Three Brief Thoughts About K-12 Schooling During Covid (spoiler alert: they never “closed”)

There have been a lot news stories and commentaries about the public demanding we “reopen” schools. Most of these stories irritate me tremendously; I have three thoughts.

K-12 schools never closed. Period.

I realize that the phrase “reopen the schools” really means going back to normal, face to face instruction, and who doesn’t want everything to go back to normal? But c’mon, K-12 school teachers, staff, and administrators have been busting their fucking asses trying to make schooling work online and with hybrid arrangements and all that. Actually closing the schools would have meant just that: lock the doors, turn out the lights, everyone go home. Instead, there are K-12 teachers literally risking their lives trying to make school work.

I’ve been watching a lot of cable news lately (I mean, there’s been a lot of news, and I’m a fifty-something white man so of course I watch a lot of cable news), and it’s pretty standard to end a show with some kind of uplifting or inspiring story of perseverance in these “difficult times.” Whenever these stories feature teachers, I cringe. There was the story about the older woman who has been teaching third grade for 30 or 40 years, but this teacher is so dedicated and so great that she’s teaching via Zoom from her hospital bed while she’s dying from Covid. Or maybe it’s the one about a teacher who is doing house calls and checking in on each of his high school students by figuring out where they live, driving around town, and showing up to chat with them while appropriately socially distanced on the front lawn. My guess is that that this guy doesn’t have 125 or more students, which is typical for most of the people I know who teach high school.

I’m supposed to admire these teachers for their dedication and their great example of going way above and beyond what’s required. But what I see instead are completely unrealistic and unsustainable expectations we’re putting on these people. I mean, do real estate agents or bankers keep doing the paperwork and serving their clients while on oxygen in the ICU? Do we restaurant cooks spend their own money on food to cook and then drive around and deliver that food to their customers for free? Mainstream media loves these super hero teacher stories, and then parents see these stories and think it’s totally okay to expect their kid’s teacher to do the same far beyond the job description activities. Simultaneously, teaching as a profession and the teachers’ unions are getting bashed all the time. It’s no wonder that fewer people are going into this work.

Which brings me to my next point:

It’s not online courses, and it’s not only students.

All the teaching I’ve done online and all the research I’ve done about distance education tells me that it can definitely work, but there are clearly circumstances and settings where it works better. Online classes work best when students have some experience and maturity at being students, which is why (IMO) having advanced undergraduate or graduate classes online is much more effective than having classes like first year writing and other “gen ed” classes online. I think a lot (but certainly not all) high school and middle school students can do okay with online classes, but I have no idea how anyone expects a third grader to succeed online when that student is still trying to figure out how to just read and write in the first place.

So obviously online courses are difficult to pull off in K-12 schools, particularly for elementary school. For example, elementary school-aged kids typically do not have their own computer and a quiet place in the family home to do school work. So yeah, I can imagine the online classroom experience for the fifth grader who has to share a laptop with a sister and/or a parent and who has to do all of their work sitting at the kitchen table with said sister/parents and who are all working off of the personal hotspot wifi network on Mom’s iPhone, yeah, I can imagine that’s not going great.

But look, it’s not all about school  being online. It’s mostly about “everything else.”

By “everything else,” I don’t just mean this mysterious disease that has emerged like we’re in a dopey science fiction movie and forced all of us to change almost everything we do in our day to day lives. I don’t just mean the protests that are the result of long-simmering racial injustice and that came to the forefront this past summer. I don’t just mean the enormous number of people out of work and struggling to find food. I don’t just mean the completely fucked up politics we’ve had during the Trump presidency, cumulating in the “Big Lie” of a stolen election and the first violent transition of presidential power in our country’s history. I mean all of this as part of “everything else,” but not just this.

I also mean that for a lot (most?) kids, just being home all the time–even in the best of times– is horrible. I’m not just talking about families where there is abuse, though those are obviously the absolute worst situations. I’m also talking about perfectly normal children– particularly teens. It’s been a while since I was that age (though not that long since I had a teenager in the house), and I grew up in a completely supportive and loving household. But like most normal teenagers, the absolutely last thing I wanted to do back then was hang around with my parents or sisters for any longer than necessary because I was 15.

