Opinion Montclair TeachersBy Star-Ledger Guest Columnist

By Petal Robertson

As I sit down to write this, I just finalized sending a floral arrangement to another member whose loved one has lost their weeks-long battle with COVID. I set a reminder to reach out to my sister-in-law as she recovers from the virus and comfort my 10-year-old niece, who fears she gave it to her mother. I read the school district’s message of its 14th positive case in five months with only essential staff working in the buildings. I signed another petition for our government to prioritize educators for vaccinations.

Finally, I deleted another vitriolic message from someone wishing harm to me because of my Montclair Education Association role. And I wonder: how did we get here?

The answer is simple. We got sick. While the fortunate among us haven’t caught the virus, the virus has not spared our town. And we aren’t just sick from a virus. For over a year, we have lived with worry and anxiety as we juggled work and care for families.

We are all exhausted, emotionally, physically, spiritually. We went from trusting each other’s best intentions to conspiracy theories, suspicion, and slander. We went from community conversations meant to bring us together to threats and recriminations that create a divide. Pandemic fatigue is making us sick, and the cure will not be found in finger-pointing blame. Our healing is not going to be found in politics and rhetoric.

It will be rooted in the understanding that parents, educators, and administrators are saying the same thing, in our agreement that remote learning is challenging and can never replace the in-person learning we all enjoyed pre-COVID. It will be found in our understanding that COVID is still here, still deadly, and preventing our learning experiences from resembling those of the preCOVID classroom. It will be found in remembering that all of us, without exception, want what is best for the children of Montclair. We might disagree on how to interpret the science, apply the guidance and weigh the risks. But we agree that the health, safety and educational wellbeing of our students are driving our passion.

Our healing is in the understanding that the pandemic is making our students, their parents and their teachers alike feel anxious, fearful, and helpless. Our healing is rooted in acknowledging that while we are all different parts of the boat, there is just one boat, and we are all navigating the same turbulent waters together.

Our healing will not be easy. But we will heal if we fight this pandemic’s uncertainty by holding strong to the things we know for sure. We know that New Jersey has the best educators in the country because we care about kids. I know it is true in Montclair. It was true before last March when we protected our students by repeating safety drills until they could not forget how to stay safe in case of a fire, an attack or some other threat. And it is true today, as we work just as hard to protect our students from much more immediate danger.

We will heal by remembering that parental participation is vital for a thriving school system. It is no surprise to us that parents are passionate about their children’s education, no matter what they believe is the best way for that to happen right now.

We heal by remembering that students, families, teachers, and staff deserve to have no stone left unturned when it comes to everyone’s safety and wellbeing. We will heal when we forgive.

As I write this, I reflect on the words of one of my fellow Montclair educators. “We’re a family… sometimes a dysfunctional family but a family nonetheless. We need to remember that, approach each other with empathy, offer each other grace and find a way to work together.” We know we are family. We have to figure this out together, heal together and move forward together. And we can do it because we are Montclair.

Petal Robertson is a high school English teacher at Montclair High School and president of the Montclair Education Association.

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