What I Don’t Want My School to be Like this Covid Year

I’m going to confess something.

I don’t like wearing a mask.

For a few hours on Halloween it’s fine, but trying to teach middle schoolers through a piece of fabric for 8 hours a day is no one’s idea of professionalism or efficacy.

You know what else?

I hate getting shots.

When they put that vaccination needle to my arm, I had to turn my head away and think about something else. Both times.

But guess what?

I did them.

And I am still WILLING to do them again.

If teaching in 2021-22 requires wearing a mask and even getting a third booster to the Covid vaccine, I’ll do it.

You know why?

Because I am an adult.

Even if we have to go back to teaching students completely on-line (which I don’t want to do), I’ll put on my big boy pants and do it.

It’s not optimal. It causes problems for working parents, but it’s better than the alternative if infections continue to rise.

I’m not saying I like it.

I’m not saying I want to do any of this, but we have to deal with the world as we find it.

I don’t want to have to teach during a pandemic, but that’s the world we’re living in.

That’s the world we’ve MADE.

Time to face it.

After a summer where not enough people chose to get vaccinated, Covid-19 cases are on the rise again. And now we have the new more contagious delta variant that can even infect and be spread by those who got the shot.

We had a chance to turn things around in June and July. Frankly, we blew it.

Restrictions were lifted too early. Safety precautions continued to be politicized. Folks just pretended it was over.

All we had to do was be cautious and get our Fauci ouchies.

Not enough of us did.

So here we are.

I’m going to be honest with you.

I don’t want this school year to be as bad as last year.

The last year and a half has been a nightmare for classroom teachers like me.

We were teaching remote, then in-person, then BOTH at the same time! Social distancing was erratic because there just wasn’t the space, some students were chronically absent, kids and adults got sick every week but the authorities could never seem to admit anyone might have caught the disease at school…

I watched my district and most of those around me fail at almost every level.

And just when we looked to the government for support, we were told to waste whatever class time we were able to scrap together on another meaningless standardized test.

It was a year that left me feeling blamed for things beyond my control and silenced from the decision making process.

I felt unsafe, subordinate, impotent and neglected.

And I don’t want to do that again.

It’s no wonder that one in four teachers might not return to the classroom this year according to a survey given at the beginning of 2020 by the Rand Corporation.

Research from Education Week published this week had similar findings. According to Lora Bartlett, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, 20 percent of teachers either have already left the profession or are actively seeking employment elsewhere.

Most years teaching has an 8% attraction rate, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Educators like me are simply sick of being ignored, scapegoated, deprofessionalized and or actively obstructed from doing our jobs.

But we didn’t make this situation.

We didn’t create Covid-19. We didn’t ignore the warnings that it was coming here, we didn’t dismantle the pandemic task force, didn’t shirk our duties to put adequate safety precautions in place, didn’t make compliance entirely voluntary, didn’t prioritize economics over public health or a multitude of other things that lead us down this deep, dark rabbit hole.

We’re dealing with the situation, and frankly the rest of the country needs to do the same.

We need universal masking in schools.

Not suggestions from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). We need government mandates, and the fact that some states have mandated exactly the opposite just goes to show that some lawmakers aren’t grown up enough to do the job for which they were elected.

Magical thinking may get you re-elected, but it could also get me and my family killed.

Time for serious solutions.

While we’re at it, we need to require vaccinations for all eligible adults and children going to school in-person. Otherwise, we can find a remote option for them.

Because if we don’t, there are only two likely alternatives – a remote option for everyone or a steady increase in Covid cases in school. The former isn’t good and the later is just not acceptable at all.

We need frequent testing to see if anyone in the building has the disease – and NO I’m not talking about contact tracing. Anecdotes from people who unequivocally have the virus about who he or she may have come into close contact with is not good enough. We need blood tests – hard data.

Speaking of which, every district should have to prove they’ve been able to adequately circulate airflow in the buildings with HEPA filters and other equipment. If they can’t, the federal government should write them a check on the spot. Make them accountable for how they spend it, and make them accountable if they DON’T get the job done.

I know, I know.

This is America and no one can tell me what to do.

Wrong.

We live in a society, not the old West.

We already have a plethora of rules people have to abide by – even list of vaccinations you already need to be enrolled in school – mumps, measles, rubella, polio, etc. Just add Covid-19 to the list.

