To School or Not to School?

Even as COVID-19 cases in the United States are rising, in many states exorbitantly, the President and like-minded governors are putting pressure on, and in some cases ordering, schools to open for in-person learning in the fall. For some school districts, this means opening in just a few weeks, as many states begin their school year in early August.

In making the argument, the President cited countries like Germany, Denmark, and Norway as examples of schools being opened with no problems. Except there is a problem with this example, a huge one: COVID cases in Germany hover around 298, 10 in Denmark, and 11 in Norway. Currently, the U.S. has confirmed around 3.5 million cases overall, 133,666 deaths, and on July 11 alone more than 70,000 people tested positive – and these are just the cases that are confirmed.

There are valid arguments for re-opening schools for in-person learning, including that distance learning is not as effective, that many students’ mental and emotional well-being is negatively impacted by not being in school, and that parents who must work outside of the home either won’t be able to go back or have no choice and cannot leave their young children alone all day.

My son’s school sent out a survey last week that asked three questions: 1. What grade is your child going into? 2. What mode of instruction do you prefer, in-person or distance learning? 3. Do you have a need for after school care? I knew what I wanted to check for question number 2, but my son is 13 and I felt it important to give him an opportunity to weigh in on his own education. To my surprise, and relief, he chose distance learning. I was surprised because he has a lot of friends, and so naturally I thought he would choose in-person so he could see them every day again. Turns out the idea of having to wear a mask for six hours straight, social distance, and adhere to other strict guidelines outweighed the joy of seeing friends. Fortunately, his Catholic School successfully pivoted to online learning in record time (as I would expect for tuition of over $6,000 per year), and my son did well with it. I know this is not the case for millions of schools and children.

Those of us who are able to telecommute from home, and therefore continue to earn a salary and work safely, whose children’s schools did a good job of distance learning, whose kids had no issues with distance learning, whose children are older and self-sufficient learners, and who don’t have children with special needs cannot fully fathom how difficult this pandemic has been for so many families. I try to remember this, even as everything in me screams no to sending America’s children back to brick and mortar schools, that our politicians are sacrificing our children’s, their teachers’, and families’ health and very lives in an effort to get back to “normal.”

What will “normal” look like? There will be masks, desks spread out, possibly plexiglass partitions at each desk. Perhaps staggered schedules. Maybe a blend of online and in-person learning.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

But what happens when one elementary school teacher or one student tests positive for COVID? All of the students in that class will need to quarantine for 14 days, as will everyone who came in contact with the teacher and students. What if one high school teacher or student tests positive? Then will 150 or so students, their families, and everyone else they came in contact with have to quarantine? What if the lunch staff or a maintenance person or the principal tests positive? What if there is a massive outbreak that effectively shuts the school down and teachers and students are too sick to pivot quickly again to distance learning?

There are too many “what ifs”, too many unknown variables, no way to prepare for every single possible scenario. This virus changes week-to-week, day-to-day, and we have zero way of knowing how the situation will continue to evolve.

The only way to ensure that learning continues uninterrupted as safely as possible is for schools to offer distance learning only. This means that some parents may not be able to go back to work, longer and extended unemployment benefits, additional stimulus packages, extended grace periods on student loans, rents, mortgages, and the economy will continue to lag. All of the things the President and like-minded governors do not want to see, hear about, or support.

I don’t know what is the best answer. I only know that we are in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic with no end in sight, and there is no way my child will be a sacrificial lamb for a government that doesn’t seem to care if he lives or dies.

Man Sings in NYC Subway Station

Imagine how magical this moment must have been for New Yorkers waiting for the subway in 2016? Art has been a saving grace for so many of us during this COVID-19 pandemic, and this video is one more reason to love New York as it tackles an unprecedented crisis. This is the land of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, Broadway, Rockefeller Center. The city that wept and grieved and came back stronger after 9/11. This is the city that needs our prayers right now. It is the epicenter of our country’s COVID-19 crisis, and it is the epicenter for all that our country stands for: Diversity, freedom, innovation, capitalism, and so much more. Enjoy this moment of music.

Woman Under Quarantine Escapes

The parking lot at Walgreens is packed. People no doubt are stocking up on prescriptions, over-the-counter-meds, toilet paper in preparation for isolation. I need a feminine product I forgot to get at the grocery store earlier.

Inside, the store doesn’t reflect the full lot outside. Where is everyone?  Is there a party in the backroom I don’t know about? I pick up my product and take it to the cashier.

For once there is no line. That in and of itself is strange. There’s almost always a long line of people in this store, sighing impatiently and rolling their eyes. Often, I am one of those people.

I hand the cashier a twenty and glance to my left. Standing about seven feet from me is an older woman wearing a loosely tied hospital gown, baggy hospital looking pants, and worn out sneakers. She is drinking liquid out of a glass bottle, her right hand shaking as she holds it to her lips.

Her appearance, so unexpected in this setting, is shocking. I begin to  wonder if I’ve entered a twilight zone.

I look closely at her. She could be anywhere from 60-75 years old. It’s hard to tell if it’s age or hard living showing up on her face. Her hair is dirty blond, thin and dry, either from poor diet, medication, or too much home dying and perming.

She is shaking. She is in some kind of trouble. People don’t walk into stores wearing hospital gowns. Pajamas, slippers, curlers in their hair yes, but not this.

I can’t help myself. I never could keep my mouth shut. “Ma’am,” I say. “Are you supposed to be in the hospital?”

Her voice sounds stronger and more reasonable than her appearance. “I was quarantined for three days. But don’t worry, I’m not contagious.”

Could she be referring to COVID-19, the deadly, novel virus sweeping America and the world? The cashier, a young woman in her late teens, hands me my change.  She is looking at the woman warily, probably wondering how to get out of having to wait on her.

I persist, because the older woman looks like she needs help. People that are okay don’t walk into stores in hospital gowns, and she is shaking. More than her attire, it is the shaking that troubles me.

“Did they let you out of the hospital without your clothes?” I ask her. “Do you need help?”

The smile that passes over her weathered face is full of mischief. “I couldn’t take being in there anymore.”

It dawns on me in that moment that she must have escaped! There is a hospital across the street from this store. Was she suspected of having COVID-19, placed under quarantine, and left against medical advice? I could imagine it. I had a great aunt who used to do it all the time. Whenever she had chest pains, she would call an ambulance, be taken to the ER, then against medical advice, would call a cab and leave for home.

I have a decision to make. Do I ask more questions, try to further assess the situation? If I do, am I responsible for what might come next, like guiding her somewhere safe, calling a family member for her, maybe contacting the police? The situation could get complicated, and was it really any of my business? For all I know, she has someone waiting outside for her in a car.

My instincts are telling me to help. How can I live with myself if I don’t? My mind is telling me to leave it alone. She might have Coronavirus, for goodness sake.

I lean over and whisper to the cashier, “You may want to call your manager. She looks like she needs help.” And I leave.