Distance Learning, Disrupted Learning & Social Eruptions

On a morning walk, my mind turning to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s injunction to exercise, I daily move between the many signs posted outside houses in my neighborhood congratulating graduates of the Berkeley CA public high school my daughter attends or Oakland’s School of the Arts and Tech, ending among million dollar homes sporting yard signs congratulating graduates of elite private schools. This is America, and not uncommon. The path I take traces yawning shifting divides of public schooling across America in the most blasé of ways. The uneven distribution of different schools barely conceals the deep divisions between schools and families seems to widen in terrifying ways as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the nation. While we are shocked to learn that Donald Trump delayed informing the nation about coronavirus not to panicked markets, the lack of school policies stood only to magnify existing fracture lines: for the failure to provide any overarching vision left school districts with the football as decision makers they are unequipped to assess of learning requirements in remote settings of learning, and to bear the weight of difficulties in shaping remote learning programs without training.

Ill-equipped boards are asked to struggle in high pressure situations with finding ways of engaging students increasingly removed from one another or instructional settings. Increasingly, states are offering regional guidelines, but the absence of a national policy may rupture public trust with the very schools on which the nation most depends, now treated as swimming in a laissez-faire sea without guidesposts in an already disrupted educational setting, raising questions of graduations, requirements, baselines of school performance, or even study habits and the value of coursework and requirements for diplomas or graduation, as the educational market long an unqualified good in America stands to erode.

But if this might have been an opportunity for collective response, we have no evidence of any preparation to supplement what school networks offer, as if those who can afford the private tutors, off-site education, and private educational services are alone provided with continuing education, as other scramble to make up the gaps school closures create. Unprepared with a broader educational strategy in the midsized of a global pandemic, we have all in essence “left the library” of schools, pausing education or switching the nation onto a disembodied experience, that makes the old physical globes of schoolroom study seem emblems of a far less complicated past, when global topographies lay undisturbed beside books in cozy nooks, waiting, as it were, for new fingers to turn it with curiosity, while more and more schools are compelled to remain on the remote learning platforms to which they gradually shifted en masse over the month of March, 2020.

U.S. News & World Report/Bret Zeigler
Confirmed COVID-19 Cases, March 2020

The status of education–and of school closures and now school reopening–became a sort of political football. Despite the readiness of a switch to remote learning and online platforms of education, school closures echoed a cartography of abandonment, in unforgivable ways: if closures were born of necessity, and disorientation before the pandemic’s spread. And the levels of insecurity that have been fostered in the desire for mitigation may remind us that the problem of COVID-19 has been a crisis of public education, as much as a lack of frontline workers’ protective equipment–PPE–or adequate testing.

To be sure, the many functions that schools now provide across the social spectrum of the United States–meeting nutritive needs; offering social and emotional support and providing models outside the family for structuring time; minimal levels of health services–go far beyond being quantified by educational standards: by a magic trick of tests and quantification, government may have reduced education to metrics that erased their value as sites of community from the Bush administration, and led them to be sacrificed with deeper costs than many have registered. Without metric to tally schools’ dividends to students and communities, we omit the crucial educational role of instructing about coronavirus comportments–from regular hand washing to social distancing to mask-wearing, to bridge some of the enduring divides that have endured in the nation, with coastal “elites” donning masks more than the “heartland” of an expansive non-urbanized midwest.

Mapbox from Dynata Data/Upshot, New York Times July 17, 2020 (link to interactive map)

Is not the deep and tragic failure to not “educate” the nation to mask-wearing, sustained since the first cases of the coronavirus reached our shores, suggested the only the initial hot-spots where infections ravaged communities in the New York tristate area, Seattle, the Imperial Valley and coastal California, and central Texas are sites of mask-wearing, with Chicago, Detroit, Denver, the southwestern border and coastal southern Florida and Tallahassee. Only a fifth of the time or less were all five people who might meet at a large part of the nation likely to be wearing protective masks.

