It’s All Unraveling (Plague, Day 84, May 28, 2020)

First some links. The post office is in deep shit trouble. Before schools open, they have to figure out hundreds of logistical issues. The states won’t have the cash to save schools or anything else. Private schools, many of which serve poor kids and disable kids, might not make it. What happens when unemployment benefits run out in July?

This has been been my reading list for the past couple of days. Cheerful stuff, right? Meh, it’s nothing compared to my conversations with school leaders, and people on the ground floor of all this.

I hand my packages of used books to the middle aged Asian lady behind the sheet of plastic, who puts my parcels on the scale. She’s there every Tuesday and Friday, when I do this chore. Actually, she’s there 60 hours per week, because she’s the only person working behind the counter at this branch now. She said everybody else left or was fired. We share sad smiles behind masks.

With Steve just a few feet from me in constant meetings with the business folks from Wall Street, there’s not much cheerful news from that corner of the office either. I’ve plugged in my headphones to block out his meetings this morning.

Jonah has been trying to find work. He’s looking for something better than a supermarket job, but so far, no luck. This week, he’ll help out my dad at the food pantry and take care of some loose ends at school. I just don’t think it’s healthy for young adults to spend too much time in a house, so if he can’t find something better, he’ll be at the checkout lane at Stop and Shop.

My job is to be the person who talks at every school board meeting about the needs of the kids, while we’re in the midst of a local tax revolt. I’ll write my write my articles. But mostly I’m keeping my own people here safe.

Can We Ever Go Back? (Plague, Day 63, May 7, April 2020)

I was talking with an ESL teacher earlier in the week. By all accounts, she is an extraordinarily devoted teacher, so I really appreciated her insights.

As we chatted, she wondered how her students were faring with the lack of school. She said this situation was permanently changing us. She said she couldn’t imagine how we would ever go back.

As Donald Trump and the governors talk about opening up businesses and society again, I talk to teachers and observe board of ed meetings every day, and I’m hearing a completely different story. Schools aren’t anticipating going back to normal months from now. They have no idea how they will be able to open schools safety in September — five months from now.

They are talking through various plans, like social distancing students in the classroom, which would mean that they would need double the amount of classroom space. Maybe only half the students will attend school at the same time. Since teachers couldn’t simultaneously teach regular school and Zoom classes, that would probably mean that students would only be educated part time.

They have no idea how they’ll educate students who have regressed by a full year. They have no idea how they’ll provide special education services. They have no idea how they’ll keep older teachers safe.

Individual schools sit around waiting for some guidance from the state about how they are supposed to be managing the situation RIGHT NOW, and they aren’t getting any help. Everybody is out on their own. A few schools are making things work, but most aren’t.

Schools have been duct taped together this spring, but things are slowly falling apart.

Most parents have given their schools a pass so far. Their biggest concerns have been matters like the prom and graduation, but the rumbles of discontent, particularly among parents with younger kids, are growing louder.

I have no idea where we are going. Will an edTech company, like the Khan Academy, step into the void? Will parents revolt? Will there be a mass exit of the most educated parents? What is going to be the long term impact on the most vulnerable students? Will teachers strike if they are forced back into schools this fall?

As scientists warn that we are only in the second inning in dealing with the pandemic, we are also only in the second inning in rebuilding various government functions, like public education, public college, and transportation. Private businesses can just open their doors, but until the schools are back in order, they won’t have any workers or customers.

Gossip and the News (Plague, Day 62, May 6, 2020)

As life… and death… chug along during this strange period, I find that I get my information from two sources — from gossip from friends and from the news. Now that I’m back to working on an article, I’m also getting information from various strangers who share their own gossip.

It will be years before the gossip is put together with concrete scientific research to flesh out the big picture. Each of us is experiencing this pandemic differently. Everybody has their stories right now, and not enough people are bringing those stories together to stitch together the big picture. Just as we need them the most, journalists are being furloughed or are sidelined with childcare responsibilities.

