The madness of school openings as a zero-sum game
The omicron COVID-19 surge and its record number of pediatric infections and hospitalizations have reignited the debate over in-person schooling. A drumbeat of national commentary insists we should keep children in school at all costs, as if it were a zero-sum game.
The New York TimesDavid Leonhardt said school closures result in “more harm for children in exchange for less harm for adults”. Bloomberg columnist Michael Strain complaints that remote learning is a “massive failure” and so costly to the economy that “even if the number of new omicron cases breaks pandemic records, students should stay in classrooms.” Emily Oster, professor of economics at Brown University controversial throughout the pandemic for its use of school data to push in-person schooling, said virtual learning causes such “toxic stress” that students should be in school even though there “will be in some transmissions at school, no matter how cautious we are.”
More Michelle D. Holmes
As a physician and epidemiologist advising several community and educational groups throughout the pandemic, I have heard many variations of these arguments. I was troubled by them for several reasons.
One is the win-lose framing of the issue. It’s as if the children were all on one side of the scale and the adults on the other. Or as if academic success and socialization were on one side of the scale and the risk of infection was on the other. Or as if public health were on one side of the scale and the economy on the other. Or as if remote learning is a disaster and in-person teaching is salvation.
Instead of a sophisticated thought that begins with the fact that everyone is suffering, the current zero-sum paradigm emphasizes the suffering of children while the needs of adult parents, workers and teachers are not a consideration. Ageism expert Margaret Gullette postulates that a major reason for the nation to slow down The initial response to COVID-19 was because it was “only” the elderly who died first in nursing homes. During the first half of the pandemic, 80% of deaths from COVID were among people aged 65 or over.
Either/or thinking is a hallmark of white supremacist culture, which maintains the status quo of those who are already privileged.
Although seniors are now highly immunized, notable deaths from COVID have struck many seniors, such as the late military leader and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Gulette dispute that ageism, the last acceptable prejudice, occurs long before the age of 65. This is certainly evident, as teachers in their 20s to 60s are outraged in many cities at being forced into overcrowded, poorly ventilated classrooms without proper safety protocols. . Many of them have children and parents at home that they don’t want to infect. Yet former New York mayor and media mogul Michael Bloomberg said schools should be open “five days a week, no exceptions [my emphasis].”
Either/or thinking is also a characteristic of white supremacy culture, which maintains the status quo of those who are already privileged. I find it curious that Leonhardt, Strain, Oster and Bloomberg, none of whom is known as a racial justice leader, all now cite the disproportionate academic and social suffering of black and Latino or low-income children as primary reasons for in-person schooling, despite the historical presence of such disparities. Nowhere in their arguments do they cite voices of color sharing their view. The voices of older people and people at high risk of exposure in their work are also not evident.
Similarly, at many local consultative sessions, I have heard white parents and board members frequently cite the suffering of black and Latino children, even though black and Latino parents have always been the the most reluctant to send their children back to in-person learning during the pandemic. The reasons for this reluctance are so obvious and complicated that they cast a caustic glance at the agenda of those who would force them back into classrooms.
As an academic myself, of course, I think keeping schools open is a priority, far more important than keeping bars, restaurants and sports venues open. But nowhere in the arguments of white advocates of in-person schooling is there a respectful acknowledgment of the legitimate fears of parents of color about how COVID-19 can devastate their lives.
None of them are transparent in noting how safer white parents feel sending their children to school because the consequences of infections are mitigated by better basic health and less multigenerational family structures. None of them note that educated white parents feel safer because they themselves are at less risk of infection than they are. more likely to be able to work from home than the average black or Latino worker.
White parents don’t fear the loss of their children or the specter of orphanhood for their children the way parents and grandparents of color do. For all talk about children’s ability to generally resist the virus, black and indigenous children are 3.5 times and 2.7 times, respectively. more likely to die of COVID-19 than white children.
Nowhere in the arguments of white advocates of in-person schooling is there a respectful acknowledgment of the legitimate fears of parents of color.
In one study published last month in the journal Pediatrics, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that black, Latino and Asian children are twice as likely as white children to live with a grandparent, who often serves as a caregiver. While the population of the United States is 39% of color, 65% of children who lose their primary caregivers to COVID-19 were of color. Black and Latino children were twice as likely to lose a parent or caregiver to COVID as a white child, and Indigenous children were four and a half times more likely than a white child to lose a parent or caregiver .
Many parents of color are also reluctant because, in this moment of racial reckoning, the awareness is greater than ever that in-person schooling itself is chronically infected with inferiority. Like a Washington Post room reported, Black, Latino and Asian homeschooling has increased among parents concerned about low self-esteem due to relentless Eurocentric historical narratives and disproportionate discipline from teachers and principals labeling Black and Latino children as more violent .
But instead of wrestling with this well-founded reluctance, some white elites are saying paternally that families of color need to be convinced to send their children back to school. They all say they know what’s best for black and Latino kids than the parents of those kids. Certainly, they are joined in this lack of parental respect by some black mayors, such as Lori Lightfoot of Chicago and New York City. Eric Adams, who recently stated, “For poor, black and brown kids who don’t have access to some of the basics, school is the best place for you.”
The thought either/or does not allow the possibility of thinking both/and. Undoubtedly, many black, Latino, and poor children have suffered disproportionately from online learning. And yet, when you add up all the risk factors, many families of color see online learning as the best of the bad options. This is reflected in the position of the Alliance for Quality Education in New York State, whose mission is to end “systemic racism and economic oppression” in public schools across the state. Last week, as Adams pushed for in-person classes, the organization said in a press release, “There is no one-size-fits-all solution to learning during COVID…We want parents and students to decide for themselves the best option to keep their families safe. With l increase in cases, we must not push for only one option at the expense of the safety of students and the safety of their families. It is high time that a remote option was made available to families who, naturally do not feel comfortable sending their children to school during a pandemic.
Amid widespread condemnation of distance learning, The Christian Science Monitor last year made a reflection room about school districts nationwide that have found remote learning to have intriguing benefits. They include bridging the digital divide, as every student had of having a device, increasing the availability of tutoring and mental health checks, reducing academic losses from school suspensions, and providing flexibility in parent-teacher meetings for parents with work schedules difficult. In short, when used effectively, distance learning can be a move away from cookie-cutter education. As Lincoln, Nebraska, Superintendent of Public Schools Steve Joel told the To watch“I think we have learned to better individualize and differentiate teaching. I think we’ve always been good at it, but I think we’ve become much better at it.
Typically, when I hear white influencers calling for in-person schooling with no other option, I hear less of a genuine concern for the welfare of black and brown children and more of a thinly veiled agenda for white families to bring back their children at home. academics and extracurricular activities that complement their college applications, or for elite white parents to continue their careers smoothly.
I hear echoes of when white Southern and Heartland governors kept their economies “open” in the spring of 2020 on the backs of service workers and meat packers who were disproportionately colored. I mean a society that has been slow to deal with the devastation that has swept through the solution-seeking elderly community that continues to declare large groups of people expendable. None of the factors that make particular populations vulnerable to the worst outcomes of COVID infections have gone away, from age to health disparities to environmental injustice.
What I hear is a movement that only hears what it wants to hear to maintain its privileges of whiteness and class, while families of color, seniors and school workers continue to deal with the worst effects of COVID in relative silence. This zero-sum game is madness. The economy cannot thrive if people are too sick to participate. Children cannot thrive if the adults around them suffer. Whatever solutions society offers, it must involve everyone around the table being able to share their priorities, not one side unilaterally declaring what is safe and most important.