The 72-year old “shock rocker” Alice Cooper is now of an age group that classifies him as highly susceptible to Covid-19. That means no more rocking campuses with live concerts for the foreseeable future. The guy who made a household name for himself with the anthemic “School’s Out” (1972) has, ironically, finally foretold his own fate – and ours, at least for the while.
Across the United States schools are opening up. Or trying to. Or in the case of University of North Carolina, immediately closing down and reverting to online teaching only. It’s a mess out there, with elementary school administrators, high school principals and college presidents all struggling to balance the needs of effective education with the safety of the student body, faculty and administrators.
As usual, the burden for home-based instruction via social media like Zoom falls on the parents of school-age kids. Many families are being forced to juggle what amounts to overseeing home schooling with their own work lives. The financial burdens are acute. The psychological costs are in some ways even greater.
This is what happens when the state – the agencies of the federal government, that is – fails in its most basic mission, which is to protect the lives of its citizenry. There is no clearer case to be found in U.S. history of the government refusing to assume responsibility, denying accountability and burdening thousands of smaller jurisdictions with picking up the pieces and remaining indifferent to the ensuing pain. Along with the 185,000 corpses left behind (thus far) by the pandemic are the needs of school-age kids, teens and young adults.
It’s a classic case of anarchy, with school managers left to create workable plans that include testing, tracing, protection and meaningful instruction. It’s no surprise that parents are angry over the task that falls to them. What’s fascinating is that the anger seems equally split between the two options; passions are just as strong for getting kids back into classrooms as for keeping them home and safe from infection.
Many working class parents do not have the job flexibility to oversee home-based, on-line instruction. For those of us reasonably fluent in modern media and technology it can often come as a surprise to find out that as much as 30 percent of school-age people do not even have the most basic or adequate connectivity; they lack a laptop, or a shareable internet connection, or the quiet space in which to log on and follow planned instruction. This is not a matter of personal failure. It’s attributable to a combination of poverty, crowded living quarters, and the limits in both cities and rural areas of adequate Wi-Fi networks.
It’s hard to imagine an entire educational system relying upon a fragile piece of software like Zoom. Besides its vulnerability to a clever if insidious hacker, there are the pedagogic limits of the medium: the lack of facial clues, the slight delay in the voice, and the clumsiness of conducting a classroom conversation. No wonder educators and parents are worried about how effective teaching can be on-line.
The problem is that the social and public health costs of in-class instruction are probably greater. They are certainly different, involving complex and as-yet-to-be-determined risks of transmission. There’s no doubt those under the age of 25 are less susceptible than middle-agers or seniors to the most severe consequences of the corona virus. But there’s no reason to believe they are any less prone to getting it, carrying it about or passing it on. There’s a lot we do not know, and given the scatter-shot nature of testing protocols across the country we have essentially burdened jurisdictions and private concerns to go it alone figuring this out.
Two things we do know, however. School-age kids and especially dorm-resident students are keen to socialize in groups and yuck it up without proper protection – and not just of the facial mask variety. The risks are even more alarming for members of fraternities and sororities, over whom most university administrators are virtually powerless. We also know that schools are hard –pressed to retrofit their classrooms, hallways, cafeterias and dorms to fit the needs of social distancing. Structural limitations in the form of space constraints make the adjustment difficulty if not impossible and, in any case, very expensive.
For all the legitimate debate about the health and safety of students, there has been far less public focus on protecting staff and educators. Teachers unions have been vociferous in protecting their members, arousing – as always seems to be the case – the ire of a public that seems intent on devaluing the need for organized labor to protect its ranks.
The point is that issue of reopening schools is a perfect reflection of the splits and fissures that divide the country. And once again, this is only because the central governing institutions have failed in their basic responsibility.
There is no easy fix to this problem. Schools are on their own here and parents and students expected to pick up the pieces. One thing is for sure. It won’t be long before more campuses that try to open will sound the call that “School’s Out.”