STUDENTS ARE RETURNING to school soon, and no one is quite sure what to expect.

With the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus on the rise, it’s unclear whether school will look more like it did pre-pandemic, like it did last year, or somewhere in between. 

Takeru Nagayoshi, a teacher in New Bedford, said everything is up in the air. “Am I going to be asked to do hybrid again? Will I have to teach in masks? Are distancing rules still in effect? There are so many things that are going to impact my own planning and how I’m going to be teaching this year and the fact that there are so many unknown variables and the fact that we’re most likely not going to know until a few weeks before school starts is really anxiety provoking,” he said.

Tracy O’Connell Novick, a member of the Worcester School Committee who has two daughters in the schools, said she is disappointed state education officials have failed to make tough calls on masking and vaccination mandates and instead leaving those decisions up to local officials. 

“I would never have guessed that the state would have sort of collapsed in the ways that it has – and continues to, really, even right up until now,” she said.

On The Codcast, the Reboot series revisits the now-familiar story of how education took a major hit during COVID and then speculates about where it’s headed next. While what’s coming next is unclear, the guests on the podcast pushed back against the idea that schools and students need to make up ground they lost last year.

Novick said she has been reading stories in the newspaper about how students have fallen behind and what should be done about it. She said the priorities expressed in those stories are messed up. 

“We’ve had a freaking pandemic,” she said. “There’s over a million children who have lost their primary caregivers that are like literally dead. And the amount of time and attention that I see paid to that versus paid to third grade reading is just catastrophic.

Novick said education priorities are skewed because the fallout of COVID has fallen disproportionately harder on children of color, who have been far more likely to lose a parent or a grandparent.  

“So we’re going to have this, you know, panic over third grade reading because maybe my middle class white kid didn’t spend quite as much time sitting in a classroom as they would have,” she said. “Meanwhile, the number of kids, particularly who are Black and Latino, who have lost someone, an adult who they loved and lived with over the past 18 months, like the hole that that has left in so many families and in so many children’s lives is huge. 

Tanya Nixon-Sillberg is a Black mother of a third grader in Boston who runs an organization called Little Uprisings, which seeks to address systemic racism in the classroom. She abhors the whole idea of catching up.

“It’s not a real thing,” she says. “Like what we’re asking for kids to do, right, is we’re asking them to catch up to an ideology.

She wants her daughter to get her priorities straight. “My biggest thing for her is that we work on the social and emotional before we work on the skills of what happens in the classroom,” she said.

Nixon-Sillberg said her daughter flourished this summer while participating in a program that focused on relationships. “She was a lot more apt to be a part of the learning community when she was a part of the social community,” she said.

Novick said school officials need to focus on what’s important. “I worry whenever we try to boil education down to this is about reading and math, and forget that public education in Massachusetts is about preparing children to eventually become adults who participate in democracy. I mean, that’s our constitutional mandate. And I think that if we can remember that when we’re doing things like constructing the budget or setting our goals for our school district or those kinds of things, I think we do much better than if we’re immediately thinking ahead to next MCAS scores, next accountability status, or whatever it is,” she said.