I don’t last too long in “closed” Facebook groups on community/local issues because usually the admins prohibit political discussion in these forums, on the sensible assumption that these would otherwise degenerate into vitriolic bloodbaths, permanently hampering or killing all discussion. I have nothing but awe and admiration for my friends who manage to navigate such forums with grace and equanimity, but I’ve simply accepted that it would probably be best if I didn’t even try to do that at this point.
Having said that, I’ve managed to lurk around one recently, involving a group of suburban parents—Republicans and Democrats—trying to intelligently address the subject of our township’s plans to open up our public schools in six weeks. After a while you can discern the political leanings of some of the posters, but the one thing they have in common is that they are all very, very concerned about their kids. And they are completely freaked out about how schools will plan to reopen this fall.
I suspect my local “closed” group is being mirrored by other, similar groups in practically every school district in the country. In the context of what we’ve been hearing from the Trump administration—or rather what we’ve not been hearing—I have to think that Donald Trump and his billionaire sycophant, Betsy DeVos,current Secretary of Education, have absolutely no clue about what is metastasizing in the fevered swamps of American parents of school-age children right now in this country, or its potential to explode in a wave of electoral anger that could dwarf what occurred to the Republican Party in 2018.
I’m talking about a thermonuclear, cataclysmic, event of raw, unbridled voter fury. I’m talking about an existential, political wipe-out of Biblical proportions. A tsunami, if you will.
The most generous characterization of the Trump administration’s approach towards the situation facing our public schools in less than two months—six weeks or less, in fact, for many schools, including ones in Texas—is one of willful blindness, suggestive of an astonishing degree of deliberate, magical thinking that imagines an idyllic sequence of cause and effect, where these schools will miraculously reopen, filled with rows of smiling teens, pre-teens, elementary schoolers and their teachers, all happy to share and mingle in their wondrous educational experience in the face of this horrific and unprecedented health crisis.
It is a fantasy world, reminiscent of a Disney, or possibly early Spielberg film, where the messy issues of the COVID-19 pandemic are swept aside and resolved, by the force and will of the Good Leader and his Education Secretary. Where all that is perfect and hoped for incredibly comes to pass, simply as a result of their willing it to occur. In this magical space, suspended like a gossamer soap bubble in time, pesky “social distancing” problems are easily resolved or mere afterthoughts, piddling problems capable of swift and effective solutions, as students and teachers "knuckle it through" together, bravely swinging open their doors to the unflinching praise of millions of parents of happy, rosy-cheeked school-age children.
Let me explain what I think is going to happen.
I think that for the next six weeks, depending on where you live, there is going to be an intense debate among parents going back and forth about just how much schools should open. I think that debate will be shaded by the pronouncements of local health departments, political affiliations, and school board compositions, by preconceptions, some rigid, some flexible, about the scope of the risk involved and how it can be mitigated, or even whether it should be a concern.
That debate will be shaped by conflicts between parents of small children, who are desperately counting on being able to return to work, and those of children old enough to stay home on their own. By whether the local consensus is for online or in-person learning, or some hybrid of both (which will in turn be influenced by what the wealthier and classier school district down the road is doing). Debates will pop up between two-income families and those with stay-at-home mothers or fathers; between parents whose children’s special needs who cannot learn a great deal online, and those with children who adapted easily and even cheerfully to online teaching formats. Battles will rage between those parents who cannot afford Internet access or Google-drive compatible tablets and those who can; between parents whose children are diabetic or immuno-compromised and parents whose sole concern for their child revolves around the fall football season. Don’t forget those parents with children who simply came home from college and cheerfully plopped down again in their bedrooms last spring when forced to go online, or parents with children in tony private schools and elite colleges who cannot understand why they’re being asked to pay $75,000 per year so their child can Zoom-chat with a teacher 3,000 miles away.
All of these swirling concerns will be dumped on underpaid, overstressed teachers and professors. These educators will be forced to cope not only with the health consequences, but to adapt new teaching methods to which they may not be suited; they’ll do so under the supervision of thoroughly besieged and cash-strapped school and college administrators who must endure the political consequences of their decisions.