And grow the heck up.

Too many people can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Too many people have bought the myths and legends about what it means to be an American.

That’s why they’re having conniptions that teachers might actually be including the history of racism in their history.

We’re a country that couldn’t exist if white settlers didn’t first steal the land we’re living on from native peoples. We’re a country founded by mostly slave holders.

You think that’s not an important part of history because you believe our own bull crap propaganda.

And that’s why you don’t have the mental acuity to deal with real problems like a global pandemic.

When this whole Covid thing began, many of us hoped when it was all over we’d have changed things for the better.

We thought they’ll have to change the old way of doing things just to survive this mess, so maybe when we put it all back together, we can put it back together better.

But the reality is, we couldn’t even figure out how to change things enough just to survive this.

In the United States, about 630,000 of us haven’t survived it – more than our soldiers who died in World War II (405,000), the Vietnam War (58,000) and the Korean War (36,000) combined.

I don’t want more people to die.

I don’t want more students and staff to get sick in schools.

I don’t want us to have to go back to remote instruction.

I don’t want this school year to be as bad or worse as the last year and a half.

And I’m willing to make sacrifices to make sure these don’t happen.

I’m willing to wear a mask all day in school and require others to do so, too.

I’m willing to be vaccinated (again if necessary) and make sure everyone eligible is, too.

I’m willing to do all these things I don’t want (and more) in order to make sure worse things don’t happen.

That’s the choice we’re left with today.

And if enough people aren’t grown up enough to make it correctly, we need to make it for them.

Or else we’re all choosing to let the worst come to pass – again.


 

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Muzzling America’s Teachers with a Ban on Critical Race Theory is What Orwell Warned Us About

I first read George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” while in high school almost a decade past its titular date.

At that time, it didn’t seem to be a prediction. It seemed to be a description of life in the Soviet Union.

I never would have guessed that it could be a warning of what the public school system could become in this country if Republican lawmakers have their way.

Far right legislators have proposed bans on so-called Critical Race Theory in at least 20 states that would muzzle classroom teachers from discussing racism and other “controversial” and “divisive” topics or risk being disciplined, fired or facing other legal consequences if they don’t obey.

It is an attempt to legislate history.

These lawmakers are working to control information and let politics – not facts – be the guiding principle of what gets accepted in our chronicle of the past.

Those of us who’ve read “1984” have seen this before.

The text is set in Oceania, a state where the government controls the media, education and even people’s thoughts.

The main character, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites history to match the party line – whatever it is this week.

For example, at a “Hate Week” demonstration near the beginning of the story, people are gathered to cheer their country’s alliance with Eastasia. However, when the speaker abruptly declares that Eastasia is the enemy, people quickly crumple up their banners and acknowledge that Eastasia was always the enemy and they must have been mistaken to think otherwise.

The prospective ban on Critical Race Theory is strikingly similar.

Politicos are trying to erase the United States’ troubled history of systemic racism, gas light any discussion of its current existence and otherwise stifle and control any topic that goes against their party line.

It’s a policy enshrined in page after page of the most famous description of totalitarianism in modern literature.

Let’s take a closer look at some key passages.

TRUTH

‘”There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”‘

Central to the book is a belief in objective truth.

No matter what we think or say, there are facts out there in the world.

For example, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, millions of people were kidnapped from Africa, forced into slavery in the American colonies and exploited in the production of tobacco and cotton. Any denial of that fact, any minimization of the degree of dehumanization in it, is a rejection of reality.

Sanity is our adherence to that reality. Psychological well being is the attempt to bring our thoughts and ideas about what was and what is in line with these facts.

Moreover, doing so is the definition of freedom, itself.

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

If we take away an individual’s right to try and square the reality of the world with their internal ideas about it, we take away all of their freedoms.

One must come to an understanding of the world. It cannot be handed down. It must be the result of observation and understanding.

In short, it is a product of education. We’re taught the facts, but it is up to us to make sense of them.

If the facts are obscured from us or if they are misrepresented, our freedom is impinged.

REWRITING HISTORY

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present…”

In direct opposition to the idea of objective truth is the mutability of history.

To some extent it is completely natural. Over time we come to new understandings. We discover things that had been accepted as facts were misunderstood.

