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.

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.

Little World, Larger World (Plague, Day 55, April 28, 2020)

This morning, I wandered down to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Without the pressure to get Ian on his 7am school bus or to keep Steve company before his long commute into Manhattan, I was in the kitchen a full hour later than back in the old times.

I flipped on the news, noted the new death count on CNN, and then went for the morning walk to appreciate the first sunny day in a week and to listen to an episode of The Daily on the state of virus testing.

We had a tough weekend trying to help Ian get a handle of his OCD tics (if we say A, he says B in a really annoying way), and in the process made the situation worse. With the return of “school” and our new routines yesterday, he’s chilled out and tic-free. We’re thinking about adopting a kitten to help him manage stress better.

But Ian’s tics are the extent of the drama here. I’ve learned how to manage the massive food requirements of my family. (I made a truly awesome shepherds pie last night out of leftover mashed potatoes, leftover sausage and ham, cabbage, carrots, and peas.) We’ve learned how to shop, organize, and clean during our Friday trip to the supermarket. We’re venturing out for long driving trips on the weekend. College and jobs are chugging along just fine, and even Ian’s school is slowly working out.

It is truly amazing how the day-to-day lives of the entire planet changed over night.

It’s tempting to zip myself into the lovely tent of family harmony. Things are fine here, so why come out? Why bother looking at CNN, where the only news is the latest dumb thing that our president said? Numbed by numbered, even the death count has lost its sting.

But things aren’t so great out there. The unemployment rates are Great Depression levels. We could start to see food shortages at the supermarket soon. Parents with young children and jobs are exhausted. Some children are learning on zoom classes; others are not. And, yes, some people are still getting sick and dying, and it’s not a great way to check out.

For those of us who are lucky enough to have safe, warm tents, it’s really hard to unzip those canvas cocoons and check out the woods. Social distancing has lead to a certain kind of social and political isolation. How many people have stopped watching the news in the past couple of weeks?

If we had a different president, he could be helping us to see that big picture and build connections between the haves and the have-nots in this new world. He would be preparing us all for the sacrifices that will be necessary in the future.

Every evening, our president rambles on national television. It’s highly cringe-y watching him personally take credit for the old economy and blame everyone else for the virus, It would be nice if instead of making a “me, me, me” speech, he said something along the lines of “we, we, we.” It’s hard to imagine a worse president than the one we have right now.

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

Pitchforks in the Street (Plague, Day 44, April 16, 2020)

Imagine that you are a single mom who owns a coffee shop. Your kid, who has autism, is bouncing off the walls at home by himself without schools to keep him busy and occupied.. You have to spend all day at the shop even though business is down by 60 percent, because you need every penny to pay your mortgage.

There’s no money coming your way. Just some loans, which won’t help, because loans have to be paid back.

You’ve already had to lay off workers. Others just stopped showing up. So, you’re working double hard for less money. Meanwhile, some lady called the mayor to report that you let your mask drop below your chin for a second to catch a breath of air.

Then imagine you watch the news and see that that the projected numbers of deaths aren’t nearly as high as they told you. Governor Cuomo and Dr. Fauci, neither of whom got your vote, are calling the shots.

Your neighbors all seem pretty happy. Either they have job secured by a union or their job is a computer job that was able to transition to their home without any problems. You get cheerful newsletters from the school district with advice about baking pies and playing board games, when you barely have time to boil pasta at night for you and your kid.

How do you feel? You’re pissed, right?

Protesters in Michigan yesterday are sure that this social distancing, which has already led to 22 million unemployment claims, is politically driven and unrealistic. They’re angry at Democrats and elites and people on the coasts for ruining their lives. Those protests are going to angrier and more partisan.

Meanwhile, I’m reading tweets and commentary from medical and scientific experts who say that we’re looking at another year of social distancing. One tweeted that we’re looking at a decade of this. And that’s without opening the economy the way that Republicans would like. An open economy is going to lead to higher death tolls, which still will take a toll on the economy.

The country is beginning to divide up into regions with groups of Governors making major decisions about the lives and economy of their region. Our country is breaking apart, and at the same time, the President is calling to dissolve Congress and making statements about his absolute power. His rambling, unhinged evening press conferences are a horror show.

Meanwhile, even in relatively safe spaces in the suburbs, people are growing weary of the daily grind of homeschooling, desperate supermarkets, and fear for their parents. Those people aren’t going to stop social distancing, even if Trump says it is okay. They will listen to the governors and news sources and continue to isolate, especially in the hot spot states. Still, daily life is painful and making everyone edgy.

Our economy is not structured to handle messes like this. There are no safety nets. In the next few months, if we don’t see any changes in virus mitigation, we’re either going to see political changes or economic ones. I’m not sure where things will go.

Good News or Bad News? (Plague, Day 41, April 13, 2020)

Last Friday morning, I flipped around in my office chair and asked Steve, “I have to write to a newsletter. Do I make it happy or sad?” Steve said, “Make it happy. Nobody wants to read sad stuff.”

So, I wrote a newsletter about nesting in our quarantine homes. It was aimed at the safe, secure places of the still employed and still healthy, whose biggest concern is finding a good use for a can of black beans and half a cabbage.

