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December 23 2021 was not March 13 2020

December 25, 2021 am31 3:56 am

The shock is wearing off. Over twenty-four hours after school ended.

Yesterday had an ominous feel. We were teaching in a crisis. My school has high attendance, but yesterday many classes had too few students to accomplish anything. Our hallways were eerily uncramped. Students removed Christmas decorations – something about streamers not staying up – but it felt like undecorating. Rumors floated about a possible shutdown, but consensus was that de Blasio and Adams would be committed to keeping schools open, no matter what. Still, there was more conversation about COVID than about holiday plans. I finished the day by taking a goodbye selfie – December 23, 2021, just like March 13, 2021.

Back then was a Friday. This was a Thursday. But the differences run much deeper.

First, a couple more words about yesterday. I taught students new games. I put “find all rectangles whose area = perimeter (disregarding units)” on the board in someone else’s “class” – and a few students tried it. I told another class my version of how omicron got its name. And the best answer I could muster to “will we shut down” went something like this: “the politicians are committed, for reasons that have nothing to do with safety, to keeping our schools open. I heard de Blasio on the radio urging caution and caution and more caution, except in City office buildings and in NYC schools. But it is possible that things go way beyond what the politicians want to happen, and they may end up closing schools – but that will mean the situation has become horrible – something nobody wants.”

March 13, 2020 vs December 23, 2021

Yes, that was Friday. This was Thursday.

Back then we did not know much about COVID. There was a mix of terror and disbelief – and an amazing amount of naïvety. Masks. Door handles. Today we know a lot about COVID. We don’t know how this will end, but we understand a bunch more about transmission.

On March 13, 2020, there had been no publicly confirmed deaths from COVID in all of New York State. There were about 2000 confirmed cases across the entire United States. On December 23, 2021 we found ourselves on the leading edge of a fourth wave, with roughly 53 million cases over the last 21 months in the US. We have lost almost 60 thousand New Yorkers to the disease, a quarter of whom were victims of Andrew Cuomo’s lethal nursing home policies.

What kind of shutdown?

In March 2020 we were fighting with de Blasio and Cuomo and to some extent with Mulgrew – we were demanding that schools be closed. Two week shutdown. Three week shutdown. We were going to extinguish this thing. The goal was to stop COVID in its tracks.

Today the discussion is different.

There are families who desperately want a remote option, independent of the omicron wave. They should have it (run centrally – not by each school)

But there are concerns about omicron spreading in schools – as it is clearly doing. There is some push for closures in the face of clear in-school transmission. And there are huge question marks about how slow de Blasio has been to allow the evidence of in school transmission to be collected and evaluated. He has undertested. He has understaffed the situation room. He has undermined test and trace. It is hard to believe that this is not intentional.

There have been some pretty strong statements, including this press release from United for Change / UFT, and Friday’s MORE statement. And they are not outliers. Most teachers think the DoE and de Blasio were trying NOT to find cases, and trying not to close schools. And most teachers think that when COVID is spreading in individual classrooms or whole schools, that those sites should be closed. That sentiment is broad enough that Mulgrew was forced to put out a statement: “Our school buildings should not open in January if we don’t have a plan in place to keep each school community safe.” It’s non-specific, as you could have guessed in advance, because he does not really mean it, but that’s the effect of pressure from the membership, that he even put something out. (I’ll write more about the recent UFT reaction to omicron in the next few days).

So there are some calls for schools to stay closed until some specific condition is met (I have heard negative PCR test for everyone – adults and children. I have also heard about an ask for a change in policy, to mandate vaccines for eligible children). The assumption here is that schools might need a couple of extra days in January, a week at most, to meet the first of these conditions.

There’s a more nuanced position – that closings should be aggressive for the duration of the omicron wave (this position usually comes with the assumption that the wave will be huge, but of brief duration) to avoid overloading hospitals – but also any other institution that will not function properly without adequate staffing.

One position I do not hear today is that of March 2020 – no one I know of has promoted the idea that schools should be closed until COVID goes away. That’s not happening.

Political Obstacles

March 13, 2020 Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio were bickering over, well, everything. de Blasio called for a shelter in place. Cuomo said no. Then Cuomo called for a shelter in place, but called it something else. On the schools they fought and fought and fought – while the actual problem – this brand new virus was arriving – and we had no idea what was going to happen – and we had no immunity – while the actual problem was going unaddressed. At the same time we had an idiot in the White House who not only was doing nothing worthwhile, but was actually using the impending catastrophe to whip up racism.

And instead of yelling at Cuomo and de Blasio for bickering, our union’s leadership watched. (Over the next months the union’s Unity leadership consistently sided with Cuomo over de Blasio, time and time again – but that should be the subject of another post). And instead of condemning Trump’s buffonery in the face of a pandemic, the union’s Unity leadership continued its cowardly policy of avoiding using Trump’s name.

