14. 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.
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.
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–
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.