2022-04-11 Education in a Time of Pandemic IV

Interlude 2: There Is a Better Way

‘Happiness does not come from searching for it, but by living’ (Finnish saying)

We’ll see in the final part of our series how the K-12 public education in the U.S. – sometimes referred to as “America’s Best Idea” – is being undermined by a well-organized and well-funded campaign ongoing for more than a generation, one which has taken advantage of the pandemic to step up its efforts, particularly in statehouses across the country.

But before we descend that divisive and costly path, let’s consider a country that has got public education right: Finland.  

What makes this small Nordic country’s system so successful? A number of factors:

  • No private schools (well, there’s one: the Finnish International School in Helsinki, which is for the children of foreign residents such as diplomats)
  • Equality (key goal from birth)
  • Emphasis on the individual child from a very young age (early intervention)
  • Well-defined and comprehensive youth policies extending beyond schools
  • Highly-qualified teachers (teaching is on a par with medicine and law as one of the “most desirable” professions; only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted; all teachers hold master’s degrees paid for by the state, and special education teachers have additional training – in other words, teaching is a high-prestige, high-qualifications profession which guarantees (a) continual demand for teaching positions by candidates AND (b) longevity among those selected
  • No state testing; students take only one national exam at the end of their secondary schooling (and they don’t assign PISA* results any significance)
  • Students are in school fewer hours, which allows more time for extracurriculars  (in Finland, this means means many outdoor nature-related activities like skiing, hiking, biking, sauna use)
  • Minimal or no homework
  • Major emphasis on play; in fact, the early years mostly consist of play –socialization, with Finnish children not beginning school proper until age 7 (Note: The Finns recognize “play” as a human right as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, Article 31)
  • Emphasis on special needs children, with the goal of mainstreaming all children when possible.

The world has noticed what Finland’s been doing over the past half-century – the restructuring of the country’s education system was a long-term goal, and introduced gradually with the input of stakeholders. Interestingly, Finland looked initially to what other countries were doing (primarily, the U.S.). They adopted and adapted (and continue to adapt) what they consider best practices to their own education system. It’s a system based on involvement of all stakeholders (education authorities [all of whom are educators themselves], municipalities and teachers in the first instance, followed by business leaders, non-governmental associations, researchers, and parents). In short, “This consensus-based policymaking process has guaranteed sustainability of reforms and maintained the focus on a singular, shared vision of ongoing reforms. There have been over 20 different ministers of education and government coalitions since the 1970s in Finland, but the main principles of education policy have changed little.”

Teachers aren’t evaluated or assessed, and neither are schools. It’s a given that every school, every teacher, does the very best they can for their students. A single teacher may have the same class for as many as five years, giving them the chance to know each student (around 20 per class, with one teacher’s assistant for every 6-7 students) really well. The goal is to help each individual to reach their full potential, not some abstract test score or metric. The Finns don’t pay much attention to metrics, either; rather, they employ the human factor – teachers figure they understand their students better than any metric can convey.  “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect” (Timo Heikkinen, 24-year veteran teacher and principal from Helsinki). One important consequence of this focus on the individual child: the Finns have the smallest difference in the world between their strongest and weakest students.

Also of note: “Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.” (Outcomes and costs remind us of national health systems vs. the private U.S. health system).

Teaching and learning take place within a broader environment of “caring for the child.” Finland has generous parental leave, subsidized daycare, free preschool, and a subsidy for each child until they turn 17. No student goes hungry or has its medical needs unattended: “Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.” And municipalities help out too, providing extra funds to cover the costs of special needs teachers for, e.g. a school’s immigrant children still not conversant in Finnish (the system provides all children a full Finish-language education in addition to two foreign languages, begun at ages 8-9: Swedish and a second language, with English being the most popular).

