coronavirus

Nobody

“Nobody’s talking about…”
“Nobody’s considering the needs of…”
“Nobody seems to understand that…”

An empty stool in a corner
Who is listening to me?

I’ve been seeing these all week in social media and comments sections. (FSM help me, I cannot look away from this coronavirus in schools train wreck, even though I am definitely inside the train with most of you.) The statements inevitably conclude with something about the speaker’s position. Teachers complain that nobody is thinking about them. Working parents complain that nobody is thinking about them

I can guarantee you, though, that pretty close to every teacher has thought about the parents of their students. I can’t make the same promises about every parent, but I’m guessing many, probably most, have at least a glimmer of sympathy for the position teachers are being put in. (There are always going to be people who have wild misapprehensions about how much work teaching is and how much skill it requires, and yeah, I’ve seen those posts, too.)

The “nobody” you’re looking for? It’s much of our leadership. It’s the machinery of our society. In some cases it’s been willfully blind to problems, in others the blindness has become baked into the system. 

Here are some truths:

People are going to die. Teachers have already died on the job. (See for example this story about summer school teachers in Arizona.) Eventually, students are going to die, too. It’s a “when,” not an “if.”

Having students on campus is not going to magically return education to normal. There will be an awful lot that teachers won’t be able to do in a socially distant classroom. For younger students, especially, it may be more psychologically challenging than remote learning. (Try to put yourselves in the shoes of an eight year old who goes back to school and has to wear a mask and stay in the same seat and not borrow things from their friends and have limited specials and even recess is probably messed up and different.)

Households are going to splinter. Families are juggling irreconcilable obligations at enormous costs in time, money, and stress. There aren’t signs it’s going to end soon. That stress isn’t just going to vanish into the air. That’s ongoing harm that is going to have consequences sooner and later. 

Remote learning is still going to suck, although it will not be the crisis schooling of last spring. Teachers have had time to reflect and prepare. We’ll do better, but there’s only so much our public education resources allow us to level the technological playing field for students (never mind what’s going on with their families).

The truth that’s roiling our collective guts, of course, is the one that I started with: people are going to die.

The truth that’s roiling our collective guts, of course, is the one that I started with: people are going to die. There’s a reason we use the phrase “it’s a matter of life and death” to mean “this is the most important thing.” It’s literal this time. How many deaths are we willing to accept? What is it going to look like when the first school-based outbreak hits the U.S.? Are we going to respond by shutting everything down again? How much are we willing to sacrifice to push that chance of death down as close to zero as we can get it?

Reduced to absurdity, that line of thinking has all of us who are able living in well-supplied bunkers and never going out. Can’t get into a car wreck that way. Can’t get struck by lightning if you’re underground. Can’t catch a disease you’re never exposed to. 

Equally reductive is this idea that we’re going to wave our flags and show off our best mask-free smiles and just try not to keep asking for time off for funerals while everything is going back to normal. (I’m intentionally ignoring both the “it’s in God’s hands” and “it’s all a hoax” camps. Fight me.)

Most people want something between those. We’re pondering, talking about, often shouting about where we think we should be between those two poles. When somebody’s prioritizing different things, it becomes easy to say “nobody thinks about me.” But it misses the point. 

I know we’ve nearly lost it in digressions, but the real point is this: we’re not set up for a public health crisis that’s also an economic crisis that’s also a political crisis. That “nobody is talking about my side” problem is the confluence of all sorts of things in the discourse (yes, I went there. Grad school never completely wears off) that push us towards binary antagonism. 

We don’t have effective mechanisms for keeping people at home and letting them keep their homes (and food and utilities and jobs). That is true even when everything is morning in America: our social safety net is made of twine and pipe cleaners. (And that bolstered unemployment from the CARES act? It’s about to run out.) Our society is predicated on people exchanging their time and labor for money. Think about how many of us identify by our jobs

Our leadership has failed. Not universally. Not completely. To say that this was all avoidable does not return the spilt milk to its bottle. There has been too much magical thinking. There has been too much concern with how the news affects politics. Too many of us have viewed our leaders through the lenses we’ve built up over the years, positive and negative. 

