Inequity, Distance Learning, Disrupted Learning Communities & Social Eruptions

National expansion of protests seemed an organic response to the social failures that became more evident as dangers of coronavirus spread, even as authorities had attempted to tamp them down by classic crowd-control tools. The largest concerted use of crowd control for forty years goes far beyond policing, designed to create disorder across the nation, and suggests an attempt to escalate violence by a substance banned in war. The broad-based use of a national application of agents of crowd dispersal seem eerily akin to the broad closure of schools across the land. The collected canisters labeled Speed-Heat CS–tear gas–or Scat Shell OC–pepper spray–even as police denied the use of such harmful chemicals. If their use appears concerted, who provided such reserves with such speed? Were there more storehouses of CS and OC that the federal government had on hand than needed storehouses of PPE for front-line medical workers?

This came to haunt us in public data that hit us in the head: the increasing numbers of coronavirus-related deaths in rural counties and urban counties were dying faster, from Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, to Washington, DC. As we heard that thirty three of the first forty five deaths of the novel coronavirus in Milwaukee WI were of blacks, three quarters of the first hundred deaths in Chicago from COVID-19 were similarly of blacks, in ways that were quickly noted in the black community, where vulnerability that they had long suspected or been conscious of would be intensified to infinity; the news of mass infections in prisons in Michigan, Arkansas, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, California, and Louisiana were not occasioning tests for infection not presenting signs of COVID-19: despite free testing of all prison guards, workers and wardens the incarcerated population–over one third black in all America, where incarcerated are over fifty percent African American and Hispanic.

While prison wardens and guards were the main vectors by which viral infection that could arise in the prisons, the failure to change proximity of bodies across prison populations that provided viral breeding grounds for aggressive spread of SARS-CoV-2 and contraction of COVID-19–the “breeding grounds”–were, despite urgent proposals endorsing prison releases or reconfiguration to reduce the huge public health risks of incarcerated left vulnerable due to overcrowding, limited medical care and/or underlying conditions’, and where heightened proximity, an absence of protective gear, and inability to monitor on-site prison visits in unprepared and outdated facilities, allowing anyone in the over 600,000 in crowded conditions in local prison facilities across America to be at risk of being infected, and to almost certainly not receive the intensive care or medical attention that they will need.

Is the dilemma of the Department of Corrections emblematic of the vulnerability of the nation, or is the problem of crowding in prisons also the basic reflection of inequality in our society that will stand to become incubators and amplifiers of COVID-19? Is this exclusion of any health protection for the imprisoned only another means of discounting tier lives’ preciousness?

Long before George Floyd was murdered, Keith Ellison, the Attorney General of Minnesota, had a distinct sense residents of Minneapolis, as much of the country, had entered another world of widespread abandonment, as jobs dwindled, shops shuttered, as disparities of medical health grew even more pronounced, of heightened vulnerability–and unemployment lines grew. Novelist Don DeLillo imagined an airborne toxin in his 1985 let loose by an industrial disaster in the midwestern America, whose dispersal at the site of a midwestern University, soon after the students have arrived, that both echoed the sorts of industrial disasters of environmental devastation that have grown across the global landscape since–Chernobyl nuclear power plant the next year, leaking irradiated coolant and gas; the 1984 Union Carbide factory explosions at the Bohpal pesticide plant, which sets forty tons of toxic gas spewing whose effects were felt through today among over five thousand, but probably approach 16,000 as carcinogens dispersed in monsoons; Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill of 2010; Exxon Valdez tanker spill of 1989, which sent over ten billion gallons of crude across 1,300 miles of California coastline, only surpassed in 2010; or Fukushima-Daichi–but was jarringly located in the United States university campus where it was not supposed to occur in a “society is set up such a way that it is poor people and uneducated people that suffer the brunt of natural disasters;” where “these things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas,” as if they are more expendable: we were all exposed to risk of COVID-19, if hoped to meet a low bar for mitigating spread across social networks by closing schools.