For five years in a row, Finland has been named the “happiest country in the world” (runners-up: Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland) and its education system is listed among the main reasons. Here are some others:

  • A national sense of fortitude (Finnish sisu), partly born from living in an inhospitable climate, and partly due to a harsh history of conflict with its nearest neighbors, Sweden and Russia.
  • The “freedom to roam”: 75% of Finland’s land expanse is forest (highest percentage in the world), and the country enjoys low levels of air and water pollution. All Finns have the right to circulate freely in nature – along rivers, on lakes, in forests.
  • A strong sense of community fostered not least by the national custom of the sauna – there are 2.4 million saunas for a population of 5.5 million. Finns come together in saunas stripped of the outer trappings of wealth and status – which is both a strong equalizer and a means of encouraging comfort with their own – and others’ – bodies.
  • Sustainable, thoughtful consumption. Finns aren’t fans of the throwaway society; what they do possess is solid and built to last (often, for a lifetime). They are avid recyclers as well, so less “stuff” gets tossed; rather, it’s reused – again and again. And they’re borrowers, too: the public library system in Finland loans out 68 million books a year.  
  • Child welfare. Finns believe in giving everyone an equal start in life – witness, for example, the famed “baby boxes” distributed since 1938 to all new parents upon a child’s birth. And there’s affordable daycare and free elementary, secondary, and university education.
  • A sense of humility. Finns tend to accept their lot (both individual and collective) in life, and therefore to consider themselves happier than those who are endlessly striving.
  • Finns embrace the darkness and the light – whether weather extremes, the hot steam in the sauna versus the freezing cold outside, 200 days of darkness versus the Northern Lights, or hardship itself, which is viewed not as a setback but as an opportunity for growth. “[T]he self-image of Finns is that we are a relatively melancholic nation, who like to listen to sad tangos or angry heavy metal instead of happy songs. I think this acceptance of negative emotions as part of life might actually have a positive effect on the happiness of Finns” (well-being researcher Dr. Frank Martela).  

To sum up, here’s what Finland has going for it:  A highly egalitarian society (not so homogeneous anymore, however; Finland now has a significant refugee population); a focus on the welfare of all its inhabitants from birth; a national ethos of moderation in consumption; care and respect for the natural environment (which is, after all, the nurturer of us all); strong social welfare programs that alleviate poverty, strengthen the middle class (Finland has no homelessness, almost no poverty [Gini coefficient of 27.3]), and a high level of trust in government at all levels – for example, the national education system is completely devolved; local councils have full responsibility for schools, and there is no oversight by the national government.

And finally: Finland, although an EU member country, is also neutral (since 1995), which means that a higher percentage of its GDP can be devoted to life-enhancing as opposed to life-destroying investment. That matters too.

*PISA = Programme for International Student Assessment, administered every three years to around 500,000 15-year-olds throughout the world. It was most recently administered in 2021.

Further Reading

Finnish Lessons”: Interview with Pasi Sahlberg

 (beginning at 20:46)

Finland’s Educational Success Is No Miracle

Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?”

Why Finland Has the Best Education System in the World

What Makes Finland the Happiest Country in the World for the Fourth Consecutive Year?”

7 Lessons Learned from the Happiest Country in the World

2022-04-06 Interlude

The Story of Buzz and Janie and Danny

It has been clear for some time that completing our series of planned posts on “Education in a Time of Pandemic” has become difficult, painful even. The final planned post, on the many well-funded efforts to privatize American public education by stealth, will have to wait for a bit as we go on holiday from the darkness enveloping our world to seek out the light.

We woke up this morning determined to find a more uplifting topic to use as a launching-pad. It took several hours, but we found one, on a site we visit occasionally when we’ve a mind to read in-depth, reflective writing on a wide variety of subjects. Appropriately enough, the site is called “longreads.” The piece we chose, “Raphael Couldn’t Have Painted Something More Beautiful,” was published in an online magazine called The Atavist, which we weren’t familiar with – one of the pleasures of longreads is that its selections come from all sorts of out-of-the-way sources.

The story is set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and concerns only three people – Buzz Alexander and Janie Paul (Buzz was a Professor of English Literature at the University of Michigan; Janie, an artist who taught color theory at the University’s School of Art & Design) and a man named Danny Valentine, and of how Buzz and Janie first saved Danny’s life (literally and metaphorically), and of how Danny subsequently saved theirs.

Here’s what happened: Buzz and Janie met at an artists’ residency in 1992 (“Like Buzz, Janie believed in art as politics, art as liberation, art as a means of building bridges. By the end of the canoe trip, they were friends. By the end of the residency, they were in love”) ; Buzz spent his 1993 sabbatical year in NYC with Janie, and when the year was over, she managed to land a job in Ann Arbor and moved there.

