You could hear a pin drop by the time she finished her speech. She did clarify that not everyone has been bad, but that the class as a whole has left them no choice but to treat us this way. That whole week of sitting in the uncomfortable, round, backless, hard plastic cafeteria seats, not speaking, and not being able to get up and move around was uncomfortable and frustrating. I remember I would go home and tell my parents and they were far from sympathetic. "We know you were being good, but life's not fair sometimes. And sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do." Needless to say, we were all excited to go back to the classroom the following week, and we were much better from there on out. This was just a week of my life and, as an extroverted introvert, it was very difficult to deal with. I had many emotions and frustrations that week, and it had such an impact on me that I can remember this even now as an adult!
I have thought about this event a lot over the past week as I have been speaking with teachers about what it is going to look like to go back to school on Wednesday. They will likely feel very similar to how my classmates and I felt that week of sixth grade--only they will feel it every single day for most of the school year, even though they are not in trouble (and they will get to talk and have recess)! Every student will have a number and sit at their assigned seats in class and the cafeteria. Teachers will rotate classrooms, not students. The idea, of course, being that if a student gets sick, just the three or four who were near them day in and day out would have to quarantine instead of the whole class. These are excellent protocols that are keeping our students and teachers safe while giving them a school experience in the middle of a pandemic! I'm grateful for administrations, teachers, and others who helped come up with this new way of life so that children can be in school. As great as these protocols are, though, they are not without consequence. This year, children will lose a small sense of independence as they are told where to sit and who they sit with. This will be the first time the students will be back in school since Spring Break. They never got to say "goodbye" to their old teacher and now they will enter a new classroom entirely. They will likely be grieving in their own ways on this first day of school. They will be afraid and anxious about this new normal. They will have many emotions they cannot put into words and will struggle as they start school again.
Perhaps you are thinking, "Why is this such a big deal, Pastor Patricia? They're kids--they will adjust! They'll be just fine!" You're right. Just like my classmates and I adjusted to just a week of group ISS, these kids will adjust and they will be okay with their new way of doing school. But they are still kids--just as human as any adult. For the last five months, they have been just as scared, lonely, and lost as the rest of us. They know something bad is going on--something so bad that they couldn't even go back to school after spring break. Something so bad that all of their summer activities were either cancelled or vastly different than they have been before. Something so bad that their parents are wondering how they will pay the bills and put food on the table. Something so bad that they are told by their parents that they can't leave the house without a mask on. Something bad enough to cancel their proms and graduations. Something bad that made them not be able to show their animal at the county fair. Something bad enough to end their favorite sport seasons.
As much as we try to hide and shelter kids from all of the things that cause us worry, they can sense it and feel it. They observe much more than we know and they know that the world is changing. These things that they have lost in this time may not seem like the end of the world to us adults--but to them, it is their world and their life. These are things they have worked hard on or looked forward to and did not get to experience. It is unfair. It is scary. It is hurtful. It is confusing. They are hurting and grieving, too.
Just like all of us adults out there, our children and youth need a LOT of grace this week as they start school. They know things are bad. They know something is going on that is drastically changing their lives. They will likely wonder each day when they leave school if they will get to return the next day. They are wondering if they will get to show their animal, have a school dance, get to go to a regular football game, and have the chance to make any new friends while reconnecting with their old ones. They want to have a "normal" life again...and we just can't guarantee that happening for a while.
To the staff, teachers, and administrators of our schools--thank you for already knowing this all to be true and giving our students grace. Thank you for working hard to ensure their safety and doing the best you can in this difficult time. You are the ones helping our children and youth process what is going on and adjust to their new school life. We are praying for you. We know it is tough on you and you worry about your safety (and your family's!) as you return to school.
To the parents of students out there, we are praying for you, too. You have been struggling day in and day out with this pandemic. You have tried to continue working, raising your family, and have helped make sure their virtual school work was done. We know you are likely fearful and anxious about the virus and what sending your child to school may mean for them. We will give you grace, too, in those moments when you are struggling and need grace the most.
Finally, I hope you will join me in the prayer below for our students. I firmly believe our children and youth are not just our future; they are our present. They need prayer, grace, and love now more than ever:
We lift up to you today all of the students of our schools. Many of them are getting their backpacks ready, their school supplies packed, and picking out their first day of school outfit. As excited as they are to be going back to school, we know they are also scared and anxious about what this school year may look like. We pray they will find friends in those whom they will sit by each day. We pray they will learn in fun ways like they are used to doing. We pray they will stay safe. We pray they will quickly adjust to this new way of learning. We pray that they will still have their sports, livestock show, and fun school activities this year. We pray that as we give them grace, they have grace to give in return to the school staff, teachers, administrators, and their parents who are all working hard to give them the best possible education they can get in this time. May they always remember they are never alone--God is always with them and they are loved by many.
In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.