The re-opening guidelines for the schools are the source of a lot of emotions and energy among Winchendon parents and school staff. On the positive side, Superintendant Landers says that she is thrilled to see so many people reaching out to participate in the focus groups forming to implement the state guidelines. Even staff who were just laid off are asking to be part of the solutions.

But on the less positive side, the proposed rules are roiling up considerable consternation among parents of school students, especially the rule that all students must wear face masks. Some parents are pronouncing that they won't send their kids back to school if that rule is enforced. Others are stating an intention to home-school their kids or just keep them out of school for other reasons. At the same time, there are parents who are desperate for schools to "go back to normal" so they can go back to work, or because they believe their child can only learn in a classroom setting with an in-person instructor. No one likes remote learning, even those most concerned about the virus spreading in schools.

There is no question that our children need to be in school. They need an education, and not just in the topics on the syllabi. Kids learn social skills in school. They learn vital "political" skills (group dynamics, negotiation, cooperation toward a goal, group governance) in school. They learn to test others' authority and trust their own. They learn how to be part of a team and how to be self-reliant. At least, a good school provides students of all ages the opportunity to learn all these, an opportunity much harder to come by staying at home with their families or hanging out with a self-selected group of best friends.

School is important for the students. But as we watch school districts pressured to re-open, it seems that the pandemic is pulling the curtains aside from yet another of our society's major failings.

We depend on schools to do too much.

Public schools have been industrialized, the way farming, medical care and commerce have been industrialized, and it's not a good thing.

I worked for a large regional school district for more than ten years. I remember once hearing the Superintendant of that district talk about "running the schools like a business" and being "lean and efficient." (One of his "efficiencies" involved breaking the custodians' union by hiring work crews from a nearby pre-release prison program to clean the buildings. He meant that kind of "business." The teachers' union was not popular in that district.)

I thought that attitude was absolutely dead wrong. Schools are not factories and their objective is not to make a profit. Schools are doing nothing less than creating the future of our society. What else is a society than the sum total of the individuals who comprise it? The young people we teach will run the world we grow old in.

But schools don't have to take the shape we've allowed them to be forced into. The pandemic is showing us the dangers and impracticality of many things we've rationalized away up to now. Cities. Dense housing. Huge factories with workers (often immigrants, many of them undocumented) crammed shoulder to shoulder working like automatons. Everything done on a bloated, inhuman scale intended to make vast amounts of money for a very few privileged people. The public school system--through no fault of the teachers, who do the best they can--relentlessly conditions young people for this deadening reality. No wonder so many young people end up on anti-depressants--or more grimly, taking their own lives.

I think it's high time that schools--like cities, like housing, like farms, like energy production--be broken down into smaller units. On Facebook, some Winchendon parents are talking about "micro-schools," small groups of students who could learn together--sort of like the old one-room schoolhouse. This is a concept that we need to look at. As capitalism itself dies off--and it will--we'll need healthy, developed systems to replace it. Part of building a better world from the ashes of COVID-19 will be redundant, small-scale, human-sized operations.

These small schools can cooperate for things like sports and music. When I was growing up in Spokane, Washington, I participated in "all-city band" and "all-city chorus" with students drawn from all over the city.

The state guidelines allow districts a lot of individual leeway as they comply with the rules. I'd love to see Winchendon really "think outside the walls" and become a model for a lasting new way of doing school. We might be surprised at how well it worked.

Inanna Arthen