Distance Learning, Disrupted Learning & Social Eruptions

22. While school lunches might be the first loss that school board administrators on a local level might realize in 2020, the deeper context of a possibility of counseling, medical monitoring, and psychological reassurance that are increasingly necessary in an age of COVID-19 were abandoned in the sacrifice of schools as models of community assurance. As public schools have been pegged to the real estate taxes of its community or neighborhood, the uneven topography of social divides has been accentuated, as schools have served as districts that pried apart the pretense to equal benefits public education might allow, so that they often perpetuate inequalities.: out of the 2,650 public high schools in California’s 553 districts, but 1,612 “made the rankings” of U.S. News & World Report, creating problems of folks seeking to balance affordable homes with good public schools. The disequilibria of moneys available to public school students were gravely acute–and skips over over half the states–and is suggested by the .hneed to map school qualities in economic constraints.

US Metro Areas with the Best Schools (2016)/Home Union Research Services

After all, many districts in the nation don’t spend much on schooling–and many public schools depend on the fund-raising of the same local communities from whose tax franchises they depend to keep the local schools afloat, if one state–New York–uniformly allocates far more.

Data: Education Week/US Census/Map: Allyson Hurt and Katie Park, National Public Radio (2016)

At the close of the previous decade, the nation faced a distinctly different sense of the value of education–here in the metric of likelihood of completing High School–left supririsingly large swaths of the nation where high school degrees were not a universal expectation, outside urban areas–

–and many areas of sharp achievement gaps in middle school, where the dangers of further increases in an educational divide already afflicting the nation by pronounced learning slowdowns that stand to occur as a direct result of poor planning for a pandemic and uneven learning opportunities.

sean f. reardon, Demetra Kalogrides, Kenneth Shores, Benjamin Shear/Stanford Education Data Archive

The geographical inequalities within the school system were not considered in targeting schools as the sites of closure in response to future pandemic outbreaks–as if the implications of such a total pause could not be confronted, or be a “cure” that is as dangerous as the spread of disease–if Trump’s early reaction to the spread of the coronavirus led the charge that “We cannot let the cure be worse than the disease“–a phrase used as often for psychotropics or anticancer drugs as the ancient medical maxim from Virgil, aggresocit medendo–literally, “the illness worsens with treatment,” acquired a sense of elevating economic performance above bodily health–and confusing social distancing with a remedy,. which is now not known, and in fact doesn’t exist: it rather elevates the market over the individual well-being–even as the continued performance of the market depends on an educated and skilled workforce that may split the nation as a result of poor preparation for High School–for which drop-out rates have become more pronounced across much of the nation–drop-out rates that a simple geographic choropleth masks the pronounced disadvantage of minorities, and the steadily growing rate of dropouts from 2013-17, an increasing proportion of whom left the labor force


23. I had been reading a novel of national sacrifice, or rather a “dilogy,” a set of two novels, which were not the first reading material I escaped. The sombre tone of the Russian novels by Vassily Grossman, a witness of the disasters of the mid-twentieth century, appealed because of the almost philosophical dissection of the physical laws of national fate and sacrifice less as a narrative of sacrifice than as hope.

Of course, sacrifice was so inappropriate and oddly unclear in what was occurring in the global spread of cases of COVID-19 and the peaks of infection across the American landscape: more malfeasance, a level of frustration that made Grossman’s odd perseverance and hope winning, as a way to come to terms with disaster, and escape the global geography of COVID-19 with the apprehension of a global war in the novel that moved, across social registers, and to the front line of the first military engagements, to the destruction and almost pyrrhic victory of Stalingrad–its broad geographic scope underscored by almost cinematic cuts of scenes and location that combined disorientation with a need to orient the reader to the war’s scope. (I didn’t even know where Stalingrad was, until I had to answer my wife’s basic interest question–but the strategic location that Hitler assigned the city in the steppes was less important than the promise of telling a multi-character narrative for a nation that was disoriented in facing war). But the image of a cockroach seen scuttling across pencilled in positions marked on a military map in an improvised Military HQ in 1942, near the start of the book captures the problem of viewing gate shifting lines of war and the front, wondering if Stalingrad will be kept safe, and the fate of what Nazis want from Russian Jews that run through the remainder of the massive tome as we follow and seek to orient ourselves to the Russian troops’ chances for stopping a German offensives first across the Bug, then the Don, and finally, past Kiev, to the Volga, and the strength of soviet troops as they retreat: “the speed of the retreat meant that they kept having to change from one 1:100,000 map to another,” leading one commissar to observe that since “the information provided on the intelligence section maps seldom fitted with the information provided by operations,” echoed shifting scale and level of local detail in maps of COVID-19 infections that so disorientingly alternating from choropleths to dot-density maps (I, 23).

