Comment: U.S. botched school year; parents should be furious

A lax response by federal leaders left us unprepared to return students to the classroom this fall.

By Dana Stevens / The Washington Post

The happiest day in my household since the pandemic started — maybe the only truly happy one — was the Wednesday in mid-March when we found out on the New York City Department of Education website that my daughter, then in eighth grade, had been accepted at LaGuardia High School for the performing arts. I cried, she danced, we picked up a cake at the bakery and spent that night watching “Fame.”

From then until the end of the school year, we lived the life that families with school-aged children are sick of living and everyone else is sick of hearing about: a miasma of sleeplessness, squabbling, incessant interruptions and multiple simultaneous glitching Zooms. My low point came when, on a short break from an unskippable work call, I went to the kitchen to retrieve my cold, abandoned coffee and had to step over my kid, who was crying on the floor about algebra. As someone who melted down over math problems throughout my adolescence, I was sympathetic, but the most I could offer were a few words of comfort and a promise to look at the assignment with her later. (At which point I would be the one crying on the floor.)

We were, and are, incredibly lucky: None of us, and no one in our extended family, has gotten the virus. My spouse and I are able to do our jobs from home, though in one case with a significant pay cut. We have broadband access and enough functional devices to do Zoom school and work at the same time. Still, that semester of online schooling was a miserable experience that we would all give anything never to have to repeat.

Nearly five months later, though, it’s become apparent that the Trump administration’s abject negligence means we’re about to repeat it anyway. The implicit bargain of the spring was that if everyone complied with the shutdowns, the isolation, the social distancing, the working-while-parenting disasters and the rest, the government would use that time to build enough testing, tracing and public health infrastructure so that students could safely go back to school in person in the fall.

Instead, having utterly failed to contain the virus, the administration is now employing the crafty tactic of attempting to draw attention away from the pandemic – as if we could be distracted out of noticing that we can no longer safely leave our homes, we have no functioning public institutions (libraries, museums, schools), we have lost more than 141,000 American lives, and we are well on our way into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

I can’t be the only parent who finds containing my anger about this to be a full-time job on top of the two I’m already performing poorly. So many of us did everything the government asked, and officials responded by doing … nothing. After a “Groundhog Day” summer of no camp, no vacations, no sleepovers, no public pools, nothing to do with our children but wanly suggest another game of Scrabble, it turns out that the plan for getting them back to school was as vaporous as the rest of the coronavirus policy all along.

Early on, the administration shrugged its responsibility off onto the states, leaving Americans with a wildly inconsistent patchwork of policies that varied according to their governors’ political affiliations, the population’s trust in science and the degree to which their states had shut down, or not. Now, with case numbers rising in 44 out of 50 states, the White House, abruptly abandoning its always spotty commitment to federalism, has begun issuing marching orders about opening schools full-time and on schedule, masks and social distancing be damned. In a classic bit of Trump gaslighting, not only has any hope for increased school funding dematerialized, but the administration earlier threatened to defund individual school districts if they don’t comply with the order to reopen.

As late summer closes in, there’s a special flavor of rage as parents realize that we’re now being forced to advocate for the very outcome that, a few weeks ago, we were hoping against hope to avoid: keeping school all-online in the fall. However far from ideal this may be, we can at least be sure that our kids, their teachers and the staff at their schools — who should get radical pay increases for the risks they’re likely to assume — would stay safe and healthy.

Since the spring, my family has engaged in thought experiments in which we talk about everything we would be willing to sacrifice in exchange for other outcomes. We agree, for example, that we would give up even our current limited interactions with the world — daily dog walks, weekly grocery runs, the occasional masked-and-distanced walk in the park with a friend — if it meant my daughter could attend the school of her dreams in person.

In those first days, when the lilac was blooming outside and the only goal on the horizon was to shamble through to the end of the semester, this seemed like the kind of bargain that atheists in foxholes have been known to strike with God: an abstract “you give me this, I’ll give you that” transaction. Now it’s clear that on a larger societal plane, this is precisely the deal we have all been making every day in real life, though with the terms reversed. What we chose as a country — or rather, what was chosen for us by an administration seemingly committed to chaos and entropy as governing principles — was to jeopardize the future of public education while prioritizing the opening of restaurants, bars and Home Depots, a chain the Trumpist governor of Florida has cited as a model for school openings, as if Americans had a long tradition of sending our children en masse to spend 40-plus hours a week in the aisle next to the garden tools.

If we were willing, right now, to collectively agree to give up other activities for a time — according to many epidemiologists, a hard six-week lockdown plus rigorous public masking would do it — we could lower infection rates enough to open schools safely, as other countries (Taiwan, South Korea, Denmark, Italy, Germany, France) are doing. If the U.S. government were willing to put more of the tax dollars Americans forked over this year (perhaps with some resentment, given how little we can trust the feds to spend it wisely now) toward overhauling schools for the coronavirus era, every child, teacher and staffer could be supplied with masks or face shields, well-ventilated facilities big enough to allow adequate spacing, and extra in-school support for the physical and psychic trauma unique to this anxious moment in history.

Prioritizing schools in this way would be a universal public good, even for Americans with no children and no connection to the school system. Set aside the enormous significance of education for children’s enrichment, socialization and health; just getting them out of the house during the week would allow parents to start returning to work full time. That would put more money into a struggling economy and lighten the load on their child-free co-workers.

Everyone wants this to happen, if it can happen safely. Yet as summer wears on, parents sound increasingly wary about sending kids back full time. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll this past week found that most Americans are concerned that reopening schools for in-person learning will lead to a coronavirus surge, and 35 percent of parents think they shouldn’t open at all. Another 41 percent of parents think they should only open with “major adjustments.” My daughter’s school-to-be recently gave families an early August deadline to choose all-online or “blended” classes for the fall. We’re hesitating, keeping an eye on the city’s case numbers as we weigh the familiar misery of Zoom against the incalculable risk of contracting or spreading a potentially fatal disease. Whichever we go with, we will no doubt spend the semester wondering if we harmed either our child’s education or our community’s health by not picking the other option.

After putting our lives on hold for what, by the time school starts, will be nearly half a year, parents and teachers are now in the position of fighting tooth and nail for an outcome we never wanted. Most of us are resigned to go back to the hell of online learning, because the only alternative our leaders have left us with is even worse. Their baldfaced abandonment of American families is only one reason among many to wake up every morning ablaze with righteous anger. But at the moment, it’s my favorite.

Dana Stevens is the movie critic at Slate and a co-host of two Slate podcasts, the Culture Gabfest and Flashback. Her book “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema and the Invention of the 20th Century” is forthcoming in fall 2021.

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