Hope During a Pandemic is Both Hard and Inescapable

I cried when I got my second Covid-19 shot.

Not a lot.

Just a few drops.

But the flood of emotions I felt that accompanied that tiny pinch in my arm was totally unexpected.

It was like I gasped for breath and hadn’t realized until then that I was suffocating.

I looked up at the volunteer who had injected me to see if she’d noticed, but it’s hard to read someone’s expression under a mask.

So I found myself shrugging the feeling off, giving her a brisk “Thank you” and heading off to file my paperwork, get another stamp on my vaccination card and plopping in a chair for 15 minutes of observation before heading on my way.

As I sat there, I started to feel this growing sense of excitement in my chest.

Two weeks, I thought.

In two weeks I will be fully vaccinated.

Moderna is 94.1% effective at preventing infection. That means I should be able to return to school and teach my students in-person. Safely.

Some of them have been back in the classroom for weeks now, but I’ve had to stay remote putting up assignments in Google Classroom for the sub to teach.

My pre-existing health conditions make me too susceptible to the virus to take chances with stuffy classrooms and interacting with tens of students for prolonged periods every day.

So instead I spend my daylight hours grading virtual papers and writing digital comments, but I only get to hear student voices on Fridays when all classes are conducted remotely.

Rarely do I get to see a face in one of those austere Zoom boxes.

It’s a lonely life being sidelined this way.

But there seems to be an end in sight.

I can actually plot it on the calendar.

THAT day I can return.

And I wonder, is this hope?

I haven’t really felt anything like it in quite a while.

The world has been such a mess for so long.

A global pandemic that’s infected nearly 29 million Americans and killed 523,000 is bad enough. But it’s the constant bungling of local, state and federal governments response to the virus that has been absolutely demoralizing.

In fact, my second shot was delayed a week because health officials accidentally gave out the dose that had been set aside for me to someone else.

Thankfully waiting an extra 7 days isn’t supposed to have any ill effects. But that’s a week more I have to be out of the classroom and burning my sick days, trying to do 40 hours worth of work in the handful of hours the district allows me.

It’s just that this isn’t an anomaly. All through this process those in charge have dropped the ball.

At every step – bungled, mismanaged, and carelessly misjudged.

The school board refused to value my health and reopened recklessly even putting the community’s own children in danger. The state refused to mandate almost anything to keep people safe, instead offering a truckload of take-it-or-leave-it suggestions.

Hope, I thought. Is it possible to believe in hope anymore?

Barack Obama made it a campaign slogan. Hope and change.

His book was “The Audacity of Hope.”

He wrote:

“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

These words ring so empty today after a presidency full of promises and very little else.

True, much of his domestic agenda was blocked by Republicans. But even when they couldn’t stop him from getting things done, the results were often disappointing. His foreign policy was hawkish full of drone strikes, his immigration policy unduly cruel and his education programs were the fever dreams of Milton Friedman made real – charter schools, high stakes testing and ed tech handouts.

You think Trump was bad!? He was the logical consequence of dashed hopes and neoliberal triumphs. You can’t run, as Obama did, as a once-in-a-lifetime transformational candidate and then legislate to support a status quo that is destroying the majority of Americans.

If you do, you get Trump.

At least now the pendulum has swung back the other way. We’ve got Biden.

Cool, smooth, dependable Biden.

He’s slowly reversing the catastrophes of Trump while quietly committing a few of his own along the way. (Reopening school buildings without mandating the opportunity for teachers to be vaccinated first!? Requiring standardized testing to tell if students have been affected by the pandemic!?)

How does one continue to hope in the wake of such disappointment?

The fabric of our society and our governmental institutions are frayed to the breaking point. They could fall apart any day now.

How does one continue to hope in light of all this?

My phone buzzes. I shake my head to dispel all these gloomy thoughts.

Well! Here’s some good news. Apparently there are no ill effects from the shot. Time to go.