We were somewhat similarly disoriented in the face of COVID-19, looking at newspaper maps every day to take stock of its spread–as if to imagine its localization–

–immersed, as headlines grabbed us, in an existential experience of living life in a time of plague, associated all too often only with a removed historical experience, without ideas of how to process the big picture by which the nation was immersed. We were, as Grossman’s readers were unable to come to terms with the spread of global war, as he registered in the psychic uncertainty of the relation of cities to the front lines, until the sky seems unable to hold the swarm of planes that carpet bombed Stalingrad with a combination of incendiary bombs and high explosive bombs, destroying all plate-glass buildings and towers across its landscape, as the front lines provide an uncertain but constant point of reference for the progress of the war. Maps provided a constant, if rarely explicit, form of seeking to gain stability on the process and progress of the war, but whose movements are unclear and uncertain to most all its protagonists, who struggle to come to terms with what war means to them. This was not a removed or far-off experience I had expected at all.

Apocalyptic reading was often suggested during the spread of a pandemic, as a way to come to terms with global change, and the vertigo of multiple narratives of its spatial spread. I soon turned, with some surprise, to one of the first works of fiction to deal with a truly global war, World War II, that led me to a Russian intermezzo of sorts, as I was pondering the cascading effects of COVID-19 in our political discourse, reading Life and Fate, a tragic account of the impact of the war on the extended Russian family of a scientist and his wife, told through the narratives of their extended family.

For most of his life, the newspaperman and novelist Grossman had suffered respiratory illnesses as a result of his work as an inspector of mines, offered an echo of the United States in the Age of Covid, if was it first an opaque choice for quarantine reading and a heavy load: but the problems of apprehending the global scale of changes that cascaded from the frontlines into the Ukraine, as the approach of the German army across the Southern Steppes send waves of worry interior choices of the individual’s morality was acute.

As war in Iraq was winding down, a new global attention was turned to the new coronavirus, which had a morbidity rate six times the 1918 flue pandemic since it spread from Guang Dong Province in China, in eerily similar global fashion. Back in 2003, we seemed similarly to fear SARS a global impact of a pandemic–an epidemic spanning continents, that seemed the newly terrifying format of world history, less tied to nations, and which would render the distinctions among nations irrelevant and quaint. Public health strategies were rapidly elaborated to deal with the sudden outbreak of a. rapidly evolving diseases of emerging infectious diseases as a Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, as even if fears were not widespread, the Asian American community underwent wide stigmatization, and discrimination, particularly around sharing schools with those of any Asian ancestry; as by July 2003, the infectious disease had spread to over thirty countries, with over 8,000 cases to manage, sending government agencies into action to combat the deadly virus that was feared to potentially have the outbreak similar to the 1918 flu epidemic that left 50 million dead, and measures of quarantine and isolation were deemed the only possible means of combat, as the CDC organized new data collecting strategies, community interventions, and emergency response teams, developing health education materials and checking the spread of false rumors or SARS “information sites” featuring false information in online communities, as well as global networks for combatting and managing fears. Nothing like that exists today, but the sense of a global change through tailored interventions and messaging to Asian American communities was intentional.

The attempt to epidemiologically measure global pathways of SARS’s spread led the World Health Organization to move to a rapid modeling of the pathways of its dangerous global spread, raising deep fears of global interconnection oddly denied as a danger seventeen years later.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Caption Has Turned Off the Infectious Disease Light . . . You’r re Now Free to Move About the Cabin”/World Helath Organization, 2003