I think going forward, I’m going to use my daily diary posts on this blog to share the gossip, and I’ll follow up with links to the best journalism of the day. So what gossip can I share today?

****

One of my best friends got the virus last month. She’s out on Long Island, so she probably had the bad New York variety of the virus. You don’t want to get this. She was out of commission for two weeks; it is taking a long time to get her lung capacity back to normal. Her teenager daughters had mild cases. But weirdly, her overweight, asthmatic husband never felt ill.

She got the antibody test last week. She was told that her antibody test was one of the good ones, with a high validity rate. The test found that indeed she and her daughters had the antibodies, but her husband, who lived in the same house with all the sickness, did not.

In some ways, this was good news. Her daughters can get jobs over the summer, which will be good for family harmony. But they’ll bring in the virus into the house every evening and could infect their vulnerable dad. Theoretically, they could walk around in public without masks, but there is no system in place yet to identify who is safe and who isn’t. Going forward, government is going to have to figure out that.

***

Even as we hear more and more about states opening up, teachers and administrators tell me that they are nowhere close to opening up schools and colleges. Without camps, nursery schools, and elementary schools, the economy can’t open.

I’m also hearing lots of confusion by administrators about how they will open schools in September. These plans are particularly murky for classrooms with more intensely disabled children, who require lots of physical contact.

Each school is coming up with their own plans for the fall, just as they have done all along. The diversity of methods for handling this pandemic is truly amazing. The lack of centralized planning for educating kids has been stark.

If we are really going to have to reinvent education going forward, as Bill Gates and Andrew Cuomo discussed, centralization will have to be a big part of any plan.

Gates has tried to revolutionize education before, but hit major resistance from both the unions and conservatives. Neither have had a big voice during this pandemic, so this might be the right time for Gates.

***

We made a truly great meal for Cinco de Mayo yesterday. Steve made pulled pork in the InstaPot. His pork cooked in a mixture of beer and orange juice. I made jalapeño poppers, beans, and guacamole. A couple of friends joined me for a socially distant glass of wine before dinner.

Lab Experiments (Plague, Day 58, May 2, 2020)

First, some blog business… Regular commenter, Doug, had a couple of operations this week for an appendectomy. When he comes back, wish him well.

My area of the New Jersey was hit very hard by the virus. I started social distancing about a week before most of you. As you can see from the ticker in the title, virus preparation and protection has been my life for 58 days.

It’s getting old.

Steve and I have been pushing the envelope more and more. We’re getting take-out food once a week now. We took Ian to the supermarket yesterday, because he needed an outing very, very badly. We’re considering letting the bi-monthly housecleaner into the house again (we’ve never stopped paying her).

We’re going to take advantage of the state park openings for a long hike tomorrow. I mean, we’ll use some common sense. We’re going early in the morning, taking masks, avoiding places that we suspect will be crowded. But we’re ready to venture past a one mile radius of our house.

And what will happen in two weeks? Will the infection rate go up again? Will we feel comfortable visiting my parents, if we start engaging in more dangerous behavior? Nobody knows. We’re all lab rats.

The expansion of our backyard garden is happening today. Steve went to the local landscaping joint to get more plants. But I’m not feeling as antsy about setting up our backyard reserves as I did a couple of weeks ago. Even with the warnings about the meat supply, I’m not seeing it. Our trip to the supermarket yesterday featured overflowing meat cases and vegetable bins. Still, the garden is going in and will be managed by Jonah as one of his summer jobs.

Other things are going back to normal, too. I took a break from paid writing gigs for about six weeks, because there was only about two or three education stories to tell, which were covered adequately by staff writers. Instead, I put all my extra energy into selling vintage books, dealing with Ian’s school needs, and managing the massive extra work at home.

That’s starting to switch back to normal. I have a juicy writing assignment from my favorite magazine on deck. Home chores are getting less attention. Books are going back to a weekend job.

