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Radical quo

SoVaNow.com / May 14, 2020
Having written the story on our front page Monday that caused something of a stir — in the same way an EF5 tornado settling over a farm pond might cause a stir — I feel obligated to say something about the contents reported therein.

The piece, titled “Pandemic ed,” dealt with ideas that Halifax County school administrators, led by Superintendent Mark Lineburg, are developing for the 2020-21 school year. And yes, the ideas are pretty radical on their face: one example is having divided classrooms, with students shifting between face-to-face contact with their primary teacher on some days and receiving instruction on their laptops in remote classrooms on other days — under the tutelage of a coach or music teacher or some other member of the faculty who has been reassigned to carry out this awkward arrangement. There’s also the idea of running shifts during the school day to cut down on the number of students moving through the building at any one time. Administrators, figuring that some families will flat-out refuse to send their children to school, are hashing out plans to offer enhanced online instruction and train parents and caregivers on essential tools such as Google Classroom. It’s a mind-boggling challenge in so many respects — from balancing teacher work hours to figuring out bus schedules to overcoming substandard internet access in much of the county — that it’s no surprise that people might freak out at the audacity of the whole thing.

In times like these, you have license to pick the adjective of your choosing. Obvious candidates include appalling, infuriating, jaw-dropping, mind-numbing, mind-blowing and flat-out insane. But don’t forget one more.

Necessary.

In California, the public university system — almost certainly the finest of its kind in the country — has already deemed that classes will be offered online only in the fall. That’s an incredible blow to the thousands of students who attend California colleges, but bad as it is, even this painful step is not realistically available to K-12 public school students in Halifax County and lots of other places. Amid other suffering and agony from the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the loss of even a few months in school comes at a substantial cost to our children. Prolonged absence from the classroom will have lifelong detrimental effects for students at all grade levels, from preschool to college. We need to get schools up and running as soon as it’s practicably and safely possible.

This might be the point where some of you are thinking, “Well, then just send the kids back to school — to hell with all the overblown fears. Go check out WalMart and see how people are handling the situation there.” As we all chafe under the restrictions imposed to stave off the pandemic, the gut appeal of this proposition grows, understandably so. But look around at what folks are doing in the High Castle of the Lockdown Resistance Movement, a.k.a. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. No less than the Trump White House is traumatized by fear of the virus after Secret Service agents, the President’s personal valet and a top administration spokesperson have contracted COVID-19 in recent days. Kevin Hassett, a top economic advisor to President Trump, admitted Sunday on CBS’s Face The Nation that “it’s scary to go to work” and “I think that I’d be a lot safer if I was sitting at home than I would be going to the West Wing.” The White House is almost without question America’s most-tested workplace for the novel coronavirus, and grown men are quaking in their wingtip loafers at the idea of falling prey to the disease.

Does anyone seriously believe children and families should be subjected to similar such risk and terror? The New York Times describes the White House as a “warren of cramped offices,” which admittedly summons a different image than jammed hallway with talkative kids, but these are differences of degree, not kind. The only way to minimize the risks to students, short of a comprehensive testing-and-tracing regime that the Trump White House is too lazy and incompetent to even attempt, is to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing (physical distancing is a better phrase in my mind), plus standard guidance for disinfecting surfaces and paying attention to personal hygiene, i.e., handwashing and the like. Halifax County Public Schools has a fine custodial and operations team that does a pretty good job despite considerable challenges (annual under funding being just one), and it’s not unreasonable to expect — and to demand — that they stay on top of the challenge of keeping school buildings as virus-free as possible. But physically distancing 1,500 students at the high school and keeping the bathrooms disinfected throughout the day? Tell me another bedtime story.

I still remember the pandemic Before Times when the big question in front of Halifax County voters was whether to approve a tax increase to overhaul the high school. One of the arguments trotted out then, because it was true and even a limited fix would have been highly expensive, was the atrocious state of climate control systems at HCHS — the HVAC piece of the puzzle. This is the environment where high school will take place next year, if it takes place at all; to minimize the risks, there’s little choice but to massively cut down on the number of people circulating through the building at any given time. Once people fix their minds on the realities of COVID-19, and the massive scale of the challenge of resuming K-12 education, ideas that seem crazy at first blush begin to take on an air of plausibility, followed by inevitability. As the alternative, do you really want your kids parked in front of a television set for the upcoming school year?

I have no comment on the point raised by many — that it’s a helluva way to break the news, in a newspaper article — rather than first summoning the staff and others (School Board members, pray tell?) to a meeting to let them in on what lies ahead. Well, actually, I’m lying here. I do have two things to say on this point, both of which can be construed as a defense of Lineburg and the administration, although it’s not really meant to be one. The first is simply the observation that there’s no good way to break bad news. The second is that our piece Monday did not result from me calling up our county school superintendent and idly asking, “Yo homes, what’s up with school next year, dawg?” The story arose from a tried-and-true journalistic wellspring — word getting around. I don’t know who has been told what and who is saying otherwise to the next person, and I’ll certainly allow that Monday’s scoop might have exposed mushroom management theory gone wrong — as in, keep ‘em in the dark and feed ‘em manure to make ‘em happy. But that interpretation doesn’t make any sense — for better or worse, Lineburg simply answered the questions as they were posed to him. I’m back to where I started with this paragraph, refraining from commenting on anyone’s motives and methods. But if the idea of open debate and institutional accountability is to mean anything, I don’t think people should be so quick to come down on this or any other school division superintendent who has no good options for making everyone, or even a slight majority of people, happy.

These are times that try men’s souls, wrote Thomas Paine in The American Crisis, better known by the colloquial name for the pamphlet, Common Sense. We sure as heck have an American crisis on our hands, and it’ll be quite a challenge determining what the commonsense part even looks like at this point. It’s a path forward we’ll have to walk while bombarded by conflicting signals (in the ongoing case of Fauci v. Trump) and with few precedents or surefire best practices to guide us. At a minimum, the process requires that people start thinking and talking about the practical realities of running thousands of schoolchildren through the schoolhouse doors each day in a manner that will keep them safe and serve the greater educational mission. Once we fix our minds on this starting point, the rest becomes a matter of planning and improvisation. “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph,” wrote Paine, whose talent for stirring Revolutionary-era rhetoric won him everlasting fame. Take out the pleasing wordplay, and the message that’s left for our own generation is that in order to achieve a glorious triumph, it’s probably a good idea to get started sooner rather than later.

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