I remember the days when the only thing students worried about in school was getting good grades, and when there was a healthy supply of candidates wanting to become teachers.

Regrettably, those days are long gone. Our K-12 educational system is dealing with enormous challenges. As it continues to confront the obstacles and unpredictability of COVID-19, we see growing skepticism among parents about the school system’s ability to keep their children safe. With school shootings, including most recently in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed, the fear parents, students and teachers feel is evident and understandable. Unfortunately, parents feel this kind of tragedy can happen at their school or in their community.

According to the Census Bureau, home-schooling is on the rise. The number of families that decided to home-school their children doubled to 11% during the 2020-21 school year from 5.4% during the 2019-20 school year. While the pandemic contributed, concerns for children’s safety go beyond a virus. U.S. parents have expressed fears about school shootings and assaults of teachers and students. It’s conceivable that the home schooling of students will increase if changes are not made.

The strength and efficacy of our democracy are predicated on a public school system that affords every child the right to attend school, economic status or family wealth notwithstanding. Where would our democracy be had it not been for our school system?

School shootings are a threat to our educational system — and, therefore, to our democracy. News outlets have reported that over two decades, more than 100 students and staff members have been killed in school shootings, dating to Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999 and including Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, this past month. When you include colleges and universities, the loss of life increases.

When students are being gunned down in classrooms, change is necessary. When parents are afraid to send their children to school, change is necessary. When teachers are leaving the profession for fear of becoming the next victims, change is necessary.

School safety is not a partisan issue. It is not about public vs. private school, rich vs. poor or public school vs. school choice. Nor is it a racial issue. We all should be able to expect that our children will return home unharmed after going to school. And teachers should expect to return home to their families unharmed.

As the debate continues in Congress, and policymakers hopefully seek to find areas where they can agree, we implore them to put our country first. It is not acceptable, nor reasonable, to accept and normalize school shootings. Our democracy should not have to face these unnecessary challenges.

Why someone would shoot innocent children is an indication of that individual’s compromised mental state. The easy access to certain weapons compounds the problem. Our policymakers don’t have to pick either side. They can agree on both of these points. If steps are not made to improve the safety of our children, they will, in turn, suffer from mental health problems, and the cycle will continue.

Last year, more than 37% of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 44% reported feeling sad or hopeless. Mental health problems go hand in hand with behavioral problems.

If our youths continue to see peers across the country gunned down in school, why would they want to attend? Will they pay attention in school, or will they be more concerned about their safety? Will we continue to see a mass exodus of teachers leaving the profession? Will we continue to see fewer college graduates going into this field and desiring to be teachers? Then what will we do? Who will teach the next generation?

Our democracy can overcome these challenges if we work together. President Ronald Reagan once said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Our legislators must simply find areas to agree upon and move forward.

After all, the lives of children, our future generation, are at stake. They deserve better. Let’s give them an opportunity to grow up and be whatever they want to be in life.

Jerald McNair is a school administrator at South Holland School District 151.

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