What Does It Mean to Be a School Community During COVID-19

Will the students be allowed to go to 7Eleven during lunch recess? That was the topic of a recent community meeting. The question was raised by a student who thought that our ban on leaving the school area during recess did not make any sense. The discussion went quite quickly broader to what it means to be a school community during COVID-19. 

A lovely Jewish folk tale about Schlemiel (clumsy, inept) and Schlimazel (unlucky, misfortunate), illustrates the connection between the student’s question and the meaning of living in a community these days. 

The two men went once on a long deserted road. As the night fell, Schlemiel just lied on the ground in the middle of the road and fell asleep. Schlimazl took more caution. He went to sleep in a small ditch on the side of the road. During the night a car passed on the road. Once the driver paid attention to a strange body lying on the ground, he pulled to the side instinctively. The car went off the road, fell to the ditch and ran over poor Schlimazel

This question of going to 7Eleven would not be raised in normal times. This is one of the great benefits of our location, the students can walk freely in Ghent and West Freemason neighborhoods as well as Downtown Norfolk. They do so between classes and on the way to off-campus work-study locations. The surrounding urban area of our school is especially beautiful and lively. Houses from the 18th to the turn of the 20th century provide historical magic. Fashionable stores, ethnic restaurants and community cafes balance the magic of the old with a contemporary beat. Playgrounds and small public parks add a family-friendly feel. I know that the students absorb the aesthetic qualities of this environment even if they end up choosing a chain store like 7Eleven as their favorite outing place. It is just more familiar and less intimidating. 

With exposure to the environment outside school we cultivate the students’ sense of place–a central component in Montessori adolescent education. The students become aware of the special physical topography of Hampton Roads: constant interaction between land and water. They also become aware of the social topography of the area class: race, age, religion, gender etc. Equipped with knowledge from our local history research seminar, the students can recognize both the visible and invisible impact of the past on the present urban landscape. Going through the same spots every week over three or four years, the students develop identification with the broader context of their school. 

We sadly had to give up on going outside of school for the time being. It was a safety measure that came in addition to pausing lessons in all our off-campus locations. Staying at school the entire day feels unnatural for a program like ours. We all miss seeing our partners, Beau Turner from 757Makerspace, Troy Valos from the Slover Library, and Chef Steven Sadowsky from the Culinary Institute of Virginia. But this inconvenience is the least we could do to avoid unnecessary risks of coming in contact with COVID-19. This is one of the repercussions of social distancing for our school. 

At the community meeting discussion, the students expressed understanding why it was safer not to do lessons off-campus. But what is so dangerous about going to 7Eleven? After all, they can go there before or after school. They can also promise to stay with masks, to keep social distancing from other customers and to sanitize their hands after leaving the store. One student even suggested that a teacher should accompany the students to guarantee that they indeed would follow our safety guidelines. Another student testified that 7Eleven staff disinfected their merchandise and required people to wear face masks. 

At the beginning of the conversation, I was still holding to the rational ground of the restriction not to go out of the outdoor classroom area during school time. But the more I heard the students’ arguments, the less sense our restriction made to me. What if we ban going to 7Eleven just because we are not such great fans of this store and the quality of food it sells? And maybe we could ease a bit the discomfort by allowing the students to restore some sense of normalcy. The students only want to have back a small enjoyment that they used to have until not such a long time ago. 

One teacher expressed sympathy with the desire to restore habits that resonate with our lost sense of normal reality. However, she continued, we have to remember that we do not live in a normal time right now. And we experience it with a lot of discomfort. Attempts to regain comfort might position a trap for us. We are so determined to return to our familiar habits that it becomes more important for us than keeping ourselves and others safe. In other words, accepting the discomfort may make it more bearable. Accepting the discomfort has another benefit. It will help us not to forget that, in order to be safe, we must be cautious. 

I can think about many such instances in which my desire to ease the discomfort pushes me to become less cautious. And this line of thinking brings me back to the Jewish tale about Schlemiel (clumsy) and Schlimazel (misfortunate). Most times I will avoid risk because I do not want to be the Schlimazl of other people’s carelessness. I see them, for example, at the local grocery store removing their mask between the aisles or just pushing it fashionably below the nose. Being put at risk angers me. I immediately run moralizing speeches towards them in my head. But am I always so cautious as I expect them to be? I admit, not always. I do succumb many times to my desire to feel free of this annoying cover over my face. This is the time in which I play the less flattering role of Schlemiel. This is the role we play more often even though we prefer to ignore it.

Community meetings moved on to the larger topic of what activities we could initiate in order to create a sense of community, when part of us are at home and the other part is in the outdoor classroom. I am still waiting for an opportunity to go back to the 7Eleven topic and tell this tale to the students. What I would like to suggest is that one of the ways to be a community in the time of COVID-19 is that we all understand that we are this Schlimazel who got stuck in this situation because of other Schlemiels. We will get out of this misfortunate situation only if we agree to accept the discomfort and take an extra effort not to be ourselves Schlemiels at the expense of other Schlimazels. Practically it means that we should avoid going to places outside school, even to 7Eleven, just for the sake of taking a communal responsibility for ourselves and others during COVID-19.