Fictional worlds present powerful analogies to the present in unexpected ways. I turned to one and the another volume of quarantine reading on my bookshelves, the sixth and seven of isolation, for psychological remove from an unfolding health disaster. But the plot line of Stalingrad, as the second more celebrated volume of Vassily Grossman’s dilogy, Life and Fate, posed the problem of placing oneself in a canvas of world history with an immediacy that was all too familiar. The poignant crisis in its sequel of its heroic protagonists to how the nation changed over the course of the war, as Stalin’s power takes new form that reshapes their lives and fates. And if the great tragedy of the two volumes was the excision of the Jews from the future of the USSR in the Stalinist era, if not the adoption of the violent display of antisemitism that led to the destruction of Jewish communities, is the worst COVID reading on any list, the tragedy of shifts of national identity offered eery echoes of Trump’s restrictive notion of American. The Cossacks encountered by retreating Soviet soldiers hopes better treatment will arrive from German invaders in the fall of 1941, that German forces will not only not harm them, but “the only people with anything to fear from the Germans are the peopled us Russians . . . love least of all”–the Jews–as the Soviet Union seems divided by the enemy; maps of retreating Russian tanks unsettles an old Bolshevik Commissar’s relation to nation and Fatherland; fears of German advance triggers a drama of national identity. The mention of the devastating murders of Jews that Grossman arranged, and transcribed in the Black Book of Russian Jewry in devastating scale led to the inclusion only in 1956 including the ordeal of Jewish refugees who “had lost homes and loved ones; . . . had lost everything they owned,” migrating “like birds or animals across the steppe” with “biblical beards” moving across the steppes,–“Thousands of people, thousands of men, women, and children, all of them filled with an implacable hatred of fascist evil, were heading east beneath the broad copper and bronze of the setting sun” as a “tragedy threatening humanity’s most sacred dream” and a decline more terrible than that in Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. (I, 45).

Political discourse and belonging are an implicit as much as an explicit theme of the epic dilogy that moves from commissars and scientists and far-flung relatives and generations of physicists to Stalin’s generals: if one focus is the fate of the theoretical physicist Victor Shtrum, Shtrum is a clear fulcrum of the global war and ideological currents that cumulate in the clouds that gather over his laboratory at the war’s close. The Jewish names of these families who experience wartime are a not too implicit questioning of their Russian and Jewish identities, and the choices to determine their identity, an implicit drama within the story of the sacrifice of the nation, fearfully witnessed in the first volume from the advance of Hitler’s troops. At the start of the first volume, an eager Shtrum heads to his Moscow laboratory by rail in the early fall of 1941, his mind turns to the advance of the Nazi army into Russia past Kiev, at a time when he can acutely sense how all life decisions across the country were suddenly only able to be “considered in light of Hitler’s successes or failures.”

Soviet Forces Advance on Nazi Forces in Operation Uranus

The theoretical physicist tried during the train ride to Moscow to balance “the vast events of world history and his own life”and map his life against how Nazi forces had conquered a dozen Western European countries were broadcast as the fate of Germany to change the world for a new millennium, struck by the difficulty of suddenly balancing “vast events of world history and his own life.” If the novel has been dismissed as less effective, the broad sense of a historical rupture that the war presented was eery to read about from a perspective of COVID-19: were the Jewish names of the physicist Strum and his mother, Anna Semenyonova, who dies in the ghetto of Berdichev, and encrypts the names of many censored Jewish physicists whose work ws ended by Stalin throughout the book, in names of characters, consciously navigating the difficult waters of the war, and the apogee of power in its more openly Stalinist aftermath which forces him to examine his soul.

Grossman with Red Army in the Ruins of Schwerin, Northern Germany

The dangers of heightened risks of contagion were unmoored from maps or nations, and demanded global programs. With the drawn out progress of the arrival of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, we were forced to measure our fates in regard only to COVID-19 with distraught and urgency, from family planning to the future of work, in unprecedented ways: in 2020, we were dwarfed by the problem to reconcile national history with the scale of pandemics, that transcend nations, and dwarf one’s life, if they were undeniably securely set on the front burner of all national problems, and even after their conclusion transform parallel moral crises of his own place in the Stalinist nation, and of the moral dilemma of his former brother-in-law summoned to Stalingrad once long committed to Bolshevik values. What sort of borders of belonging were being tacitly or explicitly raised?

The shifting voiced in the novel move across social and ideological registers, as national space and destiny are both uncertain in overlapping narratives. As Hitler computes the days of the planned Blitzkrieg across the Eastern Front by calculating the miles that tanks can travel each day before arriving at Kiev, hoping to orchestrate a two pronged invasion of the USSR, the traversal of the southwestern front is felt from afar. For the epic Stalingrad, channeling of War and Peace in the fortunes of an educated Jewish family of former revolutionaries and scientists who are definitively Russian Jews. The bloody front of war turns to the inner destruction of the values of both men, and of Stalinist dissidents, within the deeper inexorable flow of time even as Soviet defensives are victorious against invading Nazis forces, as his long-dismissed theoretical research is suddenly encouraged by the state only as Stalin seeks to promote the construction of nuclear weapons.

