I’m very good at avoidance.
Usually, it’s pretty harmless and innocuous. Like, I should grade papers and update IC, but instead I do laundry. Or do meal-prep for the week. Fold laundry. Re-organize the pantry. It’s procrastination but it’s also productive. A little something I call “procrastitivity.” Like, I get mad at myself because there is a lot that I didn’t get done, but not too mad, because I have clean calzones for the week.
But right now, I’m avoiding something that will eventually catch up to me. Something looming in the distance. I don’t see it, partially because I’m doing everything I can to NOT see it, partially because it’s not quite close enough to be in my sightlines (incidentally, I have really poor eyesight, both literally and metaphorically). It’s probably around the next bend.
Returning to Face-to-Face.
If I’m being honest, it is a transition from 100% Remote Teaching to a hybrid model that is 40% face to face and 60% virtual (cut to my admin emailing me to clarify. I have a tendency to misunderstand things that I don’t want to understand). I’ve witnessed my partner engaging in-person for a couple of weeks, with ECE students, and it is absolutely daunting. They wash their hands six times per day. Teachers have to be vigilant about masks and touching. Everything has a protocol, from lunch to works to snacks to water to restroom trips. Strict guidance is in place for the sanitizing of the classroom space, with different expectations before, during, and after school. There aren’t enough Chlorox wipes, bottles of bleach, even rags or towels to make it all happen. And when teachers come home, they have to forgo the hug and kiss greetings, go straight to the bedroom, change and put their clothes in a plastic bag. We wryly joke that these are the “COVID clothes.” I lightheartedly comment that “I don’t want you gettin’ your ‘Ronies everywhere.” Those cloths have to be washed separately, in hot water. This has also made us locate clothes that can be washed in hot, not the light, delicate clothes that we are sometimes used to.
I struggled to find my hall pass when we were in-person. I can’t imagine following these protocols with any kind of consistency.
This is the protocol in that classroom, assuming zero positive tests. But already some parents are sending their children to school sick. Not necessarily with COVID, but even a common cold causes concern and anxiety, to say nothing of the flu season that sits in the waiting room waiting to be admitted.
If there is a positive case, my assumption is that chaos will reign. I’m reading that some districts have been forced to return to 100% remote for and extended period of time. Schools across the state are hobbled by large chunks of their student and staff forced into quarantine. One school had to put its entire sixth grade under quarantine. Others have had to go into full remote due to a lack of substitute teachers.
My students told me that I manifested this by having them play the board game Pandemic a couple of weeks before we were shut down in March. I keep picturing those little plastic pawns, the game pieces as the pandemic spread. Students were shocked and dismayed as they played the game; they couldn’t believe how quickly a pandemic could spread. I picture their destroyed game-board planets and their dejected faces when I read about what happened in some schools and districts across the state, and what is almost certain to occur once we’ve been back at it in person, even in a reduced capacity.
The reason we are returning to in-person learning is fairly obvious. We don’t want to lose students. to neighboring districts. However, that has not been the refrain from local districts. While it is absolutely valid to say that students in poverty, students from historically oppressed demographics, and special education students experience significant academic harm as a result of a full-system shutdown, we cannot kid ourselves that this is the only reason some schools rushed to re-open. Because if the well-being of marginalized youth had been a priority before August of this year, the academic harms may not have been so profound.
We are living in an economic system that requires schools to be in session. The system is not friendly to working people, single-parent households, or people living in or on the edge of poverty or homelessness. Missing a day of work has dire financial consequences. Missing a week is catastrophic. No one is arguing that having schools open is not necessary.
I am arguing that we need to be honest about why we have to open schools. One of the greatest frustrations I experience living under capitalism is that we come up with all kinds of reasons that the problems posed by capitalism are created by everything but capitalism. We blame poor families for not prioritizing education, we blame teachers for knowingly going into a profession that frequently does not pay enough for childcare, we blame the sick for not taking care of themselves, and worst of all, we implicitly blame working people for putting themselves in the position to be working people, and not work-from-home professionals who can hire help that will play with their kids in the playroom while mommy and daddy work in a well-lit office overlooking the park nearby.
But for some reason, it is distasteful to name the systems around us as the reason we have to make decisions that might be detrimental. I would like to pretend that I am the superintendent of an urban school district (I’m not using urban in the coded way, where it usually means Black, Brown, poor, I’m literally referring to districts in actual cities). Here is how I would address the need to re-open before we have any reliable safeguards in place, and with new dangers looming on the horizon.
“We have made the decision to re-open schools. This may be surprising to most of you, and we understand the reasons you will be surprised by this. The fact of the matter is that we do not have a vaccine, a reliable treatment, or even a solid understanding of how COVID-19 spreads. There isn’t even evidence that one develops immunity once they have contracted it. In this way, COVID-19 is not like the common cold, chicken pox or other maladies that we find ourselves exposed to in schools. COVID-19 is different.
“But we have to re-open schools. The price we pay for re-opening early pales in the price that our most vulnerable communities will have to pay for a prolonged closure of school buildings. Opportunity gaps were at pandemic proportions, because as a school system, we failed to make school a platform for liberation and freedom for children of color, children coping with poverty and homelessness, and children with special educational needs. And because we failed so substantially, so profoundly, for so many people in our communities over a period of years, we cannot afford a prolonged closure.
“There are other reasons that we must re-open schools. Our capitalist system respects one thing: productivity in the form of money. We have families that cannot be home with small children, who have few community supports, who will lose their entire livelihood if they have to be home with their children. The federal government paid our most vulnerable families $7 a day to get through this. It isn’t enough. People are struggling.
“Young people, especially our adolescents between the ages of 13-18, are dealing with a litany of challenges. They are depressed. They are discouraged. Predatory employers in the service industry are forcing them, implicitly and explicitly to work hours that should be criminal. Sixteen-year-olds are being told that they must close, around midnight or 1:00 AM, or be taken off the schedule. They are being told to work during Remote class time, and threatening to replace them if they cannot. This is the time that they need to be working on their futures, so that they have opportunities beyond living paycheck to paycheck. To be sure, there is honor in all work, and we do not mean to diminish the importance of the service industry to our very fragile economy, but it is not a stretch to say that parents want something better for their children than what is being offered.
“Finally, the system demands that we have students enrolled. Because self-interested middle-class communities have established their own ‘pandemic pods’ that function outside of the public school system, we risk a wholesale collapse of the ideal that is schooling for ALL, not just some. Criticisms of the American education system are fair, but we are unique in this country in that we actually think everyone should go to school until adulthood. And we have thought that for a long time. But because the idea of a public good–something you may pay for but would be fine without–is a lost concept in capitalism, the current system requires that students be enrolled. Other districts have recognized this, and made the choice to open, come what may. Because no matter how many times COVID-19 is transmitted in these communities, we will maintain our funding for 20-21, no matter how many people are sick, hospitalized, or, heaven forbid, dead. We do not want to re-open. But we have to. Per-pupil funding demands it. Capitalism demands it.
“So, it is with a heavy heart that I tell you that __________ School District is open for business. Change needs to happen structurally, systemically, and from top to bottom. I will be seeking community partners to discuss policy changes that will protect us next time. Because this time, it is too late. This time, we have to make the choice to put communities at risk. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Maintain distance of six feet or more. And may the odds be ever in your favor.
Leaders and policymakers who would like to use this speech for their own communications to their districts, communities and stakeholders may contact the author for Venmo, PayPal, or CashApp information.