Wednesday, April 26, 2023

What We've Forgotten About Pandemic Schooling

Some folks in Congress are going to use the pandemic as a cudgel to beat on teachers today. So any time this topic gets brought up, here are a few basic points to keep in mind.

Schools were not closed.

School buildings were closed, and teachers were working their butts off to deliver education in a variety of ways. Most commonly that meant cobbled-together tech-based systems, but in some communities (like mine) it meant teachers driving packages of hand-outs to unwired homes out in the sticks. But the notion that schools were completely shut down and teachers were sitting at home eating bon-bons and enjoying a paid vacation is utter bullshit. 

Teachers wanted to return--safely.

It would be a Herculean challenge to find any significant number of teachers who said, "Boy, this remote teaching is awesome. I want to do it forever." Teachers wanted to be back in the building--if they could do it without risk to the safety and health of themselves and their loved ones. But across the nationm we got variations on this conversation.

District: We would like to get the school buildings open again. Would you come back?
Teachers: We'll gladly come back as soon as you've put some safety measures in place.
District: We're not going to do that.
Teachers: Then we would rather not come back.
Certain Folks: Teachers are forcing us to close schools for no reason.

You can add a variant form, particularly after vaccinations became available, in which the district says, "Tough shit. Come back anyway."

National unions do not control locals

The weirdest variant of these arguments has been the one where Randi Weingarten personally kept schools closed, as if the presidents of the national unions can exert control over union locals. There are two probable reasons that MAGA pushes this argument. 1) They are projecting their own ideas about how they think government should work i.e. one strong boss who controls everyone beneath him and 2) Randi makes a visible target and personification of the Evil Unions. 

As Jennifer Binis observed this morning on Tweeter, attacking unions is always a handy way of badmouthing teachers without looking like you're attacking teachers. 

Local school districts were on their own.

One of the pandemic details that seems to have fallen completely down the memory hole is just how much local districts were on their own in making all decisions about pandemic response. The CDC and Dr. Fauci offered "guidance," but that was often evolving, and it was up to local authorities to sort it out. Nationally, the Trump administration was MIA. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos shrugged and said, "Not my job" until she eventually caught the political winds that demanded re-opening everything no matter what.

States provided strict guidelines--until they didn't. Then local districts had to sort it out themselves, which usually meant a handful of duly elected ordinary citizens who hadn't actually run for office in hopes of becoming crisis managers. who, in most cases, talked to their teachers and their parents and other folks to try to come up with a functional plan. Or, in most cases, a plan they could use until it turned out they needed a new plan.

Local teachers unions and parents and school boards were divided on the same lines as the rest of the country. Different districts had different sorts of resources (East Egg gets a new HVAC system, West Egg gets a box fan in some classrooms). Different political leaders weighed different factors (To get businesses open, we need to warehouse children somewhere). Different communities had different levels of trust. Different communities had different levels of disease impact.

Worth noting that polling has repeatedly found that parents were mostly happy with how their district sorted things out. 

Armchair hindsight quarterbacks can just knock it off.

I'm not sure we'll ever completely sort things out, both because there's still so much we don't know, but especially because so much smoke has been churned out by political opportunists. The conversation will always require a variety of voices and some conflicting viewpoints. 

But one sort of voice I'm positive we don't need is the voice of anyone arguing that it was obvious way back when that X was the right answer, and everyone who did something else was a big evil stupid fool.

Nothing was obvious. Not in 2020, not in 2021. Maybe 2022 brought some clarity, but I'm not sure we're ever going to have clear understanding--just a bunch of political talking points. And we'll never, ever know what would have happened if we had done X instead of Y. 

Conspiracy theories are dumb.

The notion that the pandemic and the pandemic response was all manipulated and controlled by dark forces is dumb. The best explanation I can come up with for the pandemic response is this:

Lacking clear information and clear direction from leaders, stuck in an evolving situation caused by an unprecedented and lethal health crisis, most people tried to make the best decisions they could. The available choices ranged from bad to really bad. 

If there was ever a time we needed more grace and less politics, this is it. But instead, today, Congress brings us politics.

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