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General News    H2'ed 8/21/20

Tomgram: Belle Chesler, Will Public Schools Survive Covid-19?

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Perhaps you won't be surprised to learn that President Trump's newest healthcare policy expert, Scott Atlas, believes that opposition to reopening America's schools this fall is "ludicrous" and nothing but "hysteria." Meanwhile, across this country, grandparents like me watch a president incapable of taking responsibility for anything he does continue to run this country into the ground. Naturally, he's been pushing like a maniac -- well, he is a maniac -- to "reopen" America's schools in the midst of a still-raging pandemic. (Hey, just remind me, how did that work out when it came to the economy?) As a result, many of us will be wondering, with trepidation, what it might mean for kids to attend potentially pandemicized public schools in September, perhaps as in the case of teacher Belle Chesler (or one of my own grandchildren), a school whose ventilation systems are substandard and where some classroom windows may not even open.

We wonder what those children may bring back each evening along with their homework and whether, once they are in school (if teachers don't strike or sick-out them closed), just when we grandparents will be able to see them safely. In a land swept by a pandemic and in the hands of someone who clearly doesn't have the faintest sense of the value of any life but his own (and perhaps those of his children), it's hard not to despair. So I feel empathetic to TomDispatch regular Belle Chesler, both a teacher and a parent, facing the fall reopening from hell. Consider such an all-American, twenty-first-century nightmare from her point of view, while you imagine the future of a country that we still inhabit, but that more than 170,000 Americans are no longer around to share with us. Tom

The "Great" Reopening
Or Setting America's Schools Up to Fail
By Belle Chesler

Seventeen years ago, against the advice of my parents, I decided to become a public school teacher. Once I did, both my mother and father, educators themselves, warned me that choosing to teach was to invite attacks from those who viewed the profession with derision and contempt. They advised me to stay strong and push through when budgets were cut, my intellect questioned, or my dedication to my students exploited. Nobody, however, warned me that someday I might have to defend myself against those who asked me to step back into my classroom and risk my own life, the lives of my students and their families, of my friends, my husband, and my child in the middle of a global pandemic. And nobody told me that I'd be worrying about whether or not our nation's public schools, already under siege, would survive the chaos of Covid-19.

Pushing students back into school buildings right now simply telegraphs an even larger desire in this society to return to business as usual. We want our schools to open because we want a sense of normalcy in a time of the deepest uncertainty. We want to pretend that schools (like bars) will deliver us from the stresses created by a massive public health crisis. We want to believe that if we simply put our children back in their classrooms, the economy will recover and life as we used to know it will resume.

In reality, the coronavirus is -- or at least should be -- teaching us that there can be no going back to that past. As the first students and teachers start to return to school buildings, images of crowded hallways, unmasked kids, and reports of school-induced Covid-19 outbreaks have already revealed the depths to which we seem willing to plunge when it comes to the safety and well-being of our children.

So let's just call the situation what it is: a misguided attempt to prop up an economy failing at near Great Depression levels because federal, state, and local governments have been remarkably unwilling to make public policy grounded in evidence-based science. In other words, we're living in a nation struggling to come to terms with the deadly repercussions of a social safety net gutted even before the virus reached our shores and decisions guided by the most self-interested kind of politics rather than the public good.

A Return to School?

For teachers like me, with the privilege of not having to work a second or third job, summer can be a time to reflect on the previous school year and prepare for the next. I take classes, read, develop new curriculum, and spend time with family and friends. Summer has been a time to catch up with all the pieces of my life I've neglected during the school year and recharge my physical and emotional batteries. Like many other public school teachers I know, I step away in order to step back in.

Not this summer, though. In these months, there's been no reprieve. In Portland, Oregon, where I live, the confluence of the historic Black Lives Matter uprising, a subsequent invasion by the president's federal agents, the hovering menace and tragic devastation of the coronavirus, and rising rates of homelessness and joblessness have contributed to a seismic disruption of the routines and structures of our community. A feeling of uncertainty and anxiety now permeates every facet of daily life. Like so many, I've been parenting full time without relief since March, acutely aware of the absence of the usual indispensable web of teachers, caregivers, coaches, camp counselors, family, and friends who have helped me raise my child so that I can help raise the children of others.

The dislocation from my community and the isolation caused by the breakdown of normal social ties, as well as my daughter's and my lack of access to school, has had a profound effect on our lives. And yet, knowing all that, feeling it all so deeply, I would still never advocate sending our children back to school in person as Covid-19 still rages out of control.

Without a concerted effort to stop the spread of the virus -- as cases in this country soar past five million and deaths top 170,000 -- including masking mandates, widespread testing, effective contact tracing, enough funding to change the physical layout of classrooms and school buildings, a radical reduction in class sizes, and proper personal protective equipment for all school employees, returning to school becomes folly on a grand scale. Of course, an effort like that would require a kind of social cohesion, innovation, and focused allocation of resources that, by definition, is nonexistent in the age of Trump.

Sacrificing the Vulnerable

In late July, when it was announced that school districts across the state of Oregon would open fully online again this fall, I felt two things: enormous relief and profound grief. The experience of virtual schooling in the spring had resulted in many families suffering due to a lack of access to the social, emotional, and educational resources of school. No one understands that reality better than the teachers who have dedicated our waking hours to supporting those students and the parents who have watched them suffer.

As refreshing as it should be to hear politicians across the political spectrum communicating their worries about a widening achievement gap and the ways in which the most vulnerable American children will fall behind if they don't experience in-person schooling, their concerns ring hollow. Our most vulnerable children are historically the least served by our schools and the most likely to get sick if they go back. Having never prioritized the needs of those very students, their families, and the communities they live in, those politicians have the audacity to demand that schools open now.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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