Op-ed: Aurora school board used kids as the ‘canary in the classroom’

By John Kennedy

Legendary coach Gordie Gillespie became legendary not only by accumulating wins (which he did in prolific fashion; look him up) but by molding future leaders out of those he coached and tutored as coaches. Several decades ago, I was fortunate enough to play college baseball for Gordie and participate in a few of the coaching clinics he ran.  

He always began his clinics with a simple but very direct mantra: “Why are you here today? Know your why — why are you in this profession, coaches? If your why is you and not the kids, if the kids are less important than you and your own self-interest, you are in the wrong profession!” he said in that powerful Gillespie voice, glaring into the eyes of dozens of coaches.

“It’s not about you, coaches,” Gordie pleaded, his voice trailing off. “It’s the kids.  It’s always about them, and if it’s not about them,” he continued, pointing his outstretched arm like Moses to the exit door, “there’s the door!” No one moved. And no one left. Ever.

Know your why. It’s not about you — it’s about the kids. Always. Those simple, yet powerful words are applicable not only to those who coach, but to anyone who works in the education profession — coaches, teachers and administrators. Boards of education. Superintendents.

Gordie’s powerful message and words — it’s about the kids — have been on my mind lately, for good reason. 

My 8-year-old daughter tested positive for Covid last week, but she was far from alone — 55 of the children attending Leighton Elementary School in Aurora (plus an additional four teachers) tested positive for Covid in the last two weeks alone. One school, nearly 60 Covid positive cases.

In our effort to keep them safe, both of our daughters are full-time mask wearers at school. The Aurora school district enacted a mask-optional policy in August — a policy that could be revisited if Covid numbers rose to certain levels determined by the school board. A group of us (concerned parents in Aurora) implored the board of education and superintendent to put kids first by mandating mask wearing through the fall and early winter months, to give our kids — especially the 5-11 year-old unvaccinated cohort — a chance to stay healthy until they could get the vaccine in November. 

In short, our recommendation was to use common sense and science: let’s use the tools we have and mask-up. If we all do our bit for just a few more months, our kids will stay healthy and can remain in school. Simple enough, right? At a board of education meeting in September, I read aloud my wife Marybeth’s op-ed, Canary in the Classroom, in which she presciently warned:

“I’m pleading with you as a mom, as a parent and as a fellow human being to put politics aside and focus on the common good. We can avoid the predictable outbreaks, quarantines and lost school time and protect the health of our children, families and community if we step up now and do the right thing. Don’t let our children be the canary in the classroom.” 

Turns out a canary is exactly what the Aurora Board of Education wanted, and that’s exactly what they got — a lot of sick kids. Make no mistake: The canary policy of “we’ll revisit our masking policy if enough kids get sick” is downright diabolical. It doesn’t put kids first; it puts them into a contaminated coal mine — unmasked schools — and waits to see how many get sick.   

And despite the outbreak that tore through Aurora’s classrooms like an F5 tornado — an outbreak that began just as vaccines became widely available for 5-11 year-olds — Aurora’s school superintendent continues to defend the failed “mask optional” policy. In a WKYC Channel 3 TV report covering the outbreak, school superintendent Michael Roberto told a news reporter that the policy had, in fact, worked.  

Worked? Here’s what Mr. Roberto claims is working: Two weeks and nearly 60 positive Covid cases in one school building; 75-plus Covid cases in the school district. If that’s the indicator of success, I’d hate to see what failure looks like. 

And other school districts have taken note. Lakewood City Schools superintendent Margaret Niedzwiecki cited Aurora’s failed policy as a cautionary tale in her presentation to her school board this week. Lakewood is one of 14 school districts in Northeastern Ohio that still have a mask mandate in place, and Niedzwiecki cited the need to “stay the course” with a masking policy to give students more time to get vaccinated through the holidays. 

“Aurora’s city schools went to non-masking and they had to close their school on Friday because they did not have enough staff or students,” she said.

Both of our girls have now tested positive for Covid, and that’s been tough. My youngest has taken it the hardest. I had to tell her the other night that it wasn’t her or her sister’s fault that they got sick. “Kids are not to blame for any of this,” I said. 

“But who is to blame, Dad?” she asked. I paused for a minute before answering. “Adults. Adults are to blame,” I replied. “Adults who have put themselves first instead of the kids.” 

And in that moment the image of Gordie Gillespie flashed before me. Only this time he’s standing in front of a group of school leaders and superintendents, pointing his outstretched arm like Moses to the exit. “Know your why, folks. If it’s not about the kids, there’s the door!”

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