One of the classic shibboleths of the teaching profession has always been if summer vacation were a long weekend, August would be Sunday night, prompting a surge of both anticipation and dread as we shifted gears, preparing for new students, perhaps different classes, while still trying to complete professional development projects, graduate classes and even our own summer reading lists that hadn’t seemed so incredibly ambitious back in June: “The complete works of James Joyce, really? ...what was I thinking?”
While that all seemed sufficiently complicated at the time, in retrospect, those tribulations amounted to almost nothing, so safely ensconced in normal as they were, especially considering what educators are facing now, as schools become embroiled in the same politics that have riven every other aspect of American culture. What every teacher, instructional assistant, principal, superintendent, bus driver and cafeteria worker knows with drop-dead certainty is the smooth operation of school is entirely dependent on planning. And as we have learned the past five months, planning has been in short supply since the beginning of the pandemic.
Every single decision on the federal level has been based on politics rather than good science, medical expertise or health and safety considerations. Carefully thought out recommendations from epidemiologists have been contradicted, undermined or filed away in obscurity if they deviated from the administration’s reelection agenda. Staffed by minions with a legendary dearth of expertise in anything other than nodding agreement, this upper echelon of last responders is headed up by Mike Pence, legendary in the fine art of groveling.
At the behest of their boss, they forged ahead, initially honoring the delusion this was nothing beyond the flu and would be gone by spring, waiting far too long to shut the country down and subsequently urging states to reopen much too soon, as 91,000 (and counting) have since been sacrificed. Mixed messages prevailed leading to universal confusion over myriad issues, including masks, social distancing, crowded bars, beaches and church services. Everything became debatable and which side you took was solely dependent on your political affiliation. The results were catastrophic and now they’re trying to do the same for schools.
In a perfect world, or even a moderately normal one, what should have happened as soon as it became apparent schools would quickly close, transitioning to remote learning, was the formation of a reopening task force, staffed by education professionals charged with developing a systemic national template for safely reopening. Such an initiative would minimally have illuminated the complexities facing principals, superintendents and school boards across the country as they scramble to prepare for something they cannot even yet envision. While the guidance from the federal government amounts to: “Open school, or we’ll cut your funding.” Great. When you have nothing helpful to offer, resort to bullying and see how efficiently that works.
As with everything else, states have been largely left on their own, adrift and disoriented, often delegating the responsibility for school opening to individual districts, which face almost insurmountable challenges, further complicated by what very well could be a life-or-death situation and the pressure to get it right. While there’s generally little dispute over the importance of getting back to our educational routines for a variety of extraordinarily good reasons, precisely how we do that seems far simpler to those unfamiliar with exactly how much precision goes into a regular school day, coronavirus notwithstanding.
Arguably. one of the safest, perhaps even the safest, place in the country, Vermont faces as much confusion and indecision regarding school reopening as anywhere else, further exacerbated by simply not knowing for sure how many students will attend but — even more importantly — how many staff members will call out, take medical leave or even retire. This single issue creates a near insurmountable dilemma with staff members delaying their decisions until they see what configuration their school will roll out while administrators’ vision is completely dependent on what staffing pattern they can rely on.
In an open letter to the community last week, Brigid Nease, superintendent of the Harwood Unified School District, poignantly articulated the desperation facing educational leaders across Vermont: “Public school principals and superintendents have worked tirelessly all summer, foregoing vacation and family time, sweating over each and every detail about how to reopen schools safely.” She goes on to voice the collective frustration of finding reopening plans of various districts “all over the map, vastly different from each other.” as well as “The big elephant in the room — having a workforce to operate.”
Nease’s concerns are reflected in the national confusion aggravated by conflicting recommendations from the White House, pushing schools to reopen completely while hundreds of medical professionals urge states to once again close down in the face of mounting infection rates and hospitalizations. More ominously, reports indicate children and teens can become infected and spread the virus at much higher rates than previously believed.
As responsible officials grimly go about bringing clarity to what America is facing, the ostensible leader of the free world relentlessly touts debunked medical interventions and outrageous conspiracy theories, earlier this week retweeting claims by a doctor who believes disease may result from alien DNA and “demon sperm.” When several obvious questions arose at the newly reincarnated daily COVID-19 briefings on Tuesday, Individual #1, after pouting “nobody likes me,” turned on his heels and left the podium, unwittingly illustrating precisely how our country has gone from being a world leader and beacon of hope to an object of international pity.
Where we go from here is anyone’s guess, and unfortunately, it’s almost Sunday night.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.