Editor’s Note: We are pleased to introduce a new column, Letters from Quarantine by Tanya Klowden. She began writing these missives and posting them on social media in March, and has written daily since then. Knowing that her reflections speak to many people in Culver City, we are including them here on a regular basis “for the duration.” To get a better introduction, her bio is available at the end of this column, along with a short interview on when and why.
Scenes from quarantine – Day 119:
Your children are not going back to school in the fall.
It was, oddly, an emergency room physician in Houston, Texas who looked our largest elephant squarely in the face, and called it out by name. Houston’s hospital system effectively collapsed two days ago, with hospitals holding COVID-19 patients in the ER indefinitely and diverting new intakes from arriving ambulances (although, with all the hospitals in the same place, there was nowhere to divert to). The city has been frantically adding capacity, setting up field hospitals with ICU beds and equipment, switching to double-occupancy, putting beds in hallways. But the hospitals cannot get past a very basic bottleneck. There are not enough doctors, nurses, and technicians to provide the needed care and no number of beds will compensate for that shortfall.
It is, ultimately, this very same shortfall that, no matter what the administration’s intentions may be, will force our schools to stay shuttered. There had been discussion of forming pods of 6-8 children together with a teacher, or of hybrid systems where half a class spent half the school day in the classroom. A California kindergarten teacher teaches a class of 24 students (although the absolute maximum allowed is 30 students). A high school teacher in this state has a maximum class size of 32-35 students, which gives the teacher around 200 students across 4-6 classes in beforetimes schooling. To mitigate coronavirus would then require 3 kindergarten teacher now to do the job of one kindergarten teacher a year ago. High school would require 24 high teachers to do one beforetimes high school teacher’s work and that is if we overlook the very awkward point that having half the class meet half the time might limit the children’s risk but only extends the hours of exposure to the virus that is faced by the teacher.
Not only are we not in a position to radically grow the ranks of our teaching staff, but medical staffing differs from teaching staff in one critical way. To pursue a medical career, an individual voluntarily accepts the risk of exposure to deadly disease as an occupational hazard. We have absolutely no such expectation of the teachers and staff within our schools. They did not ask for this, they did not expect this, they did not sign up for this.
Already we are seeing large numbers of teachers opt for early retirement or transition into other, lower-risk occupations rather than step foot back inside schools. Teachers unions, long a powerful force within the state of California, have been loudly outspoken in their objections to what is being asked of our teachers. Even with consistent, firm federal pressure, the Los Angeles and San Diego school districts, two of the largest in the country, voted early in the week to continue with distance learning rather than in-person instruction following a strong statement by Unified Teachers of Los Angeles calling for schools to remain closed.
Ultimately, no matter how much they go on television, no matter how many roundtables they hold, the US president, the hateful Secretary of Education, and state education boards do not have a choice between opening and closing. They only have a choice between doing things the easy way or the hard way.
The easy way is to tally up the accelerating teacher shortages and act now to plan for full-time distance learning or a long-term pause of formal education for the foreseeable future this fall. Nobody likes this plan, nobody wants it, not children, not parents, not teachers, not administrators. But our nation hit 70,000 single-day new case reports at a time when demand for testing has extended results out to 8-10 days. We did not hit 70,000 new cases this weekend. We hit 70,000 new cases last week and were so crushed by that we could not even see it until now. Coronavirus is wildly out of control within the US. With a mounting death toll and record case counts this is absolutely our most palatable option.
Districts that forge ahead with reopening, such as Orange County (Los Angeles’ increasingly problematic neighbor to the south), will face widespread teacher strikes and unlike recent strikes in Los Angeles and New York for better pay and benefits, these strikes will have very broad and widespread support from families that are concerned for the safety of their own children as much as for the safety of their child’s teacher. Teachers cannot strike and teach at the same time (by definition) and so districts that force this action from teachers will be forced into a complete suspension of all educational services, including distance learning. These children will be stuck with Khan Academy (if they have strong, reliable internet access) and Spongebob Squarepants reruns on cable (if they don’t) for their educational content. As much as we all hate distance learning, and while, technically, Spongebob was created by a marine biologist to teach about underwater biomes, absolutely nobody wants this outcome either.
Finally, let us look at the outcome we have if, by some miracle, teachers do not strike but instead walk into the classroom like lambs to slaughter. Here is where we can see the clearest correlation to our medical systems. Hospitals staff are putting in 10+ hour days, with strict protocols still in place to stretch single-use PPE across a week, and masked, gloved, shielded and aproned, are still getting sick, still dying, and as they fall sick and are unable to come work their shifts, hospital capacity decreases as demand grows. This is what overwhelmed looks like. Our teachers do not have anywhere near the same PPE access, but are being asked to put in the same number of hours and face the same risk of exposure. Teachers in the classroom will also begin to sicken and die and within a short number of weeks, there will literally not be enough teachers, substitutes, or even wildly under-qualified staffing in our classes to sit with children solely to keep them from being unattended.