Why is such a paucity of mask-wearing continuing save an absence of public health education? There is a predictable if terrifying congruence with areas that were themselves, by the proxy of underserved medical communities Mitchell Thornson mapped, also by a Mapbox distribution of commute-based health centers, rather than by counties, to suggest the sites most vulnerable to disasters such as viral infections: even if the promise of a complete count of infections recedes, the inhabitants of some 300 counties underserved by federal health services suggests fault lines of future sites of vulnerability, that may accentuate with continued school closures.

Mitchell Thorson, clinics in counties medically underserved and vulnerable to disasters. featured in USA Today, March 31, 2020

These steep inequalities of health care suggested a very broad difference in those able to weather and sustain COVID-19, to which the Trump administration seemed blind. School closures created insecurities for American families was perhaps not different from globally, but they lacked any support network: social support had withdrawn to schools in the United States more than other nations. The lack of any narrative of the sudden closures, and interruption of human contact and resources that followed, were deeply disorienting. And the lack of oversight from a government that one expected, perhaps with little grounds, to provide a sense of purpose and oversight in an unprecedented health crisis was, unbelievably, punted to the states, and from the states to local school boards, utterly unprepared to cope or plan–as admittedly, even are many medical specialists and health professionals–with the scale of a pandemic.

It seemed like a charade of government effectiveness; Secretary DeVos shifted from leniency, lack of coordination, to steadfastness concealing unprecedented circumstances. And the recent possibility that private schools and sites of instruction will be allowed to open their doors, while poorly funded public schools serving adjoining communities, if sometimes distinct demographics: whereas public schools that serve up to 90% of American children–just short of 51 million (50.8) by federal projections–open for restricted hours if at all, private schools possess the needed funding for on-staff epidemiologists, thermal scanners, and additional teachers–as well as often enjoying more space.

The Emoji Icon Index tells at that on Instagram, the story of a skyrocketing use of the  😷 emoji from early March, as the. Face-with-Medical-Mask rose in use in parallel to the icon of the virus, but a plan for schools, quickly shuttered in China, was not imagined, as wishful thinking prevailed.

While our nation is prepared to react to the novel coronavirus by high-level cabinet meetings to bail out airlines after summoning executives or the bail out of banks, school are evidently far lower down the list. If Donald Trump prioritized cabinet-level meetings on bailing out the airline industries to ensure the Dept. of Treasury provided passenger airlines $25 billion, cargo haulers $4 billion, airports $10 billion and airline contractors $3 billion as industry lobbyists demanded to recognize a 95% reduction of passengers in response to the epidemic, saw meeting with executives to work out that deal worth the time of health officers and coronavirus response team–

–while he saw no similar body of school executives with whom he might meet in one room around a glistening desk with nametags, mugs of coffee and glasses of water. A past President of the P.T.A. of an Alameda CA public elementary school was familiar with reduced funding of California’s public schools since rollbacks on property taxes, smarted at the clear contrast of inability to prioritize public schooling as part of our national infrastructure. Is it not most probable that the very corporate structure of the airline industry provides a more familiar set of faces to interact earning high incomes, unlike the leaders of the dispersed structure of public schools, or community voices, that Trump is so much more apt to dismiss and neglect?

Or is it that the nation is ready to sacrifice the public schools that are less likely to have the funding, save in wealthier districts in Durham, NC or Charlottesville, VA, echoing lines of a deep class divide? Not only were private schools prepared to devote attention and benefited from technological resources to transition to online platforms in the Spring, but are able to use larger buildings and reduced class sizes to benefit the children who attend them, while the aging ventilations systems of older buildings of public schools lie on the other side of a technological divide that plagues the nation.

To be sure, there are deep discrepancies–informing the Mapbox Upshot map, of which one might be rightly suspicious given the potentially unsound sampling practices based on the interviews conducted by Dynata, both in the United States and globally,  based on 250,000 survey responses between July 2 and July 14; the surveys administered by a firm boasting to provide businesses with a sense of global trends of consumption able to reorient businesses and advertisers to “re-opening,” but while showing vast expanses with relatively lower incidence of a group of five wearing masks–

–fails to acknowledge a rift among state governors who recommend masks, rather than require mask-wearing–or the considerable role that mayors have consistently played in advocating mask-wearing, if they often appear over-ruled by governors who have been filling the absence of federal policy: the looses of “recommendations” in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Oklahoma, Kansas and the Nebraskas meant that only in some cities, where mayors had advised protective measures, was mask-wearing adopted, creating a terrifying prospect for the pandemic’s future.

