Distance Learning, Disrupted Learning & Social Eruptions

Is it any surprise that we trace the prioritization of school closures as a reflexive response to viral infections to an administration that was alienated from on the ground needs, or indeed to urban divides? 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 LA Riots, two events that framed the current reaction to coronavirus. If school closures became a primary NPI to slow the spread of viral infections in response to fears of a pandemic, tied to the modeling of a teenager at a Science Fair in Albuquerque NM, was adopted within the playbook of a response to a feared pandemic. As worries about SARS infections and future viral spread led to fears of public safety, high schooler Laura Glass developed 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, 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 the Bush administration team as they searched for “out-of-the-box” non-pharmaceutical interventions suggested suspending school attendance, seemed to offer a possibility of containing future viral outbreaks.

The notion of a viral outbreak was imagined, no doubt, in 2003, as a quick reaction to stave off the spread of disease beyond and individual hot-spot–but the hot-spots of COVID-19 were virtually equal to the concentrations of vulnerable urban populations and minorities in the first months that the virus hid, and even so the national alarm was not sounded in broad terms, as we somehow thought this would not be long term, or that we could float passively to a conclusion. Yet massive levels of unemployment that the COVID-19 pandemic brought across the map as schools stayed shuttered, raised questions of how long the states with no viable means of social support could continue, and increased stressors unimagined in March.

Seasonally Adjusted State Unemployment Rates, march and April , 2020/Statista

We lacked a narrative, but had a playbook–in part. Where did the playbook that we had come from? While numbers lined up that reduction of contact networks were fed, initially, when Glass’ parent fed them through a super-computer in New Mexico, the Bush team marveled at the ease of reducing contacts by the simple operation of surgically closing schools, the impact of school closures was never, it seems, lined up with the actual experiences of kids attending schools, or imagined as more than a several week affair. Moreover, the notion of containment was imagined, most likely, in terms of a city or a region–remember the National Guard being quickly sent to New Rochelle to stave off COVID-19?–rather than a national project. Nonetheless, one wonders if then-Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, even signed off on the plan for implementing school closures as a pandemic response, or if any consideration of the consequences of such closures were even examined.

Although Spellings claimed to have “moved the needle for minority students . . . because we’ve cared enough to find out how they’re doing and made them a priority,” the role of education took a second place to the fear of a pandemic: perhaps the only Secretary of Education to insist that she would not close public schools, as her history in alternatives to public schooling might suggest, there is clear irony that a supercomputer designed to manage complex national security to “detect, repel, defeat, or mitigate national threats” in Albuquerque NM to measure the impact of reducing social networks during a virus: the closing of schools was surely insufficient to secure the preparedness demanded. DeVos saw the opportunity to shift more and more students to online formats reached more students, allocating funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stimulus Act–$13.2 billion for K-12 schools in March–featuring almost $200 million to promote models “not yet imagined” to expand remote education.

But in ways that seem to reprise the very goals for a national “education strategy” set forth by George H.W. Bush, of using public funds for private and parochial education, and offering “tuition vouchers” as an “alternative” to public schools, which DeVos argued were at ‘a dead end’ when she was asked to head the Department of Education by Donald Trump: if the strategy rehearsed the fear Bush endorsed in A Nation at Risk in which American students might fall behind other nations encouraged entrepreneurial education to make up for public schools, have we hit an opportune moment for accelerating a long-planned changed to a free market of what are cast as educational “options”?

The problems of engagement across existing remote learning platforms are manifold. They might be expected to offer stimulating environments, but this is hard to imagine: early modern philosopher René Descartes famously sought detachment from his body and isolation in an oven for thinking, eliminating distracting passions to facilitate reflective thought. But the isolation of teleconferencing atmospheres of remote learning promoted on ZOOM and other platforms 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. We stand poised to restate education in a new ecosystem engineered by Silicon Valley, more than educators, and designed to meet “metrics” of educational goals, that risk engaging few save and leaving many behind. Kierkegaard cautioned that”lack of passion necessarily eliminates meaning as well;” the medium of the web offers a drastically diminished active involvement of the self in a social world, designed to diminish one’s sense of engagement or of the meaning of one’s life, that compromises the reality of active learning.

To be sure, the truly terrifying prospect of four-day doubling of cases of COVID-19, far beyond even the multiplication rates of SARS-CoV-2, led to its adoption prioritized school closure as a non-pharmaceutic public intervention a back in 2008 as a means to curtail a virus’ contagious spread: if we had not yet seen so contagious a virus as SARS-CoV-2, the curtailing of pathways of infection–with viral shedding occurring from a variety of routes of infection, the mandate for shuttering of a social network like schools seemed clear. The presumption that students would remain at home, and not socialize with one another, or visit each others’ houses as childcare placed premiums on many’s time however raise questions on how disruptive the shuttering of schools was on families, if closures helped contain infections of contracting COVID-19.  Would the possibility of keeping the school open on alternate days, or one day a week, or other hybrid forms of schooling, create a strand of social connectivity that could be exploited? Would there be a possibility of investing in the ability of schools to reach a larger network more effectively, rather than being so pressed for funds that attention was shifted, all of a sudden, exclusively to a virtual environment for instruction?