On the education side, we’re asked to be inventive, original, engaging…and meet our testing targets. Bureaucracy cannot help but move slowly. I love my district. My principal is the best boss I’ve had, and every AP has teachers’ backs while also being deeply concerned with the students. And despite that, we don’t know what things will look like in September. We’re not entirely sure what things are going to look like for our scheduled return in a matter of weeks. And why is that? Because we’re dealing with a combination of vague guidance and strict mandates from the state. Because we’re not sure what the county COVID-19 testing numbers are going to look like next week. I am lucky to be in a district that’s grown so much that the buildings are all pretty new, but is small enough that we’re not having to balance poor campuses against wealthier ones as the central office works out policies. And I’m still anxious about the limits of what our district can do. 

And that brings us to the ultimate point here: The “nobody” that’s talking about the things you care about is the same one that’s coming to save you. Nobody. Nobody is coming to save you. Nobody is coming to save us. Whatever combination of panic, frustration, and fury we’re feeling about reopening schools in our coronavirus world is a symptom, not the disease. If we want to change it, we have to try and push our broken systems into a better shape. That’s a matter of consultation and economics and politics…which I hope we are all better understanding are matters of life and death for an awful lot of us. 

Essential

I am supposed to be back on campus, with students in front of me, on August 11. I don’t think you need me to point out that that is less than a month away. I live in Texas, where the state education agency has mandated that all districts offer a full on-campus program (we are allowed to offer remote learning, but not required to). Texas, where our 7-day average for new cases is about 9200 as of July 12. That’s higher than Arizona (though not per capita) and only about 700 behind headline-hogging Florida. 

About ten days ago, the country collectively thought “hey, remember school? We used to send our kids there. We should send them there again.” The president weighed in, as usual, via Twitter and caps lock and his vice president saying the same things but in complete sentences without caps lock. People have opined in op-eds. Most teachers I know and many parents have posted about it on social media. 

“They’re gambling with our lives.”

“They’re asking us to be guinea pigs.”

“They only care about the economy.”

I’ll be reporting back to campus in three weeks. 

I am an essential worker. And do you know where I remember hearing the sentiments above? From other essential workers in March and April.

I am an essential worker. And do you know where I remember hearing the sentiments above? From other essential workers in March and April. In retail. In fast food. In health care when PPE was in shortage (as it is becoming again). Society responded with rounds of applause, with cartoons painting nurses and doctors and grocery store workers and delivery drivers as heroes. 

Then we handed them masks (sometimes, in some states), put up some plexiglass (in some places), and got on with things as best we could. 

No matter what I wish, I do not think that teachers will fare any better. 

We teachers have the idea that we belong to the professional class. By education and by cultural capital, we do. Many states require teachers to have master’s degrees within a certain number of years from beginning in the profession. Every state requires continuing education hours. Teachers spend a lot of time learning. (This is to say nothing of the learning that good teachers constantly undertake in their own classrooms.) 

What this crisis is driving home, what has been obvious for years, is that, in economic terms, teachers belong to the working class. (When was the last time you heard about a lawyer needing a part time job to keep bills paid?) We’re harder to replace than retail employees, sure, but if the choice is between stopping society’s economic machine and grinding up public school employees to keep it running? We’re going into the grinder. “Skilled labor” is still labor. 

…if the choice is between stopping society’s economic machine and grinding up public school employees to keep it running? We’re going into the grinder.

None of this is to say that our worries as teachers are meaningless. Nor is this post about encouraging us all to embrace our inner Marxist. I’ve just been struck by how many teachers’ complaints involve comparison to health care workers (and their salaries) and tacit assumptions that we’re somehow worth more (in some sense) than the essential workers who’ve been doing their essential work for the last four months. 

