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.
Truly caring for the health and well-being of such students during the pandemic would mean extending unemployment benefits, providing rental assistance, and enacting universal health care. The answer is hardly sending vulnerable kids into a building where they could possibly become infected and carry the virus back to communities that have already been disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
Take the example of my school, which has an air ventilation system that’s been on the fritz for more than a decade, insufficient soap or even places to wash your hands, and windows that don’t open. In other words, perfect conditions for spreading a virus. Even if I were given a face shield and ample hand sanitizer, I’d still be stuck in classrooms with far too many students and inadequate air flow. And those are just the physical concerns.
What very few people seem to be considering, no less discussing, is the long-term psychological trauma associated with the spread of the virus. What if I unknowingly infected my students or their family members? What if I brought the virus home to my family and friends? What if I contracted the virus from a student and died? No educator I know believes that online teaching will better serve our students, but stepping back into in-person learning while the virus is still out of control in America will clearly only contribute to its further spread.
Schools are unable to shoulder the burden of this crisis. Politicizing the return to school and pitting parents against teachers — as if many teachers weren’t themselves parents — is a devious way of once again scapegoating those very schools for perennial failures of funding, leadership, and policy. Forty years of the neoliberal version of austerity and divestment from public schools by both Democratic and Republican administrations have ensured that, unlike in many of the wealthiest nations on this planet, public schools in the U.S. don’t have the necessary institutional support, infrastructure, or resources to envision and carry out a safe and effective return to school.
To put all this in perspective, in its budget proposal for 2021, the Trump administration requested $66.6 billion for the Department of Education, $6.1 billion less than in 2020. In contrast, Congress just passed the National Defense Authorization Act authorizing $740 billion in spending for the Defense Department. Even with the proposed allocation of an additional $70 billion dollars for schools in the Republican-backed HEALS Act, the now-stalled second attempt to respond to the spreading pandemic, two-thirds of those funds would only be available to school districts that hold in-person classes. And because a majority of school funding is tied to local and state tax revenues, badly hit by an economy hobbled by the virus, schools will actually be operating on even smaller budgets this year.
It’s as if they want us to fail. Perhaps the most powerful foe of public education in the Trump administration, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, even threatened to withhold federal funding if local school districts decided to resume school totally online this fall. After she was reminded that she didn’t have the authority to do so, she pivoted instead to asking parents to consider other options for their children. That request amounted to encouraging them to pull their children from public schools (depriving them of essential funding) and instead seek out vouchers for private or charter schools.
DeVos didn’t just stop there. In an attempt to redirect funds allocated to low-income students by the CARES Act, Congress’s initial response to the pandemic, she ruled that school districts deciding to use that money for programs that might benefit all students (instead of just low-income students) must also pay for “equitable services” for all private schools in the district. This would potentially siphon up to $1.5 billion dollars of CARES Act money from public to private schools. Such schools have already benefited from Paycheck Protection Program loans that were distributed as part of the CARES Act. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to know that they stand to receive yet more money if anything like the present version of the Senate’s HEALS Act ever passes. It’s easy to see who wins and who loses in such an equation.
The fear and anxiety prompted by uncertainty about how public schools will function in the chaos of this moment is giving way to grassroots decision-making that will adversely affect such basic institutions for the foreseeable future and may even contribute to even more segregated schools. People like me — white, highly educated, and accustomed to having options — are scrambling to figure out individual solutions to problems that would best be solved by community organizing.
Some families are indeed choosing to pull their children out of public schools, enrolling them in online academies, private schools, or simply homeschooling their kids. Others are forming small instructional pods, or micro schools, and hiring private teachers or tutors to educate their kids.
The twisted irony of these developments is that many white people who support the Black Lives Matter movement are making decisions for their own children that will adversely affect Black students for years to come. Declining enrollment and white divestment in public schools will bring about funding shortages and educational disparities sure to undermine whatever gains those protests achieve.
The inevitable result will be more segregated schools, while the gap between the haves and the have-nots only widens. Ultimately, privatization on the smallest scale plays into the desire of those like DeVos who seek to undermine and, in the end, even potentially dismantle public education in favor of private schools and charter schools, which, unsurprisingly enough, were first formed to perpetuate school segregation.
The Survival of Public Schools
Public schools are deeply imperfect institutions. Historically, they’ve perpetuated racial inequities and solidified economic and social disparities. In many ways, they’ve failed all our children on almost every conceivable level. Their funding models are little short of criminal and the lack of resources across the system should have been (but generally wasn’t) considered unconscionable long before the coronavirus struck.
Yet institutions are made up of people and, many of them, myself included, believe that a free public education accessible to all is a foundation for hope in the future. In the end, schools may still prove to be our last best chance for salvaging what’s left of our fractured nation and the promise of democracy. Abandon them now, when they’re under threat at the federal, state, and grassroots level, and you imperil the fate of the nation.
Needed today are creative solutions that put the focus on the most vulnerable of our children. Perhaps enlisting our nation’s retirees, many of whom are currently isolated at home, to help small groups of students, or launching a civilian corps of the currently unemployed, paid to step in to rebuild critical public school infrastructure or provide supplementary support and tutoring for kids who might otherwise be left behind, would help. I know there are creative solutions out there that don’t just benefit the most privileged among us, that could, in fact, focus on the most marginalized students. Now is the time to be creative, not to withdraw from the system. Now is the time to pool resources, while amplifying the voices of students, parents, and families historically not invited into such conversations.
Long-term divestment in public education has brought America’s schools to a dangerous crossroads, where mistrust of science and expert advice is threatening the very fabric of this nation. The only way out of this mess is to reverse the tide. Do we really want to be governed by fear and self-imposed scarcity? Do we really want the gears of institutional racism to grind on, whether virtually or in person? It’s time to act more collectively, to truly put the “public” back in public schools. It’s time to set partisanship aside to protect all our children as we navigate the unknown and unknowable.
As I prepare for an academic year unlike any other, I expect to watch with terror as many of our nation’s schools, woefully unprepared, open in the midst of a pandemic. Exhausted and heartbroken, I will worry nonstop about the students and teachers walking through those doors.
Belle Chesler, a TomDispatch regular, is a visual arts teacher at a public school in Beaverton, Oregon.
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Copyright 2020 Belle Chesler