Returning to school, or going for the first time, brings with it an unusual set of challenges in 2022. On their first day back, prior to jumping in the car, many students, especially in the eastern states, will have completed Rapid Antigen Tests. Many staff will have done the same.
Some students will be delighted to be back, itching for a year with as few interruptions as possible. A return to something called 'normal'. Others will be more cautious; fearful of catching Covid, and even more maybe of the possibility of passing it on to vulnerable family or other loved ones.
Amongst teachers and other school staff will be the same variety of experiences, hopes and fears. Many will have contacted the virus over summer. Vaccinated and notionally immune, they might be fearless as they engage the classroom again. Others, especially those with particular causes for concern, will have returned to the classroom with trepidation. They may not be longing for online learning, but the face-to-face learning will carry its own risks and constraints.
There continue to be unknowns. What happens as teachers and students get the virus and cannot come to school? How will systems cope if this occurs in large numbers and over a prolonged period? How long will tests be provided and required? And what of the situation for those parts of the country, north and west in particular, where the virus is only seriously emerging for the first time?
Whatever of the uncertainties, and notwithstanding the significant nature of the risk to individuals, there are considerable benefits to schools being open. If closing schools becomes a consideration again, especially in those areas that have experienced prolonged lockdowns over the last two years, it might be hoped that weight will be given to the full value of onsite learning.
In many ways we have been blessed by this pandemic occurring at a time when technology allowed so many of us, including those in educational settings, to remain connected. Video conferencing and the use of interactive digital platforms has made possible ongoing connection and engagement.
Some students have thrived in this environment where interactions have been more structured and there has been more time for individual learning. Others found the isolation from peer and teacher engagement much more difficult. Of course, many others in Australia have lived free of lockdowns and so may find musings on this strange phenomenon puzzling.
Whatever of individual preferences, at least those of us who have spent time locked down have learnt something, learnt it viscerally, about just how much it is the case that we humans live in our bodies. This is the locus of our interactions. Especially for students learning about their place in the world, being around to experience that place, to feel it, is especially important.
Catholic education has a concern for that broader learning that allows a young person to live into community. After family it is in local communities that we grow into ourselves. Increasingly schools are the most concrete community many families engage with. They can provide the context for a child to learn about their inherent human dignity. Children, and their families with them, will learn something of this by reflection, by recognising the dignity of others around them as they play and discover. In this way, too, they will come to learn something of the common good, which stems inexorably from the dignity of persons and suggests communities concerned with creating the conditions for human fulfillment.
We human persons are made for community and called to contribute to it. The Church exists, for all its imperfections, for this reason. As students and staff, parents, and families, return to Catholic schools they might understand themselves returning to Church. Not necessarily a building with that name, but a community that seeks after God, recognising the dignity of all and the need to live with a concern for the conditions that allow for freedom and fulfillment. Such conditions, which are essentially love expressed in community, are the only way to a society that is just.
Those who have experienced lockdowns, or maybe those who are starting work in a school for the first time, or bringing their child to school for the first time, have good reason to appreciate that amidst the administrative banality of starting a school year in a Catholic school, there is more going on. Community is being built, Church is being connected, and something of the mystery of God might be shared in just this space.
Julian Butler SJ is a Jesuit undertaking formation for Catholic priesthood. He is a contributor at Jesuit Communications, a chaplain at Xavier College, and a board member at Jesuit Social Services.