Before School Begins

It is January 5th, and across Texas schools have either started or are about to. The density of cases in my county are the same as the U.K. – particularly in Kent County, where my father-in-law lives – and right at this moment there is a lockdown until mid-February. Unfortunately for them, the contagion is spreading rapidly due to a new variant of the virus which makes transmission more contagious. The amount of cases added each day makes the chart look like an ascending line approaching an asymptote.

But here, although the amount of cases is not that obvious, the amount of hospitalizations is paralyzing. In my home county, occupancy rates for all beds stand at 87% and our ICU capacity is at 97%. Soon, ambulances will be waiting outside for hours like California, and more people will die. At the beginning of the pandemic, I assumed that there would not be a person who was untouched in some way by the virus. A death, or a serious condition, either in the immediate or extended family, or perhaps in a close friend or acquaintance. But now I wonder about the suffering leaving the parochial and the personal, and reaching the communal. So much death and suffering.

And we are going back to school.

All across the world there is the question of whether students spread coronavirus, and the responses have been back and forth. While The New York Times seems intent on getting students back on campus, The Guardian on January 2nd worried that they may be silent spreaders. It seems that whoever has an agenda of their own (either safety or education) has science to prove it.

Reading the articles, however, one can see that even in the most sanguine of reports about children, health experts also advocate for preventing community spread around schools by shuttering bars and restaurants. While Europe has taken this approach, the United States has remained woefully ignorant.

Never mind that, in previous pandemics, school closures made a difference in community spread. And anyone who has a child in school during flu season knows how it works.

Now the spread is substantial, and school districts have been given the unenviable task of trying to perform basic societal functions for their citizens while risking the lives of those whom schools touch. It happens to be a lot. Plenty of people go to school, but plenty also interact with school either as teachers, administrators, or staff members. There are support groups and extracurriculars. Each of these nodes returns to people who have nothing to do with school, but could get the virus nonetheless. School is a terrible place for viruses for the good reason that schools bring communities together.

I think I understand the rationale for schools being open, had we placed ourselves in a position to do it safely. Unfortunately for those of us in highly infectious places, it’s a moot point. There was a method for driving down spread and for having school in session. Whether it was outdoor classes, propping windows open, block scheduling, or an attempt to protect people most at risk. Few if any of these options were taken up, and the resulting return to the spring appears to be the most “normal” behavior at the most dangerous time. According to Nicholas Christakis in his book Apollo’s Arrow, contact tracing becomes impossible at anything higher than 10 per 100,000 cases. We are routinely over ten times that number. When schools “contact trace” and report that the cases are not coming from school, in what context is this a relief?

Particularly concerning is this: we now know that vaccines exist. Instead of waiting indefinitely, we know that we most likely need to wait until what Dr. Anthony Fauci called “open season”, where anybody can get the two shots in the next several months. By fall (he hopes) that can happen.

We are talking about a single semester of schooling. A time when our imaginations could provide students with a newer and broader curriculum of learning. Call it the COVID-19 project. Call it independent study. Give students larger works and have teachers check in online as facilitators providing office hours. Give weekly check grades on progress and provide feedback. Let students explore topics of their own and provide a platform to share their work. I am not alone in proposing these kinds of ideas.

For these ideas to circulate and gain attention, only to be dropped without a second glance, means that education and schooling are more (or less) about actual learning, and more about something else. Is it the pained inertia of bureaucracy, churning out orders exactly as it always has? Is it the politics of saving face, where schools do not want to admit that they cared for the safety of the families that they taught, rather than acquiesce to their demands for in-person learning? Or is it money, due to the fear of a dropped budget due to attendance concerns? Of course, problems can have multiple causes, so it is likely all three. Still, we wonder why we had to have these conditions for more sickness occur at all? Why did the most recent stimulus bill not provide money for state and local governments? I suppose, like the United States Post Office, schools are expected to do more with less, as teachers well know. Yesterday I went to the Post Office to mail thank you cards. The mail slot was backed up to the very top.

Football games continue in Texas. On January 1st, a local independent school district had a game. They’ll have another this Friday (gates open at 6PM!) meaning that, yes, the students will breathe on each other. But fans in the stadium will congregate. Hopefully not. Combined with community spread is the danger of poor health in our American South and Midwest. If being overweight and obese has been bad for coronavirus, Texas does not have a good track record with weight gain:

Prevalence of Self-Reported Obesity Among U.S. Adults by State and Territory, BRFSS, 2018. See map details in table below.
Prevalence of Self-Reported Obesity Among U.S. Adults by State and Territory, BRFSS, 2019

Other school districts have dropped their provisional block scheduling entirely, dedicating 90 minutes in old buildings with 24 kids in rooms for eight hour school sessions. Learning what? God knows: how not to contain a pandemic, one hopes.

I wanted to write this more for myself, as a marker once again to keep tabs on just how bad the spread was, how full our hospitals are, and how desperately we continued to pursue a state of normality that was not so great before anything ever began. In March and April, everyone was careful about not overwhelming hospitals and broadsiding our hospital staff. Americans have a poor memory. Because now even the most basic protections, sometimes even masks, are being cast off in favor of…what exactly? I wanted to express my dismay and displeasure. I do not support this business-as-usual thinking. Many of my friends are teachers, having to go in to work in conditions that not only put themselves at risk, but perpetuate a virus to circulate among other families. When freedom is so close, is this not the time for safety and security? Surely even our nonbelievers know of Ecclesiastes:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8

The spring semester will be a time for all things, and in the worst possible way.

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