And our work is essential. The problem I’m seeing in a lot of the conversations about schools reopening is that they mistake how much of teachers’ essential work will actually happen on a socially distant campus. Skilled teaching involves tons of interaction. Even teaching high school seniors, I am generally moving around the classroom most of the period, monitoring students and their work, crouching down by desks to check in, and doing all sort of things that can’t be done effectively from six feet away. And many of those things are the ones that make the much-cited contribution to students’ mental health and security. I can’t imagine trying to teach elementary students from inside a six-foot (or even three-foot) bubble. Your groceries can be rung up from the other side of the plexiglass. Can you learn calculus that way? How much more effective is it going to be than just learning via screen? The best thing about having kids back on campus—and though tragic, it’s not a small thing—may well be that more of their parents will be able to pay rent. 

I have more anxiety than answers. There hasn’t been a waking hour in the last week in which I haven’t thought about how schools will reopen and the idiotically political discourse that’s sprung up around it. The risks are different than they are in retail. My naive hope that we’d be able to glean some lessons from schools reopening in Europe has gone out the window as case numbers have shot back up in Texas and around the country. Those reopenings were all undertaken in places where the spread of COVID had been slowed. The way things are going now, it’s a statistical certainty that students and at least some staff will be showing up to campus with the virus in their system. And schools are just being left to make do.

I’ll control what I can. I’ll get some masks with cool patterns, I guess. I will treat getting home like healthcare workers do: in through the garage, clothes into the wash, shower. I’ll do my job the best I can.

I am, after all, essential.

Learning and Risk and Coronavirus

My classroom, already empty for months, an hour or so before I checked out for the year at the end of May.

Just before the district offices shut down for their usual summer break—one that will be less than half the length it usually is this year—they sent out an internal draft of our plan for returning to school in the “fall” (which in this case means the second week of August). I can’t go into the details for a variety of reasons, but the broad contours resemble the plans and bits of plans that have been floating for the last several weeks: options for parents and students; emphasis on masks, distance, and sanitizing for those students who will be on campus at least part of the time; some preliminary suggestions of how teachers’ responsibilities for face to face and virtual learning might be split up. 

As I mentioned, it’s a draft, and a district level draft, which means much of the implementation still needs to get ironed out at the campus level. (I expect that this will be happening right up to the day school starts.) There’s a sprawl of complications: how will students get to school? How do we deal with students wanting to socialize? And ultimately: how do we minimize risk while maintaining as much educational benefit as possible? 

And ultimately: how do we minimize risk while maintaining as much educational benefit as possible?

It’s that concept of minimizing risk that is the hardest. When many parents were suddenly thrust into managing their children and their children’s “distance learning” back in March, there was, if not an outpouring, at least a wave of expression of sympathy for teachers and how complex our jobs are. Now, especially with the American Academy of Pediatrics encouraging as much education as possible to occur in the classroom, minimizing risk in schools has become another flashpoint in our collective navigation of the pandemic.

I think that you would be hard pressed to find a teacher who would argue that remote learning works best for most students. (There are definitely some, especially in the secondary grades, for whom it does, but they’re a minority.) When we are in the classroom with our students, we are able to read those students and quickly adapt to their needs. You can’t do that with pre-recorded lessons, nor can you do it effectively in an online discussion in which you only see students’ faces. By training and by practice, effective teachers are intensely interactive with their students, even when that interaction means giving them space to figure things out on their own for a bit. 

Assuming that education works best in person, how do we do that? How do we minimize risks? My campus is slated to be over capacity this year while we wait for a new building to open. Managing transition between classes is a crazy problem on its own, never mind what happens inside classrooms. Even if a significant number of students opt for remote lessons, if I am teaching in person sections I can expect to see at least 100 different students every day, possibly up to last year’s 150. (And my load is on the lighter side for a core subject teacher because my AP classes tend to run small.) That brings me into contact not only with those students, but with everybody they have been in contact with: their families, their friends, their coworkers, their customers…to teach in a classroom is to jump back into the deep end of the pool of social contact. How can we even think about risk management in that situation?

