Audio Astra: Kansas schools somehow, if barely, made it through grueling 24 months

April 2, 2022 3:33 am

Despite the challenges of the last two years, writes Eric Thomas, our schools and their students have survived. (Getty Images)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas. 

“School’s Out Forever”

This American Life, March 11, 2022

Last week, “This American Life” released an episode titled, “School’s Out Forever.” Host and correspondent Chana Joffe-Walt introduced us to two students in crisis: Girls who suffered extraordinary dislocation from their schools during the pandemic.

While I admire the episode in many ways, I don’t fully agree with how the show describes the welfare of American schools.

In the episode, one student struggles through online school while her working mother dutifully watches her — remotely — while at her job. By installing security cameras that connected with her phone, the mom both surveils her daughter and keeps her job.

The other student drifts away from her Los Angeles school and to Mexico, where she disappears from her school community completely. No books, no Zoom classes, no assignments, no fellow students. As documented in the audio story, her return to Los Angeles tests her school and her emotional resilience.

The reporting here is extraordinary: Joffe-Walt chronicles the sweeping stories of these students throughout the pandemic with wrenching emotional details and familiar pandemic dilemmas faced by both students and parents.

Also in the episode, Joffe-Walt and many of the educators she interviews insist that the pandemic fundamentally broke schools — an argument that seems more overstated each time we hear it.

From one interview with a teacher who laments how he sees his relationship to school as being shattered: “I just feel like the seal has been broken, and I don’t — and it’s hard for me to imagine a world to go back to that magic.”

Later, Joffe-Walt reflects: “So many of the people I’ve been speaking with are questioning the very premise of school, whether it’s worth it, whether they need to show up every day, whether they need to be in a classroom.

“It’s like everyone involved — kids, parents, drivers, teachers, superintendents — all realized at the same time, hey, this treadmill has an off switch. This place is not fact. School is not inevitable.”

She also says that school is among the American institutions that the show’s staff perceives as unraveling.

“We’re doing a couple of episodes about people who are facing things that feel like they’re coming apart in front of them,” Joffe-Walt says.

I see this moment in education in a different way.

To me, American schools have not unraveled, but they are traumatized. Schools have been bruised and battered over three academic years by masking debates, flimsy attendance, staffing issues, and teachers quitting the profession.

– Eric Thomas

To me, American schools have not unraveled, but they are traumatized. Schools have been bruised and battered over three academic years by masking debates, flimsy attendance, staffing issues, and teachers quitting the profession.

Schools have certainly been battered by those forces and more, but they aren’t obliterated. Schools receded from view for many students during the fog of the pandemic, but they didn’t vaporize.

When Joffe-Walt says, “When something ever-present and unquestioned in your life disappears for a year, you learn it’s not the only way to do things. And there’s no unknowing that.”

She is certainly correct that some vulnerable students and teachers completely lost connection to school.

However, many held their tenuous connection to school during 24 grueling months. They plodded through Zoom classes and online assignments, so that now they can return to a more normal school day. Indeed, this moment seems an odd time to make that claim that school has disappeared, just as students are returning to their most authentic version of classroom life: without masks, with low viral spread, with more robust staffing and with an optimistic outlook.

Of course, it’s vital that in-person school isn’t “out forever.” Along with a million other reasons, a report from the CDC this week provides a timely one: Many students need school as a safe refuge from a dangerous home life.

The CDC report documents shocking data about teen health: rates of suicide attempts, along with emotional and physical abuse at home.

“The data underscores the protective role that schools can play in the lives of young people,” the CDC’s Kathleen Ethier told the New York Times.

As we approach the end of the school year, there are other hopeful signs that the trauma didn’t fully destroy our schools.

Next week, I will visit a few schools in Kansas to celebrate some of these successes — against all odds — during the pandemic.

At one school, I will gather with dozens of student journalists and their teacher in a newsroom where they assemble an award-winning student publication. We will surprise their editor-in-chief with an award recognizing her courage in reporting. Her work changed how her school deals with a sensitive issue.

At another school, I will surprise a young teacher who has helped students create more than 600 pages of yearbook during two years of pandemic. Letters of recommendation for the teacher explain how students find joy in the teacher’s classroom.

At my son’s school, he and buddies scampered out of track and field practice yesterday to prank one of their favorite teachers by carpet-bombing his classroom with toilet paper.

At my daughter’s school, her math class is both exciting and precarious, the kind of class that is decidedly difficult but also led by a vibrant and friendly teacher.

It’s true that this trauma looked like a unraveling at some points. Many of our students have lost years on their education and may take years to even partially recover.

But my optimism comes from one simple fact: Schools are still here to serve students. These  institutions limped to the relative safety of today.

During the episode, one of the students is presented with a choice of whether to return to her previous school or enroll at a school that is closer to her house: “Maybe somewhere closer, (the teacher) asked? No, Maricela said. She’d prefer to go back to the school she knows.”

I think that most students feel the same. They want to go back to the school they know, even if that school takes awhile to fully heal.

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.