But the notion of risk of infection intersected, as if in ways that could not be prevented, with the explosion of another notion of risk, a risk of police violence that we had long suppressed, but seemed a plague regularly exploding in suburban and rural space, as much as in urban centers of poverty, which had been being held briefly at bay. Anti-gun protests spread in the recent past in the “March for our Lives”–about an epidemic of gun violence at schools, and a rejection of lack gun laws, more than violence–

March for Our Lives, March 22, 2018 (New York Times)

–there was a similar urgency in the anti-policing protests that were targeted not at the use of guns by those who emulated police violence, but the use of violence by police. But the clear risks that were perceived in shortened lives among minority communities–Blacks who are three to four times more likely to be the targets of inappropriate police violence, without often having a means to prosecute the offenders on police forces protected by privilege from redress–in ways many continued to bracket out.

4. Instead, we focussed on school closures as a preventive measure, and in ways that may have increased the disruptive nature of the virus, and cut off a pathway of proper instruction about distancing and viral management, by undercutting an educational resource. There was a widespread rupture of instruction, and sudden shift to online distance learning, has simultaneously occurred, in a broad consensus of something like a widespread social abandonment. The ending of a circulation of endless worksheets, mandating leading training booklets, and reading comprehension questions, and sex ed videos, all poor bases for active learning, stopped flowing as if to suspend the bracketed times for sociability, routine, and busywork that held together many of America’s schools. But what was evident in the absence of their daily structure was more evident, reinforced by a heightened anxiety and unease, a sense of misadministration and malfeasance, but also a sense of deep injustice grew.

The sudden collective shift without much preparation that was created by an end of in-person instruction and school closures across much of California and the United States was abrupt in its interruption of a social network that provided a basis for social organization that is often not visible in our society. Nine out of ten public school students, in California, were announced March 13, impacting six million public school students, more than any other disaster event from earthquakes to fires to mass shootings–after every fifth student had been sent home for a “natural disaster day” in 2018-19. And when one describes the range of inequities that multiplied across the nation, and that COVID-19 put into relief, they were not only in terms of health care, medical insurance, disproportionate hospitalization rates, and inequities of access to jobs and to education that shuttering schools revealed as a sudden distancing of education and community, far more intensely and frustratingly than for others of the same age, as K-12 schools closed their doors, by March 18 2020 and switched to remote or distance learning across many states, irregardless of politics, save in states with large rural populations–and potentially or apparently lower infection rates.

Uneven Policies of Coronavirus School Closures EdWeek/March 18, 2020

The spread of school closures almost made he nation oddly complicit in removing itself from the pandemic, in ways that encouraged the sodality and empathy that was illustrated by reoccupying and flooding the streets during the anti-police violence protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, if rightly overshadowed by the terrible violence exacted in the more widespread license police brutality had recurred, not only in recent years, but in the range of almost bestial, unrestrained violence recurrently exacted in anger on black bodies in recent memory. But was not educational inequities an extension of such violence into the future? Even as we were pretty clear that elementary schools and high schools would not be opening again in mid-April, just before militia-like protests demanded “re-opening” with an indignant populism, as as ‘anti-lockdown protestors’ who distrusted local government, even guidelines for graduation were left unclear, in much of the nation, as school policies prolonged what were at first weeklong or monthlong shutdowns, mostly relegating decision to a local level as they scrambled to fit into the messy reaction to a pandemic.

Local Decisions on Graduation, April 13, 2020

Basketball star and public philanthropist LeBron James, not forgetting his Aakron roots, even while playing in Los Angeles, did remind the nation how many families still relied on getting decent nutrition from school lunches, as well as the promise of an education, if not all three of its meals on March 25, reaching out to an Akron Ohio restaurant after Ohio Governor Mike De Wise shuttered schools in the state without warning or alternative support, when he arranged to provide tortillas, and chicken and beef tacos for th potlatch of a massive Taco Tuesday for families with kids at the school he has founded. Other states and educators were far slower in making up the slack, perhaps as the federal government had done so little planning, and had cut state funds, or they had less flexibility or foresight to do so in a global pandemic. The critical role that schools afforded in many domestic economies–and indeed in many hopes for future economic betterment–had the rug swept out from under them by immediate suspension, hurting many without options for hope or food, and offering few encouraging signs of reopening, which, against a background of unemployment numbers increasing, repeated an intensified narrative of social abandonment: economic scissors of fewer jobs, fewer funds, and less support undermined all stability, as the virus spread across many cities, prisons, and uninsured populations.