I stand up and look around at the busy vaccination center.

Volunteers continue to welcome patients. They’re much more organized than when I got my first shot only weeks earlier.

Everyone is friendly and there’s even a sparkle in their eyes.

What is that sparkle?

Why does everyone smile?


Why did I cry?

There’s only one possibility.

It’s hope.

Goddamit.

It’s hope.

The teardrop that escaped my eye wasn’t a response to any pain from the injection. It was pain at the possibility that all this would end.

It was the feeling – the certainty – that the pandemic was only temporary and that I would come out the other side. We all would.

Because in the part of our hearts where hope grows, the past doesn’t matter.

What’s happened is always past.

The only thing that counts is the future.

And when you have a future you have to hope.

It’s simply built in. There’s no way around it.

It would be easier not to hope. But the only way to do that is to die, and apparently I’m going to live.

So you pick yourself up, you dust off your knees and you get to the work ahead.

Because no matter how disappointing the past, how demoralizing the events you’ve lived through, there is always the possibility that things will be better tomorrow.

If only you work to make it so.


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Standardized Testing During a Pandemic is Stupid. And Cruel.

When the Biden administration announced that schools across the nation would have to give standardized tests during the global Coronavirus pandemic this year, America’s teachers let out a collective sigh of disgust.

If it had to be put into words, it might be this:

“I can’t even.”

Imagine a marine biologist being told she had to determine if the water in the dolphin tank is wet.

That’s kind of what the demand to test is like.

Determine if the water is wet and THEN you can feed the dolphin.

Imagine a person on fire being told to measure the temperature of the flames before you could put them out.

Imagine a person staving in the desert being required to take a blood test to determine previous caloric intake before anyone would offer food or water.

It’s literally that dumb.

No, it’s worse.

The reason the Biden administration gave for requiring testing this year was to determine the amount of learning loss students had suffered during the pandemic.

I wrote that in one sentence but it will take several to show how dumb that idea is.

First, there’s the idea of learning loss.

What does it mean?

It’s based on the idea that kids learn on a schedule.

You need to know A, B and C when you’re in 3rd Grade. You need to learn D, E, F in 4th grade. And so on.

And if you miss one of the letters somewhere in there, you’re learning will be disrupted forever.

The Biden administration seems to be worried that kids are not intellectually where they SHOULD be because of the pandemic and that if we don’t do something about it now, they will be irreparably harmed.

It is pure fantasy.

There is no developmental, psychological or neurological basis to it.

Some fool at a standardized testing company just made it up to sell more product.

And it doesn’t take much to prove it wrong.

Do a thought experiment with me.

Imagine you needed directions to the store.

You didn’t get them yesterday. You got them today.

Was your brain irreparably harmed?

You were still able to learn how to get to the store, weren’t you? You just did it one day later. No problem.

It might have stopped you from getting your groceries yesterday, but you can certainly go shopping today.

Now imagine we weren’t talking about directions. Imagine we were talking about addition and subtraction.

Some kids are ready to learn these concepts earlier than others. Does that mean there’s something wrong with them?

No. Absolutely not. It’s just that people’s brains develop at different rates.

And if you don’t learn something one year, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it a year or two later.

There may be issues with core concepts like language acquisition being delayed too long over larger amounts of time, but these are extreme cases.

Delaying one or two years of school curriculum won’t make or break you.

For most of us, not learning something now doesn’t preclude learning it later.

So learning loss is nonsense.

No child has lost the ability to learn because of the pandemic – except any who died as a result of catching Covid.

That’s perhaps the biggest way the Biden administration’s testing requirement is dumb. It’s justified on assessing something that doesn’t exist.

But if we redefine learning loss into the next best thing that DOES exist – learning – it at least makes sense.

So maybe Joe meant that we need standardized tests to find out how much kids have learned (not what learning they’ve lost).

It’s still deeply stupid, but at least it’s coherent.

