Back to School
More Covid, More Problems
We will long debate the efficacy of the varying regional approaches to dealing with Covid. What worked? What didn’t? As a teacher, I have viewed this drama through the lens of education. My conclusion is that we have failed miserably. The last two school years have been tragic for students, and the drama continues to unfold.
When Covid-19 first made news in the winter of the 2019-2020 school year, most students treated it as a joke. Someone would sneeze, someone else would make a Covid joke, and the whole class would laugh. When an Arizona State University student tested positive in late January — the first Covid case in Arizona — the jokes still happened, but the laughter was more forced. I remember a student walking up to my desk, wiping his nose with a kleenex, to turn in some homework. It was the first time I felt legitimately concerned about Covid.
I was ambivalent about the decision to shut down public schools that first spring. Personally, I was ready to show up and teach if my school was open, but I wasn’t upset when they announced a statewide closure.
When Arizona closed down public schools on March 15th, 2020, there were 13 confirmed cases of Covid in the state. The world was watching Italy impose a nationwide lockdown. The nightly news was showing horror stories from Italian hospitals. Arizona students were about to return from spring break. Even though the virus didn’t seem terribly damaging to young people, schools could be vectors of community spread. The biggest concern was for our hospitals, and beside the other factors, many educators were already planning to stay home.
Gov. Ducey said this in his announcement to close schools:
As more schools announce closures and education administrators express staff shortages within their schools, now is the time to act. A statewide closure is the right thing to do. While this measure will not stop the spread of COVID-19, it will bring certainty and consistency in schools across Arizona.
A significant number of districts and charters in Arizona remained closed for an entire year, offering virtual learning for students. As cases dropped from their peak of ten-thousand per day, and with the increasing distribution of the vaccine, most Arizona schools became fully operational by the conclusion of the 2020-2021 school year.
We should have done better for our students.
Students exist in two social worlds. One with their family, and one with their peers. The decision to completely wipe away this second, essential social world was nothing short of tragic. To our collective shame, virtual learning was the best solution we could muster. The state spent additional resources on digital technology and online teacher training, but did not provide what students needed on a social level.
The best solution to the problem — the only adequate alternative to regular school — was the universal implementation of pandemic pods. Small bubbles of students meeting together in person to learn. If school buildings were to be closed indefinitely, pods should have been implemented across the state, utilizing any and all empty spaces, with school administrators acting as coordinators, and issuing emergency teaching certifications to young adults as needed to guide these modified classrooms.
The logistics of this operation would have been complicated. It would have required strong leadership and creative policy-making. Most of all, it would have required a collective voice saying: It is completely unacceptable to keep our young people isolated on computers indefinitely.
At the very least, in-person daily extra-curriculars should have been universally available.
Some parents and educational groups took it on themselves to organize learning pods, but most schools turned to glowing screens.
Physical nourishment was provided by the continuation of free meals; social nourishment was withheld.
The academic loss during Covid, in my mind, was secondary to the social-developmental loss from isolation. The failure to effectively teach basic literacy skills to all students is a slow-burning tragedy. If we were really good at getting kids to read and write well, one year of school disruption wouldn’t be a disaster. More than anything, Covid shined a bright spotlight on the rigid institution we call public education.
The Delta variant brings new drama to Arizona schools
I’m grateful for this Substack newsletter because social media is the absolute worst place to talk about schools and Covid. Performative outrage does not make for rational decision-making.
A perfect example comes from ABC-15 news anchor Steve Irvin. He wrote this tweet that has been retweeted almost three thousand times: “Just shut up about the survival rate. There is no acceptable number of dead children. Period.”
Just shut up. About the most important scientific conclusion about Covid as it relates to children.
In conversations with people in the real world, the fact that this virus is less harmful to young people than to older and immunocompromised people almost always gets discussed. It’s just a basic and important fact about the virus.
Young people, by and large, are spared from bad outcomes if they get Covid. So far, the regular flu is statistically more dangerous to kids if you compare the national rates of fatality. That’s not a right-wing talking point. That’s a fact. Nothing I’ve seen about the Delta variant disputes the evidence that Covid is, thankfully, relatively mild for children.
In a democracy, in a free society, it is very important to discuss science as we make public policy decisions. But on social media, we have news anchors saying “just shut up” about the survival rate for young people who contract Covid.
Because of the Delta variant, it’s true there’s an increase in the number of children being hospitalized with Covid. That number was incredibly small to begin with. The survival rate remains incredibly high. The news always leads with the increase in hospitalizations without so much as mentioning the context of overall risk.
On his feed, Irvin goes on to clarify that he’s not talking about taking zero risk but instead making a point about the necessity of taking “basic precautions” to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
By this he means mandatory masking in schools, which is prohibited by law by the Arizona legislature, signed into law by Gov. Ducey.
I don’t agree with this law. I don’t trust the motivations of the Republicans who wrote the law. I think schools should be free to adapt to changing circumstances. Masks aren’t as good a protection against Covid as the vaccine, but they do provide a layer of mitigation.
At the same time, I am concerned about overreach and irrational fear. I don’t want schools to feel like the TSA at the airport. I think facial expressions are important. I think some students like to wear masks because they want to hide their faces.
More than anything else, I want to have a rational public conversation about the situation — the kind of conversation that simply doesn’t happen on social media.
Where do we go from here?
I was crossing my fingers this would be a drama-free year. That’s already passed. I have no idea what Ducey or the Republicans will do in response to school districts openly defying the law and requiring masks. Republican lawmakers are writing threatening letters. Ducey is playing coy. A coalition of public school advocates has just filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law on grounds that it was stuffed into a budget bill.
Personally, being vaccinated, I don’t want to wear a mask while I teach. But I wouldn’t protest if my school implemented a mask mandate under spike conditions. If people want to add an additional layer of protection during a spike, that’s fine with me.
We need to start considering, though, that Covid might not be temporary. We might be living with a constantly changing virus long into the future.
If Covid is a thing to stay, what’s important is to create sustainability while maintaining the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.
Near Barrio Cafe on 16th Street and Windsor
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