Back to School?
My entire life revolved around school. Starting in the fall of 1954, at age 5, I went off to school in September and happily spent my time there until June. Summers were fun, of course, but I always looked forward to getting back to school, to seeing my friends, to playing sports, to learning new things, meeting new teachers and kids. Becoming a teacher kept me tied to that calendar --- I had simply switched desk sizes. Sixty years of my life operated on that September to June clock, as it does for most families --- who look forward to “special” summer vacations, or sending their kids off to camp during this time of year. But now, in July of 2020, we are faced with the prospect of not adhering to our age-old schedule; we are faced with our reliable apple-cart being overturned quite dramatically. We got a taste of it this spring, of course, when schools shuttered and “virtual learning”/home-schooling became our national norm. But August/September looms --- the time of year when schools in the United States, historically, “opened.” The debate now rages about what we should do? Is it safe to re-open? Can we devise some kind of “modified” schedule to re-open “safely?” The President and Secretary of Education are demanding that schools re-open. I think about what it would be like to a teacher right now (the Lovely Carol Marie’s daughter is one) and have to stare down the barrel of Covid-19 and school. While I have opinions on the subject, one of my former Bronxville High School students (Joanna Lara Zuppardi) posted the following on Facebook and I think it’s well worth a read (with my editorializing in italic/bold inserts).
By Joe Morice (daughters in 8th & 10th grade in Fairfax County, VA)
To our fellow FCPS families, this is it gang, 5 days until the 2 days in school vs. 100% virtual decision. Let’s talk it out, in my traditional TL/DR form (Too Long/Didn’t Read.)
Like all of you, I’ve seen my feed become a flood of anxiety and faux expertise. You’ll get no presumption of expertise here. This is how I am looking at and considering this issue and the positions people have taken in my feed and in the hundred or so FCPS discussion groups that have popped up. The lead comments in quotes are taken directly from my feed and those boards. Sometimes I try to rationalize them. Sometimes I’m just punching back at the void.
Full disclosure, we initially chose the 2 days option and are now having serious reservations. As I consider the positions and arguments I see in my feed, these are where my mind goes. Of note, when I started working on this piece at 12:19 PM today the COVID death tally in the United States stood at 133,420.
“My kids want to go back to school.”
I challenge that position. I believe what the kids desire is more abstract. I believe what they want is a return to normalcy. They want their idea of yesterday. And yesterday isn’t on the menu. (I think this is right on the money!)
“I want my child in school so they can socialize.”
This was the principle reason for our 2 days decision. As I think more on it though, what do we think ‘social’ will look like? There aren’t going to be any lunch table groups, any lockers, any recess games, any study halls, any sitting next to friends, any talking to people in the hallway, any dances. All of that is off the menu. So, when we say that we want the kids to benefit from the social experience, what are we deluding ourselves into thinking in-building socialization will actually look like in the Fall? (I am concerned about the idea that some schools are considering engaging in sports. Having gone to some Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball games in the past few weeks, sports --- particularly high-contact sports like football --- seem an invitation to a super-spreader event. Either way, as Morice notes “socialization” will be a highly perverted version of what we generally consider “socialization” in school.)
“My kid is going to be left behind.”
Left behind who? The entire country is grappling with the same issue, leaving all children in the same quagmire. Who exactly would they be behind? I believe the rhetorical answer to that is “They’ll be behind where they should be,” to which I’ll counter that “where they should be” is a fictional goal post that we as a society have taken as gospel because it maps to standardized tests which are used to grade schools and counties as they chase funding. (Again, I agree with Morice. We’re all struggling with this and need to forget about the usual “standards” of what we each --- individually, for the most part --- think “standards” and “grade-level” are. These are highly-suspect categories to begin with. Let’s simply agree to assess where kids are once we get back to something resembling “normal” and then figure out where we need to go --- we're all handicapped, in varying degrees, by this situation and teachers are excellent at adapting to new situations.)
“Classrooms are safe.”
At the current distancing guidelines from FCPS middle and high schools would have no more than 12 people (teachers + students) in a classroom (I acknowledge this number may change as FCPS considers the Commonwealth’s 3 ft with a mask vs. 6 ft position, noting that FCPS is all mask regardless of the distance). For the purpose of this discussion we’ll say classes run 45 minutes.
