“We’re in a global pandemic!” my friend said. “Can we please remember that?”
I was in a Zoom meeting. Another Zoom meeting. So many Zoom meetings. Muted. Unmuted. Video on. Video off. Checking my Facebook. Trying not to check my Facebook. Staring at the green light on my laptop. Smiling. Nodding. Interacting with pixels that represent other people staring at green lights. Desperate to continue doing the things we were doing before the middle of March, 2019. In the long, long ago. The before times.
My friend’s comment during this particular Zoom meeting struck me. Like a plank to the face. I’ll leave her anonymous for the purpose of this highly public blog. A blog that, if we decide to ignore data or truth or reality (as is the trend) reaches millions and millions and billions and zillions of people. Very huge. Lots of winning. Anyway, my friend is very smart, and her comment struck me. Like a baseball bat to the gut. Or a mallet to the nose. Or a Covid enzyme to the lungs. That’s what I’m trying to say here.
I’ve been hit with so much messaging over the last few months. Especially about teaching and learning. Now’s the time to be creative! We need to think outside of the box! Workshops and emails ensure me that now, more than ever, is the time to rethink everything we are to prepare for the new normal. For only this amount of money I can learn these amount of best practices!
My friend called bullshit.
Now is not the time to be creative. Now is the time to be careful as we sift through information and move with a global pandemic. Now is the time to be kind to ourselves as we navigate extraordinary circumstances.
I was on a call with a superintendent of a school district in Pennsylvania last week. For a research project I’m working on. I asked her how she was doing.
“Not well,” she said. Then the floodgates opened.
She vented to me – a random faculty member calling on behalf of Penn State – about planning for the fall. Her concerns were simple. The lack of a national or state-wide response to the pandemic passed the buck to local school districts to make decisions on their own. She felt that, marketing aside, it was impossible to adhere to social distancing in her schools. Finally, she asked me how she could live with herself if even one of the staff or students in her districts died because of her decision. Her district is closer to Philadelphia, and cases continue to rise. So she made the decision that all learning would be virtual in the fall.
“I just don’t know what else to do until there’s a vaccine,” she told me.
It was so refreshing to hear a school administrator admit they were uncertain. Not “look at all the steps we’re taking!” or “this whole thing is a hoax!” or “it is gonna vanish, folks,” or “now is the time to be creative!” I’d rather hear this from leadership: I don’t know, but I’ll keep carefully examining and responding to the situation.
Here’s another one of my concerns about school this fall. There are plenty of educational consulting groups that are developing (and selling) virtual platforms for school districts.
“Don’t know how to offer virtual classes? Buy this! And this! Or that. Workshops and learning platforms and software, oh my!”
Most of these groups are more interested in turning a profit than cultivating a humane, just, informed, and democratic society through humane, just, informed, and democratic schooling. The people (and groups) that want to do away with public education in the name of innovation, equity, and 20th century-skills are, in my experience, mostly about cashing in on a lucrative and relatively untapped market. Carpetbaggers.
I’m worried that the anxiety to “do our best!” and “be creative!” will open the door for all sorts of virtual academies or cyber communities to setup shop at the expense of the messy, relational, and human working of teachers and students being together in spaces. In the business of educational scholarship, we describe this as the neoliberal threat to public education.
Maybe we shouldn’t worry about doing our best and being creative. Maybe we ought to deal with this pandemic and keep at the work of learning how not to hurt each other in schools (and society)?
So remember we’re in a global pandemic. And I don’t repeat my friend’s comment here to stir up fear. Or accuse you of anything. Or to pretend I have the answer to this. Or even the question to ask. How should you respond to all of this? How should I respond? Beat’s me. Probably has something to do with being cautious, listening to real information about what’s happening, and responding carefully to very strange times.
There’s also this. I spent some time reading about historical pandemics last week. There’s one thing to be certain of. Human beings have been grappling with sickness for as long as we’ve been figuring out ways to be cruel to each other. There’s a history of how cultures and societies function in response to pandemics. The History minor in me is reminded what a poor job we do of paying attention to what has happened before as we figure out what is happening now. There’s nothing new about wearing masks. About closing schools. About worrying about the economy or mental health or treatments for a pandemic. Here is what is new, though. We live in an age with more real and reliable information at our fingertips than any group of people that came before us. We also live in an age with more false, didactic, and rhetorically manipulative information than ever before. We need to be smart about how we interact with the information available to us, folks. In the business, we call that critical literacy. And we call it cognitive dissonance when information makes you angry because it messes with how you want the world to be.
So I don’t know that I’m capable of my best now. My best thinking. My best teaching. My best writing. Now is the time to be creative? No, now is the time to survive this thing.