As state officials slowly take steps to open the economy, Steve and I are slowly considering how we’ll slowly open up our lives. How much risk are we willing to assume?

And also, how much of our socially distant lives do we want to take with us into the future? Do we want to continue to eat more at home? Probably. Do we want to have fewer social obligations? Probably. Do we want to continue limiting our spending? Probably. Do we want to be less dependent on state services, like education, and other outside organizations? Probably. In the coming weeks, we will have to decide where we are going to draw the lines.

The Latest Gossip on Schools (Plague, Day 56, April 29, 2020)

Will schools open? When? Will colleges open up in the fall? I don’t know. But here’s the latest gossip.

The Early-Opener governors are starting to talk about opening schools, because it’s clear that that the entire economy depends on schools to act as childcare for working parents. No schools, no workers.

Side note: It’s really inefficient to have teachers act as child minders. Do we really need a specially certified and compensated, college educated person to keep kids safe outside the house? If teachers only teach for half the day, and the other half of the day, they’re really doing child care — couldn’t we split up those jobs between two different people — babysitters and educators?

The teachers’ unions are fighting going back into the classroom. Many of their members are in the 60s, so those concerns aren’t crazy. Kids might not get super sick, but they could certainly infect the adults in the building.

Of course, it isn’t going to be possible to keep everyone from getting sick forever. At some point, adults will have to go back to work. It’s hard to imagine the impact on kids, if their schools stay closed for another year.

I’ve been predicting major hits to public education since the beginning of this crisis. It could happen in different ways:

  • State budgets are going to be destroyed. They’re not going to be able to fund pensions, nevermind maintain their basic expenses. Teachers may be laid off.
  • Parents are starting to get really annoyed. Taxpayers are getting annoyed. If businesses in Open States don’t have child care for their workers, they’re going to get annoyed. A fight between teachers and everyone won’t end well.
  • For the past two months, parents and children have been told that they can learn just fine on the Internet. Some like it. Some have found new outlets to learn. A future of closed or semi-open schools won’t be attractive, so maybe they’ll stay at home or find new educational outlets. Public schools will remain for lower income and special ed kids.
  • Schools are bracing themselves for having to provide compensatory education for lots of kids. Paying for the teachers, buying air conditioners, maintaining the buildings over the summer is going to be super, super expensive. If the federal government doesn’t bail out schools, there will be big problems.

Higher ed has many of those same concerns, but are more dependent on parental preferences and have even shakier finances. I think 10 percent of all colleges will close this year. Even if colleges open their doors in September, college life will be so constrained that affluent students are going to skip it for a semester. Other students may have to skip forever, because of constrained family finances.

The poor adjuncts that teach the majority of classes in colleges are going to be totally screwed. They’re all going to be fired and won’t even get unemployment, because the colleges consider them to be part-time temporary workers.

I want to end on a positive note before I run out to Home Depot for gardening supplies. (I’ll add links to this post later.) I think parents — well, at least the super motivated parents — are getting better at managing their family’s needs. We are.

The priority has been stabilizing the stress levels of Ian, who was struggling with the removal of all routine and structure. School left his life, and we filled the vacuum. Now, meals happen at 7, 12, and 7. Yoga at 11:30. He takes a solitary walk at 2:30. He and Steve read together at 4:30. He has Sylvan at 6. It’s rigid, for sure, but he likes it.

Next, we’re going to focus on his academic needs. I saw an webinar today, where an education expert said that every kid should be getting 1/2 hour of math, 1/2 hour of writing, and 1/2 hour of reading every day. So, I’m checking with his teachers to see if that’s happening. If not, we’ll do it at home or with a tutor.

Getting parents involved with their children’s education is a good thing. Having people think creatively about providing services, like education, is a good thing. Innovations only happen during periods of economy crisis, so I think we’re going to start seeing major (and good) changes soon.

SL 783

For the first time in weeks, I didn’t work over the weekend. I need the morning to catch up and deal with the most pressing issues, so just some links now. I’ll be back with a longer blog post in the afternoon.

