Recently, New York Magazine published an article asking “progressive activists” to “reckon” with advocating for remote learning last year. Author Jonathan Chait cites the “catastrophic” consequences for students and the “indisputable” evidence that it was clearly safe for campuses to reopen in the spring of 2020.
Invoking the politicians and writers quietly declining to accept responsibility for supporting the Iraq War as well as Fox News hosts preaching vaccine misinformation, Chait essentially accuses “progressives” of committing existential genocide against young people — harming them emotionally and academically in the name of the self-serving union-bolstered lie that open campuses would drive viral spread. Because it’s 2022 and 95% of school buildings are open nationwide, Chait admits that districts aren’t at risk of returning to 2020 protocols. Nonetheless, he threatens to hold reason hostage and assume otherwise until the “reckoning” of the headline gets paid in full.
I’ve read a few of these greatest hits packages compiling the first full year of reductive talking points around school campus closures. They reveal a less-than-nuanced understanding of the dynamics shaping the experience of stakeholders in actual school buildings. Like this particular piece, they are designed to elicit sneers, to set the Twitter stew abubble, to provoke without problem-solving. No one is nostalgic for Zoom, and refuting these points isn’t hard, but I’d still rather stick with common ground. As a public school teacher who works in a classroom with 90 students a day, five days a week, I agree on one count.
There absolutely needs to be a reckoning.
A bunch of them, really, considering the degree to which the pandemic has made ugly features of American life more glaring for young people.
If students depend on schools for nutrition as well as education, the country needs a reckoning.
If hospitals are understaffed, ill-equipped to respond to a pandemic crisis because of a profit-driven business model, and less capable of protecting students’ families, the country needs a reckoning.
Teens are anxious about gun violence, climate change, and racism, problems that impact their mental health regardless of where they are learning. Powerful companies profit from hooking my students on a steady drip of social media toxicity custom-tailored to their isolation-heightened insecurities. The country needs to reckon with those things.
And let’s also reckon with the government’s botched response and confusing messaging about the pandemic. Unvaccinated people have compounded a pandemic that could have been brought under control. The tough choices made around school campus closures might have been avoided if not for the way we keep failing in tragic fashion to maintain any national collective will.
Does this sound like the prattle of a progressive? I suppose that’s the word for someone who works within a flawed institution to solve problems, to give teens skills to overcome the ugly features of American life. In such a story, though, in which the experiences of teachers are simply not included, the term “progressive activist” can slyly translate to “educator,” someone like me, a union member who read the articles and research and was not ready to walk into an under-ventilated classroom filled with unvaccinated students before receiving an initial shot of Pfizer in February 2021. Once I returned, I had zero interest in leaving.
I often reckon with that truly heartbreaking year, the hardest teaching I’ve done in my life. I feel for parents because I am one. My daughter had to do kindergarten on Zoom until April 2021. Now, my students and I cope with chaos and instability much more than fear of hospitalization. Subs have been in short supply since August. Parents have been asked to volunteer. This year, stuck in perpetual “modified quarantine,” my daughter is one of seven students still attending her first grade class in person; the rest aren’t sick; they’re just staying home — because, despite vaccines, their parents are scared. High school kids are organizing sickouts. Are they progressive activists? It’s complicated, as it was before. Give me an hour and I can find you a dozen teachers in three different states to color in that complexity.
I look at the current strain and level of cases and imagine them last year, before vaccines. In December 2020, my county superintendent called returning to in-person learning a “moral and ethical thing.” She spent the winter surge of early 2021 dismissing teachers’ concern over vaccine access. But, in May, an unvaccinated teacher caused a massive outbreak at an elementary school in my county.
In the first few weeks of 2022, I’ve received teacher-I’m-positive emails from multiple students who sit together in my classroom. I see kids jostle and eat sandwiches in the hallways, their masks tucked under their chins. They pile into cars to go to games. If nearly one-third of my students have been sick this January in a heavily vaccinated county — and those are just confirmed cases — what might last year have been, fully reopened, with a less infectious but more deadly strain and no vaccines or booster shots for anyone? Reckon with that.
Healthy people reckon with choices all the time. They consider their obligations to their values, loved ones and communities. As a teacher, reckonings are central to my craft. I’m always evaluating my curriculum and pedagogy and making changes.
Such a demand for reckoning — and penance — though, is scapegoating, and that angers me. But when thousands of Americans are dying every day and my students are keeping up with class from quarantine, there’s much more to reckon with.
Andrew Simmons teaches high school English at San Rafael High School. In 2020, he published Love Hurts, Lit Helps, a book for educators.
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