Going Back to School in the Midst of a Global Pandemic:  Fear, Loathing, and ‘Virtual’ Learning

by on August 17, 2020 · 2 comments

in Education, Health, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

It’s hard to imagine a worse way to start a school year, from top to bottom.  As with his dreams of a glorious economic “reopening,” President Trump’s authoritarian fantasy of forcing the nation’s return to school has backfired in a big way, with polls everywhere showing a majority of parents and students unhappy with the idea of being bullied into the classroom whether that be in K-12 or higher education. 

Also, it turns out, that many local school districts have refused to play along, listening to public health experts rather than the go-back-to-work-and-die crowd.  In places where schools have reopened, we were immediately greeted with outbreaks of COVID-19.

Who would have thought?

Meanwhile, the technocrats’ utopian fantasies of a brave new age of virtual learning have crashed into the reality that most people hate it, and that it has poured gasoline on the flames of already existing economic and racial disparities.  Last spring, large numbers of high school students in districts across the country simply stopped attending, and a recent survey of college students nationwide showed that 35% of them were thinking of dropping out. Indeed, a movement is brewing to demand that some of the more expensive colleges and universities offer students a discount for what they rightly see as a subpar product.

And with the disgraceful failure of the federal government to provide any new aid to states and municipalities, the pressure will continue to build for schools to step up and solve unsolvable problems as their budgets are being cut to pieces.  In essence, the dictate coming from Trumpland is this: send kids back to school, try to keep them safe, and do it with a lot less money.

What could go wrong?

With no coherent national strategy to address the pandemic, deal with the economic crisis crushing many ordinary Americans, or come back to schools and colleges safely, what you get is yet another ugly patchwork quilt of largely uncoordinated responses.  Some competent, some disastrous, others somewhere in between.  Educators themselves have stepped forward with fairly comprehensive plans, but minus adequate funding to cope with this national emergency, they are falling on deaf ears.

Thus, in addition to nearly a couple hundred thousand deaths thus far, the national mishandling of the pandemic and subsequent economic collapse is likely to give us a lost generation of students who will inevitably be left behind or otherwise greatly damaged by their elders’ total disregard for the greater good.  The sad fact is that if we vote the bastards out at the national level, it will still take a while to clean up this mess, even if much-needed aid from the federal government finally arrives.

This is the landscape that educators like myself occupy as we try our best to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. Teachers have spent countless hours recreating their classes for online formats or Zoom, retrained, and sweat blood trying to answer the call.  Spending 10 hours and sometimes more a day on Zooms, in virtual meetings, emailing, calling, and doing everything we can to offer our students not just adequate content, but some semblance of a genuine educational experience. This is purgatorial at best, genuinely soul-killing at worst. What nags at us is that whatever we do in this online pedagogical realm isn’t nearly enough.

Virtual learning simply cannot deliver the human connection that makes for a truly excellent education.  Period.

Lots of my time as a college professor at City College is spent simply listening to students’ stories of economic distress, problems at work, fears about sick family members, struggles staying engaged, and hopelessness about the future.  It is, in so many ways, a house of pain.

Of course, I’m also there when my students find out that they got accepted for transfer to a university that seemed impossible, won a scholarship, excelled on a writing assignment, or just had a good day in class. These are the things that keep you going in the midst of the larger chaos around you.

Thus, I’ll do my very best again this semester, as will my colleagues, with an ethos of love, trying to make a bad situation into something a little more human and valuable for our students.  It likely won’t be enough for some, but we’ll try to keep folks engaged and on track in the face of a host of obstacles.

But I won’t lie: it’s a daunting task as we face a looming budget disaster and many menacing uncertainties about the future.  One thing, though, that I do know for certain is that when all this is over, we, as a society, will owe our young people a lot more than we have been able to deliver during this crisis.

We need to be so much better.





{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

sealintheSelkirks August 19, 2020 at 2:34 pm

Good news! Schools in my area have now admitted it would be incredibly foolish to open in-person as my rural mountain county’s infection rates continues to climb. And they thought it was only going to ravage the Democrat-run cities. Oops. Every tiny town in my area, Springdale, Waitt’s Lake, Loon Lake, Valley, Chewelah, etc etc are all now watching more and more people testing positive even though there is an incredibly lack of testing that has been allowed in this Trump-voting Cindy McMorris-Rogers controlled area. As of two weeks ago, the last count I read about, in a county of 45,000 +/- they had given 3,000 tests. IN SIX MONTHS! Really really poor testing and zero contact tracing going on…

That the teachers were refusing to go back to work might have had something to do with that decision, though. But still, good news.



Muir Avenue Ale August 24, 2020 at 1:57 pm

I don’t expect school administration or anyone else to have a one-size, fits-all answer to this, but it pains the hell out of me to see teachers expected to just invent everything on the fly. Yours is the first, first-person account I’ve read of a teacher trying his damndest to navigate his way through this, and I’m glad you’re able to share your experiences through the Rag. I’m a product of City College and never knew how good I had it. In my day, we had access to a high-quality, full-time education for $50 a semester — and we still bitched about that when we learned it used to be free! I assume there are lots of opportunities to pick the brains of other teachers, and education will be as good as City as anywhere else, but . . . guess I’m glad I graduated in the ’80s.


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