How the pandemic will change retail stores.

How the pandemic will change higher education.

Homeschooling or Virtual Education or School Shutdown or whatever you want to call it is working for some kids and families, but not for others.

When will you feel comfortable going back to the theater?

In praise of pessimism.

Are some states opening up too soon?

Rebooting Family Life, Newsletter Excerpt, (Plague, Day 51, April 24, 2020)

More in the latest newsletter here, Subscribe here.

Ten years in the future, when I think about this time of our lives, week six of the society shutdown will always be remembered as the time when I stopped waiting for a return to normal and began rebuilding our lives. 

One of the many truths that has been revealed, as this pandemic uprooted society and government, is that schools are more than a place for educating children. For poorer families, schools are where children can find food and a respite from a tumultuous home life. For working class families, they’re a place to mind the children during work hours and to provide hope for a better future. For families with special needs kids, they’re a relief value on unimaginable caretaking responsibilities. 

And for middle class suburbanites, schools are places that organizes their lives. Parents meet their life-long friends on the school pick-up lines and PTA bake sales. Children are occupied six days a week with school, sports, homework, projects, and school chums. No weekend soccer match or neighborhood happy hour is complete without gossip about particular teachers or humble brags about a child’s prowess on a science class. There is always another short term goal to jump through, from gaining entrance for a child in a specialized gifted program in Kindergarten to college applications in high school. For many families, the local public school is the center of their lives for over twenty years. 

So, when the schools shutdown, even in superstar districts that have continued offering zoom classes and homework, it completely disrupted family lives across the country. With so many hours spent in a school building, toiling on school projects, participating in after school activities provided by the school, and socializing around school, parents gave up ownership of their children long ago. 

In December, I wrote an essay for this newsletter about how much schools have dominated our lives and how I wished I had greater control over raising my kids. Ha. Well, now here’s my chance. 

Back in my former life as a college professor, I used to teach political theory every semester. I marched students through philosophy of Plato and Aristotle ending up with some exhaustion three months later with the speeches of Martin Luther King. Many political philosophers wondered how people would behave without the structure of government or society — a tabula rasa, a blank slate. For some like Hobbes and Burke, society would fall apart without a strong government and strict rules of societal rules. Others, like Locke, thought people would mostly behave and keep to themselves on their farms. 

Thanks to the effectiveness of social distancing, our government and healthcare systems haven’t collapsed. Society has continued orderly processes and norms. My kids still log onto the computers daily to access teachers and professors. Yet, things are much looser without the school panopticon

I wanted more creative input into the raising of my family. Now, I’ve got my tabula rasa. What am I going to do about it? 

Honestly, I’m not sure. My nearly 21-year old needs freedom from hurdle-jumping and pressure to perform, so we’re giving him free time and access to opportunities to pursue hobbies and side interests. He needs to be treated as an equal and solidify his adulthood. My younger kid needs time to tackle his weaknesses – social skills and OCD – and structure and information, which he craves. 

With older kids, my parenting chores are relatively light. At this point, it’s more about adding icing on the cake. I have to say that I am very proud of my little cakes. They have handled this disruption without drama, which has made home confinement relatively easy.

Even with fewer parenting chores, our lives have been turned upside down. We’re stumbling through these strange times and making new routines. There’s my morning walk, lunch-time yoga, and Friday’s trip to the supermarket to fill the freezer and pantry. Soon, we’ll set up a backyard garden to supplement the pantry. 

Without school, college, work, gym classes, church, family birthday parties — the very stuff that grounded us just six weeks ago — who are we?

The new family is slowly unfolding here. Each of us is pursuing different projects and passions, and then coming together during meals and joint exercise time to debrief each other about progress. I’m so lucky to be closeted up with these smart, quirky, creative people. My favorite people on the planet are under my roof. I very much like our emerging family. 

Be well! 

Laura