I posed the following question to 40 people today, representing professional and management roles in corporations, government agencies, and military commands: “Would your company or command have a 12 person, 45 minute meeting in a conference room?”
100% of them said "no," they would not. These are some of their answers:
“No. Until further notice we are on Zoom.”
“(Our company) doesn’t allow us in (company space).”
“Oh hell no.”
“No, absolutely not.”
“Is there a percentage lower than zero?”
“Something of that size would be virtual.”
We do not even consider putting our office employees into the same situation we are contemplating putting our children into. And let’s drive this point home: there are instances here when commanding officers will not put soldiers, ACTUAL SOLDIERS, into the kind of indoor environment we’re contemplating for our children. For me this is as close to a ‘kill shot’ argument as there is in this entire debate. How do we work from home because buildings with recycled air are not safe, because we don’t trust other people to not spread the virus, and then with the same breath send our children into buildings? (There’s nothing I could add here that would be more powerful than this argument!)
“Children only die .0016 of the time.”
First, conceding we’re an increasingly morally bankrupt society --- when did we start talking about children’s lives, or anyone’s lives, like this? This is how the villain in movies talks about mortality, usually 10-15 minutes before the good guy kills him. If you’re in this camp, and I acknowledge that many, many people are, I’m asking you to consider that number from a slightly different angle.
FCPS has 189,000 children. .0016 of that is 302. 302 dead children are the Calvary Hill you’re erecting your argument on. So, let’s agree to do this: stop presenting this as a data point. If this is your argument, I challenge you to have courage equal to your conviction. Go ahead, plant a flag on the internet and say, “Only 302 children will die.” No one will. That’s the kind action on social media that gets you fired from your job. And I trust our social media enclave isn’t so careless and irresponsible with life that it would even, for even a millisecond, enter any of your minds to make such an argument.
Considered another way: You’re presented with a bag with 189,000 $1 bills. You’re told that in the bag are 302 random bills, they look and feel just like all the others, but each one of those bills will kill you. Do you take the money out of the bag?
Same argument, applied to the 12,487 teachers in FCPS (per Wikipedia), using the ‘children’s multiplier’ of .0016 (all of us understanding the adult mortality rate is higher). That’s 20 teachers. That’s the number you’re talking about. It’s very easy to sit behind a keyboard and diminish and dismiss the risk you’re advocating other people assume. Take a breath and think about that.
If you want to advocate for 2 days a week, look, I’m looking for someone to convince me. But please, for the love of God, drop things like this from your argument. Because the people I know who’ve said things like this, I know they’re better people than this. They’re good people under incredible stress who let things slip out as their frustration boils over. So, please do the right thing and move on from this, because one potential outcome is that one day, you’re going to have to stand in front of St. Peter and answer for this, and that’s not going to be conversation you enjoy. (Again, this is the most compelling argument that can be made.)
“Hardly any kids get COVID.”
(Deep sigh) Yes, that is statistically true as of this writing. But it is a cherry-picked argument because you’re leaving out an important piece.
One can reasonably argue that, due to the school closures in March, children have had the least EXPOSURE to COVID. In other words, closing schools was the one pandemic mitigation action we took that worked. There can be no discussion of the rate of diagnosis within children without also acknowledging they were among our fastest and most quarantined people. Put another way, you cannot cite the effect without acknowledging the cause. (Recent statistics from Florida show a 31% infection rate among children. Enough said!)
“The flu kills more people every year.”
(Deep sigh). First of all, no, it doesn’t. Per the CDC, United States flu deaths average 20,000 annually. COVID, when I start writing here today, has killed 133,420 in six months.
And when you mention the flu, do you mean the disease that, if you’re suspected of having it, everyone, literally everyone in the country tells you stay the f- away from other people? You mean the one where parents are pretty sure their kids have it but send them to school anyway because they have a meeting that day, the one that every year causes massive f-ing outbreaks in schools because schools are petri dishes and it causes kids to miss weeks of school and leaves them out of sports and band for a month? That one? Because you’re right - the flu kills people every year. It does, but you’re ignoring the why. It’s because there are people who are a--holes who don’t care about infecting other people. In that regard it’s a perfect comparison to COVID. (And this brings us back to the real problem we have: under the guise of “individual freedom” and other re-election bullshit, the Trump Administrations has failed to take Federal Action necessary to at least slow, if not stop, the spread of this virus. By making mask-wearing a political issue, we are, quite literally, killing people. Civic responsibility and public health are NOT political issues!)