Before meeting Janie, Buzz had become involved in art outreach for prisoners (Michigan’s prison population had gone from under 10,000 to over 30,000 in the 20 years he’d been living in Ann Arbor). Once Janie became his life partner, that outreach expanded, and grew to include the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), a University of Michigan program “dedicated to promoting the arts behind bars.” ([Both Janie and Buzz] “thought academia was too conservative, a stodgy bubble where people indulged in niche pursuits. They preferred to invest their energy in civic engagement, and especially in making art more accessible.”)

One of the program’s features became a yearly exhibition of artwork by prisoners, hosted by one of the University’s art galleries. Works were for sale, with proceeds to go to the artists themselves. In order to gather ideas about possible artist-exhibitors, Buzz wrote to a number of the prisons PCAP was already working with. This was in 1995. And here’s where Danny enters their lives.

The director of a prison in Jackson proposed a man who, in his words, “could do anything.” He could sculpt, he could model, he could paint, he could draw – an all-round master of every technique available to him. And so, Buzz wrote a letter to prisoner number 156689. His name was Danny Valentine.

Danny’s story was light-years apart from those of Buzz (Harvard, Cambridge, Harvard, Michigan) and Janie (Hunter College, NYU, Michigan). He’d grown up as the second of five children in a blue-collar family in Ann Arbor. There was a fair amount of violence in the family; Danny had found solace by teaching himself to draw at the age of six.

He first ran away from home when he was 12; his father called the police, and thus began Danny’s long carceral career – he was in and out of jails and prisons until, as so often happens with young men who’ve had an early acquaintance with the injustice system, he was accused of rape (he claimed he was innocent) and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison.

During his first years in prison – not long before his path crosses that of Buzz and Janie – he married his girlfriend, Diane, who served as his lifeline for a short period. But she moved to another town, began seeing someone else, and served him with divorce papers not long after. He signed them. Here’s Danny in the fall of 1995:

Danny was just shy of 35. He had served four years of his sentence and didn’t think he could last even one more day. He planned to kill himself one evening at chow time, and he had two backup plans in case jumping from the rafters of his cell block’s atrium didn’t work: a noose and a fatal shot of heroin.

The way Danny would later tell it, as he was contemplating the last hours of his life, a guard tossed a letter through the bars of his cell. He told himself he had no interest in what it said—anything that threatened to get between him and his impending oblivion felt meaningless. He tried to ignore the envelope on his bunk, but some force compelled him to open it.

Inside, printed on University of Michigan letterhead was an invitation. Danny would read it countless times in the coming hours and days and years. Dear Daniel Valentine, he remembers it saying. I am Buzz Alexander, professor of English literature at the University of Michigan. My colleague Janie Paul and I are organizing our first annual show of art by Michigan prisoners next spring. I have heard you are a terrific artist and would like to know if you would be represented in our exhibition.

Danny decided to keep on living, and participated in PCAP art exhibitions for 20 years.

The first PCAP exhibition Danny took part in (with two works) was in spring 1996; he didn’t meet Buzz and Janie, however, until 2004, eight years after he’d begun exhibiting with the program.

Janie on that first meeting:

I remember looking into his face and grabbing his hands between my hands. I could feel his presence as I had felt his presence in his drawings. The intensity of the work comes partly from the content, which is often about loving relationships between mother and child, man and woman, but also from the intensity of the labor that goes into the drawing.

Danny’s memory of that same moment:

I felt the same kindred connection as when I opened that letter from Buzz the first time. I felt like I had met the other half.

Danny was up for parole in 2011, and Buzz and Janie wrote a letter in support of his release. But his request was rejected, and he vowed never to apply again – he’d serve out his full term.

Then in 2013, Danny was released without prior notification (perhaps the prison needed to free up beds). He’d served 23 years – by that time, he was in his early fifties. He was taken by his brother to a halfway house, where he’d have six months to get his life together. With an inheritance from his father, he bought a Dodge Caravan – if he became homeless, he’d be able to live in his car. He’d never had a bank account, never used a cell phone, and his prospects for regular employment as a registered sex offender were slim to nil.  He ended up moving to northern Michigan, a long drive from Ann Arbor and Buzz and Janie’s beautiful, book- and art-filled home, where they’d hosted him for a blueberry pancake breakfast following his release.  