For example, it was long accepted as true that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Now we realize that not only wasn’t he the first European to come to these shores, the idea that he “discovered” anything is incoherent. You can’t “discover” lands where people are already living. More over, given the details of pillage, rape and violence in his own journals, Columbus’ accomplishment should be viewed in far less positive terms than it has been up to this point.

Ideas change and we must keep up with that changing understanding.

However, the danger is when that change is NOT the result of new information or recontextualizing what we already knew. It’s when we allow history to be dictated by politics.

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'”

This idea is essential to the work Winston does at the Ministry of Truth. By rewriting the events of the past and controlling the narrative of history, the Party maintains its authority.

This is the goal of the proposed bans on Critical Race Theory. One political party is attempting to stop the freedom of history based on facts and replace it with history based on whatever is in the best interests of that party maintaining power.

Whitewashing the history of slavery as less exploitative and more mutually beneficial to both the white owners and black enslaved peoples helps to reduce the impetus to contemporary reform in the systems of racism maintained in this country since our failed Reconstruction. Likewise, representing Columbus as a hero and adventurer instead of a murderer and tyrant helps justify similar actions today.

Or as Orwell puts it:

‘”The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware they are oppressed.”‘

EDUCATION

Much of the book is focused on how fascist regimes control thought. And primarily this is done through education and the media.

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

That’s a kind of education. Replacing what is known with whatever the Party wants to be known.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

If you don’t have the words to express an idea, it’s incredibly difficult to have that idea. We do, after all, think in language.

For example, the definition of “Racism” has shifted over time to mean more than just prejudice or discrimination against a person or people based on their race or ethnicity.

It is now more commonly understood as prejudice plus power – racial prejudice, AND social power to codify and enforce this prejudice into an entire society.

This is what is meant by Systemic Racism, a concept at the core of this fight. Much of the battle against Critical Race Theory is really an attempt to stop this concept of racism from becoming widespread and codified through our school system.

It is an attempt to keep the original definition of racism, to stop people from seeing systemic racism by refusing to accept its reality through control over speech.

Yet the movement, itself, is based on redefinitions and insinuations.

Critical Race Theory is not a concept taught at public schools. It’s a decades old legal framework. It’s about how laws function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities.

It’s as much a part of K-12 public schools curriculum as torts, contract law or civil forfeiture. Which is to say, not at all.

However, the GOP is using it because they think it sounds scary. It’s a self-created boogeyman to incite the Republican base against a nebulous and ever changing idea of what they take to be liberal indoctrination.

As Orwell wrote:

‘”It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”‘

And that’s what we have here. The destruction of words, the destruction of Critical Race Theory from its actual meaning into a trigger point.

It is about insinuation instead of talking about Republican grievances of what this so-called liberal indoctrination is head on. Because if they were to discuss the issue openly, it could never be proven. However, to imply, to hint, to whisper avoids the ability to disprove.

It is Newspeak, the fictional language of Oceania where simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary limit the individual’s ability to think and even articulate certain facts or concepts.

PURPOSE OF EDUCATION

But what is the difference between what Republicans are doing with these bans and the naturally evolving course of history? If education is the process of forming an individual’s ideas and thoughts, how is any of it ever free?

Consider this. Orwell describes the goal of education in Oceania:

‘”Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”‘

That is not the goal of our current education system.

We do not want students to be handed down information and simply accept it even if it doesn’t make sense.

Teachers strive to get their students to interact with information, to look at it critically.

And that is the important point – CRITICALLY.

At some point even in Oceania, everyone comes across different ideas, concepts that you may not have considered before or may have actively rejected.

What do you do when this happens?

Winston is expected to believe what the Party tells him to believe. And even in the USA we often act as if being confronted with this reality is the worst case scenario for students. It is the end of the world if they are confronted with a different point of view.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is essential that they be confronted with opposing views so that they can think critically.

That is the purpose of education.

Not to tell students what to think, but to give them the tools to think.

It is up to each and every student to come to their own conclusions.

Educators should give them the facts and even expose them to varying concepts about the facts.

But it is up to the individual student what to do with them.

This makes some parents and politicians uneasy because it treats students as human beings with freedom of choice.

Such freedom is not allowed in Oceania, and if Republicans have their way, it will not be allowed here, either.

We must preserve academic freedom for both students and their teachers.

It is absolutely essential.

Otherwise Orwell’s book will be less a warning than a guide.



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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!