When Fauci addressed the question of health disparities between race, he reminded the nation stoically that “we are not going to solve the issues of health disparities this month or next month . . . but what we can do now, today,” the voice of reason was probably far less reasonable for many, who had already tuned out, before he described the need for social distancing that was, in fact, a privilege for many. The mottled nature of northeastern communities the Dynata found in its interviews suggested an uneven terrain of mask-wearing policies, even in the Tristate Area, dictated by individual choice–and underscoring the lack of regional or federal policies.

The social topography of crowding, of second homes and of gardens or access to parks that was revealed in the Bay Area made us think in practical terms to egregious inequities that were perpetuated by sustained lack of investment to resolve pronounced racial disparities in health came as COVID-19–and the uneven landscape revealed as the coronavirus tore through communities where it was contracted in the United States. The revelation of inequalities was striking, as it suggested how communities experienced it quite differently, and the question of access to education–and access to remote education–cut across social divides in profoundly different ways.

The almost purposeful pronounced lack of master narrative in confronting COVID-19 was long apparent. President Trump, grasping for authority as a true authoritarian playbook, argued the situation demands force, as his removed son-in-law, the dauphin Jared Kushner, spun 60,000 deaths from COVID-19 as a “great success story,” as if to challenge the nation’s personal narratives with a monolithic storyline of a disconnect from communities which were ravaged by hospitalizations. In claiming his father-in-law created a “pathway to safely open up this great country,” Kushner radiated overconfidence as he painted a future as rosy as the marble atrium of Trump Tower, even when the figures didn’t add up. It was akin to Trump’s 1993 proclamation, after huddling with bankruptcy lawyers to obtain new lines of credit, having had “the most successful year I’ve had in business!”–he reprised in a compulsive act of boosterism over the next decade, and continues to rely upon in the pandemic.

The dauphin Jared had not only used a spilt infinitive, but a split reality, a divergence destined to make the Presidential Election about COVID-19, whose malevolence is hard not to say: as the growth of rates of infection by the novel coronavirus most rapidly grew in the United States, claims Trump was doing “things right” with coronavirus testing plummeting to 30% percent, over twenty-five million unemployed and further furloughs coming, and one million infected by the coronavirus and 60,000 dead in a month, hardly fit narratives that suggest “great success,” even as the rates of infection from the coronavirus may have by mid-March grown greater in the United States than any place in the world, as escalating infection rates would continue to elevate the United States far beyond other nations. The manifestation of symptoms of COVID-19 grew two weeks after contracted, and by late March through late June, they had risen above all other nations.

Yet no clear plan for school closures had emerged on a national level in the United States, and denial at the danger of the infection’s growth dominated. Vice President Pence adopted similar talking points, in a few months, taking it upon himself to bestow premature congratulations that “we slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, we saved lives,” in a mismatch evident to any map in news media, but to the actuality on the ground.

The cognitive dissonance of telling the nation we were in “a much better place” concealed more than a crisis in public health. If Max Weber described a legitimate sovereign state exercizes a monopoly on the exercise of violence in its borders, the state of Trump seemed to have sanctioned the spread of COVID-19 across the nation: although maps have ceased to mark sovereignty in a globalized world, and data visualizations based on counties or national communities barely capture the effects of the coronavirus or may illuminate its pathways of infection, the data visualizations of the spread of COVID-19 reveal a weird from of state-sanctioned violence. To be sure, violence that was openly or tacitly sanctioned by the state has grown against migrants, against minorities, and against deported in Trump’s America–and often as a form of legitimation, or celebrated its legitimation. The absent advice from overhead was evident as school districts in Los Angeles and San Diego joined Miani, Washington, DC, Seattle, and elsewhere even as New York schools stayed open, and confusion reigned, with 21,000 schools shuttered, and fifteen million students told of temporary shutterings for “short-term closures” of two to six weeks, which grew to two months–as CDC issued “School Decision Trees,” suggesting limited closures of several days, and in cases where spread was not evident, teaching and reinforcing health hygiene,” with a premium on “social distancing,” but little sense of assistance in developing local decision-making or of how the districts might best serve families in the case of eventual closures of all schools–or of brokering the different stake-holders involved in schools, save a sort of flowchart for reasonable response. But the algorithms were oddly removed from educational practice.