We could, as a society, throw resources at it: more buildings, creating outdoor teaching spaces where they are viable, more people employed in education. (This would be a real emergency for “emergency certification.”) That would make more socially distanced classrooms practical, but it gets expensive very, very quickly. It can be disgustingly difficult to get funding for American public education in times of plenty. How are we supposed to throw money at it when the economy is running off the rails and state and local governments are facing major budget shortfalls? Barring a sudden and unexpected groundswell of public agitation for it, I don’t expect we’ll solve this problem with real estate and rapid hiring.

It’s got to be solved somehow, though. Much of the function of our society is predicated on parents being able to put their children in public schools during the day. That’s how we expect people to have jobs and children at the same time. The harder it is for students to be on campus, in classrooms, the harder it is for parents to work. Whom do we make choose between paying rent and educating their child? The families most affected by the quasi-shutdowns of the spring (which were, remember, three quarters of the way through the year and thus “reasonable” to shift toward review and consolidation for the online components) were low income families where the choice had to be paying rent. 

So we try to minimize risk. That puts teachers in the middle of things. We’re being asked to assume risk. I think it’s reasonable to push, as a profession, for that risk to be managed and considered with the best information available. I think it’s reasonable to be scared; COVID-19 is potentially deadly and we’re seeing more and more that not all recoveries are complete. I think we have to keep paying attention to the research, watching our peers in other countries who have already gone back to school, and adjust what we’re doing as necessary.

But we have to do. We can’t eliminate risk.

But we have to do. We can’t eliminate risk. I have a job to do, and I want do it well. I care. That means being in the classroom for the students. Do I dread the first time I have a student in my largely conservative community throw a fit about keeping their mask on? Yes. Absolutely. (The politicization of elementary public health measures has been, despite stiff competition, the most maddening thing for me about 2020.) Do I worry that I might end up with scarred lungs and a lifetime of reduced lung capacity at a time when one party is still trying to allow insurance companies to refuse to cover pre-existing conditions? Yeah. For sure. I also worry about somebody running a red light at one of the bad intersections on my commute and killing us both. There is more to life (and more to risk) than the novel coronavirus.

We had our high school graduation at the beginning of June, at the football stadium with a limited audience in blocked off sections of the stands and all the seats for the graduates six feet apart on the field. The moment the mortarboards went up in the air, all that vanished. The students were all hugs and high fives and treating social distance in ways that would get you kicked out of a middle school dance. Managing risks when your brain is still developing capacity for rational thought is hard.  

I took care of myself that night: I was good about keeping my mask on, and though I hated it, I skipped my usual slow rotation through the crowds to wish my students personal farewells. I went straight out to my car after the ceremony and then home, where I washed my hands for twenty seconds. It had been a good ceremony. There were fireworks, and both the valedictorian’s speech and my principal’s speech were models of taking strong positions without demonizing or excluding people who might disagree. 

The ceremony was worth having. Those speeches were worth hearing. Those mortarboards, so help me, were worth throwing into the air. There are so many ways in which signing up to be a teacher is already signing up to be on the front lines of public health. We’re mandatory reporters for child abuse and neglect. We watch our students wrestle with mental health. Do you need to ask what a bad flu season looks like from the classroom? I’m worried (and none of this has even touched on my worries as a parent)…but the rewards of my job are worth the work to minimize the risk rather than sacrificing even more of our children’s education in an attempt to eliminate it. 

Uncertainty

A few weeks ago, when the world’s crazy was on the horizon but only if you were looking, I had to decide what I wanted to do with Hamlet. I added it to my AP Literature syllabus last year, swapping it in for The Tempest. I make our Shakespeare the last major work we do before the exam. It’s the oldest strata of language the students are responsible for, and it’s good to have that in their “ears” as they get ready for their cold reads. Hamlet, in addition to its place near the heart of the English-language canon, is a really versatile play that works for a variety of potential “Question 3” topics on the exam. (That’s the one question that asks students to deal with a work they read before the exam.)

IMG_0498

Anyway. Last year, I got through the nuts and bolts of the play, focusing on language and performance issues without really building a whole unit around it. (Spring break and high school ultimate season kept a lot of potential elaboration away.) This year, I wanted to give the play its proper due and put it at the center of something substantive. So—and again, this was at a point where even the reports coming out of China were just starting—I decided on “uncertainty.”