Here’s the problem. Standardized tests are completely unnecessary to assess learning. In fact, they’re notoriously terrible at measuring this.


Under normal circumstances, standardized tests don’t show how much a child has learned. They show how well the child can take the test. They show how well the test taker can play the game of test taking.

Most questions on these tests are multiple choice. They limit the possible answers to 4 or 5 choices.

If you’re asking something extremely simple and clear, this is achievable. However, the more complex you get – and by necessity the more subjective the question gets – the more the test taker has to think like the person who wrote the question.

That’s why it’s a standardized test. That’s what it means – conforming to a standard.

Out of all the possible ways to answer the question, the standard test taker will answer like THIS. And whatever that is becomes the correct answer.

The test makers get to decide what kind of person to set the standard as, and most of the time it’s white, male, Eurocentric kids.

This doesn’t matter so much when you’re asking them to calculate 2+2. But when you’re asking them to determine the meaning behind a literary passage or the importance of a historical event or the cultural significance of a scientific invention – it matters.

As a result, kids from richer, whiter homes tend to score better on these tests than those from poorer, browner homes.

And that doesn’t mean poor, brown kids aren’t intelligent. It just means they don’t necessarily think like the standard rich, white kids.

We don’t need to give standardized tests to tell us who gets low scores during a pandemic. It will be the poor minority kids. During a pandemic, during a recession, during a stock market boom, during a revolution, during anything.

Moreover, the idea that the amount of learning children have done in school is a mystery is, itself, a farce.

Of course, most kids have learned less during the pandemic than under normal years.

Schools have been disrupted. Classes have been given remotely, in-person and/or in some hybrid mix of the two. Parents, families, friends have gotten sick, jobs have been lost or put in jeopardy, social interactions have been limited.

You really need a standardized test to tell you that affected learning?

You might as well ask if water’s wet. Or fire’s hot? Or if a starving person is hungry?

But let’s say you needed some independent variable.

Okay. How about looking at the classroom grades students have earned? Look at the amount of learning the teacher has calculated for each student.

After all, most of these kids have been in school to some degree. They have attended some kind of classes. Teachers have done their best to assess what has been learned and to what degree.

Look at teachers’ grades. They will give you 180-some days worth of data.

Look at student attendance. See how often children have been in class. I’m not saying that there aren’t justifiable reasons for missing instruction – there are. But attendance will tell you as lot about how much students have learned.

Ask the parents about their kids. Ask how they think their children are doing. Ask what kind of struggles they’ve gone through this year and how resilient or not their children have been. Ask about the traumas the children have experienced and what solutions they have tried and what kind of help they think they need.

And while you’re at it, make sure to ask the students, themselves. I’m sure they have stories to tell about this year. In fact, many teachers have suggested students keep Covid diaries of what they’ve been going through.

Finally, take a look at the resources each school has. How much do they spend per pupil and how does that compare with surrounding districts? Look at how segregated the school is both in comparison to other districts, other schools in the district and class-by-class within the school. Look at class size, how wide or narrow the curriculum is, how robust the extra curricular activities offered, what kind of counseling and tutoring each school offers. That will tell you a lot about how much learning students have achieved – not just during Covid times but ANYTIME!

If that’s not enough data, I don’t know what to tell you.

There are plenty of measures of student learning this year. Standardized testing is completely unnecessary.

But unfortunately that doesn’t end the stupid.

Now we come to the rationale behind assessing learning in the first place.

The Biden administration says we have to give standardized tests to tell how much students have learned SO THAT WE CAN PROVIDE RESOURCES TO HELP KIDS CATCH UP!

Are you freaking kidding me!?

That’s the reason behind this fool’s errand?

You need something to tell you where to direct the resources?

Let me give you a little advice. If you’ve got a hungry dolphin, stop worrying about the wetness of the water. Feed the dang thing!

If someone’s on fire, put away the thermometer and take out the hose.

