The Pandemic has revealed something ugly about the United States. Granted, it is not all of us, but it is part of large parts of the culture. This is an utter sense of fear and an inability to do what is needed. This is a sense that we can’t. It is a dangerous national ethos, which was encouraged by the previous administration. It is an idea where failure is acceptable, as long as we can blame others for it, we should. It is a place where we personally are not responsible, and we are willfully unable to react to the crisis.
The first time we saw this during the crisis was our inability to get enough supplies for the necessary testing and tracing. This was like basic public health, but the former president refused to use the defense production act, even after referring to this as a war. In that respect, he was correct. He should have used the resources of the nation, but instead, it was the persistent message, we can’t. It was not even we won’t, it was simply, we can’t.
We had a multitude of moments during the pandemic, including the spread of misinformation from the highest levels of government. This included the messaging about masks. While we had a recommendation early on from health authorities that they were necessary, the message from the former president was that it was not for him. It was, once again, we can’t. This malaise has spread across the nation, where Americans to this day refuse to wear masks, because we can’t, and you can’t make us do it. This is not limited to mask-wearing in public or having enough resources to test and do proper public health. This extends to schools.
Fear, Society, and Schools
Why are the schools not opening? (For the record not all schools have closed). We are told that teachers want to get vaccinated before they go back. This is a laudable goal, and I wish we were not having severe supply issues with the vaccine. Yes, those are slowly getting resolved, but we need to explore why teachers refuse to go back to schools. This is fear of the disease, and what may happen. Trust me, I get it. Every time my husband goes to work we face it. He has been at work from the early days of the pandemic, and only took a few days off when we thought COVID had finally reached us. We celebrated a cold.
When you listen to teachers, it is fear. None should play the fear and anxiety down, but in reality, with proper precautions schools are safer than oh the Postal Service. We know, we have the evidence from different states including Rhode Island and abroad, where schools have remained open. Yes, we need to acknowledge the fears, as it was done in Rhode Island. But the students, and their future, matter. According to the New York Times Magazine:
When teachers approached her with their frustrations, Susan Chin says, she tried to acknowledge their feelings without wavering on her conviction that the school had put the necessary safety precautions in place and could stay open, even if it was hard emotionally and practically on the teachers. “We’re talking about two perspectives,” she says. “I don’t deny there’s stress, worry, anxiety from the adult perspective. But this is about the kids — their perspective, their education, their experience, their semblance of a routine. Whether it’s 20 classrooms that are open or 50, why would we deny those kids whose classrooms are functioning a consistent experience? These kids get recess. We’re feeding some of these kids. Giving them some semblance of normal in a not-normal pandemic? That’s huge.”
This is a sense of mission that seems to have left our discussions about school openings, and why teachers are in a logger jam with parents. Or why members of a school board derisively speak of parents. They since have resigned. We are letting this fear speak for all of us, never mind we have very real-world experience talking to us we can do it, but only if we decide we can.
Many teachers, I would argue most, are coming at this from a place of fear. This is why the goalposts continue to shift. They have not been forced to confront the demons that have come with other workplaces, which quite honestly never stopped working, The parents of some of our school children continued to go to physical workplaces, and they continue to go on, in spite of the fear. They are doing it because they partially have no choice, but partially because the ethos for them is different, It is what once was far more pervasive, this is the idea of we can.
I can already hear it. You are picking on the teachers! Or why would young people go into education? Well, this is the most obvious example of how we are becoming a nation that can’t, or won’t. I am willing to bet other white-collar workers who have been working remotely share the fears of teachers. The risk of bringing the virus home is very real, but people in essential jobs have been doing this for over a year. So have medical professionals, many of who since died. Now we have vaccines, and most front-line medical workers have received the jab. This is not the case with poorly paid, mostly filled by minorities or immigrants, workspaces such as your grocery store.
