An Acceptable Loss

An Acceptable Loss

As school districts prepare to reopen with a pandemic still raging, the argument for doing so is simply that the loss of life is unavoidable and must be accepted as inevitable.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

An Acceptable loss is a military euphemism for casualties or destruction inflicted by the enemy that is considered minor or tolerable. It’s a mathematical calculation used to determine the risk of failure against the reward of victory. It is, by nature, an intellectual exercise, and not one for the faint of heart, better suited to a computer algorithm than to anyone with the flicker of a soul. It is a risk assessment concerned with achieving an objective based on the capricious cost of human life.

Consequently, there is no argument for reopening schools, in the middle of deadly pandemic, with cases as rampant and widespread as they are in America, than that those in power have decided that in order to maintain the status quo, to remain in power, that a certain number of us are going to have to die, for them to achieve their goals.

There are in fact times that call for the sacrifice of the few, in order to protect the many. It’s never an easy call. Sealing off a damaged compartment to a submarine, for instance, essentially sentencing those inside to death, in order to save the ship and the rest of the sailors on board, is sometimes, a fact of life for sailors. 

In this case, however, we are being asked to sacrifice the many in order to protect the few; to surrender the least of these, to protect the privileged among us.

In many cases, it is not as heartless as it appears, but that is only out of ignorance, and a failure of leadership. Many school administrators no doubt believe that they’ve been told and assume that children are far less at risk than adults, that some children will die anyway, regardless of what we do, and that in order to survive, we must soldier on. The question then becomes, what are we risking death to achieve?

Seth Abramson, an attorney, author and educator writes:

Pedagogy is a word we use in education to describe not just what is taught in schools but how it’s taught. One of the reasons Americans want their kids back in school in the first instance is that face-to-face teaching pedagogies are considered preferable.

Here’s the problem: your kids—if they return to school—aren’t going to get the face-to-face pedagogies that make face-to-face learning effective. In short, American parents are feeling nostalgia for a form of teaching that—as long as the pandemic is ongoing—doesn’t exist.

Face-to-face learning is valuable in part because kids can:

        1. Learn to collaborate by working in groups.
        2. Move about freely to different learning stations.
        3. Work with a variety of different media.
        4. Balance work and play with recess time.
        5. Learn community-building skills.

Everything I just mentioned is gone now. Mid-pandemic, here’s what face-to-face schools look like:

        1. Kids unable to leave their desks.
        2. Kids unable to work in groups.
        3. Kids unable to go to recess/the cafeteria.
        4. Kids unable to do learning requiring more space than a desk.

There is no evidence whatsoever that kids can or do learn better in school than at home when they are sitting at their desks for six hours straight, and working on solo projects whose dynamism is severely curtailed by the geography and community they are permitted to inhabit.

The big reward therefore—the actual value of in-school instruction—has all but vanished, and what was once an optimal learning environment is no longer as effective as it was pre-covid. There is no return to normalcy in the midst of the pandemic, so what are we risking life and limb for?

We are being asked to risk everything for purely political reasons, and it’s really not any more complicated than that. If this were merely a public health crisis, we would be following the original CDC guidelines and not the watered down, politically-motivated codswallop now being offered up by the White House. The schools would remain shut down and the government would pay everyone to stay home until cases dropped below acceptable, trackable levels. 

Instead, students are being encouraged to attend school for in-class instruction, while also given the option to choose remote-learning instead, if their families so choose. This is assuming that their parents do not have to work, or that they can afford private daycare. Many private schools are not re-opening for in-school instruction, and many families of means will keep their children at home, or are engaging in what are known as “pandemic pods,” privately funded, home-school collectives offering 3-10 students private tutoring in a home environment. 

Public school teachers, administrators, and support staff on the other hand, are being told to report for duty or be terminated, unless they can provide a doctor’s note claiming they have a legitimate medical exemption. This seems somewhat preposterous since no human being on the planet has a natural immunity to the coronavirus, giving everyone alive a pre-existing condition that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19, and where death is a possible outcome.

Then there are the teachers who have school-age children themselves, being asked to work four days in the classroom while their children only go to school for two. 

“I will potentially be exposed to germs from students and staff,” explains one teacher who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal for speaking out. “Then I’ll turn around and bring that home to my children, and my children will bring that back to their classrooms. How is that safe? On top of which, I have to worry about what will happen if I have to leave my children home to learn on their own. They are not yet at an age where this will be an effective program, but they are also too old for day care. Leaving my older children to care for younger ones at home is not practical, or safe. There should be the option for those who need to, to do what’s best for our families.”