If someone’s starving, put away the needle and take out a glass of water and a sandwich.

Because that’s the ultimate problem with test-based accountability.

It purports to offer resources to students in need but never really does so.

There is no additional funding coming to help kids overcome the hurdles of Covid. Just as there were no additional resources to help children of color after many failed standardized assessments.

There’s just a boondoggle to be given to the testing companies on the dubious promise that the next time kids take the tests, they’ll do better.

There’s no money for tutoring or counselors or extra curricular activities or reducing class size. But there’s a treasure chest full of gold doubloons (i.e. tax dollars) for testing companies to give us test prep materials.

Common Core workbooks, standardized test prep software, test look-a-like apps – they’re all there.

It’s all just corporate welfare for the standardized testing industry. It’s not about helping kids learn.

In any normal year, that would be bad enough.

But this year it’s even worse.

Not only will the tests fail to bring any relief to children struggling to learn in a pandemic, they will actually stop them from learning.

Because, after all, one of the most precious resources this year is time. And that’s exactly what these tests will gobble up.

Wasting time on testing is bad in any year, but in a year when school buildings have been closed and learning has been conducted remotely, when we’ve struggled with new technologies and safety precautions, when we’ve seen our friends and neighbors get sick, quarantine and hospitalize… Every second learning is that much more valuable.

Instead of using what few days remain of the academic year to reinforce skills, discuss new concepts or practice problems, the Biden administration insists teachers proctor standardized tests.

That takes time. A lot if it.

Yes, Biden is allowing all kinds of leniency in HOW we take the tests. They can be shortened, taken in school, taken remotely, even taken at a later date – but they must be taken.

So goodbye, time that could have been spent on authentic learning. Hello, hours, days and weeks of test-taking drudgery.

That’s not a trade off many teachers, parents or students think is fair.

So President Biden can stop the charade.

America’s teachers aren’t buying it.

We know how deeply stupid this testing mandate is.

Stupid and cruel.

Paging, Dr. Jill Biden. Paging, Dr. Jill Biden. Where you at?

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Reckless School Reopenings Cause Long-Term Academic Deficits

The American education system is under attack.

And just like at the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, it’s an inside job.

At nearly every level of government – from Presidents to Congress to state legislatures all the way down to local school boards – decision makers have ignored science and sound policy to prioritize anything that will give the economy a quick boost.

It didn’t have to be this way. We could have put humanity first. We could have taken every step possible to protect our children from a deadly virus whose full effects on the human body are unknown. We could have protected their teachers and teachers families who by all accounts are even more susceptible.

But that would mean socialism – giving everyday people survival checks so they can stay home and not go into unsafe work environments. That would mean providing money to parents so they could stay home with their own kids and ensure they were doing their best academically in remote learning.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that kind of country. We have no problem spending $1.8 trillion on tax breaks for the ultra rich, but $2,000 a month for the working class is too extravagant.

Better to make us unnecessarily congregate at non-essential jobs and spread Covid-19 all over the place. No wonder we only have 4% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s Covid cases. No wonder we have about 20% of the world’s Covid fatalities.

Instead of acting like responsible adults, we’ve invariably reopened schools while infection rates are high in surrounding communities.

And efforts at mitigating spread of the disease have been inadequate to lax to nonexistent.

The main excuse for such irresponsible behavior has been that it is in the best interests of children’s academic success.

Kids learn better in-person. So we should reopen schools to in-person instruction.

However, this kind of thinking is hypothetical to a fault. It ignores the specific facts of the situation and pretends they don’t exist.

In-person learning IS better under normal circumstances. But a global pandemic is not normal circumstances.

At so many levels, rushed, unsafe reopenings have already caused long-term academic deficits that will haunt our school system for decades if not longer.

In the short term, most academic programs being practiced during the pandemic are not as effective as alternative plans that would also safeguard student health and safety.