But on school closures de Blasio, Mulgrew, and Cuomo got there – just a little later than they should have – and with major pressure from teachers and parents – and with some real fear of the unknown pandemic we were facing.

Today the politics are different. de Blasio has a few days left. Cuomo left four months ago, in disgrace. Mulgrew seems to have promised the politicians that he would keep schools open, and is trying to find a way to calm member anger without breaking his closed-door promise.

Masks and Ventilation and Vaccines

There were no vaccines in March 2020. There was contradictory information on masks. Today masks are understood to be useful at controlling the spread, despite a substantial (political) anti-mask movement. We have much better understanding of how ventilation can provide a degree of protection, even though many classrooms are not properly ventilated, and even though de Blasio and Karin Goldmark bought substandard air purifiers for every school in NYC. But the biggest difference is vaccination. At this point every adult working in NYC schools is required to be vaccinated – and a good chunk, maybe a very good chunk, have been boosted.

Infection and Mortality

That leads to one of the biggest differences. On March 13 2020, none of us had died, but, sadly, quite a few were about to. Compared to the time after, very few had become infected.

Today, with our knowledge of masking, of how transmission occurs, and with some ideas about ventilation, but with the virus all over the place, and with “breakthrough” infections, people, even careful people, are getting sick. I’ve been careful, but I may have been exposed Thursday, and will be testing in a day. For the moment, the vaccines and boosters are carrying the day, and mortality is far lower than in March/April 2020. But COVID is not just a cold. Long COVID remains an issue. And the disease is still new enough that we probably do not yet have a full sense of what the long-term problems will be.

Anything Else?

We are tired of this. We are tired of the pandemic. We are tired of COVID. We are tired of masks. We were way tired of Zoom teaching, and we are tired of teaching with COVID restrictions (even if some of them, such as air purifiers, ventilation in some schools, and social distancing are more or less fiction.) We want to get back to how things were.

Cases now are not so serious – most of them – as they were 20 months ago. Vaccines work. Boosters work. Breakthrough cases are mostly on the mild side. Omicron cases may be on the mild side as well (not clear if this is a feature of omicron, or if this is because omicron is infecting people who already have some immunity).

At the same time we are scared. COVID killed tens of thousands in NYC. Most of us lost someone we knew, maybe someone close. A positive test brings uncertainty – it might be mild – but we won’t know. Each new variant does something different – remember when it seemed that kids would never get this? Or do we worry that the next variant may evade the vaccines? We are already facing hyper-transmissible omicron.

There are fatalists, and impatient people. With the vaccine they are pretty sure COVID won’t kill them, and they want to discard the masks and the mandates and the precautions yesterday. COVID, they rationalize, is like a cold; everyone will get it sooner or later. I understand where they are coming from. But they are wrong.

The trick is to find the safeguards that are adequate for the moment, and to exceed them, even if only slightly. But that is very hard with politicians in charge. Will Hochul, Adams and Mulgrew handle things better than Cuomo, de Blasio, and Mulgrew?

All good questions. None of which we could have asked on March 13, 2020.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Samuel Noel permalink
    December 25, 2021 am31 5:44 am 5:44 am

    Excellent points, one and all! What I find interesting is that today there is no threshold to cross regarding the closing of schools. It used to be 3%. The sky’s the limit now with 1009 confirmed positive infections on December 23rd when attendance was poor. 22,981 total infections since September and that’s with testing almost non-existent (at least in my school).

    • December 26, 2021 am31 12:23 am 12:23 am

      The political drive – de Blasio, soon to be Adams, Mulgrew, Weingarten, and it was Cuomo – not sure how much Hochul has said – that drive is to keep schools open at all costs. And that counts you, and that counts me, and that counts our students – as costs.

      They do not want a threshold – that’s something they do not want to enforce. In fact, they’d like as little enforced as possible.

      What can we do? It’s got to be better than calling them out for putting students and teachers at risk. Which we do, and which they ignore.

  2. David Vota permalink
    December 25, 2021 am31 8:58 am 8:58 am

    At this point, keep the schools open. Everywhere we must remain vigilant and safe except in schools. “WE ARE BACK TO NORMAL” but I have to wear a mask in Home Depot.
    This past week was worse than 3/2020 and last year, for that matter. 40 plus cases and a school did not shut down? How many holiday plans do you supposed you ruined or actually made FAR WORSE. How? Because I do not believe that people will cancel their plans if someone tests positive. So the fun will continue into the brand spankin new year. There ya go. Solid leadership, Mr. Mayor. We know you have 6 days left. Do not completely run the city into the ground, is all we ask. Hey Mr. Mayor, where can I get one of those blowie things to celebrate the New Year 2022 like you did in your daily address?

    • December 25, 2021 pm31 12:31 pm 12:31 pm

      He’s guessing that it won’t be bad enough to create a disaster. But his guesses are leaving a lot of people at risk. And they are just guesses.

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