The tension of the approach of German troops and the military strategies of their engagement by lines of tanks and commanders create an anxiety in the chains of command, one senses, that cultivate a climate of suspicion that climaxes at Stalingrad. If the story of Grossman is a battle narrative in Stalingrad, it is also performs a delicately clever masquerade of belonging for a Jewish author who worked for the state compiling atrocities in Russian towns; if less famous than the openly anti-Stalinist Life and Fate, the casting of the Jewish family as observers of the war, and the dedication to the destruction of Jewish communities in Russia in Kiev, Berdychev, where Grossman was born, and Minsk conceal the huge violence of the Nazi invasion as of a peace with the attack on a Russia whose social complexity was descended from Tolstoy, as much as Lenin, where a Jewish Shaposhnikova family is integral to Russian identity, an in-law of which visits Yasnaya Polanya as he returns from the front, hearing German warplanes overhead and wondering if Germans will set foot not only in Russia, but in Tolstoy’s home. Are the Germans almost delayed by the cruelties they perpetuate in visiting violence on Russian towns? Is the Jewish identity of Russians even behind the lines safe?

That hope exists, even in the deepest of tragic settings Grossman describes, made the novel a compelling alternate world to inhabit when not online as the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic expanded. The “trick” of Jewish belonging in Grossman’s narrative plays the flip coin of the accounts of massacres and pogroms Nazi invaders engaged as the invasion progressed from Operation Barbarossa, obliquely naming Nazi concentration camps that populate the margins of his canvas in both novels, if without the centrality that they held in Grossman’s massive culling of personal documents of Nazi crimes against Jews in Russia in The Black Book, which provided part of his occupation after the war; the novel that is based on his own following of Russian troops is a counterpart that illuminates the emptying of Jewish populations of cities as Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, Yagotin, Berdychev, and Kiev–and even followed Russian troops into Berlin, to enter the office Hitler held in the Reichcschancellory and pilfer relics: Stalingrad is often cast as a “dud” that the later novel transcended in its focus on the painful compromise of ideals, but was haunted by the barbaric liquidation of Russian Jewry that delayed German advance often written out of war novels, but which its heroes seem to negotiate, aware of a deeper, global change in their status in the nation, even as part of a scientific elite: human rights activist and physicist Andrei Sakharov brought the microfilm of the forbidden Life and Fate to the West, but if the edited For a Just Cause seems patriotic in its pieties, it broaches the dilemma of.a physicist’s relation to the nation in global war.

As we take stock of unfolding changes of the nation as a result of COVID-19, the lack of preparedness in the closures of schools will only be slowly assessed: but the globalism of COVID-19, that darker side of the neoliberal framework of globalization of free commerce across borders and boundaries, revealed a terrible vision of the excavation of confidence in the state as a force for social good, and would lead to drastic and steep changes that we will be long coming to terms, beyond the recknoning and recalibration of nation to world SARS seemed to inspire. While the narrative is organized around the advance of a German army that comes to advance beyond Kiev across the steppes to encircle the city of Stalingrad, it moves across social registers. If we often turn to follow the progress of the military front in official military maps, as it objectively moves from the river Bug to the withdrawal of Germans from the city of Stalingrad, we trace its impact on the ground and in the characters’ minds, akin to a modern version of War and Peace, a novel that presented the “supreme reality of war” recited over the radio and taught to Russian soldiers in trenches, in order to boost morale during the repulsion of the invasion.

The dilogy traces the progress of German troops into Russian offensive past Kiev to Stalingrad, and possibly Moscow, and retreat of Russians, in maps that are glimpsed at times. Against this withdrawal to the point where Stalin issues his “”Not One Step Back” order, Grossman tracks the relation of the individual to Russia, to a moral erosion of by the end of the war remapping of the community in a new totalitarianism; the German advance in tank parallels a retreat obscures horrific murderous violence that Grossman documented, as German troops move first past the Don and then to the Volga; Grossman published the first volume in heavily edited form as For a Just Cause, nominated for a Stalin Prize, but questioned the possibility of morality in the successor, also written during the war but physically arrested from his apartment in 1952, when the very typewriter ribbons on which the second novel was typed were confiscated, and, one can believe, left Grossman prematurely aged, horrified that the act of witnessing he had offered would never see the light of day. I was reading a smuggled novel that existed only by chance as a microfilm hidden in his papers was able to arrive by an emigre physicist, human rights protestor Andrei Sakharov, to the United States, in what was another world.

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

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