After he left the halfway house, Danny moved in with his ex-wife and her boyfriend; eventually, she found him a trailer home located in the Upper Peninsula (six+ hours from Ann Arbor); the owner said he could live there rent-free if he fixed it up. He was alone, without friends, without colleagues, and had once again begun contemplating suicide.

On Christmas Eve 2016, Danny got a call from Janie – they’d stayed in touch since his release, and he would occasionally drove down to Ann Arbor to visit them – asking him to come and stay with them. Buzz had been diagnosed with frontotemporal degeneration (FTD) in 2014, and Janie was desperate; she could no longer care for him on her own.

Danny arrived at their home on Christmas Day 2016 after a 12-hour drive in a driving snowstorm, and not long after this he determined that he would stay “until the end.”

Caring for those in the latter stages of dementia is exhausting and psychically stressful – Danny had had no previous experience with caregiving, but he became Buzz’s full-time caregiver in the final years of his life. The title of the essay is taken from this brief anecdote, relayed by Gillian Eaton, Buzz and Janie’s best friend:  

Eaton recalled coming into the house once to find Danny hunched over Buzz’s feet, clipping his toenails. “Raphael couldn’t have painted something more beautiful,” she said.

As the disease progressed, Buzz lost more and more cognitive and motor functions, along with the ability to express his thoughts in words, an academic and intellectual’s  foremost connection with reality. Danny seemed to sense, intuitively, what Buzz needed on any given day, and he devised ingenious methods of adjusting to his declining skills – for example, when he lost the ability to use eating utensils, Danny devised an entire menu made up of finger foods.

Dementia is both terrifying and puzzling as cognitive functions drop away in no particular order for any given individual – there’s no cure for FTD, it’s fatal, but there is oddness about its progression:

There were days when Danny took Buzz on long drives. They loved these outings. Their first stop was McDonald’s. “We’d order chocolate milkshakes, and he’d suck his right down and reach over and grab mine,” Danny said. Buzz still had his sense of direction, and he’d point Danny here or there, to a house where he once lived or the place on campus where his office used to be. One time, Danny recalled, “he started crying a little bit. He pointed, he tried to tell me something, and it sounded like speaking in tongues.”

“Yeah, Buzz, I know,” Danny said. “You worked there for 47 years.”

Buzz just shook his head

In early September 2019, Buzz stopped eating and drinking – he could no longer swallow. A hospice nurse was called in, but Janie and Danny were always near him as well. Buzz passed away on September 19, twelve days after he’d stopped eating.

Now, Danny and Janie are together – theirs is not a conventional story, or even a romance, but perhaps it is something more precious, more profound. Their relationship seems to us to be a real-life example of a form of love we touched on in our Valentine’s Day post:

“Even now, with Buzz no longer here, Danny and I still feel like there’s this circle of love,” Janie explained. “I want to maintain my connection to Buzz through Danny and me taking care of each other.” Danny described himself and Janie as “bound by memories of Buzz.” He’d taken to wearing a bracelet and a watch of Buzz’s. He often cried when he talked about his friend, about what three years of being by his side as he died had meant. “I wish him back every day,” Danny said.

Danny and Janie, Janie and Danny—now they were a pair, a package deal, born of necessity and intimacy. “They filled each other’s loneliness in a way I don’t think anyone else could,” Eaton said. “They needed each other to look after Buzz, but now they need each other to look after each other.

This exceptional piece, by Kelly Loudenberg, opens with a quotation from 1 Cor. 4-8:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

The Greek word, of course, is agape / αγάπη.

The Michigan Daily published a long appreciation of Buzz Alexander following his death which includes reminiscences by friends and former students who’d taken his classes and become involved with the PCAP. One of the testimonials:

Sara Falls, a high school English teacher in California, took Alexander’s “What is Literature?” and “Theater and Social Change” classes at the University, the latter involving improvisational theater in prisons. Alexander’s readings and discussions on prison justice got her thinking more deeply about how the education system can create a pipeline to prison, eventually compelling her to become a teacher herself. 

“He started to get me to think about what it means to be a teacher,” Falls said. “This is my 20th year teaching, and I don’t think I’d be a teacher if it wasn’t for him. It’s my life’s work, and I feel deeply called to it, because it’s about finding the power in young people and helping them to use their voices and helping them feel powerful in themselves to make change.”

