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A Chicago principal on challenges facing schools right now

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

In Chicago, the pandemic's impact on education could hardly be more visible. Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for five days this month after teachers protested unsafe working conditions. But even after omicron passes, the education crisis will remain, according to Seth Lavin. I'm a Chicago principal, he wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. Children are not OK. Teachers are not OK. Schools are not OK. Before the bell rang this morning, I asked Principal Lavin, what exactly is not OK right now?

SETH LAVIN: We've all been through so much in the past two years, and our children have been through it as children. And most of last year, we were apart. And now we're together again. Children and all of us are out of practice being a community, and we've all lost a lot. We've all been hurt a lot. And so the children need help. They need love. And it makes everything harder. And the adults need help and love, too. And so as a community, we're struggling through it.

KHALID: You know, Seth, I was struck in the piece that you wrote for the Sun-Times. You gave some pretty specific anecdotes of just what the emotional situation has been like for teachers, for children. Can you describe some of that to us?

LAVIN: I talked to, you know, friends of mine who are teachers or principals, and we all share these stories of just examples of things, just the stories that you wouldn't hear two or three years ago in the same way. A friend of mine who's a principal told me when I asked how she's doing, she said in the last three years, she had once gone through the process that you go through when a child has suicide ideation, when they talk out loud about self-harm. She said, I've done it four times in the last one month.

KHALID: Wow. Seth, you've been describing some of the emotional trauma that you see in kids at your school. But there's got to have also been, you know, specific educational or learning challenges as well, and describe that to us. I mean, how has the education been affected for these kids by the back and forth between remote learning and in person?

LAVIN: It is objectively true that over the last two years, kids have not experienced the same lessons that they would have experienced if the school had just been in-person like it always had been straight through. But I really think there's too much focus on that or on this idea of learning loss, whatever that means. What school does and what school is isn't just a sequence of lessons that you're supposed to get in order at the right time in order to grow up to be the person you're supposed to grow up to be. That's not what school is really about.

School is about becoming the person you're meant to be through being in community and having experiences with others, learning who you are, learning how to be a person who shows up in a way that is good for others - and fractions, and grammar. That stuff will come. But we're not going to get to a point where kids are grown-ups and say, man, these humans don't know fractions. That's not the urgency. The urgency is we need to help our kids feel safe and good in community at school so they know how to be with others.

KHALID: You know, I was struck by something you wrote in your piece, and I'm quoting here. You said, "there is no way to unbreak everything the pandemic broke. You cannot discipline your way out of trauma. There is nothing that can make healing not take time." How long do you think things will take to get back to normal? And, I mean, what do you think normal even looks like at this point?

LAVIN: I'm an optimist. I think the omicron surge ending is a really good thing. It may mean we have a time, a longer time of more calm and more stability in school, which is going to help kids and teachers feel more calm and more stable in their bodies and their classrooms. The last thing I'll say about it, if it's OK, is going back to normal - we want to go back to normal, but we also always have to ask what normal even was. This moment, cataclysmic though it is, has to be a time when we rebuild the world in a better way. And I really think that people in schools, teachers and their kids and the parents that they work with are doing that work classroom by classroom.

KHALID: That's Seth Lavin, principal of the Brentano Math and Science Academy, a pre-K through 8 public school in Chicago. Thanks for joining us.

LAVIN: Thank you so much for having me.

KHALID: If you or someone you know might be having thoughts of suicide, help is available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Their number is 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-273-TALK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Casey Morell (he/him) is an associate producer/director of All Things Considered.