“Almost everyone recovers.”
You’re confusing “release from the hospital” and “no longer infected” with “recovered.” I’m fortunate to only know two people who have had COVID. One my age and one my dad’s age. The one my age described it as “absolute hell” and although no longer infected cannot breathe right. The one my dad’s age was in the hospital for 13 weeks, had to have a trach ring put in because she could no longer be on a ventilator, and upon finally getting home and being faced with incalculable time in rehab told my mother, “I wish I had died
While I’m making every effort to reach objectivity, on this particular point, you don’t know what the f- you’re talking about. .”(This is a very important point. DO NOT CONFUSE “released from the hospital" with “recovered.” There are long-term effects of this virus and we are just learning how serious those are.)
“If people get sick, they get sick.”
First, you mistyped. What you intended to say was “If OTHER people get sick, they get sick.” And shame on you. (Agree. Too many people still believe they are invulnerable --- and not just young people. Again, in the past week, I’ve seen people being very cavalier about social distancing at kids baseball games, I’ve –twice --- seen young guys playing 3-on-3 shirts/skins basketball on outdoor courts. Everyone thinks “someone else” will get it, and that’s okay with them. Civic Responsibility means worrying about your neighbor, not just your family!)
“I’m not going to live my life in fear.”
You already live your life in fear. For your health, your family’s health, your job, your retirement, terrorists, extremists, one political party or the other being in power, the new neighbors, an unexpected home repair, the next sunrise. What you meant to say was, “I’m not prepared to add ANOTHER fear,” and I’ve got news for you: that ship has sailed. It’s too late. There are two kinds of people, and only two: those that admit they’re afraid, and those that are lying to themselves about it.
As to the fear argument, fear is the reason you wait up when your kids stay out late, it’s the reason you tell your kids not to dive in the shallow water, to look both ways before crossing the road. Fear is the respect for the wide world that we teach our children. Except in this instance, for reasons no one has been able to explain to me yet. (I would add that it’s the reason we snap on seat belts, it’s the reason you get flu and other vaccine shots, etc.)
“FCPS leadership sucks.”
I will summarize my view of the School Board thusly: if the 12 of you aren’t getting into a room together because it represents a risk, don’t tell me it’s OK for our kids. I understand your arguments, that we need the 2 days option for parents who can’t work from home, kids who don’t have internet or computer access, kids who needs meals from the school system, kids who need extra support to learn, and most tragically for kids who are at greater risk of abuse by being home. All very serious, all very real issues, all heartbreaking. No argument.
But you must first lead by example. Because you’re failing when it comes to optics. All your meetings are online. What our children see is all of you on a Zoom telling them it’s OK for them to be exactly where you aren’t. I understand you’re not PR people, but you really should think about hiring some. (Who can argue with his point here?)
“I talked it over with my kids.”
Let’s put aside for a moment the concept of adults effectively deferring this decision to children, the same children who will continue to stuff things into a full trash can rather than change it out. Yes, those hygienic children.
Listen, my 15 year old daughter wants a sport car, which she’s not getting next year because it would be dangerous to her and to others. Those kinds of decisions are our job. We step in and decide as parents, we don’t let them expose themselves to risks because they’re still-developing and screen-addicted brains narrow their understanding of cause and effect.
We as parents and adults serve to make difficult decisions. Sometimes those are in the form of lessons, where we try to steer kids towards the right answer and are willing to let them make a mistake in the hopes of teaching better decision-making the next time around. This is not one of those moments. The stakes are too high for that. This is a “the adults are talking” moment. Kids are not mature enough for this moment. That is not an attack on your child. It is a broad statement about all children. It is true of your children and it was true when we were children. We need to be doing that thinking here, and “Johnny wants to see Bobby at school” cannot be the prevailing element in the equation. (Again, I couldn’t put it better.)
“The teachers need to do their job.”
How is it that the same society which abruptly shifted to virtual students only three months ago, and offered glowing endorsements of teachers stating, “we finally understand how difficult your job is,” has now shifted to “screw you, do your job.” There are myriad problems with that position but for the purposes of this piece let’s simply go with, “You’re not looking for a teacher, you’re looking for the babysitter you feel your property tax payment entitles you to.”(AMEN!)
“Teachers have a greater chance of being killed by a car than they do of dying from COVID.”
