Long Beach is a city built around its schools in the same way that some towns are built around a coal mine, or an automobile factory.
Education employs more Long Beach residents than any other industry, by a mile, and the Long Beach Unified School District is the city’s biggest employer, as well as its largest land-owner. With 69,000 LBUSD students and their parents making up more than 20% of the city’s population, it’s not surprising that the dropoff/pickup 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. rush hours are worse in many parts of the city than the workday ones.
All of this is to explain how difficult it is to explain how significant it was when the LBUSD opened its gates last week, and 68,000 students went back to school on 83 campuses for the first time in almost 18 months. I had the opportunity to visit several schools on opening day and saw the same thing at each location: joy, relief, and gratitude. There was some anxiousness, as well, but on opening day at least it was mostly held in the wings just off-stage.
While it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to capture all of those stories in one image, I can paint a representative miniature. Education is as central to my family as it is to the city–my wife is a teacher in the school district, our children are in Kindergarten and third grade, and I’m a sportswriter who spends most of his work time jumping from campus to campus, talking to students, families, and coaches.
The last 18 months were a grind. We are a Long Beach family fairly well-equipped to handle the pandemic and distance learning, and it still felt like a marathon-distance hurdle race. We’re middle class and have an office that we were able to convert into a classroom for our son’s second-grade Zoom classes, with internet that was usually strong enough to support him attending class and my wife teaching class virtually.
Even given those circumstances, we still had to cope with the isolation of having a very social and outgoing second grader at home with his parents, and the near impossibility of me squeezing in a work day around needing to restart the router, or help with asynchronous assignments. The emotional challenges for our kid was eased when he got to go back to school in-person for half the day last Spring, but the stress on my ability to work increased–suddenly I had a 9 a.m. preschool dropoff, a 12:30 p.m. second grade dropoff, a 3 p.m. second grade pickup, and a 4 p.m. preschool pickup to contend with.
I was grateful on a daily basis for the relative comfort of our setup, and grateful on an almost-daily basis for the extra time with my kids. I never imagined I’d get to play basketball at recess with my son. But I don’t have words for the strength of the emotions I felt when I dropped my kids off last week, and then went to go watch other people dropping their kids off.
Kids everywhere sacrificed more than most adults did during the pandemic. Rich kids, middle class kids, and poor kids. All of them had the central organizing part of their life completely ripped up for a year and a half. It’s not something that’s ever going to make sense to me, that as a society we prioritized every other aspect of American life for a safe re-opening before we prioritized schools. I’ve been a little tangled up knot of different emotions about that throughout the pandemic, and on the first day of school that knot untangled itself and I dropped it in the trash can on the way home from dropping my kids off.
Replacing it was an even deeper sense of gratitude and relief–at getting to see my kids run to be with their friends, yes, but also at getting to see our city get back to work doing what it does best. What it was built to do.