So what I’m saying is when I see stories on cable news about how children are struggling with their schooling, are feeling stressed, and find themselves depressed, I keep thinking two things. Number one, the main cause of these problems is not school being online. It’s “everything else,” and there is A LOT of everything else. If there had been no pandemic, no BLM movement, no economic collapse, no Trump administration, etc. etc.–and if the only issue was high schools shifted their classes online for some reason, then there would be no story here.

Two, whenever I read or see on the news these stories about how students are more depressed and stressed out than ever, my reaction is who isn’t?! Join the fucking club! I’ve seen a whole lot of student meltdowns this year and I’ve done what I can to try to help students through all this. But look, we’re all stressed and depressed– at least to some extent– and we’re all struggling. So yeah, open the schools to help the depressed and stressed students, sure; just remember that that elementary school teacher who has been working her ass off to teach those kids has a ton of the same problems of her own.

Finally:

If folks want to have f2f classes in K-12 schools again, vaccinate.

The CDC has said that K-12 schools can have f2f classes again even if teachers and staff aren’t vaccinated, and there are other studies out there that suggest the rate of transmission in K-12 schools tend to be lower than in the community in general. Now, I’m a “follow the science” kind of person when it comes to all things Covid. But if I were an elementary/secondary school teacher– especially a high school teacher– I’d be very skeptical about all this. And honestly, given that every teacher in the world has had to deal with administrator’s telling them stuff that turned out to be completely wrong, why should teachers trust the experts now?

The bottom line is parents (and students and a lot of teachers too) who want schools to have f2f classes need to prioritize doing the things to contain Covid that can make that happen, and we as a country need to prioritize vaccinating K-12 teachers and staff. Ya’ll can’t yell and scream about schools not being open for f2f classes and then complain about masks and insist that restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, and all of these other high Covid risk places are open for business as usual.

So let’s concentrate first on vaccinations and everything else first.

Clayton Eshleman, 1935-2021

My friend Clayton Eshleman died last week. He was 85 and I knew he had been in declining health for some time.

Clayton was an enormously successful and prolific poet, translator, writer, editor, and most of that is captured on the Wikipedia page about him. He published hundreds of chapbooks and books of his own poetry, a couple dozen translations, a couple more dozen books of prose and other writings, the best of which (IMO) is probably Juniper Fuseand lots of collections and anthologies of previously published works. He won a ton of prizes and recognitions, he and his wife Caryl were editors of a couple of important literary magazines, Caterpillar  and then Sulphur, he published other peoples’ books and chapbooks in different venues, and people have written books about him too. Like I said, that’s all there on Wikipedia.

We were only kind of colleagues because I started at EMU in 1998 and he retired from EMU in 2003, and while I do have an MFA in Fiction Writing, my PhD and work at EMU has been in composition and rhetoric. So our paths really didn’t cross much professionally. I did know he was a “presence” in the department, so to speak, the kind of senior colleague/older professor/important writer who was quite capable of striking fear in students and younger faculty– probably a few older faculty too. He was challenging, difficult, practiced radical honesty far too often, etc. But I really have no memories of him in any sort of committees or other work things at EMU.

Mostly, our relationship was about food, wine, and web sites.

As far as I can tell from looking at some old journals/calendars of mine, the first time I interacted or talked with Clayton in any detail was at the 2001 department Christmas party, and I am sure we mainly talked about cooking. Somehow, he floated the idea that we should have a dinner party where I bring a dish or two and he makes a dish or two. I thought he was just trying to be nice after we’d each had a few glasses of wine, but several months later in spring 2002, that’s what we did at Clayton and Caryl’s house. I want to say it was close to twenty people over there total.

For many years after that, Annette and I would get together with Clayton and Caryl for dinner, usually a couple of times a year, usually at their house. Looking back at it now, I realize that while I was back then already a pretty decent cook, Clayton and Caryl introduced both Annette and me to a different level of sophistication with food. The meals he served weren’t showy or gimmicks of any sort– just really good and classic food, usually with a turn toward the French. He had a fantastic dish of rabbit stuffed with prunes. I think the first time I had duck confit ever was at Clayton’s house.

