“That’s not what we do here. But we are doctors Lieutenant. We won’t turn you away.”
That’s what the British research physician told me when I wandered into her malaria clinic in East Africa and asked what kind of treatment they might be able to provide to my team if we got in a pinch. Her measured response was all I needed to hear to know that I had what I needed.
What had put that doctor and I in that room at that time was two different sorts of commitments. Hers to heal. Mine to protect. With those two different sorts of commitments came a less different sort of trust; a trust one can bet their life on simply by understanding what the person they’re depending on was. Who they were was less important.
We had both entered into the line of work we were in with open eyes and a clear understanding of the risks. We had both done so willingly; perhaps even cheerfully. As the great modern American folk hero Tony Stark said, “…that’s the hero gig.” One does not wander into it in modern times by mistake. One does not want for recognition of their service when one does either.
We have a social contract with our first responders, military service members and medical professionals. They risk their lives. We support and honor them both materially and culturally. As much as circumstance may pressure us to, we don’t expand the scope of that contract to others lightly. To be more direct, we don’t get to throw teachers in that pit without changing some things about how we support them and who we ask to do that work.
As each day of the cruel summer of 2020 crawls by in America, the question of when our children will be returning to schools looms larger and larger in our increasingly fragile consciousness. Putting aside the countless think pieces that could be written on how our society has come to depend on what the modern industrial education complex provides to America (education…daycare…food?), the answer narrows on a question related to the story I just shared.
What can we reasonably expect our teachers to do?
I’m familiar with the profession of teaching. I hold it in the highest of esteems. My mother was a teacher. My father was a teacher. My stepfather was a teacher. My wife was a teacher. I know what we ask of them. And I know what we don’t. If we believe, in this moment, that in order for our society to continue to function effectively, our only path to sustainable success requires that children go back to school full time this fall, we need to believe a few things about how we resource, support and sustain teachers.
We’d need to have many more teachers than we actually need during non-pandemic times to account for reinforcements and episodic surges in social distancing. We’d need more space and facilities to that same end.
We’d need to have sweeping health and long term care benefits for teachers that account for the hundreds to thousands of teachers that fall ill, sometimes permanently and even die.
We’d need world class equipment and PPE.
We’d need to pay them more.
They’d have to be allowed to retire with a pension and full medical care after 20 years or so in service.
There’s more things we’d have to believe, but these give you a sense of how we do the sort of work that puts lives at risk. None of these things are points of leverage. It’s what’s required to support professionals who cannot be replaced overnight. Professionals whose jobs take years of training. Professionals we willingly trust the minds of our children to. The unfortunate reality of the moment is that we haven’t done the work required to be in a position to insist children go back to school. And so insisting that they do is a sort of delusional cruelness that’s hard to take seriously.
There’s something else that’s hard to take seriously too though. It’s the idea that distance learning for school aged children is a solution. It’s been nearly a decade since I left the military. Since then I’ve been building technology enabled virtual learning programs for a vast network of virtual professionals. Just like the things we need to be true in order to ask people to responsibly go in harm’s way, there’s things that need to be true in order to deliver effective distance learning.
Libraries of content need to replace live lectures.
Sophisticated behavioral and performance data tracking measures replace the eyeballs of the teacher at the front of the room.
ML/AI powered algorithms trigger personalized content assignment.
And one more thing…learners have to have the maturity to work without direct supervision; something most children under middle school age can’t do at scale. Something many well into high school can’t either. We can’t offload the health risk of teaching onto teachers. But we can’t offload the burden of teaching on parents. Certainly not under the pretense that tax payer funded education is being provided. Half or hybrid schedules solve none of this problem. It is binary in nature. Parents either can or can’t teach their own kids. And most can’t.
Pivoting the entire K-12 school system to distance learning in 6 months would have been a monumental task with tremendous centralized funding and focus. We had neither. And so the idea that distance learning will be a solution is another sort of delusion. Which leaves us in a tremendous bind.
I’ve heard counter arguments that private schools have figured how to open, sometimes with less budget than public schools. They haven’t though. Not yet. If they do, four months from now we’ll know. Bars and restaurants said they did it too. They’re all closed again and we’re back up to a thousand Americans dying a day.
I’ve also heard people, Florida Governor Ron Desantis for instance, argue that if we can open up Home Depot and Walmart, we can open up schools. False equivalencies are the craft of politicians though. The real world demands better solutions. If there’s a lesson the virus has taught us it’s that the real world has consequences. You can stand at a podium all day and speak in the sorts of platitudes that you can normally do as a politician. But if you get it wrong, six weeks later people are dying.
Who’s ready for the daily school outbreak numbers? Who’s ready for the list of sick, hospitalized teachers?
Who’s ready for the daily list of teacher deaths?
I’m not prone to speak in hyperbole. Unless this virus does something different than it has at every turn so far, if we open up schools this fall, that’s coming.
I’d like to button up this essay with a solution on what we ought to do. I don’t have a good one though. Pandemic response is about preparation. And execution. And cooperation. And resources. At nearly every step of the way we’ve been underwhelming societally. If, prior to the pandemic, you believed that the key to civic satisfaction was a small government that just got out of everyone’s way and let them live their lives, where does that view fit now?
We didn’t prepare. We didn’t react. And we didn’t resource. That’s a tough way to run a railroad.
Laying those failures at the doorsteps of teachers is a tough thing to advocate for.