The rupture of this interruption of the class schedules across America was seismic: its disruption broadly felt–in a reminder of the limited investment we make in our public support, often whittled down to schools alone, and the broad disruption that this created in the families of blacks and other Americans, by ripping off the pretense of continuity that educational settings could offer in a time of widespread crisis. The new ecosystem of zoom, or other platforms that seriously promised “the same high quality education that students [can] get in a physical platform,” while their limited interactive format and access risk perpetuating the basic lies of removed online experiences as a replication of learning inequalities. The breadth of school closures across America not only loosened social ties but undid a major source of social support; the rapidity of a cascade of “temporary” school closures across California between March 15 to March 18 for either a period of two weeks to a month–beginning March 13 from metro regions of San Francisco and the Bay Area, whose Public Health Officers were fearful of COVID-19’s spread; Sacramento and Reno; and across the SoCal belt from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles and San Diego–

March 13
March 15
March 18

The closure of public schools that had rapidly across the nation, with rising unemployment figures and slowed economy, mirror a narrative of disruption. It encouraged a sense of generalized abandonment urban communities acutely felt, as if they had indeed entered a new world. While the rapid closures of in-person instruction at schools is not included in the vulnerability that was heightened in truly existential terms in mortality rates, hospitalization numbers, and infection rates in ways too painful to map and reshare, the intersection of the disruptive pandemic with the absence of any federal responses to school shuttering seem designed to provoke a broad unrest that almost demanded military force from an authoritarian president. For did not the closure of schools cut into the very family networks that were so important to create continuity for many?

If the protests were powerful occasions of expression, public art, mourning, and unrest, the disruptive level that many experienced has perhaps obscured the discontinuities in schooling. But as we have learned more, in some sense, about epidemiology, statistics, and public health in crash courses for those who could read them online, as if in a massive experiment of remote learning and online access, this was a privileged experience, and an experience that may indeed lead us to be far removed from the experiences of many who were on the front lines of disease, even as we were feeling our absence and lack of connection to them while in our homes, or being outdoors, staying six feet away from others or masked.

Perhaps the unprecedented protections that the administration claims in shielding the dispersion of funds in the CARES Act, has helped to allow the current Secretary of Education, who makes no bones about seeking to remove government from educational choice, has taken the vulnerable moment of increasing coronavirus infection to claim that tax dollars should flow equally to public and charter and private and parochial or denominational faith-based schools, by presenting the new map of school closures as evidence of the “silver lining” of the coronavirus pandemic in promoting an “educational freedom,” and to promote the importance of “school choice” as public schools face increased costs of the ability to reopen in a post-pandemic world, and the lack of any government assistance for how schools might reopen effectively or efficiently.

The increasing difficulty of maintaining g a policy of reporting attendance, competing assignments, and grading homework were immediately recognized to be compromised as the ground of instruction shifted; the ground shifted to compromise any way of adhering to the tracking of progress, or sustaining of engagement and attention, that schools are required to report by federal standards as Every Student Succeeds Act, as they shifted to prioritize developing new curricular strategies for online settings. Without clear methods to maintain measures of normalcy schools could create in a disruptive time the inequalities educational practices were evident to all.

Even without the clear difficulties of creating inclusionary practices of education by remote learning that fractures educational training along a digital divide, in ways school districts were expected to adjust or rely on the donations of corporate sponsors through chrome books and other tools, from wifi to comprehension of remote instruction, as school buildings were required to be shuttered for unknown extended periods across the country by early April, when most states were wrestling with recommended closures, and others left open the possibility of a year-end reopening, entertaining the possibility of a return to school perhaps a month before summer vacation. A large number of southwestern and southern states had shut their doors, faced with uncertain infection rates. And by May, some forty states had shuttered their doors for the whole school year.

Late February COVID-19 School Closures/Ed Week

5. As if taking a page from the school of “disruptive innovation” of Silicon Valley, a mantra promoted by Clayton Christensen and Business Schools, the contorted promotion of “school choice” as the major civil rights issue “of our time” 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. The recent proposal of a five billion dollar tax credit program for private schools in an age of coronavirus not only subverts the intent of $13.5 billion for K-12 schools, seeking to use the “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.

