John Thompson: Will We Be Ready for the Fall?
John Thompson is an educator, writer and historian in Oklahoma. In this piece, he wonders if this fall will be a repeat of previous failures.
But it is easy to see how a repeat of last year’s tragic surge could occur, at least in areas that reject vaccinations and masks.The Delta variant is not only more contagious, but it is spreading at a time when at least 8 states have restricted schools’ power to require masks, and 13 states have prohibited them from requiring proof of vaccination. More states, disproportionately where Covid is surging, have restrictive legislation pending. And in Tennessee, the “Department of Health will halt all adolescent vaccine outreach – not just for coronavirus, but all diseases – amid pressure from Republican state lawmakers.”
At least two devastating scenarios could result, especially in areas where Covid is spreading the most and where public health guidance is ignored. First, there are estimates that up to 10 to 30% of infected young people will develop “long-haul Covid 19.” Dr. Peter Hotez worries that we will be “condemning a whole generation of adolescents to neurologic injury totally unnecessarily.”
Second, as we also knew last fall, as the virus spreads, new, more dangerous variants could emerge.
And that brings me back to worrying about the lack of public discussion about plans for safe reopenings. The silence disturbs me like last year’s politicization of school safety did, when even some liberal and neoliberal journalists, and a few epidemiologists argued that schools weren’t super-spreaders so we must, “Open Schools, Already!” Even if schools were merely spreaders, not super-spreaders, it made no sense to contribute to transmissions when families were about to gather for the holidays. By the way, the same dynamic is now at work due to the bipartisan “Birthday-Effect.” Even if Republicans engage in this natural though risky behavior more than Democrats, when asymptomatic children get exposed at school, they can bring it to family get-togethers.
I’m calling for an open conversation about how educators and public health experts should respond to outbreaks when public schools (and universities) open. I’m reluctant to dwell too much on last November’s editorials such as Nick Kristof’s “When Trump Was Right and Many Democrats Wrong,“ when teachers and unions were attacked for being too cautious even as the pandemic was exploding. But I worry that history could repeat itself by intimidating educators into inaction as the Delta variant spreads in schools that can not require masks.
My primary concern, back then, was the simplistic nature of their commentaries, but I’ll admit to also being offended by one of their key memes. For instance, Alec MacGillis’ narratives on the emotional toll of school closures would have been constructive had it not been for his self-righteous condemnation of educators who supported strict guidelines for reopenings.It never seemed to occur to MacGillis that veteran educators who he disagreed with were equally upset by students’ suffering, even if we were more convinced than he was by the evidence for caution. He certainly ignored the dangers of premature reopenings that could extend the pandemic and the demoralizing isolation.
This week, I reread the New York Times Magazine’s Susan Dominus’ “I Feel Like I’m Drowning,” an equally tragic account of a group of high school students as it “desperately tries to make it through an isolated and dire year.” I must emphasize that Dominus did not engage in the blame game. My second reading of her story was doubly painful because of the tragic consequences which could result from not discussing the lessons of last year. The teacher and parent who were slow to agree to reopening in-person class weren’t criticized (and there was no attempt to argue their position was wrong.)
The article begins with a teenager worrying about her vulnerable mother who had Covid. The student understood the dangers of bringing the virus home to her family members. She also knew, “she was not in the right frame of mind to start learning” at school.
Although Dominus’ complex narrative didn’t help me reach conclusions on who was right and who was wrong on which decision to reopen or reclose schools, it made me confront my inability to understand a new dilemma that keeps baffling me. After suffering so much through the “lost year,” students and parents crave the social attachments of school. They don’t want to endure another period of isolation.
But, so many of them have not taken the obvious step – vaccination – which would allow a safe reentry into schools and social life.
In June, NBC News reported that vaccinations of 12 to 17 year-olds in Northeastern states was “surging,” and, “in Vermont, nearly 59 percent of adolescents have received their first dose.” But the number in Alabama was, “just under 6 percent of children ages 12 through 17 receiving their first dose.” NBC cited Dr. David Kimberlin, a pediatric infectious diseases expert:
“I think personally that it fits into a broader challenge that we have in this country, of just not knowing who to trust,” he said. “It can be frustrating. You debunk one misinformation issue, and then two or three others pop up. It’s like whack-a-mole.”
USA Today reported on July 14 that only 25% of the nation’s 12-15 year-olds were fully vaccinated, while 33% of their cohort have received one shot. Only 37% of the 16-17 age group are fully vaccinated while 45% had at least one shot.
This week, ABC News reported, “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41.8% of Americans ages 18 to 24 are fully vaccinated, compared to 66% of those ages 50 to 64 and 80.9% of those ages 65 to 74.” About 1/4th of unvaccinated “people between the ages of 18 and 25 said that they ‘probably will not’ or ‘definitely will not’ get the COVID-19 vaccine.”
In one sense, such attitudes are not new, even though the last year should have chipped away at the sense of invincibility – especially if adults had participated in discussions about the need for vaccinations and the misleading nature of social media alt facts. Dr. Schoch-Spana also said, “It largely boils down to trust, and who the ‘trusted influencers’ are.”
I agree, but I can’t wrap my mind around the lack of enough efforts to persuade family members and students.
So, I would argue that we must put the blame game behind us, but we also must ask whether we have done our jobs as educators and parents and mentors in preparing young people for our crazy adult world; as educators were attacked once again, did we once again become too silent? We are going to need a large number of conversations about how adults helped get our kids into this situation, and how to come together and face the complexities of the 21st century. But, now, we need to get on the stick and make and/or revise plans for safely reopening schools, and responding to setbacks which are likely to be inevitable in places where so many children and adults are unvaccinated.