For several weeks, social media has been awash with videos of tantrum-throwing Americans appearing at local civic meetings to assert that mask requirements are one step from totalitarian rule. And, I must admit, it was in this spirit that I decided to tune in to our hometown’s special Board of Education meeting called to discuss the school district’s current plan for reopening in the fall. Complete with public comment. Oh boy. That’s entertainment.
Put a more charitable way, I joined the call because I was curious to take my local community’s temperature on a hot-button issue. The first thing the Board announced was that public comment would proceed only on matters placed on the agenda, which meant “social justice” would have to wait until next month. Gotta have priorities in 2020, that’s for sure.
Once the meeting started in earnest, it was apparent that hundreds of people have been working under adverse circumstances to develop a plan attempting to satisfy a wildly diverse set of stakeholders.1We are not stakeholders, as both our public-school attending children have graduated high school.. That is not to say they succeeded—I do not know and others with higher stakes than mine will better judge—but the district offered a slew of options to parents, including two options that involved wholly remote learning.
And, fortunately, I was disappointed on the entertainment front. While there was evidence that anti-mask gaslighting has achieved more traction than it deserves (that is to say, more than zero), what ensued for two hours was a sober—if somewhat dry—overview of the district’s plan followed by a series of public comments. If there was any connecting thread in the public comments, it was an overriding concern for students and staff. There was little, if any, grandstanding, and the discussion proceeded in the best civic traditions, as parents thanked the district for its hard work before politely tearing into its proposal.
Even a casual listener (myself included) hardly could miss the massive undertaking necessary to put together a school year in the current circumstances. Set aside the mountain of logistical concerns on both the district side and the family side. What happens when students actually start catching the virus? All that work to physically open the school goes for naught if people just start refusing to show up in the middle of the year. And who is the fall guy if there’s an outbreak?2Certainly not the guy who takes no responsibility for anything, but we’ll get to him in a minute. School officials are not public health experts, but will be required to be so once schools open. If schools open.
Because all this work is happening even though no one knows what September will be like. America took over 90 days to reach its first million cases, half that to reach 2 million, and just 28 days to move from 2 to 3 million cases. Los Angeles County is setting new case records on a daily basis, and its hospitalizations and deaths are both rising. Indeed, today the County put its resident school districts on notice that it may not permit them to open at all.
And if all that weren’t enough, needlessly complicating matters is the vocal group of Americans convinced beyond reason that COVID-19 is a totalitarian hoax. That none of them showed up in this meeting doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Speaking of beyond all reason, these last take their cues from Donald Trump. There is no difficult situation that Trump can’t make more so. Trump and his Twitter feed thunder that “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!” Oh, is that all? Would he care to discuss any or all of the concerns expressed by the parents who participated in today’s two-hour meeting? Would he like to work out the division of opinion between those who want elementary school students to attend for four half-days and those who favor two days? Would he like to decide whether the students will go out for recess? How about the curriculum?
Setting those minute, unimportant details aside, with Dr. Anthony Fauci silenced and the Centers for Disease Control emasculated, the federal government offers no sound criteria by which anyone can conduct an acceptable risk-benefit analysis to open schools. This has been a pattern. In February, Trump and his cronies were dancing at Mar-a-Lago while COVID spread. In early March, he claimed that there were a dozen cases that would shortly fall to zero. When the country shut down in mid-March, he claimed COVID would fade with the heat. The acceptable losses started at a few thousand, grew to tens of thousands, are now over 130,000, and there is little doubt that Trump now considers this category to be unlimited. When the CDC issued standards for reopening schools, Trump immediately undermined them—leaving no standard at all, reliable or otherwise. Put another way, we are all collateral damage now.
Trump’s obsession with leverage even made a cameo when he claimed he would “withhold” funding from districts that don’t “open,” whatever the word “open” means. Of course, this is an empty threat: The odds that Trump will withhold education funding in an election year approach his odds of disavowing the Confederacy. Trump’s kabuki racketeering goes a long way with his 40% base, because they play submissives to his dominant, their favorite role. But this strategy limits him to 40%, because the rest of us are far more vanilla in our politics than his power-kink base.
The problem is that while Republicans are getting their rocks off in Trump’s magical power dungeon, the rest of us live in the real world and have real decisions to make. And we have no criteria—much less information—about how to make these decisions. In some sense, this is nobody’s fault. We are in a pandemic, and a raging one. Far less is known about the virus than anyone should be comfortable with, simply because we did not know it existed until a few months ago. Even if Trump had leveled—was capable of leveling—with the American people about the uncertainties of the situation, the best that would have resulted might have been an increase in caution and care, and a sharp-looking bell curve similar to nearly every developed country with an outbreak.
Instead, we have explosive infection and reopening chaos. Republicans claim that schools must open because there are few other options, even going so far as to take sudden and suspicious interest in the socially disadvantaged, whom nobody doubts rely on schools for much of their social and economic well-being—school meals, childcare, social engagement, and the like. All of this is undisputable, but the lack of a Plan B merely underscored the need to prepare American society for the strain of opening schools. Few people outside of Trump’s starriest enablers can argue this has happened.
The picture headlining this essay depicts Trump disembarking from Marine One and jumping out of his shoes to avoid an officer’s handshake at the bottom of the stairs. This is the same Trump who insists schools must open at all costs and despite all risks, though he will allow no administration official to tell America what those risks are. In such circumstances, it is likely better to do as Trump does, not as he says.