March 13, 2020

But the sanctioned violence that the absence of public health system in the United States suggests a state-sanctioned violence of unprecedented scale: if the limitation of violence to a sovereign state distinguished sovereignty for Weber, within the process of its legitimation, the encouragement of COVID-19’s spread suggest a bizarrely uncanny exercise of power that indulgences in the state’s absence of control over health care, and outright deception of the nation. The picture of the effects of the coronavirus-related deaths and infections have presented a picture of violence wrought by an absence of adequate health-care, lack of protective gear, lack of preventive measures, and a lack of testing needed to better convince infection rates and map their spread.

The pressure that the absence of an executive policy placed on local mayors to maintain a sense of the equity and peace was unduly onerous. Available statistics of hospitalization and mortality of those infected, we registered or revealed a predominance of black victims, reinforcing the lack of investment or attention to black bodies deaths in counties, neighborhoods, and communities: the stories of how community members arrived in the emergency rooms, finding all other infected were also blacks or were minorities, in many cities, heightened as sense of exclusion and targeting. If mainstream news attributed higher rate of chronic conditions in minority communities from hypertension to asthma, often environmentally triggered, the inequities of the disease were not clearly addressed. It increasingly seemed to reflect the possibility we had creating different parallel realities to live, not open to all.

The steep inequities on which that split reality was fractured was reinforced in how Trump recast protests against police violence as the work of terrorists–or socialists–and unrest that threatened a status quo. The mischaracterization of protests to mask their objection to racial profiling and the policing of a color line mirrored the masking of disproportionate damage in inner cities and among people of color in the first waves of the coronavirus infection, hospitalization and mortality rates, and the landscape of inequity that mirrored an uneven topography of health care in America, that had been more than apparent to many in the emergency rooms of hospitals where so few were white, before the CDC began tallying racial disparities, or citing “longstanding systemic health and social inequities [that] put some members of racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting COVID-19”–as the gaps in disproportionate mortality and hospitalization rates among all age groups broke down along racial lines, revealing, as any moment in social crisis, a systemic inequity long before data visualizations published on July 5.

COVID-19 Infections per 10,000 through May 31, 2020/CDC data, New York Times. (July 6, 2020)

The existence of radically different registers to experience, map, and manage the novel coronavirus may be the most tragic aspect of its spread. The pressures that were put on local education policies placed them in contest with for-profit educational institutions, and an apparently expanding marketplace for classroom supplies, at which the needs of students may be all too easily lost and sacrificed, for lack of a vision for moving forward that truly encourages equity.

Did Trump consciously echo how Frederick Douglas alerted many, as if they needed altering, Independence Day, 1852, what causes for celebration existed among enslaved not extended the franchise? Douglas pointedly observed that slaves had no right to participate in the democracy that the Constitution claimed to set forth–and the disparity of a three-fifths clause by which the very tally of race was translated into legal representation, that insulted the claims of all being equal before the law. And was it a surprise that, by late April, Black families were far more likely to have discussions dominated by fears of COVID-19 than White or Hispanic counterparts?

Pew Trust/Respondents to Likelihood to Disccussing COVID-19 Outbreak, April 0-16, 2020

The topics that they discussed included not only the poor availability of testing, or of hospital care, but what was going on with schools, which if less of a differential than the status of nearby hospitals or availability of testing was equal to the availability of food in stores, suggesting its critical urgency–and nearly twice the rate of white adults. Why was this difference less perceived, but accepted as “normal,” in a land where educational opportunity remains–if only, admittedly, they appeared nominally–equal?

