Back when the kids were little, we lived in a five-floor walk up apartment in the northern tip of Manhattan, a neighborhood called Washington Heights, home to an odd mix of scruffy academics (that was us), artists, aging German Jews, and Dominicans. One day, as I prepared to haul a four-year old and a baby up all those stairs, a Dominican family - a mom, the grandma, and a couple of kids — from downstairs greeted me. They were heading over to the local school for a lunch, and wanted to know if I wanted to join them.
Lunch? At the school? Yes, they told me. They explained that they often went over to the school for a free meal. The school fed anyone who showed up. I passed; the baby needed a nap, I said, but I tucked away that information in my head for the future. One never knows when one might need a free meal.
Tensions are growing around the country over the fact that schools have been closed for a year. The teachers union in Chicago and the superintendent nearly pushed the nuclear button this week. The city of San Francisco is suing their school district. Every day, parents who oppose school closings tag me on posts on Twitter, hoping to get journalists to pay attention to their plight.
The CDC says that school should open, even before teachers get a vaccine. Every public health expert says that schools should open. The Biden administration is trying to dance around this fight. They say that schools should open. But — and there’s always a but — they say that schools should be safe. OK, masks and sanitizer. No big deal, right? But they add one word - ventilation. Ventilation is a biggie actually, because most schools in this country are ancient structures without operational windows. So, what they are really saying is that there will be no school openings without expensive upgrades, if not entirely new buildings. (When I wrote about the issue last year, experts told me that it was probably best to knock them all down and start over.) Which isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
So, things are going to get very ugly politically. Meanwhile, kids, their families, and entire communities are in trouble, because of the school closures. For the little kids, the loss of time learning how to read and how to add is tragic, for sure. They’ll never catch up, and will contend with life-long decreased income and opportunities.
But for the older kids, the loss of academics is the least of the problems. It honestly doesn’t matter if the kids in my town aren’t getting the top learning experience from their AP Psychology class. Hell, it might even be a good thing that they have less pressure to perform academically. The kids here are tortured to perform and jump through the hoops to academic brilliance.
If schools were just about the academics, we could solve this school closure crisis by stop trying to make virtual education work, completely shut the schools, and give everyone a password to Khan Academy. But schools are about more than academics, which is why closing them has led to massive societal devastation.
Political scientists often point out that our country was founded by folks who were committed to Lockean liberalism — government should be limited. It’s a common exercise in any Introduction to American Government class to line up Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence with Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government and find all the similarities. So, compared to other European countries, our government does not provide a vital safety net.
While the federal government might do a lousy job of providing food for hungry folks, health insurance, mental health support, childcare, and so on, these people still need help. So, government has told schools to solve these problems. Sometimes it provides the money to do these things, sometimes it just tells schools to do them as an unfunded mandate. Schools are our secret social net.
So, when schools closed, folks like my neighbors in Washington Heights stopped getting their meals. Special ed kids stopped getting therapy for physical disabilities, mental health issues, and severe behavioral issues. Women stopped working. Because community life sucks in America, kids became isolated from other human beings. Because housing sucks in this country, kids are crammed into one bedroom apartments with their entire extended family breathing in the same COVID-filled air all day.
In an interview yesterday, a prominent psychologist and author told me that when the schools open up again, she believes that the mental health issues among children will be so intense that schools alone won’t be able to help. The federal government will need to create new programs to reach kids. She didn’t think that schools had the bandwidth to solve this problem alone. Our country’s poorly financed schools have simply too much on their plates.
In my conversations with experts and teachers, they often mention that this pandemic might be a window of opportunity to rebuild our schools, government, and our world. Problems that were hidden are now exposed. A system that was held together with scotch tape and bubble gum will have to be rebuilt properly. This could be a time when take a chuck out old priorities, and chose to prioritize compassion and empathy.
Let’s make better choices.
As part of our on-going challenge to find a new place to hike and eat within an hour of our house every weekend, we drove to New Hope in Bucks County, PA last Saturday. Had a lovely lunch at the restaurant/hotel at The River House. Then we walked on the towpath along the old Delaware River canal. (Before the railroads, crap was hauled between NYC and Philadelphia with canals dug along the side of the Delaware River.) We couldn’t hike for too long, because the blizzard began. We might have to change the rules of this game and go back here soon. More pictures here.