What If This Doesn’t End?

From the newsletter

From time to time, we try to buck up Jonah’s spirits, so he can muscle through yet another semester of professors droning through Power Point slides on YouTube. 

“Don’t worry,” we say, “This fall will back to normal after everyone gets the vaccine, and won’t that be great?!” We promised him a semester abroad in Spring 2022, and a normal job market later that June. 

Maybe we’ve been too hasty. 

This week, Antonio Calcado, Rutger’s executive vice president, said he hopes that students can have some in-person classes, if the university offers staggered schedules over the summer and fall. But that it will be a long, long time before the college resumes normally

“I don’t think reasonably that this will happen before September of ‘22,” he said. “And I truly believe we will probably be looking at ‘23.”

This isn’t the first hint that I’ve heard that we should think about a pandemic world beyond August. Pundits on CNN have been throwing out little asides all week that we need to think long term; the vaccine isn’t going to magically make everything disappear. 

For some people, a permanent pandemic isn’t a big deal. They transitioned from the office building without a hitch to the home office. They learned how to manage their mental health needs with outdoor dining, backyard parties, and long hikes. Steve and I certainly fit in that category. But others are not doing so well. 

In the past week, four of my friends lost parents, not to COVID but to a variety of ailments that were certainly born out of prolonged isolation, stress, and neglect. Other friends shared tips on trying to get their parents a vaccine in a system that is tone deaf to poor tech skills of those over 60. After days of work, I lucked out and got my parents on vaccination appointments for mid February. Now, I’m helping their friends who have flaky children. 

Ian, my younger son with autism (picture above), has spent most of the year in his bedroom alone, doing worksheets or remote education. He’s had little contact with other human beings, which is kind of a disaster for a person who cannot develop social skills independently, has no friends, and no life outside of school. I think he’s been permanently damaged. 

Ian isn’t alone. In fact, some kids with disabilities have had it much, much worse. 

One 14-year old kid with autism in Boston’s Fall River school starved to death in his father’s care in October. His teachers didn’t notice that the boy was suffering, because students did not have to turn their video cameras on during class. 

There are never ending horrors around remote education in low-income communities, where families don’t have a full-time parent to supplement school or access to tutors or proper technology and Internet access. New York City doesn’t even know where tens of thousands of students are now; they never logged in this winter. Every month that schools are closed is a disaster for vulnerable kids. 

It’s also a disaster for the less vulnerable kids. Middle school and high school students in the upper middle class suburbs around here have stopped showing up to school. They are logging on from their bedrooms. Of the 28 students in Ian’s history class, he is often the only person who shows up to school, when it is open for business. Administrators tell me that students aren’t staying home because they’re worried about their health. Kids aren’t showing up, because they’ve given up. There’s a strong feeling that none of this matters. Education nihilism makes me very sad.

If the pandemic continues, because the virus outsmarts the vaccines, then that’s sad, but unavoidable. 

If the pandemic continues, but government and communities fail to create systems to support the most vulnerable, then that’s criminal. 

We’ve had nearly a year to try to create better social supports, better schools, better connections, and it just hasn’t happened yet, in part because everyone thought that this was going to end. Maybe it’s time to change our mindset.