But, rest assured, plans will be settled upon, procedures will be implemented, and decisions will be made, as always, of course, subject to the ongoing aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic (which by September promises to remain quite out of control). In fact all this is happening right now, everywhere as we speak, and has been happening for months. Because every school district, it seems, is on its own. They have received one simplistic edict from Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education: Reopen, with physical attendance, at all costs.
And after all those plans are made, and those districts that opted for in-person learning have opened their doors for two weeks, one child is going to come to school sick. Maybe whoever they go home to will fall ill. Someone, either a child, a teacher or family member, at some point, will get very sick, and someone may even be hospitalized and die. That news will fly across social media at speeds we can scarcely contemplate. In a matter of hours, parents will be screaming at school administrators, at teachers, even at each other, pointing fingers and asking why this particular child was permitted into the school at all. Entire classes will need to be quarantined and the schools must be shut down and deep-cleaned. People who had returned to work, counting on their kids being in class during the day, will have to come home to take care of their children. In this Hobbesian work environment Americans are facing, many of them will be fired or let go by employers because of this. Two weeks later, the school reopens, and the same thing happens again. Not only in public schools, but at those nice colleges as well.
And then, suddenly it’s October, and despite all the best laid plans, things are shutting down again. Only a few schools, mostly in outlying, rural areas, remain open with physical in-presence instruction. American parents are helpless and they are infuriated. Infuriated beyond measure. Their kids are home, and although the teachers are making truly heroic efforts, it’s the same substandard instruction. Some parents are infuriated that the schools had to close again, some are infuriated that they were ever opened in the first place. But everyone is angry, angrier than they have ever been in their lives about anything.
Let’s just stop there, because this is an important point, and it relates to what I’ve been seeing in my local Facebook group. It’s something that I think people like Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are constitutionally incapable of appreciating, simply because of who and what they are. Trump, as we all know, is a product of privileged, private schools where he was ferried along thanks to his father’s wealth, cheating his way into Wharton. DeVos is a scion of a rapacious billionaire family determined to suck the blood out of public education to enrich their private-school, for-profit corporate interests and obscure religious convictions. Neither appears to have any conception of the intensity which ordinary Americans view their childrens’ futures, because neither have had to work for anything in their lives, least of all in providing for their children.
But these parents—both Republicans and Democrats alike—that I’m seeing on Facebook are intimately wrapped up in every detail of their kids’ futures. They are attentive, and they are exacting. They inform themselves like crazy, reading and sharing everything. Many, if not most have spent enormous amounts of time and sacrifice trying to provide their children with the best possible futures. Some have gone quite overboard in fact, but that’s another subject.. Their children are the most important thing to them, by far. There is no sacrifice many of these parents would forego for their children, even if it meant sacrificing their own lives.
That’s how wrapped up these parents are in this school reopening issue. It’s more than just simply reopening schools, it’s their lives, hopes and dreams for their children that are being sacrificed during this pandemic. Nothing is more important to them—even politics.
So yes, when this “reopen at all costs” bubble bursts and the scope of the school calamity crashing down around them comes into full focus, some of those Republican parents will blame the media, or Democrats, or Dr. Anthony Fauci or anyone but Donald Trump for overreacting to the pandemic, for the fact that their kids cannot attend school, and maybe even for the fact that they can’t go back to work. There are some people in this country, maybe even 35-40%, who are so brainwashed by right-wing media that they won’t be able to relate the catastrophe in the schools to the administration’s (and the GOP-controlled Senate’s) complete lack of assistance or guidance in simply urging schools to “reopen, or else.”
But those aren’t the parents I’m seeing in this Facebook group, at least in my suburban enclave. They are simply going to be furious: furious at the disruption to their lives, and furious at the heedless, unthinking destruction of their childrens’ futures. Many are going to comprehend—then and only then—what the the wholesale folly of attempting to reopening the U.S. economy without proper deference and regard to a deadly viral pandemic has truly wrought. They’re going to take out that fury on those who did nothing, who offered no financial assistance to either ordinary Americans or the schools where they send their children. Those who offered no help or guidance--just a stupid, mindless and insensitive exhortation to fully open the schools, and the consequences be damned.