Stock photo.

2020 was supposed to be the year of vision. It seems rather a succession of horrors, both in terms of health and safety, and economics.

We have all suffered the emotional toll of closing down the entire state and becoming shut-ins in an effort to flatten the curve. Some of us have experienced first hand the effects Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19), those effects are still ongoing for all of us.

I personally have suffered severe illness from the virus, narrowly escaping being sedated and put on a ventilator, was hospitalized for a week, needed another month for my physical strength to be regained, and now four months later I still suffer from extremely painful bouts of headaches and rapidly advancing arthritis side effects (not to mention rapid hair loss).

I also spent three and half months calling doctors and nurses managing the care of my father who was hospitalized on May 10 and in ICU, sedated and ventilated for two weeks, dealing with physical therapists, neurologists, and several other specialty areas because he is one of the vulnerable ones. And through it all, no family members were allowed to be with him. He’s finally made it home with a week to spare to be able to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary with his bride — together. A happy ending but all of it has a mental health toll.

Living under constant stress and fear of the unknown can wreak havoc on one’s central nervous system. Having faith helps but we need to trust our community to do the right thing. Science tells us what the right thing is, we may not like it, it may be uncomfortable, and it may change over time. This is a public health issue, not a political issue, those who choose to inject the politics will erode the trust and sense of community that is necessary to protect those who are medically fragile.

Distrust has many consequences. As a taxpayer, community member, and teacher, I am not happy with the failed school budget vote. Fifty-nine votes will cost a lot in a time where a pandemic is likely to widen the divide between the academic achievement of students who don’t have the family resources to overcome the world conditions and those that do. This is not a model of equitable access to opportunity. Given some of the issues that have now become politicized, it seems like an easy way to register community anger. But now we have no way to change it, we must accept it and move forward.

I know as a teacher that I and my colleagues will do everything in our power to provide the best education we can for our students, help where the budget ax left gaping holes, and support our students.

But there is another issue of trust that must be dealt with head-on. That would be to end the political debate of documented, undocumented (I don’t believe any human, much less any child, is “illegal”) or overcrowded homes adding to the cost of education in our town. Our community’s children are not political footballs. But trust, or lack of it, still lingers.

N.Y. State Education Law says all children ages 5 to 21 who have not received a high school diploma are entitled to a free public education in the district in which they reside — whether they are U.S. citizens or undocumented residents. Indeed, nearly 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe (1982) held that school districts may not deny students a free public education on the basis of their undocumented or non-citizen status or that of their parents of guardians.

We need to follow the law and procedures in place or lobby lawmakers to make changes — not penalize our students, musicians, artists, athletes, and/or other students who choose to spend their hours outside of school in the safe environment we strive to provide.

At last week’s board of education meeting, the arduous task of what gets funded and what gets cut was the most difficult meeting I have ever watched. The community, teachers, parents and students all need to know that the utmost care will be taken with our health and safety. There is still much unknown about COVID-19. It will likely be years before we know all the side effects, have a vaccine, determine the best supportive treatments for survival by people who have difficulty with the virus, and to be able to protect the most vulnerable in our community.

So now we’re left with the elephant in the room. Trustee Chris Dorr called this a “made-up virus,” then apologized, claiming it was an utterance made out of frustration.

I was angry because I know what I have been through, I know what my family and friends are still dealing with.

I was puzzled because he’s an educator, a parent, and fellow community member who has the added responsibility to protect the education and services of all children. And during this pandemic, he is required to take actions that protect the health and safety of all students, all faculty, and all employees, especially because we all go home to our families.

Promoting the notion that the virus is fake and people may therefore choose to ignore it leaves our community at increased risk. And I, for one, with four generations living in my home, including someone medically fragile, need the whole board of education, all at the district office and all employees of the district to act in a way that leads to the utmost protection of us all.

Our district office has worked hard to put health and safety issues as first, the Riverhead Central Faculty Association, of which I am a proud member, has taken the same stance. No mask – you won’t be on campus. We need every member of the Board to make the same declaration. Every member of our community at large, every employee of the district and every student should have the knowledge that those making decisions are following what the science is telling us and keeping up with changes as they will surely continue.

The right thing to do is: protect those most at risk in our community until more is known, do what’s necessary until more treatments are available, recognize that it may take years until we know the full effects of this virus and patience is required, understand that one, claiming freedom of choice, cannot take a stance contrary to what is set forth by science. Those who choose to not follow the science cause an increase in risk for the rest of the community.

It’s a matter of trust. It directly impacts our ability to teach, have students in school, and begin to close the gap, a gap that I’m sure is widening for our students who don’t have families and support to help facilitate remote learning. I understand that some students are going to miss out on opportunities; we can’t help that now with a failed budget.

Just know these two things: Teachers and many in the community will do all we can to help provide students with access and the opportunity to participate in activities that enrich their educational environment. And yes, we are on austerity, but most districts are limiting non-academic activities because of this pandemic until such time it is safe to do so. Therefore, it is a more level playing field than one would realize at first glance.

We need to remember that in this unprecedented time, in our lifetime, we need to treat each other with kindness. We need to be cognizant that some of us have lost family and friends, or are dealing with the virus’ aftermath. We need to extend a guaranteed effort to protect those the disease would debilitate. We can ditch the masks when it’s safe, we can have more activities when it’s safe, and we can all be together once again when it’s safe.

Here’s to hope that we learn to trust each other and work our way through all of this collectively. Stay healthy.

Georgette A. Lauzier Keller is a teacher at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School. She lives in South Jamesport.

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