Sometimes life can be a little too on-the-nose, yeah?

My district has now officially added two weeks to our scheduled spring break, putting us off campus at least until early April. Like most of you, I’ve been wrestling with what to do, with fears of what may come, with the “pale cast of thought” that “sicklie[s] o’er the native hue of resolution.” So did Hamlet.

That doesn’t mean we’re suddenly all Hamlet—at least no more than we already were troubled Danish princes. The more I think about Hamlet’s uncertainty, the clearer it becomes that he’s phenomenally self-centered, probably the most self-centered protagonist in Shakespeare. Hamlet’s driving questions are all about himself: what should he do, what’s right for him, what’s his place in the universe. Even when he has seemingly committed himself to vengeance and the guidance of the “divinity that shapes our ends,” he’s still thinking about how it affects him.

He does, sometimes, reach for abstract principles of justice and duty, but only intermittently and not always productively. The Act 4 soliloquy he delivers as Fortinbras’ army marches by is generally read as inspired, but it has never quite clicked that way for me. If you haven’t read the play or don’t remember it (buried as it is in a transitional bit where Hamlet’s headed for the ship to England), the gist of it is that all the soldiers marching by, as well as the Poles they’re going to fight, do not hesitate when honor is at stake. They are ready to die for a piece of land that is too small for them to all fight on at the same time. This quickness to violence in defense of honor is what inspires Hamlet to give all his thoughts o’er to vengeance.

It’s a selfish and self-centered uncertainty, Hamlet’s, even when there’s method to his madness.

That’s part of the reason why the play is praised, of course. Hamlet’s easy to read as the “modern” individual, struggling to navigate an unjust world without the pole star of moral certainty. He trusts only Horatio, and Horatio only as a kind of metaphysical sidekick and sounding board for his digressions. Hamlet’s so smart that he doesn’t know what to do. (He’s also pretty consistently a jerk to people over the course of the play.) The questions he wrestles with, as I told my class, are questions we all wrestle with.

But there are limits to what we do as individuals. A melancholy cliffside castle might seem attractive right now (or the Italian countryside of Boccaccio’s Decameron), but that’s not how we live, nor was it how people lived in Elizabethan England. Our uncertainty right now is individual, but it is also painfully collective. We don’t know what is going to happen to us—to our family and friends, to our society, to our economy, to our governments. 2020 was already going to be a messy year. Now there’s a fog thickening over the mess.

Collective uncertainty is easier and harder to deal with. Easier, now, because we have so many ways to communicate that don’t rely on physical proximity. Harder because we don’t have experience. We have experts; hopefully people are paying attention to them. But we haven’t done this before. It’s not influenza in 1918. It’s not SARS or Swine Flu. We are all of us making this up as we go along.

Last Friday, my students wanted answers I couldn’t give them. They’re high school seniors. Their worlds can be as narrow as Hamlet’s, but also as big and sweeping as any of the Romantic or Enlightenment dreamers. They’re already engaging with their communities and the world, but most of them still want to keep a few lifelines to authority. They want to know about prom and graduation and AP exams. They want their rites of passage. A lot of them want to know that, if push comes to shove, the olds will have some answers for them. None of us do. The best I could manage was to remind them that Twitter’s not the best place to get your information, to explain to them the necessity of flattening the curve no matter how cheap plane tickets might be. To remind a room full of 17 and 18-year olds that it’s not necessarily about them, but rather about us.

We’re in this counterintuitive position right now of needing to lean on one another by staying apart. So many things have been cancelled, but people are putting ingenuity and empathy to work to support one another. Virtual concerts and collective education aren’t going to put more masks and ventilators in the hospital, but they can remind us what we’re saving people for. They help us remember that even if we’re stuck in our homes as individuals, we’re all in this together.

(And hopefully none of us, individually, are planning to pass the time with poisoned swords or poisoned wine.)