On the one hand, because Annette and I are so much younger than them (Clayton was five years older than my father), a lot of these affairs felt stiff and formal. If the evening’s events were to begin at say 6:30 pm, you were there at 6:30 pm– and whenever we had a party and invited them, they were always the first to arrive. The Eshleman’s house was an eclectic and eccentric space, and I often felt like a little kid just staring at all the stuff: all the paintings from notable artists they actually knew, an enormous wall of books in a case that filled half the living room, some preposterously giant decorative wine glasses on top of the sideboard in the dining room, an inflatable pterodactyl hanging from the ceiling. They had a teeny-tiny powder room tucked under the stairs, the kind of space where it took some careful maneuvering to use the toilet. The walls were completely covered with decades worth of snapshots of Clayton, Caryl, and all sorts of various friends usually sitting at large tables covered with empty bottles of wine: pictures from France, from New York, from trips to the caves he wrote about in Juniper Fuse and where he used to lead tours of classes studying the ice age paintings. So these dinners were often strange and intimidating affairs.

But mostly these dinners were fun and we kept going back because Clayton and Caryl both had such fantastic stories of decades of life as wholly committed to art and poetry and writing. I think my favorite Clayton story was the one he told about essentially stalking Allen Ginseberg in the early 1960s (or possibly late 1950s) in New York City. I never quite understood how that happened– did he just look him up in the phonebook?– but Clayton said he found him and he knocked on Ginsberg’s door and asked him to tell Clayton about poetry. Ginsberg said he would if Clayton bought him a hamburger, and so they had hamburgers and talked about poetry.

When Juniper Fuse was published in 2003, I volunteered to set up a web site for him. I did it as a friend, but also for some additional experience in making web sites– I teach this stuff so I need to stay up with the technology. Clayton did “pay me” in a matter with bottles of very good wine I would have never bought for myself and by taking me out to lunch once in a while. We went different places over the years, but we tended to always circle back to a Mexican place in Ypsilanti near campus, La Fiesta. The food was pretty good (it frankly isn’t as good as it used to be, unfortunately), but I think he liked it most because the owner would always dote on Clayton when he came in. We gossiped about EMU academic politics, about whatever events, and about the web site and what new things he wanted to put on it– new books, new chapbooks, another interview someplace, a series of readings in New York or wherever. One of the really extraordinary things about Clayton’s productivity as a writer is it actually increased after he retired; I think he wrote something like another 20 books in his last 20 years.

Annette and I did go out to some restaurants with Clayton and Caryl, but it was very tricky to find a place in Ann Arbor that satisfied them. Some of Clayton’s favorite restaurants didn’t strike me as very good– there was a Chinese place he was fond of in Ann Arbor I remember as mediocre, and it closed down years ago now. The last place I remember going with them that they liked a great deal was Mani Osteria, which is probably my favorite place still open in Ann Arbor. But even though he was a harsh critic and demanding customer, most of his restaurant recommendations were correct. On one trip through Chicago, we had a splurge of a meal at Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo which Clayton had recommended– he liked going to it when he had a visiting teaching gig in Chicago. Still haven’t made it to The French Laundry, but I learned from him about Thomas Keller’s cookbooks and his other more affordable restaurants like Bouchon. When Annette and Will and I went to Paris for about 10 days for a sort of working vacation, Clayton suggested some reasonably priced but more upscale bistro kinds of places that were fantastic.

In the last five or six years, we saw each other less frequently. I think Clayton’s energy and enthusiasm for making elaborate meals had understandably declined as he got into his eighties. As I got better as a cook, I would sometimes bring him some of the molé I had been trying to make (based on a Rick Bayless recipe), and he always seemed happy for those gifts. We talked less about what to put on the web site because Clayton wasn’t writing as much or giving as many readings as he had a few years before, but he still had good stories up until the last time I had lunch with him, which I think was about a year and a half ago.

So rest in peace, Clayton. You were a difficult, interesting, sometimes angry, eccentric, brilliant, and often a surprisingly kind friend.