What If…

…What if we didn’t allow politicians to make the educational decisions we should be making?

 It is astonishing and, of course, discouraging, to see economics now elevated to the position of ultimate justifier and explainer of all the affairs of our daily life, and competition enshrined as the sovereign principle and ideal of economics… It is impossible not to notice how little the proponents of the ideal of competition have to say about honesty, which is the fundamental economic virtue, and how very little they have to say about community, compassion, and mutual help…For human beings, affection is the ultimate motive, because the force that powers us , as John Ruskin (1819-1900) also said, is not “steam, magnetism, or gravitation”, “but a Soul”…

Wendell Barry

Some time ago, in a previous post, I shared my sense that we were approaching a battle for the soul of our country. Would we continue to behave according to the gospel of Ayn Rand and explain/excuse the ever-widening disparity of wealth and well-being through the concept of social Darwinism or would we rededicate ourselves to the commitments of New Deal thinking that sought to measure our progress by the health, opportunities, and well-being available to the weakest and neediest among us?

Little did I imagine at that time that this question might involve the health, opportunities, and wellbeing of our children.  Little did any of us imagine that the health and very lives of our children might become pawns in the new politics of our era.  It’s against this backdrop that I offer what may be the longest post I’ve ever published.  Most of the words, and certainly the most eloquent, come from a parent who posted what I’ve reprinted here on Facebook.

Several weeks ago, I began to collect articles from various news outlets, publications, etc. about the reopening of schools.  Initially, the majority of these articles focused on the various options being considered by school leaders and/or state government agencies.  Many of the articles reported on the pros and cons of various forms of blended learning – i.e., scheduling options which combined alternating in-person instruction schemes with the continuations of some form of remote instruction. As we learned of the continued growth and spread of “hot spots” throughout parts of the nation, a growing number of articles offered solutions involving some form home schooling and even the emergence of home schooling co-ops for parents.  Always in the background was the constant drumbeat of the importance of having kids back in school in order for the economy to grow. More radical voices went to far as to offer calculations of what might be an “acceptable” number of child deaths.  Against this backdrop the President publicly called for the return to school as normal and, exceeding what most think to be the limits of his power, threatened to withhold federal aid to those schools which did not comply with his “order”.

It’s against that backdrop that I offer the following piece.  It appeared recently on Facebook, not my usual source for material.

Note: From intro by Facebook poster…”Written by a parent of two children in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia….  This is the type of dialogue that is productive, whether you agree or disagree with his point of view.  It’s probably too long for many of you.”

From Joe Morice, daughters in 8th & 10th grade in Fairfax County Public Schools’ Centreville Pyramid:

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 mammoth TL/DR form.

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 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?

“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.

“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?

“Children only die .0016 of the time.”

First, conceding we’re an increasingly morally bankrupt society, but when did we start talking about children’s lives, or anyone’s lives, like this? This 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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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 their 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.

“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.”

“Teachers have a greater chance to 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%.

“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.

“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 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?

“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.

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.

My Hope…

Thank you for reading.  My hope is that you will share the thoughts and concerns of the parent, Mr. Morice, with your friends and colleagues.  His thoughts and research have great potential to serve as the basis for needed “big question” discussions.  What would happen if we added the following question to those discussions? Why are we in such a rush to recreate a system which has so little appeal to its “customers”? Are we so bound by tradition and our own memories of school that we continue to focus our thinking on looking backwards for our solutions?  Why wouldn’t we consider revisiting a purpose of school that looks beyond the restoration of a system designed more than a century ago? 

Be well…

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