Pew Research, Differences in Discussing News about COVID-19 by American Adults, June 5, 2020

The topics of discussion were not removed from health discrepancies. Stark inequalities among ethnic groups once again emerged in CDC records of infection rates, in visualizations telling us about COVID-19, and the inequity of infection rates by late June. The disparities revealed the extent of the perpetuation of legitimate violence across the United States, in terms we might do well to drill down and focus as a defining part of the national landscape. Staggeringly disproportionate rates of infection demanded attention–and introspection–and were shared among contiguous counties–

–that suggest divergencies in incidence of the highly infectious coronavirus that were already apparent among communities of color who were so disproportionately afflicted by the new virus that besieged neighborhoods. The maps demand examination as a time-lapse image of the unfolding of rates of infection of 200-300%, informed by a toxic cocktail of the inequality of work-conditions, living-conditions, and medical pre-conditions across the Untied States that the Trump Presidency seems to derive its legitimacy, and that, indeed, much of our notions of state legitimacy rests.

Such visualizations may not tell us much about the coronavirus, but demands a peeling back of layers, because it gets scarier the deeper one looks, and more deeply disturbing. The rates of doubling and near tripling of CDC-reported rates of incidence coronavirus congregated around population hubs, including the greater Minneapolis area, in striking ways.

COVID-19 Infections per 10,000 through May 31, 2020/CDC data, New York Times
COVID-19 Infections per 10,000 through May 31, 2020/CDC data, New York Times

The sense of abandonment and inequity seemed so strong, it struck me as akin to the spate of school closures, that left so many even more at sea.

Perhaps it was no surprise that the cost of such school closures and an end to in-person education have in general accentuated inequities–of dangers of a failure to connect to students, for reasons of economics or technology or priorities, a failure to meet nutritional needs long accepted as a mandate for the public school system, or the possibility of mental stability and socio-emotional learning, whose costs may be accentuated in increased depression, suicidal thoughts, and destructiveness?

The damage caused by school closures has been more under the radar, and far less visible than the mortality rates from which the nation is reeling, but whose effects may be felt long down the road.

1. Most of the nation was unable to process where the nation was in relation to the epidemic’s spread, but the absence of congruency confirmed only a long-lasting narrative of social abandonment. There was indeed something like a national war of narratives continued in maps, as maps told different stories–and radically different histories–of a nation and its state of health, as the narrative of social abandonment and a public health crises was denied, massaged, and reorganized from the White House, as it attempted to manage the political narrative of the virus, and the increased social abandonment that was the result of decaying and undermined public health system was apparent–and, increasingly, the abandonment of the nation was somewhat emblematized in the closures of schools, and absence of funding not only for a public health response but for schools.

Although kids were less likely to be a vector of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 than they would be in influenza, the persistence of modeling viruses as “the flu” led to a precocity of school closures, disrupting many family lives, and curtailing options of educational retention or progress, as few knew after a few months why the schools were shuttered–or what option other than shuttering schools were. Many have already scheduled reopening by mixed virtual and in-person operations, but suspension and evacuation seemed–akin to an actual war–the default reaction, perhaps in imitation of Chinese shuttering of state-run institutions in Wuhan–but quickly affected large numbers of students–so many that the metric and scale of mapping school closures quickly shifted from students to states from March 13 to 18.

March 13, 2020/EdWeek

–to entire states where schools were shuttered due to COVID-19–as panic spread of a lack of any coordinated government response on federal levels–

Leslie Maxwell (Chronicle of Higher Education) & Karin Fischer (Education Week)/ (EdWeek). March 18, 2020

–and gained increasing national uniformity, without any clear model for continuing instruction, creating dynamic learning situations, or assisting the many families who depended in many under the board, improvised, or silent ways on public education. Even as debate was focussed on the children of “critical workers” or the “essential workforce,” and emergency responders, the shutting down of the entire education industry and those who depended on public schools, as well as private ones, left the nation limping as we approached summer.

