What Does Public Mean to You?

Public schools

Public health

Public library

Public defender

Public market

Public bathroom

What does the word “public” mean to you?

In nursing school, eons ago, the senior year clinical was called “Community Health.” This clinical, the culmination of three prior years of classes in liberal arts, hard and soft sciences including biology, chemistry, physiology, sociology, psychology, human sexuality, statistics, as well as medical-surgical nursing, obstetric and gynecological nursing, and psych nursing, served to pull all our knowledge together. We were treating people in their homes for wound checks, performing diabetic and nutrition teaching, referring them to outside agencies such as WIC, and involved social workers as well as contacting the department children and family services when things just did not seem right or the story did not add up. Community health dealt with communicable diseases, access to clean water, food security (called something else then less glamorous then like hunger and/or poverty), and safe living conditions. Needless to say, having this clinical in one of the poorest counties of New York State was eye opening for me, a waif of a girl from a middle class background.

A synonym for community is public, according to dictionary.com. When you look up the word public on Merriam Webster online dictionary, many definitions are offered, and many are applicable to how the term is used above. One definition says public means “of or relating to people in general.” Another definition means, “accessible to or shared by all members of the community.” This is augmented by a third variation of the definiton: “of or relating to business or community interests as opposed to private affairs.” Basically, the term public to me means a service, organization, utility, building, etc. that is for everyone and available to everyone .

Yes, everyone!

Lately, I think this is being confused or misinterpreted as meaning something different, something more personalized, and certainly more likely to be influenced by private concerns. Being public does not mean you, the individual, get exactly what you want. It means the service is available for all. And, the system needs to try its best to meet EVERYONE’s needs, not just yours or sadly, your child’s. Everyone.

At this point, I am looking back at the school year 2020-21 and ahead to the school year 2021-22. I no longer have children in the K-12 system, but have always been a strong advocate for public schools. I went to public schools and my mother was a public school teacher. My advocacy comes despite having gone to a small, private school for my undergraduate degree, and sending my oldest to another non-resident, but still public school that some might classify as a charter school. He spent his k-10 years in our the public school district in which we were residents but decided to finish the last two years of high school in another public school district that offered online learning and more challenge. It was the right choice for him, but that was eleven years ago and not initiated because of a pandemic. It was a choice, albeit, a well researched one at the time that worked out well for both him and us. Our two other sons finished through our resident public K-12 school district, graduating in 2018 and 2020.

Thus, I have a parental perspective of not only public schools and their successes and but also public schools that have changed to accommodate the needs of students. But, they are both still PUBLIC schools. This means, according to the definitions above, both systems – in person and online – the schools were available to everyone. Open enrollment in the state of Wisconsin makes this possible. Again, they were both K-12 public school systems.

As I look ahead, I hope school districts across the country have learned from this past year’s experience. Parents, even in our school district were distraught at the mask mandates, social distancing, and guidelines that were set in place largely by overseeing institutions not individual boards (at least until this past spring). When more control was available locally, specifically about masking, it seemed that more people (parents) got upset and were very vocal about it. Although I’ve taken issue with some of the way things have been handled in our school district in the past, I think in the case of this last school year, the district was trying to do what was “right” and “safe” for everyone (students, teachers, parents, and the community, at large).

I hope we are not going to go down this argumentative road again, as fall approaches. Unfortunately, it seems the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) have set dissimilar guidelines, already making available parameters that might be used to argue either side. I am referring to the masking of elementary aged students and staff. Let’s do what is best for our students. Let’s put parental politics aside. Let’s support our teachers. Let’s support learning. In essence, I’m asking for there not to be public argument about what the district asks parents to do when their children attend our public schools. The schools are trying to meet the needs of EVERYONE – not just your family, son, or daughter.

There’s that word again. Public. Public means the school is available to everyone. But, people also have a choice, as we did eleven years ago. Digital learning is not for everyone. We found that out this year. But, I do believe some form of it is here to stay. I also think that is okay and even beneficial to expose our students to this alternative platform during their K-12 education. While what happened this past year found colleges, districts, and teachers largely unprepared for online teaching and learning, this type of learning needs to be explored and augmented and not pushed to the background as we return to in person instruction.

I’m not suggesting something radical and untenable but perhaps a one to two online course exposure that all students have to take – once in middle school and once during high school. The teachers of those courses can prepare to teach them on the virtual platform. If the same courses were made available to all students as a requirement, the playing would be leveled and parents would not search for the course that will raise their students’ GPA or be less work.

I think we need to move forward from the events of last year and the effects the pandemic had on our educational systems. Can we? Seriously, I do not know. But, I’ll be watching. I hope it is possible. Just remember, public education is not just about you, it is about everyone!

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