It wasn’t hard to write a happy post, because things don’t suck in my particular home. Sure, the boys aren’t really being educated at the moment, we’re leaking money, and I haven’t been able to give my mom a hug in a month. But things aren’t THAT bad.

Over the weekend, we had zoom hangouts with extended family. I made a fun Easter dinner for our nuclear family. We tried our hand at making various traditional Italian Easter treats. It was fun and relaxing and I’ll share pictures and info later. (If you click on the Instagram icon on the right, you can see some pictures.)

But outside our middle class bubble, things are pretty sucky. I could keep writing happy little posts about home cooking challenges. Or I could devote my tweets, posts, and newsletter to the problems and force us to confront hard truths outside our igloos. I think it’s going to be “a bit of both.”

So, what’s upsetting me this morning?

New York City schools have closed for the rest of the year. So, schools in all of NY, CT, and NJ will also close through June, too. Kids are learning in some places where they have that magic combination of tech-savvy, child-free teachers, homes with one parent who doesn’t need an income, and high-income communities. Small numbers of kids are getting educated virtually, but more are not. Most are losing skills — academic, social, and behavioral skills — and they’ll never get this time back.

Trump’s going to let the U.S. Postal Service die. For all those who want to drown government in a bathtub, this pandemic is an opportunity. I wonder if the plan for schools is the USPS solution. Let it crash and burn. Let them screw up enough until parents revolt and remove their kids from schools. Let the taxpayers revolt.

If you have college kids, there’s a good chance that there won’t be school in the fall either. Without job opportunities, the only option for our kids is to pile up on online school credits, so they can finish college early and save money.

As millions get handouts from food pantries this week, the farmers are dumping their food supply. (Image above comes from the Boston Globe about surging demand at food pantries.)

Home healthcare workers and nannies are being fired and have no support.

And stupidity abounds. 30 percent of Americans think the virus was cooked up in a lab.

Weirdly enough, tobacco smokers have lower levels of COVID in China than non-smokers. Well, that’s amusing.

I’m terrified that Dr. Fauci will be fired. I’m terrified that they’ll open the economy too soon and more people will die. I’m terrified that if this goes on for another few months, we’re going to have to set up refuge camps for tens of thousands who have no jobs, homes, or food.

So, I’m going to have to do both. I’ll write the fun Easter weekend post tomorrow. And then the day after that I’ll write another unpopular Cassandra post. If you guys can cope with a schizophrenic blogger, that would be cool.

Counting Costs (Plague, Day 37, April 9, 2020)

Yesterday was a heavy day.

Jonah’s landlord sent him threatening texts about April’s rent. Before this all happened, I was annoyed that we pay $680 per month for half a room in a house that should be condemned. Now that the place is empty and that everybody who lived in a dorm got a refund, I was fuming. I told Jonah not to pay him, until I talked with someone at the university.

The university lady told me that we had no choice. We had to pay the scumbag for April and May. Because he plans on charging the boys $1,000 for last summer’s water bill that resulted from a broken toilet, the boys would probably lose their security deposit, too. Jonah got stuck being the point person for bills, so he had to chase his roommates to Venmo him their share. He might not get that money from all of them. If his roommates don’t get down there and clean out their rooms, they’ll lose the security deposit for sure.

He and the other students at his college aren’t getting refunds for the thousands of college fees for crap like sports and events, all of which have been cancelled.

Some of the higher ed stimulus money should go directly to students.

I’m out about $1,500 for work done on freelance articles that will never run and air tickets for cancelled work events. I’m not pitching stories anymore, because there are only about three or four education angles right now and the full time writers have that covered. Besides, all the topics are depressing. Other journalists that I know are getting furloughed. Instead, I’m putting all my efforts into various entrepreneurial efforts.

Steve’s job is fine, thank god, but there won’t be a year-end bonus, which we use to cover extras like a vacation and home repairs. I haven’t had the heart to look at the 401K plan. There’s no refund on the commuter parking lot by the train station or the monthly train ticket.

I spent money on various online programs for Ian for this week-long school break, just because I needed to keep him busy. He’s starting to act more autistic lately without the routine and socially demanding school environment. We’re going to have to spend big time bucks on private therapists to help me get him back up to speed, once we’re allowed to see other people again.

We are saving money, too. With four people eating three meals a day at home for an entire month, that’s a serious savings. We’re not spending money on gas for the car, trips to museums or movie theaters, girls night’s out at the fancy restaurant, trips to the hair salon and barber. If things keep up, we’ll save more on fall’s college room and board, a summer without a vacation, car repairs, home repairs.

It’s hard to truly assess the financial impact of the pandemic on my family. Some costs can’t be calculated, like Ian’s increasing autism and Jonah’s slow realization that he’s going to be stuck with his parents for a very long time. Some days, the costs outweigh the benefits.

And yet, Steve still has a job. He’s not one of the 10 percent. We’re all healthy.

I went for a very long walk by myself today, which is slowly becoming part of our new normal. I needed that alone time to listen to my podcasts and to regroup.