While some parents seem content with the quick transition to remote learning, perhaps surprised that remote learning offers anything at all, the absence of social context in the shift to online experiences seems a forced collective experiment of social conditioning to many, whose children unsurprisingly face increased amounts of busywork, jarred and dislocated by a remove from grading and often from a context of meaningful in-class interaction, consultation, or chances for collaborative work with other students. Although early modern philosopher René Descartes sought detachment from his body and isolation in an oven for thinking, eliminating distracting passions to facilitate reflective thought. The isolation of ZOOM teleconferencing hardly offers much space for reflection, and is hardly a substitute for a learning environment, even if one participates in it: the absence of a space of reflection, or involvement in a passionate learning environment, stands to accentuate the very widespread depression and sense of isolation that social distancing has produced.The late Herbert Dreyfus providentially cautioned, in ways that seem destined to be read for a pandemic’s reliance on remote diagnosis, remoteness was by nature less applicable to theater of learning or instruction than to exigencies of medical care. Dreyfus urged, in this late pamphlet, that promoters of remote education take heed that the medium of the internet “draws us into the unreal, virtual world populated by all those who flee all the ills that the flesh is heir,” the lack of passionate engagement endemic to online learning forums may be their true soft underbelly. Indeed, if the web did provide a surprisingly suitable medium for telemedicine and remote diagnosis, this was often as a triage, in an age of increased demand for diagnoses and medical response: the active role of engagement that educational settings ideally demand, or aspire, meant that the role of education in reaching students was necessarily compromised.

The prioritization of school closures as a reflexive response to viral infections to an administration was alienated from on the ground needs, or indeed to urban divides, in a world when many depended on schools as forms of social assistance–and where, as LeBron James had to tell America, some families depend on schools not only for educational formation, but for two to three nutritious meals over the day. The prioritization of school closures as a Non-Pharmaceutical Intervention (NPI) emerged after the droplet-born spread of SARS emerged as a global threat in 2003, a decade after the social disruption of the LA Riots–two events that helped framed current reaction to coronavirus. School closures had won acceptance as an NPI able to slow spread of viral infections in a pandemic, tied to the modeling of a teenager at a Science Fair in Albuquerque NM, was adopted in the thin range of responses able to contain pandemic outbreaks.

Back in 2003, in what seems another world, worries about SARS infections and future viral spread led to fears of public safety. For her Science Fair project, high schooler Laura Glass got surprisingly practical and met the questions of day by developing a project for Intel International Science and Engineering Fair made the case arguing school closures to disrupt social networks that would prevent a generalized wave of infections. While schools offer unique settings for kids of different social classes and backgrounds to meet, in one of the last common spaces of sociability that exist in many cities, disrupting social contacts to slow the spread of the disease. It seemed the right thing to gain better understanding of the ability to ramp up testing to control its spread: but with investment of public health was lagging, school closures became the sole part of the potentially powerful playbook to reduce the possibility of future infections by reducing social contact networks: the statistical benefits of such a reduced social network won endorsement by Bush administration officials desiring “out-of-the-box” non-pharmaceutical interventions suggested suspending school attendance, offering a chance to contain future viral outbreaks.

There was not likely even consideration in 2003 of the educational ramifications in an administration that considered the Dept. of Education a basis to enforce standards and school testing, and would need to be consulted about a back-up plan for meeting mandated goals of progress on teaching reading and taking tests. The playbook was defined in isolation form social practice, or the uses that schools increasingly gained in American society as a basis for a family to hold down two or three jobs.

As if taking a page from the school of “disruptive innovation” of Silicon Valley, a mantra promoted by Clayton Christensen and Business Schools, the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has long proclaimed “school choice” as the major civil rights issue “of our time.” How that seemed evident in the face of increased disparities in health care inequalities and civil rights violations confounds the mind, if it doesn’t make one’s blood boil. he dissonance of lacking sense the nation is being challenged by the coronavirus pandemic, with insufficient testing facilities, potentially insufficient hospital beds, space, or ventilators, and the lack of any testing or screening equipment for schools presents a boggling picture of deflected responsibilities. DeVos took concerted efforts to promote distance learning solutions even as schools shuttered during the pandemic. By developing contacts with school officials, state governors, and school district leaders, she exploited national vulnerabilities while offering no road map to how public school policy might develop in the face of multiple stresses that the pandemic has unexpectedly introduced, abdicating any role on providing guidance for reopening. In relegating the decisions fell to often divisive district boards who are asked to struggle to formulate plans with uncertain funding and state support, she continued the lack of broader leadership: leaving many schools open to later accusations of a failure of management; DeVos hope to foot the bill for the future development of charter, private, and parochial schools to pick up the pieces where public schools “failed” seems to have been conducted behind the backs of public school principals and teacher.