Logistics workers, such as mail service workers, UPS, and other agencies have yet to get vaccinated. However, both UPS and FedEx are essential to vaccine distribution. Bus drivers are still at it, and so are grocery store workers. They are the part of the nation that still can. While pay for education workers is low, especially compared to other countries, it still is, on average, higher than grocery workers.
Schools are essential not just to take care of the children while the parents work. This is not a minor role. Parents need the peace of mind that their children are in a safe space. Schools are critical to not just teach the ABCs, but also socialization, group cooperation, and other not-so-obvious functions. We know that children, and in particular teens, are facing particular mental health challenges. Some of our kids, not a small number, receive extra food that is essential through the reduced lunch program.
Yes, early on closing schools made sense. We knew very little of the virus. So keeping everybody at home was the right thing to do. Schools have opened around the world and remained such. The current standard seems to be, the last to close and first to open are the schools. If we follow science, this is precisely what we need to do.
Again, I can hear it. But staff will die! We have supermarket clerks who have died. Postal workers have also perished. Are they less important? What about the mental health of youth, who also have attempted suicide in higher numbers? We also now know that the World Health Organization is prioritizing keeping schools open. We also know that European schools are staying open. According to the New York Times:
Around the world, there is mounting concern that the pandemic is doing lasting harm to the academic and emotional development of an entire generation of children.
We have increasing talk of a lost generation. This is also another sign of we can’t that has overtaken us. We are not the first to face this kind of crisis. However, schools need to reopen, and in the past year we have found out how. Yes, teachers (and staff) need to face the demons of that incredible fear of going to work. We know this fear since my husband goes to work every night. Some of my neighbors continue to go to work as well. As to the resiliency of this generation, we know previous generations succeeded, in the face of world wars and pandemics. We need to change the conversation and tell them, they can, and they are not victims.
This is Not Just Schools
We have a group of people who have been incredibly lucky and are able to stay home and work remotely. They tend to be wealthier and also whiter. This is why deaths among minorities are so high, and why the previous administration did not care that much. We know that minorities who are working in person are facing higher infection and death rates than whites of better means who are staying home.
This is showing just how much inequality exists, and the privilege of some to stay home while others work. I share this since I do work from home. However, from time to time we have hit the field to gather news, in person, with masks and gel. Where this is most obvious is not in journalism, but in the financial services industry as well as the computer industry. A lot of the work can be done remotely, and people have done such. These are two industries that can be far better paid than either journalism or education. So in many ways, people are free to be at home and become inured to the fears and passions of people who have to go to work. It helps to create that sense of separation from the struggles of others.
These same people have the technical ability to access vaccines as soon as they are available. While the people who work for them, for example cleaning ladies, can’t afford to miss a day at work, or don’t have the resources to access the vaccines. This is even when they are qualified to do so. Most glaring, rich people will drive anywhere they can get the shots, while the people of the worst affected communities cannot afford to do that.
This is a serious problem because black and brown people are working in-person jobs, getting sick, and dying in higher numbers. This is a crisis of equity, privilege, and perception. It is also a crisis of we can’t. We can’t do a lot of the things we need to do during a global pandemic. People are refusing to wear masks, or claiming that it is a hoax. It is the same who are snaping the vaccines as soon as they can.
As far as schools are concerned. It is the border between cashiers and stockists, and the white-collar job that can be done from home. What we know about schools is that children have lost a year of school. It is not just a grade that many will lose, but socialization, and the ability to go further in their schooling. We understand the virus much better, and we know schools can be opened. In time, financial workers, and programmers, to give two examples, will have to go back to work in an office setting as well. But for the moment, for the sake of our children and young people, schools must be open.
Will it be scary? Yes. I know the fear of bringing this beast home. Or for that matter of losing a life partner to it. We have seen that as long as all wear masks, we can safely do this. In life, there is always a risk. At this point, we must embrace the ethos that took us to the moon or got Perseverance to Mars. This is the idea that we can.