Last spring, when my school closed due to COVID-19, my instruction effectively shut down as well. While some teachers were able to make the transition to virtual learning with minor inconveniences, my newcomer English as a Second Language (ESL) algebra students floundered. Very few of my students were able to attend online instruction sessions, some due to lack of access to reliable internet and some with competing schedules from work and family. Each call to a student’s home was a challenge in itself because of the language barrier, and I often had to rely on a combination of my own limited Spanish language and translations from the student or family members. That breakdown in communication left me with a surface-level understanding of what my students needed to succeed. In the past, we could rely on an in-class ESL liaison, nonverbal gestures, and classmate support to accomplish our math missions. Now, we had to get by with texts and emails—digital messages in a bottle. Thankfully, Google Translate proved to be quite effective.
This fall, I won’t return to the classroom. Instead, I will serve as my school district’s Government Relations Liaison full time; a position I beta-tested last year half- time. The Texas State Legislature meets every odd-numbered year, so my Superintendent saw the value in having an in-house staffer to cover legislative advocacy efforts. Now, my focus on school reopening isn’t tied to a student roster, but to funding and policy decisions at the state and federal levels. I have been given time and space to take a high-level view of the challenges and opportunities my school district faces in this unprecedented time, and there’s a lot at stake.
The primary challenge as I see it is that every action schools and districts take is hyper-politicized. The decision to go virtual or hold classes in person is somehow an indicator of political party affiliation. Leadership at the district, local, and state levels are in a constant tug-of-war, with most community members not realizing that dollars are tied to doors opening. Here in Texas, the Attorney General recently stated that county health officials cannot preemptively close school campuses and that doing so may jeopardize funding. The Texas Education Agency then had to update guidance, and school boards and superintendents had to reconsider school start dates and reopening plans.
There is no doubt that schools and other social and economic factors are interconnected. The US House of Representatives Oversight Committee held a hearing on reopening schools in early August, and some of the talking points included child abuse, rising unemployment, nutrition, mental health, affordable housing, shuttering of small businesses, multigenerational households, vaccines, systemic racism, and telecommunications. Undoubtedly, school openings will heavily influence voters in November and candidates up and down the ticket will need to have responses at the ready. Governors have had a particularly tough time, facing heavy criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, regardless of their own party identification.
The silver lining in all this is that since schools and education are at the core of conversations at the local, state, and federal levels, there is an opportunity to improve the lives of children in our country. Americans want kids back in school when it is safe. And while there has been a rise and fall in the esteem of educators since last March, there is a renewed appreciation for the technical difficulty of actually teaching kids. The sentiment is that the school is the heart of the community, perhaps even more important than the businesses that surround it because those, too, are dependent upon the schools. It’s no small feat to tackle economic, social, and educational inequities, but now that their interdependence is clear, it’s the right time to address these issues at all levels. Doing so will mean that this year won’t just be marked by a global pandemic, but also by a revolutionary change in education.
Shawn Sheehan is the Government Relations Liaison for Lewisville ISD in Lewisville, Texas. He has taught math for nine years in Texas and Oklahoma. He is a 2018 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow and the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year.
Shawn earned his BA in Journalism at Arizona State University and his M.Ed. in Special Education at the University of Oklahoma. Shawn made an unsuccessful bid for Oklahoma State Senate in 2016, campaigning on strengthening core services, workforce development, and STEM education.
A strong advocate for improving public education, Shawn has been featured on CBS This Morning, NPR, and The Economist. Shawn is happiest when he’s spending time with his wife, Kaysi, who teaches 10th grade English at Hebron High School, and their four-year-old daughter, Scarlett.