#8 – july 26: schooling in a pandemic

Back in May, as we approached the date for “phase 3”of “Restore Illinois,” I started a post about reopening, but never finished it. One of the questions I asked in trying to wrap my mind around what a reopening might look and feel like was: Will there actually be an “after”?

Well, here we are two months later and any hopes of an “after” are a distant dream, as the country lurches toward 150,000 deaths and records its highest number of single-day cases, 73,400, with no signs of slowing down. The federal government has basically given up even the pretense of managing the crisis, Trump having moved on to “performing fascism” (in Masha Gessen’s words) to test out, I presume, how to hold on to power whatever the results may be in November.

Meanwhile, individual states are left to figure out how to keep the virus at bay while simultaneously keeping the hobbled economy afloat with half-measures, cautious optimism, and constrained resources. Now, in the midst of continued mass death and exponential rates of infection in different hot spots around the country, school districts and higher ed institutions have to figure out how to do education in a pandemic. Illinois has moved into “phase 4,” with gatherings under 50 people allowed, so each entity has to weigh the risks and benefits of offering some form of in-person education.

My own K-8 school district announced its plan last week: we will have a delayed start by a few days, everyone will be remote for the first month until the end of September, and then there will be two pathways, 1) an in-person/hybrid pathway where students are in school Tuesday through Friday in masks and socially distanced with restricted movement between classrooms and 2) a fully remote pathway where students continue to learn at home. For planning purposes, families must make their choice known to the district by July 31.

It’s an ambitious plan that tries to take into account a diverse population with diverse needs and varying opinions about what is now safe to do. There were task force groups with representation from all stakeholders, including parents, educators, and staff, putting in a lot of hours to figure out how to make it all work. Even with all this planning, of course, there’s a good chance that we’ll need to stay remote when the time comes, because Covid-19 is still largely uncontrolled in this country despite the currently low numbers in our small city. There are still many details to work out, and it’s unclear how the plan, even laid out in excruciating detail, will work in practice.

This both/and approach is close to the model advocated in this much circulated essay by Shayla R. Griffin that takes both safety and social justice into account. Even for a district explicitly committed to equity and closing the opportunity gap for Black and brown students, it’s not entirely clear what is the best path. And specifically, what is the most equitable choice that privileged families can make in an inequitable system? A system that has up to now worked well enough for the well-resourced not to have to think too hard about how the gaps and failings of not just public schools, but the larger civic institutions of the U.S. affect the underresourced and disenfranchised others in our community. What do you do as a middle class parent when the demands of equity now push up against what you think is best for your own child, for real this time? What does it look like not to hoard resources when everyone is scrambling for childcare and there is no meaningful state support for anyone?

That is the conversation I’m interested in now, as people react to the plan with a lot of strong feelings. Even before the plan was rolled out, the feelings were intense. There was a lot of impatience and anxiety – when will the plan be announced?! What is taking so long? Teachers shared memes about how ridiculous it was to hold Zoom meetings to plan for in-person classes, even though no one yet knew whether there would be in-person classes. Families seemed split between “no matter what the district decides, I’m keeping my kids home” and “we need to get the kids back to school!” Now that the plan has been made public, there is a stream of questions and fresh outrage. How are families supposed to make an informed decision by July 31 without all the details? What will they do about x, y, or z? What are they doing to ensure that remote learning is going to be better than in the spring? Discussions about the efficacy and built-in inequity of academic pods and private tutors are happening with no clear answers about what working parents are supposed to do.

The anxiety and frustration are understandable. Parents are put in an impossible position, and the uncertainty and waiting when you can’t work from home indefinitely and summer camps have been cancelled, against the backdrop of the every-state-for-itself chaos, breeds anger. And it also breeds an intense need for control, expressed as a kind of restless exasperation at those in charge. I see this especially in white professional parents who are trying to make up for lost productivity, both their own and their children’s. The most recent example in a community Facebook group was a father who insisted that science tells us this is the best time to fully open schools for all students, perhaps outside, so they can benefit from in-person learning while infection rates are low in our area. Children, he argued, are less affected, so it should be safe. Other districts are moving ahead with some form of in-person and we are failing our children if we don’t follow suit. He saw no justification for the late and remote start. Etc., etc.

His insistence that he knew the science and everyone else was dictated by fear annoyed me. So I complained to my husband about this tendency I was seeing among these agitated parents. And he replied, “America is one big Karen right now.” I instantly saw his point. In their intense desire to get back to some vision of normal where their kids go back to school, some parents are letting their entitlement show; there’s an “I want to speak to your manager” energy about the way they think they can fix this problem if only the district would listen to their suggestion (never mind the real concerns of teachers and staff, never mind the immunocompromised families who need a workable remote option, never mind the logistics of negotiating working conditions with five different unions, never mind the real possibility of illness and death). There has got to be a solution that works for me, goddamit! In this, these parents share something with the anti-maskers who insist on their right to carry on with life as if the pandemic is someone else’s problem, not theirs. As a nation, we don’t do collectivity very well.

On the “Integrated Schools” blog, which addresses these issues of race, equity, and public education head on, this statement jumped out at me: “If we truly care about equity, we need to consider plans focused on the most vulnerable, not the most inconvenienced.” And yet often, it’s the inconvenienced who are most vocal. (Yes, equity, but first my child needs ______.)

I veer between impatience and empathy at these voices that seem so worried about their kids falling behind or being academically cheated. Part of me is yelling, “we’re in a global pandemic, can you chill the fuck out about the curriculum?” But then I also have to acknowledge my own privilege in being able to work from home with neurotypical children who don’t have underlying health issues and are old enough not to need constant supervision. I would feel more angst, be much more stressed, if I had an incoming kindergartner who now had to learn how to read from an iPad or a child who needed services that cannot be delivered remotely and a more inflexible work schedule. It all does very much suck. There are no good options, and we will all suffer to one degree or another. And even if those of us who are inconvenienced could prioritize the most vulnerable, what do the remedies and support systems look like? How do we work together when we can’t really be together?

And yet, it seems this is the moment to try. Maybe we start with committing to putting the needs of the chronically underserved before the needs and wants of the suddenly underserved. Let’s look beyond standardized test results to more authentic assessments. Remote learning may be a way to de-track and better differentiate subjects like math. How do we model and build an education system that’s less competition and more cooperation; less hierarchical, more humane? How do we lobby for a better way to fund schools? How do we radically reimagine an “after” that’s nothing like the before?

#7 – Apri 24: watching my children leave for another world

#6 – April 15: this is not a war

#5 – April 6: therapy hamster

#4 – March 29: all the feelings

#3 – March 21: we can still laugh

#2 – March 18: flattening the curve

#1 – March 15: social distance

2 thoughts on “#8 – july 26: schooling in a pandemic

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