Close to Home: A call for civility

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

Eighteen months into this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, it is important to acknowledge our collective fatigue and disappointment. When local schools closed to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020, many of us expected the closures to be a short-lived interruption. As it became clear that the pandemic would not be erased quickly or easily, frustration and exhaustion understandably set in for many parents, students and school employees.

This summer, it seemed the worst might be behind us as schools prepared to welcome students back to full-time, in-person learning. Unfortunately, the rise of the highly contagious delta variant posed new challenges. By now, many families have dealt with the challenge and inconvenience of quarantine resulting from exposure at school. At the same time, school leaders and staff are stretched thin by the exacting demands of COVID-19.

Steven D. Herrington
Steven D. Herrington

It is natural, in these times of uncertainty and stress, to feel frustration and anger. However, as a school community, we must remember we are stronger when we are unified. This commentary is an urgent call for civility and kindness within our schools and community. Parents, teachers, school administrators and other school staff members all want the same things for the children we are trusted to serve. We want our youth to be safe, thrive socially and emotionally and progress in their learning so they may meet their goals for school, college, career and life.

It is easy to lose sight of these common interests when frustration sets in.

Much of our culture’s collective exasperation with the pandemic has been exhibiting itself in local school offices, classrooms and board rooms, with parents arguing to let their student attend when faced with quarantine, attacking school boards and individual teachers for enforcing state-mandated masking requirements, and more.

The lack of civility is taking a toll on our workforce. Nationwide, school leaders and teachers report heightened levels of anxiety, overwhelm, worry and frustration. This is playing out locally.

In a normal year, out of around 200 school board trustees, I accept five to seven school board resignations. In the past 18 months, under COVID-19, I have received 17.

CalSTRS, the state teachers’ retirement system, has reported an increase of administrators and teachers retiring by an extra 20,000 over average.

We are seeing a high level of turnover among school administrators as they take on time-consuming tasks like contact tracing, monitoring quarantine, implementing health guidance, and more. This is on top of their normal duties, which are critical to ensuring that schools operate smoothly.

The loss of these dedicated, experienced leaders and teachers is difficult to overcome, as these positions take years of specialized training.

Whatever your disagreement, it need not be personal. Teachers, trustees, principals and other school staff are our friends, neighbors and colleagues. They chose education because they care deeply about children. Like all of us, they are doing their best to navigate these uncertain times.

As a former history and government teacher, I taught that rights are owed by the governing body to the people, while responsibilities are owed by the people to the society or country.

It is everyone’s responsibility to provide students, many of whom are not age-eligible for vaccination, a healthy and safe learning environment.

Let us find ways to disagree respectfully while working toward common solutions, including active listening, offering potential solutions or compromise, embracing varying and diverse perspectives and always assuming the best intent. In this way, we can model respect and civic engagement for our children, even when we may disagree with a specific decision or policy. The best way out of this pandemic is through unity, not division.

Steven D. Herrington is Sonoma County superintendent of schools.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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