Again, our schools will be forced to close completely and with so many teachers lost to illness, distance learning will not be an option. Even if we manage, weeks or months later, to control the spread of disease, our schools will be plagued with staffing shortages for months, possibly years. This is the complete collapse of our educational system and it is far worse than even having children sit at home for a few months watching Nickelodeon for education.
These are our only possible outcomes. It is not a question of whether your child’s schooling is disrupted. It is purely a question of how badly and for how long. If there is a bright spot in this, and I very much believe there is, it is this. As much as our medical system and our education system have in common, the outcomes of their collapse are radically different. When hospitals collapse, people die, families are shattered, our nation staggers. While there are ill-effects from the collapse of our schools, children are remarkably resilient and fantastically adaptable to changing circumstances.
Children will not die from staying home. Children will not forget how to be participants in our society. As I have stated before, our children will continue to grow, and yes, even learn, through this vast disruption. A pause right now will not break them. Their education will look very different than yours and mine did, but the experiences they face in the coming weeks and months will leave a powerful and lasting mark onto their souls. At the other side of this crisis, our children will be there with clear thoughts and strong opinions on what was horrific, what was profoundly good, and most importantly, what was and will continue to be truly needed. As they grow into adulthood, I do not doubt that they will demand to have a voice in the discussion and a hand in reshaping our educational systems.
Our children are not going back in the fall. What we can do right now is let them know that we support them, that we care about their safety and the safety of those they care about (their friends, teachers, and members of their communities). We can promise that we will provide them a safe place to be in our homes and that we will all be patient with each other as we figure out what life looks like when we step back from the educational institutions we have become reliant on. We can hold them close and whisper to them that they are not falling behind, they are precisely where they need to be in this moment.
As our children feel nurtured and know they have our unwavering support in this moment of crisis, they will someday be able to step forward and change the world in ways we cannot begin to imagine now. They will be able to do this precisely because when they were small, the world changed around them, and through it, they were loved. And that, more than anything, is what is important.
Tanya Klowden is a physicist with a background in design and history whose work is focused on identifying the works and telling the stories of unrecognized and underappreciated artists, scientists, and thinkers in history. Growing up Latina as the only child of a single parent in rural Texas, she is particularly mindful and focused on issues of representation, social justice, and equal access. Previously published work includes a profile of female artist Artemisia Gentileschi in the context of the #MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. In addition to her ongoing work in physics and art conservation science, Tanya is currently focused on chronicling the social changes occurring within the United States during the pandemic, including issues of inequality in healthcare, education, work opportunities, and government policy.
A short interview; Culver City Crossroads Talks to Tanya Klowden
What inspired you to start a daily letter? The week before the schools shut down was so crazy, I immediately realized this was a major event in world history as in rapid succession, one thing after another was stripped away from us. It reminded me very much of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, both of which recount events from individuals who are stuck with a very limited worldview. I wanted to start a record of this time we were going through so that, looking back, we could remember the small, random things that seem unimportant in the moment but in hindsight become increasingly precious. After sharing the first half-dozen entries, several friends remarked that they enjoyed reading them and found my entries somewhat comforting, so I continued writing and sharing to keep offering support to them as we all went through an unprecedented collective trauma.
When do you write them? Because my schedule has become untethered from the clock (and the sun) when I write my entries has wildly varied. Toward the beginning of the pandemic, I mostly wrote in dead of night, when everyone else was sleeping. As entries grew longer and often more research and more thought, I discovered that sleeping and then writing gave me more clarity and so I often write about each day sometime during the following day.
Who do you think will find the most value from reading your entries? I’m not very sure as again, the responses I have gotten from my friends surprise me. Some are grateful for the regular breakdowns of the news, where I place a bunch of large things that are happening far away into the context of my (and often their) life. Others seem to feel a tremendous amount of validation that I am feeling, thinking, and experiencing what they are, which seems to help make them feel less isolated. Some people seem to just enjoy the funny little stories of our family isolated together and our neighborhood, which probably does have a “Little House”/”Little Women” vibe at times. And finally, because of being in historic reenactment circles, I have a lot of friends who seem to really love diving into history. We tend to think that what we are going through is unique and while it is in some ways, in others, we are dealing with things that individuals and societies have struggled with again and again over the centuries. Connecting to historical figures who lived through a plague or spoke out against injustice or reached a hand out to the downtrodden not only makes us feel less alone, but inspires us to find meaningful actions we can take today.