Kahn Academy founder Salmar Kahn somewhat brazenly imagined (sending out shameless spin to his advantage) that the immediately increased prominence of his fortune and future. He summoned false optimisim to invite us to re-dimension our horror in considering the silver lining that COVID-19 would a “better balance” between online learning tools and in-person learning, to help Americans “realize that you can lean on these types of online tools,” the shock of the disruption of educational environments as being the sort of disruptive innovation that Clayton Christensen imagined, one could imagine that Kahn thought it perhaps was. For the services that schools provide have been more abruptly curtailed in ways that the nation is still dealing, as schools and school district attempt to fulfill their roles in ways made even more difficult by the highly contagious virus, and growing fears of COVID-19.

But this post must first turn to unpacking the alternative road map that might be suggested by the protests . . . before a broader examination of the maps of the roll-out of school closures–detailed at length below. For the broad impact that they reveal in the widespread disruption of COVID-19 on social safety nets, increased feelings of abandonment, long-term economic displacement and increased insecurity perhaps best seen in the rejection of vulnerability that COVID-19 revealed.

New York Times

When protests that spread across the nation in the Age of Coronavirus, they mirrored a broad realignment of much of the nation with Black Lives Matter, rejecting the increasing rejection of business as normal policies of national self-congratulation in the increased national vulnerability and awareness of sharply heightened inequalities in public health that COVID-19 and the broad mismanagement of its containment has revealed. The dramatic scale of rejecting increasingly evident vulnerability of black men and women to racialized policing reveals, in a truly crowd-sourced map, a broad support for redressing the heightened inequalities in American society COVID-19 and its mismanagement has revealed: the broad diffusion of the protests has received much commentary as they were not limited to cities, and, reveal changing attitudes to policing that break down less clearly along generational cohorts or political party, and indeed protests that ased revealed a demographic breakdown, unlike many earlier marches, that consisted of a preponderance of protestors who were white in New York (61%), Washington DC (65%), and indeed Los Angeles (53%), leading sociologists to find the intersectionality of a ruction of police brutality unlike protest movements of past decades–and perhaps indicating a far broader change in political beliefs than many Republicans imagine.

Although the spreading of protests across the nation was unprecedented in its show of solidarity, the policing of protesters was sudden and swift: with helicopters and drones monitoring each of fifteenth cities, from Minneapolis to Dayton to Washington DC by Customs and Border Patrol, in what it imagined were limited protests, leaving local Air Force Base, to hexagonally circle the city and monitor for firearms and potential by live video feeds of protestors in the streets.

Border Patron Drone Surveillance over Minneapolis Protests against Poor Police Accountability

In ways that seemed to treat the entire nation was turned into a frontier, and a new frontier of unsupervised policing, even as policing was being protested: Customs and Border Patrol were enlisted from the northern and southern borders to surveil over fifteen cities in the interior, shifting the lack of clear law on the border to the situations that were cast as riots, in need of support from the Drug Enforcement Agency, Customs and Border Patrol, and other policing agencies: Predator B Drones sent to surveil the cities offered “situational awareness at the request our federal law enforcement partners,” as if they transcended the local abilities of policing.

Perhaps the range of such protests demands comparison to the range of instances in which tear gas seems to have been used against protestors, to cast them as unruly and in need of control, as if to undermine their points. The maps of protests are compelling, and have been enlisted to multiple narrative points. Cartographer Madison Draper has offered a very valuable consideration of cartographic strategies used to communicate location in the Black Lives Matter protests that spread across the country in different scale, and as we try to map our own experiences against the broader crisis of health, and the digital spaces on which we are thrown, outside of our bodies, even as if to disguise the deep discrepancies of vulnerabilities in the actual bodies that we inhabit and must live in an age of pandemic, and the broad crisis that we need education to gain clearer bearings on. If we might search for greater bearings on our own health crisis, the isolation on which we fall back in completing or providing remote learning exercises, while rushing to develop online syllabi, and wondering what our own ability to gain a healthier relation to the public sphere is.

As the protests proliferated beyond isolated points, the ability to monitor them by such removed policing was no longer possible, revealing unprecedented scale, spread, and distribution far outside urbanized areas.

Protests Against Police Violence, May 26 -June 9 2020/ New York Times

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

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