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 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 supercomputers which manage complex national security issues designed to “detect, repel, defeat, or mitigate national threats” in Albequerque NM, with origins in the construction of the first atomic bomb, the nation adopted a 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.
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.
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.
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 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. 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.
The late Herbert Dreyfus providentially cautioned, in ways that seem destined to be read for a pandemic’s reliance on remote diagnosis, that the exigencies of the distributed clinic may be less applicable to theater of learning or instruction. For as Dreyfus felt 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. 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.
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.