Such actions stands to be as senselessly and insensitively disruptive to networks of support public schools provide as the current decision to re-open schools, a theater of bread and circuses that would currently destabilize communities even more. Where has educational leadership been? DeVos’s recent proposal of a five billion dollar tax credit program for private schools in an age of coronavirus may subverts the intent of $13.5 billion for K-12 schools. It may twist “evidence” of the failing abilities of public schools to provide remote learning assignments and graded assignments, or to shift their syllabus,–at a time when no fixed guidance or model existed for the shifting to remote learning or the compelling need to do so, as schools faced a disruption across the country due to incoherent public policy choices, and uncertain options for “re-opening” instruction through early April, moving from mid-March to early Spring Breaks, and hastily trying to assemble instructional teams remotely, and to keep students engaged as many faced economic stresses and obligations in their families. The Education Secretary has seen fit to ratchet the pressure on schools, who were not provided any extra funding, by insisting to the country’s governors she wants to see all public schools open and “fully operational” in the fall, regardless of progress in the coronavirus pandemic–and even arguing that combining in-person and remote education was not an alternative? The talking points echoed Trump, who has, months into the pandemic, described the policy of school closure as a Democratic ploy of politicizing the coronavirus. DeVos only says “how that happens is best left to education and community leaders,” with the government again abdicating its role in providing any national oversight of public health.

Was DeVos only echoing how Trump had insisted in the wake of Independence Day that schools return to normal in the coming year, refusing to allow “Democrats [who] don’t want to open schools in the Fall for political reasons”? The lack of any clear narrative, save personal responsibility, reveals the inadequacy of any management strategy, and the divergent rhetorical realities of the coronavirus has provoked. It is helpful to remember that school closure was, however, first and foremost a Republican-endorsed plan, on which DeVos’ predecessor, Margaret Spelling, and presumably signed off: the broad adoption of school closures, with some resistance from not only “red” state governors, but Democratic stalwarts, like New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who feared the social breakdowns that school closures would bring, and questioned the benefits of leaving kids out of school as a way of reducing the danger of communicating the virus.

The playbook for confronting a viral outbreak were hardly well thought out. Back in 2003, the last time when we considered a national response to viral outbreaks, the Bush team was happy with the model of reducing the social network that school closure promised to achieve. The statistical reduction of social networks that the closure of schools confirmed by computer modeling promoted a middle schooler’s perspective on the proximity hallways, lunchrooms, school buses. and class to consider schools afforded as incubators for viral contagion, isolated from the broader fears of a national spread. Fed through the very same supercomputers charged to manage complex national security issues–to “detect, repel, defeat, or mitigate national threats“–in Albequerque, and had origins in the construction of the first atomic bomb. Through her solution, it seemed that the nation adopted one possible protocol for mitigation the spread of viral contagion by eliminating school contacts: the flowchart that foregrounded school closures was adopted by CDC and DOD in an administration which granted limited status to public education.

As the fear of a SARS-like airborne virus led prioritizing school closures as a primary NPI, the overwhelming spread of school closures during March across the nation may have provided the first and only national effort at mitigating the spread of the highly infectious novel coronavirus. School closures was a result of the need to curtail the sharing of air, before its pathways of transmission were known, as fears of transmitting a virus that was not manifested for up to four days threatened to be transmitted in hothouses in classrooms, corridors, and over school lunch. But the impact of closures was far more abstractly reasoned than socially grounded. And the abstracted logic of a reduction of networks of communicating a viral disease, or mitigating infectious spread.

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Filed under Coronavirus, COVID-19, education policies, remote learning, school closures

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