NOTE: This open letter confronts the opening of public schools in Arkansas, but this message can and should resonate throughout the U.S. All public schools in Arkansas are being forced to open physically on August 24th by the governor, despite some of the worst infection rates in the country thus far. — PLT

We Must Maintain a Suitable System of Free Public Schools

Dear Governor Hutchinson,

I have enjoyed hearing you speak about how your teachers impacted your choice to take leadership in our state and how your own education has been an important emphasis in your governorship. I would like to ask that you revisit memories of teachers who impacted you. Think of the attributes of amazing teachers you’ve known. Are they selfless, encouraging, motivational, tough? Now, remember the very best teacher you ever had and think of the qualities that made them stand out. Imagine that very teacher called you, like Martha Sandven called me on Wednesday, bawling, angry, frustrated, and scared, and told you, ashamedly, that she was leaving the classroom. You see, I prepare teachers in Arkansas, and Martha is one of the best anywhere.

If your ideal teacher called you to say she was leaving the students she loved, the toughest kids, the neediest kids—the ones who desperately need her undying passion for their learning—she was walking away from a department leadership position and her colleagues who thrive under her mentorship, and turning in the keys to her legendary classroom because of something her Governor said about required face-to-face instruction beginning August 24th, what would you do? Ms. Martha actually apologized as she told me she could not mentor a pre-service teacher or teach junior high or lead her Governor’s Arts Award-winning after school program this year because her mother and niece, who both rely heavily on her, are high risk. If she teaches in person, she couldn’t help them. She was crying. I was crying. Here I am. Here we are.

What the Ms. Marthas of Arkansas need from you right now is the true grit of leadership in trying times. The Ms. Marthas need you to follow the science and keep schools closed on Monday. Ms. Martha and her students should not be subjected to an experiment where we group people together in the middle of a pandemic by opening our schools face-to-face. Look at Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas to see how reopening is going, and note the rising cases forcing quarantines and closures. Teachers, staff, students, and the people at home who love them are going to get sick and die; it’s unfortunately that simple. What is most unforgivable is that the way the pandemic impacts certain communities–including those here in Arkansas–translates to an increased death toll among teachers, staff, and students from minority populations. Please sir, this cannot be allowed to happen on your watch. Given your directives that school must be open five days/week, I wonder who will bear the brunt of the responsibility for those deaths this move most certainly will cause?

Let’s also look to the time beyond where we are; we’ll celebrate when we can return safely to school in person by working to get infection rates in the state below 5%, ensuring each school has adequate PPE, providing equitable, rapid testing, and streamlining effective contact tracing capabilities. That is the real work we must do. We need to focus every conversation we have on equity and allocating large swaths of the education budget on the most vulnerable students in our state who will endure the most suffering at the hands of this pandemic, economically, physically, educationally, and emotionally. We need to imagine smaller class sizes for all students and increase the number of counselors and paraprofessionals available in our public schools. We will have to free our teachers and schools from the constraints and loss of instructional times caused by standardized testing and re-allocate the millions spent on those tests to making schools safer and more responsive. We must give the teachers the authority and support to do what is best for each individual child. This is what school needs to look like, and we have a chance right now to reinvent it. Redesigned schools will require an investment that is truly focused on equity and how to create the best public education system in the country. Arkansans have it within us to do exactly that, especially when we listen to educators.

It’s my honor to get to work with another outstanding class of future teachers this summer and fall. This year’s group is exceptional, investing their funds, minds, and hearts in the teaching profession despite the uncertainty in what the immediate future holds. I’ve challenged this group to be the future Ms. Marthas of the world. We will need the best teachers this state has seen because our students and our communities will look to our educators as we reinvent how to best prepare children for a successful future while we fight and claw our way back from COVID.

Part of what makes our state great is Article 14 of the Arkansas Constitution: “Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.”

If we send our children, staff, or teachers off to die in the schools this fall, I don’t believe anyone could make the argument that what we’ve done meets the definition of “suitable.” If the best teachers leave the classrooms or state in droves or caskets, suitable will become impossible. There are no easy answers and no answers where people won’t be hurt by your decisions. While I appreciate that, I as a public school parent, advocate for teachers, and lifelong educator urge you to act on behalf of the safety of our state in these unprecedented times. Please, before needless deaths and long term illnesses, move the state’s school to start fully online.

Chris Goering

Fayetteville, AR