(Eye roll) Per the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the U.S. see approximately 36,000 auto fatalities a year. Again, there have been 133,420 COVID deaths in the United States through 12:09 July 10, 2020. So no, they do not have a great chance of being killed in a car accident.
And, if you want to take the actual environment into consideration, the odds of a teacher being killed in a car accident in their classroom, you know, the environment we’re actually talking about, that’s right around 0%. (On the money.)
“If the grocery store workers can be onsite what are the teachers afraid of?”
(Deep breath) A grocery store worker, who absolutely risks exposure, has either six feet of space or a plexiglass shield between them and individual adult customers who can grasp their own mortality, whose transactions can be completed in moments, in a 40,000 SF space.
A teacher is with 11 ‘customers’ who have not an inkling what mortality is, for 45 minutes, in a 675 SF space, six times a day.
Just stop. (Please.)
“Teachers are choosing remote because they don’t want to work.”
(Deep breaths) Many teachers are opting to be remote. That is not a vacation. They’re requesting to do their job at a safer site. Just like many, many people who work in buildings with recycled air have done. And likely the building you’re not going into has a newer and better serviced air system than our schools.
Of greater interest to me is the number of teachers choosing the 100% virtual option for their children. The people who spend the most time in the buildings are the same ones electing not to send their children into those buildings. That’s something I pay attention to. (I would add that it is MUCH HARDER teaching virtually than in a classroom setting! The planning, the extra time for those students with special needs --- or simply the kids who “don’t get it” the first time around --- creates MORE work for teachers! I have watched the Lovely Carol Marie’s daughter deal with demanding parents --- who seem to be MORE demanding in the virtual world --- and it is no picnic. Trust me, teaching from home would NEVER be ANY teachers “first option.” It’s about public safety.)
“I wasn’t prepared to be a parent 24/7” and “I just need a break.”
I truly, deeply respect that honesty. Truth be told, both arguments have crossed my mind. Pre-COVID, I routinely worked from home 1 – 2 days a week. The solace was nice. When I was in the office, I had an actual office, a room with a door I could close, where I could focus. During the quarantine that hasn’t always been the case. I’ve been frustrated, I’ve been short, I’ve gone to just take a drive and get the hell away for a moment and been disgusted when one of the kids sees me and asks me to come for a ride, robbing me of those minutes of silence. You want to hear silence. I get it. I really, really do.
Here’s another version of that, admittedly extreme. What if one of our kids becomes one of the 302? What’s that silence going to sound like? What if you have one of those matted frames where you add the kid’s school picture every year? What if you don’t get to finish the pictures? (If that last part doesn’t bring a parent up short, I don’t know what will.)
“What does your gut tell you to do?”
Shawn and I have talked ad infinitum about all of these and other points. Two days ago, at mid-discussion I said, “Stop, right now, gut answer, what is it,” and we both said, “virtual.”
A lot of the arguments I hear people making for the 2 days sound like we’re trying to talk ourselves into ignoring our instincts, they are almost exclusively, “We’re doing 2 days, but…”. There’s a fantastic book by Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear, which I’ll minimize for you thusly: your gut instinct is a hardwired part of your brain and you should listen to it. In the introduction he talks about elevators, and how, of all living things, humans are the only ones that would voluntarily get into a soundproof steel box with a potential predator just so they could skip a flight of stairs.
I keep thinking that the 2 days option is the soundproof steel box. I welcome, damn, beg, anyone to convince me otherwise. (Again, well said.)
At the time I started writing at 12:09 PM, 133,420 Americans had died from COVID. Upon completing this draft at 7:04 PM, that number rose to 133,940.
520 Americans died of COVID while I was working on this. In seven hours.
The length of a school day.
Well, there’s the best long-form essay about opening school I have seen. If you think it makes sense, please pass it on, share it. In closing, I have to thank my dear friend and former band-mate, Bill Legenza, for encouraging me to write a BLAST about school re-opening. He has been watching his wife (and another band-mate, as well as former colleague at Blackstone Academy), Carolyn Sheehan, struggle with these issues as they consider opening Blackstone in the fall. Good luck with that.
And, finally, let’s ask our President if Barron is going to go to a D.C. public school in September --- or if Jared and Ivanka’s children will be going back to school in the fall. If he’s so hot on opening public schools, how about setting the example and sending his kid and grandkids back to the public schools he’s demanding re-open in September.