In the long term, factors such as faith in the school system, devastation of the teaching profession and potential lingering health effects of the virus may spell absolute disaster in the coming years even if Covid, itself, becomes nothing but a bad memory.

SHORT TERM EFFECTS

The kind of academics parents are accepting from their duly elected school directors is a national embarrassment.
It’s not that too many schools are providing instruction remotely. It’s that not enough are.

Instead, about 47% of students attend schools providing some kind of in-person instruction, according to a poll by Education Next. That’s about 19% of the districts in the country providing some kind of substandard hybrid program and 28% trying to run blindly as if the pandemic wasn’t happening. Moreover, those open to in-person instruction are most often located in communities with the highest Covid infection rates!

Let’s start with hybrid models. Most involve some kind of in-person instruction combined with remote learning. Partial groups of students come to the buildings certain days and stay remote on others. Meanwhile, a significant percentage of the student body refuses to participate and remains remote entirely.

The result is inconsistent programs. Students switch from one method to another – either because of changes at home or schools rapidly going from one model to another. Kids get used to learning one way and then have to change to another. They have to keep track of elaborate schedules and often fall through the cracks.

No wonder grades are tanking. We’re asking students to do things that are simply too complicated for their ages. And parents who are struggling with their own Covid-inspired juggling acts are often just as confused.

As a parent, it’s hard to make sure your child attends in-person or remote learning sessions when you aren’t even sure when these sessions are. The result is a spike in student absences which can come as a surprise to both parents and students.

And since only a portion of students remain remote – even if that portion is half or more of the total student body – their needs are usually ignored in favor of those willing to attend in person. Time and resources are prioritized for in-person students and taken away from remote students. This should be no surprise since students who remain on remote are much more likely to be poor and/or minorities while those attending in person are more likely to be wealthier and white.

Critics of remote instruction complain that it exacerbates existent inequalities. However, the hybrid model does so to an even greater degree – all with the sanction of the school board. And once inequalities are no longer the result of federal or state legislators or lack of resources but come directly from decision makers in your hometown refusing to care about all students, you have a deep systemic problem that no amount of moving students around from place-to-place can fix.

Even when everyone is on the same page and in the school building for instruction, the normal benefits of having students in-person are outweighed by necessary mitigation factors in schools.

Teachers help students by observing their work and stepping in if students are making mistakes or need help. However, teachers who are attempting to stay outside of 6 feet of their students cannot help because they cannot adequately see what their students are doing.

Moreover, kids benefit by working with each other in small groups. But this cannot be easily accomplished when they have to stay 6 feet apart.

In fact, both situations are best remedied by some kind of remote instruction. Students can share work through devices with both teachers and other students. They can collaborate virtually and get help. Being in-person gives no benefit. In fact, it just obscures the real solution.

IN-PERSON AND REMOTE SIMULTANEOUSLY

Then we have the unreasonable demand that teachers attempt to instruct students in-person while also instructing those on-line at the same time.

This has been an absolute disaster.

Either teachers burn themselves out trying to address the needs of two different groups with two different styles of instruction simultaneously, or they teach the entire group as if it were meeting remotely.

This results in one of two possibilities. One, teachers pay more attention to those in-person and mostly ignore those on-line. Two, they have to spend so much time dealing with technological issues that crop up or that they didn’t have time or training to anticipate that they end up ignoring in-person students.

This is a method that looks good on paper. It makes school boards seem like they are trying to meet the needs of all learners. But what they’re really doing is meeting the needs of none.

And there’s the added benefit that some children and staff may get sick in the process.

BENEFITS OF REMOTE

In the time of high infections, it’s best to keep all students remote. Not only is this the safest option for the health of everyone involved, it provides the best available education.

Academics can be consistent and schedules predictable. Problems can be anticipated, planned for and best solved. And the needs of the most students can be met. Districts can ensure everyone has the necessary technology and wi-fi. They can make sure teachers are trained and have help.

