Beyond the Three Rs: the importance of schools in communities

Tammy Day on the importance of schools in our towns, cities, and neighborhoods to meet basic needs – something that has become glaringly apparent in a pandemic.

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Out of an abundance of caution and the need for us to plan for a possible 6 to 8-week closure in the future, we are extending our Spring Break.

This is how it started for me, on March 16, 2020. A message from our local superintendent was my first indication that this rapidly spreading new virus would dramatically affect life as we knew it for the foreseeable future.

It was also the beginning of a greater understanding of how essential schools are to our communities. The coronavirus pandemic illuminates what we should have already known – that schools play a crucial role that goes well beyond the clichéd three Rs of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

And of all people, I should have understood that.

As a local public school board member, I am an avid supporter and defender of schools. I regularly observe the many ways schools make our communities better. And yet, I don’t think even I fully comprehended the interconnectedness of schools and community. Schools have become a vital part of our communities as they meet more and more of students’ basic needs. And this has never more apparent than it is today.

In the recent rush to contain the virus, schools pivoted to deliver learning in new ways and redefined what it meant to “go to school.” As tricky as the switch to virtual classrooms and online learning was, this may have been the easiest void to fill. The more difficult gaps were in how schools could continue to meet the essential needs of students and families when those students and families were no longer in their buildings.

The questions schools face as they strive to serve students from afar demonstrates the important role they play. School communities ask themselves how students who depend on them for two meals a day will have enough to eat. They worry about keeping students safe when, for some students, school is the safest place.

If schools were just about academics, then they wouldn’t bother to provide behavioral and mental health services during a shelter-at-home directive. They wouldn’t fret about keeping kids connected and making sure they know someone cares. And they wouldn’t worry about helping parents support their students’ learning from home when those parents work, are ill, or are unable to assist.

Schools are finding ways to meet these needs. They are feeding kids through drive-up take-home lunches, checking in with students and parents, and delivering support services in creative ways. They’re partnering with community organizations and agencies to meet basic needs and provide assistance during this historic time of uncertainty and hardship.

Schools have expanded beyond the three Rs to become integral parts of our communities, meeting many of the physical, social, and emotional needs of students and their families. Not only have schools demonstrated that they are an indispensable part of community life, but they have shown that they deeply understand this and can expertly fill that role.

Early advocates for public education knew that for our communities, our country, and our democracy to thrive, its citizens needed a basic level of education to participate in community life and successfully carry on our system of self-government. But I doubt they could have imagined the many ways schools in today’s society are about so much more than a “basic level of education.”

Schools are our community’s lifeblood and a source of stability for some of the most vulnerable in our midst. They are critical to our ability to survive and thrive—global pandemic or not—and if we didn’t realize it before, we do now.

Schools are key players in maintaining the health and well-being of students and families. If nothing else comes from this global crisis, maybe we will finally understand and appreciate the real value of schools in our communities.

Their willingness to go above and beyond the three Rs ensures that our future will be bright.

Tammy and Brandon Day own Daycos Inc., which provides revenue management for transportation service providers across the country. Her work focuses on Daycos4Good, which uses the business as a force for good. She is a member of the Norfolk Public Schools Board of Education and is active in the Connie Fund, Stand for Schools, and Women’s Network of Nebraska. For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.

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