Indeed, DeVos undertook sustained and 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. The decisions fell to often divisive district boards who are asked to struggle to formulate plans with uncertain funding and state support, leaving many schools open to later accusations of a filature of management; De Vos’ greater attention to preparing 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 teachers: it stands to be senselessly and insensitively disruptive to networks of support public schools provide.

In an age when school sites were shuttered with an astounding uniformity by early April, the networking to create a new educational infrastructure in the nation echoed the “silver lining” FOX contributors gloated at how the possible pandemic would be another trigger, itself, as “school closures should prompt states to pay parents to educate their kids in other ways,” by “freeing up existing education dollars to be more nimble,” or how Kahn Academy founder Salmar Kahn presented the pandemic in rosy tones, as an occasion when Americans could re-imagine a “better balance” between online learning tools and in-person learning, as they “realize that you can lean on these types of online tools,” as a welcome disruptive innovation.

Was not the state-wide closure of schools in all but five states presented in rosy tones?

April 3, 2020 Coronavirus School Closures/Ballotopedia

By March 18, several days after President Trump announced a State of Emergency to confront the novel coronavirus, a far less clear consensus existed, even as millions of students were already sent home from in-class instruction–save in more agrarian states with large rural communities. But the powerful crowd-sourced too indeed powerfully revealed “the grip on the world of education” across the nation, and a demonstration of the nation’s paralysis in the face of the virus’ spread, as school district information was pooled to create an active map of what the nation’s schools looked like in the face of the pandemic’s spread. While the temporal distance of about two months from George Floyd’s killing was considerable, the consolidation of a policy of school closures that occurred between these dates is striking. Although adoption of a uniform policy of closures was piecemeal and difficult to map in March–

Screenshot oF EdWeek online map/MapTiler; CARTO
Screenshot of Coronavirus School Closures, March 18, 2020: Entire State Closed (Rose) v. Partial Closures (Ochre)

If in mid-March, the EdWeek map of the nation saw quite a few bastions of complete closures, but a broad uncertainty as to statewide policy, the expanding decision to go with mandatory statewide school closures was surprisingly uniform, but concealed deep effects on local communities, and suffered from a failure to articulate national educational policy in a time of crisis in potentially quite dangerous if not implicitly discriminatory ways.

One the month, school districts furiously juggled, often in zoom meetings, with questions about status of enrollment, school lunches, or grading coursework, hopeful of the possibility of some in-person instruction at a later time, if the basis of restarting schools was difficult to table; the largest national districts–New York; Chicago; Los Angeles–rushed to offer video training to K-12 teachers, and intensified attempts to convert syllabi to online settings that risked reducing engagement; kids rarely checked in, in many cities, and the disturbing lines of divides among minorities, often lacking online access or speedy internet, created disturbing static of sharp inequalities in baseline instruction rooms and questions of how the school year would proceed. But the prospect of a months-long disconnect, and the disruption that this would present to an entire cohort of K-12 students, was not able to be confronted as we formulated a reaction.

While we looked to choropleths, misleadingly, to determine the scope of infection rates, the impact of school closures on the scarce commodity of front line nurses and health-care workers was noted in late March, using U.S. Census records to project the pressure of COVID school closure on child-care obligations, based on Census and Labor records to determine the extent o which school closures could either reduce mortality or the health-care force, with almost a third of health-care workers care for children–and are without a clear epidemiological conclusion. They could potentially reduce the pandemic’s intensity, but lengthen its duration; the childcare obligation posed serious challenges to single parents.

Health Care Workers with Child-Care Obligations/The Lancet

The impact of the serious rupture of closing a public school network was almost not considered, however, given the need of reducing contact networks, as there was little other plan to contain infections’ spread.

The plan for school closures had been defined in scenario that described the far more contained outbreak of disease, but as the multiplication of the virus in many sites in the United States had occurred beneath the eyes of health authorities–and without any clear testing protocol having emerged since the virus was notice for the first time in 2019; the cases of the epidemic had spread with a far great density, we now think, than had been understood at the time–it is difficult to weigh the dangers of the contacts that schools were a serious vector, indeed, given the intensity of the spread of infection by March 1, for further infections, had adequate distancing had been mandated or adopted.

New York Times, June 27, 2020

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

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