But too many decision makers see this as a defeat. We’re giving in to the virus instead of molding it to our will.

The sad fact is, if we want to defeat Covid, we need to defeat THE VIRUS. Pretending it doesn’t exist will not help anyone.

LONG-TERM EFFECTS

The short-sightedness of current academic plans that try to circumvent remote learning when infections are high will have lasting consequences on American education for years to come.

When politicians and school boards promote reckless policies, it destroys public faith in self-governance. There are plenty of private corporations just chomping at the bit to take over our schools. How can we forestall them when our duly-elected representatives repeatedly show themselves to be unfit for the job? If parents lose their faith in school boards, the beneficiaries will most likely be private corporations.

The same goes for larger government institutions like the President, Congress, the CDC and state legislatures. The Trump administration was a never ending dumpster fire. The hope was that a new administration would be better – and the Biden administration has been more efficient in many ways.

However, it is nearly as pro-corporate as the previous regime. The CDC under Trump commonly rewrote scientific guidance to agree with whatever mad dictate the idiot in the Oval Office just tweeted. Under Biden, the CDC has been more constrained, but it still ignores the world consensus on school closings and countless scientific studies.

Biden needs to rebuild faith in government. That won’t happen when his CDC issues official policy stating that teacher vaccinations are not necessary to reopen schools.

TEACHERS

And that brings me to the teacher shortage.

First, it’s not a shortage. It’s an exodus. Highly trained professionals refuse to submit to ill treatment, loss of autonomy and lack of adequate wages and benefits.

This is not a new problem. Educators have been leaving the profession in droves long before Trump or Biden.

But the current situation is finishing the job.

Few people are going to want to be teachers when they’re treated like this. Their health and safety is taken completely for granted. It isn’t even considered part of the equation or a certain amount of educator deaths are considered acceptable.

Teachers are expected to do multiple jobs at the same time in dangerous conditions at the drop of a hat and accept all the blame and none of the credit for what happens.

Ed tech companies have been waiting in the wings to take over the job of educating children. And the result will not be a superior education. It will be the complete dumbing down of American academics. Instruction will become a way corporations can sell products to students and families. It will not be centered on what is best for individual children.

As much as some people scream and foam at teachers who have the audacity to stand up for their own health and safety, they will miss us when we’re gone.

HEALTH ISSUES

And finally, there’s the lingering health issues caused by ignoring safety protocols for students and staff.

The problem with Covid isn’t just the possibility that you’ll die. Even if you survive, the most common long term effects are fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, joint pain, and chest pain.

However, other reported long-term symptoms include difficulty with thinking and concentration, depression, muscle pain, headache, intermittent fever and heart palpitations.

Long-term complications can include cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, dermatologic, neurological and/or psychiatric problems.

We don’t know how serious or widespread these issues will be. However, we could be dooming a generation of children to increased depression, anxiety, changes in mood, smell and taste problems, sleep issues, difficulty with concentration, or memory problems.

How will the job market be impacted by large numbers of young people on disability due to inflammation of the heart muscle, lung function abnormalities, acute kidney damage or even crippling rashes and hair loss?

There could be thousands of Covid’s Kids who have to pay the rest of their lives for the recklessness of adults today.

Not to mention adults suffering from these conditions and having to leave the workforce immediately.

So rushing to reopen schools is a bad idea.

It robs kids of the best possible education given pandemic conditions. It increases racial and economic inequality. It erodes faith in government at all levels. And it gambles with the health and safety of everyone – adults and children – caught in the middle.

The best way to promote student learning isn’t to attack the very system providing it. Nor is it to endanger the lives of those who do the work and provide instruction.

The current crisis can be a temporary situation to survive with a minimum of risk and a maximum of support and caution.

Or we can recklessly pretend it isn’t happening and put the future of our children and the nation at large in unnecessary jeopardy.

 


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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!