The reality is, no aspect of our education system was designed for social distancing, from school buses to classrooms, cafeterias to athletics. We simply weren’t built to handle this. Not our facilities. Not our social structures. Not our children.

“The district sent out a survey asking teachers if they were uncomfortable about teaching in-person,” explained another teacher who also wished to remain anonymous. “I wish they would have surveyed parents and teachers, asking not just whether we were comfortable, but whether in the event that we would be forced to do remote instruction this school year, what equipment, training, or assistance we would you need to make that happen? Do you need childcare or supervisory assistance? If you have multiple children in your home, do you have multiple chrome books and adequate WiFi service, etc.”

Other countries have appeared to have reopened their schools without widespread outbreaks, but in every case, their numbers were a mere fraction of our own, they had faster, more efficient, and more readily available testing, as well as complex contact-tracing already in place before they resumed in-school instruction.

We are playing a dangerous game, with an unknown virus, an unprecedented scenario, and no national plan. We literally have no idea what is going to happen. We have asked local school districts to come up with their own plan to deal with a deadly disease that our state and national governments seem to be at a loss to control. We are asking teachers and administrators to take their individual knowledge of math and science, English and art, and to become public health experts and infectious disease specialists.

On top of everything else, you have a sizable percent of the population that refuses to believe that the pandemic is real, or poses any sort of realistic threat. They refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing and are a threat to their community every time they go out into the world. This is a politically-driven phenomenon that is exacerbating a public health crisis.

Again, Seth Abramson writes:

What happens if your child’s teacher gets sick? Do you—does anyone—think a random substitute teacher can be placed before your child’s class for the next three months and do anything like the job your child’s original teacher could do teaching your child remotely?

What happens if one kid in your kid’s class of 20 students gets sick? Do you—does anyone—believe that the class won’t immediately go remote anyway, as every kid (and his or her teacher) must now quarantine 14 days? These classes are ticking clocks—all of them.

How do you socially distance kids on a school bus? Many parents will be unable to drive their kids to school—and there’s no way to keep six feet of social distancing (the minimum CDC guideline) on a bus. And kids can spend 20 to 50 minutes daily on school buses.

Why would we put our precious kids in what the CDC says is the most dangerous environment for COVID-19 transmission—by far—in America? That is, an a) indoor space, b) in which many are congregating, c) for a long time, d) with limited or problematic ventilation.

The responses to these queries offered by COVID-19 deniers are preposterous. For instance some will say, “Kids get sick and miss school—it happens.” No—just no. COVID-19 is 5 to 10 times deadlier than the flu, is 2 to 3 times more contagious, and lasts for weeks longer.

No one has all the solutions to a problem that no one has even had to tackle before. We are quite literally in unprecedented times. But if you’re going to make a risk assessment, the benefit has to outweigh the risk or you simply don’t proceed. That’s basic logic. 

This is not a military campaign we’re talking about. The actors did not sign up for mortal combat. This is a public health crisis, not a political battleground, and we must act with the best interest of the people involved in mind. We don’t need to hear from the 70-year-old business owner about what his thoughts are on the safety of school-age children and the people who teach them.

The Greatest Generation is a term used to describe those Americans who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II. They are often referred to as a generation of hardy souls that overcame great obstacles and helped to make this country great. 

“The effects of the Great Depression on schools began in 1932,” writes Lydia Koning, “prompting budget cutbacks that led to reductions in school hours, increased class sizes, lower teacher salaries, and school closings. Schools and districts had to be creative in saving funds; some got rid of cafeterias, cut courses like music, foreign language, and sports programs, or stopped providing school supplies to students.”

“Young people began to stay in school longer as employment was increasingly hard to find, resulting in more students seeking an education in under-resourced schools. Teachers struggled to teach undernourished children whose families were struggling with unemployment. Despite these challenges, the 1930’s were a ‘vibrant time for literature for both young people and adults.’ Some examples of this literature were Dick and Jane readers, Nancy Drew, Dr. Seuss, Ernest Hemingway, Wallace Stevens, Agatha Christie, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, and more.”

We are not in a depression, at least not at the moment, and we are not involved in a world war, for the time being, but we are in a dire crisis. That still does not mean that we can not find a way to educate our children without putting them in harm’s way. 

Not a single life should be deemed an acceptable loss when we have the technology and resources of modern America at our disposal. We have children living in poverty and uncertainty every day in America that deal with far more trauma and disruption, but we had done next to nothing to remedy that before we ever heard of COVID-19. 

America is a resilient country and children are resilient creatures. We can overcome many obstacles and do more than maintain, we can excel. What we can’t do is accept the devaluing of human life, any life, for the sake of political expediency and economic stability.

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