Can there be a more eloquent description of the mission of a teacher? We think not.

2022-03-28 Education in a Time of Pandemic IV

Prologue: What Education Cannot Do

Before taking up the long list of public school crypto- (and not-so-crypto) privatization initiatives in our final installment concerning the consequences for public education in a time of pandemic, let’s clear the slate regarding the stated purposes of education and the reason/s these purposes have become controversial over the past 30 years.

Below, a sampling from several state constitutions, setting out the purposes of education and responsibilities of (four) individual states for providing such an education to all residents. [Note: Highlighting is ours.]

(1)

Article 14, §1 Arkansas Constitution

Text of Section 1:

Free School System

Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.

(2)

State Constitution, New Hampshire

Part 2, Form of Government, Encouragement of Literature, Trades, Etc., New Hampshire State Constitution.

[Art.] 83. [Encouragement of Literature, etc.; Control of Corporations, Monopolies, etc.] Knowledge and learning, generally diffused through a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; and spreading the opportunities and advantages of education through the various parts of the country, being highly conducive to promote this end; it shall be the duty of the legislators and magistrates, in all future periods of this government, to cherish the interest of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries and public schools, to encourage private and public institutions, rewards, and immunities for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and economy, honesty and punctuality, sincerity, sobriety, and all social affections, and generous sentiments, among the people: Provided, nevertheless, that no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination.

(3)

ARTICLE VIII, Section 1. North Dakota Constitution

EDUCATION

Section 1.A high degree of intelligence, patriotism, integrity and morality on the part of every voter in a government by the people being necessary in order to insure the continuance of that government and the prosperity and happiness of the people, the legislative assembly shall make provision for the establishment and maintenance of a system of public schools which shall be open to all children of the state of North Dakota and free from sectarian control. This legislative requirement shall be irrevocable without the consent of the United States and the people of North Dakota.

(4)

The Page Amendment, Minnesota Constitution (proposed 2022; not yet approved*)

“All children have a fundamental right to a quality public education that fully prepares them with the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society, as measured against uniform achievement standards set forth by the state. It is a paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right. The duty of the state established in this section does not infringe on the right of a parent to choose for their child a private, religious, or home school as an alternative to public education.”

Democrats have backed themselves into a corner over the past 30 years by supporting education through claiming that a university degree represents the 21st-century path to the middle class, out of poverty and into the land of plenty. In other words, their argument for public education has been essentially an instrumental (as opposed to intrinsic) one of the sort, “Get an education and get a good-paying job.” The converse of this argument? “If you don’t get an education, that’s on you.” It’s somewhat analogous to blaming those who became ill with COVID-19 due to the nature of their work, or the fact that they live in multi-generational households, or because they suffer from underlying co-morbidities such as diabetes or autoimmune diseases: “Your bad luck is your own fault.”

It’s an argument that devalues and shames those without a college degree, who accounted for 62.5% of the U.S. population in 2020. How can one-third of the population look down on the other two-thirds when in fact this is not their fault?

How’d we get here? Here are some of the major economic and political transformations in the U.S. economy and political environment over the past generation:

  • The rise of heavy industrial production in the mid-to late 19th century up through approximately 1970 (mechanization / urbanization / two World Wars which ignited the economy)
  • This shift in the economic base (to industrial production) was accompanied by a long, often violent conflict between industrial workers and owners (“robber barons”), culminating in the National Labor Relations Act (1935) that inter alia guaranteed all workers the right to organize without employers’ exercising unfair labor practices. Formerly rural farmworkers became industrial workers, were unionized, and gained access to wages well above poverty level, enabling their entry into the post-World War II middle class.
  • Inflation and changes in individual and corporate tax structures after around 1980 (in part fueled by the oil crisis/embargo in 1973-1974, which had been partly caused by the falling rate of the USD) and the rise of industrial capacity outside the U.S. initiated
  • A process of deindustrialization, i.e. the movement of large production facilities to locations where labor was cheaper; this process involved both shifts from more costly, more heavily-unionized northern states to southern ones, as well as the shift to other countries (offshoring) including Mexico, China, and Southeast Asia, where labor costs were a fraction of what they were in the U.S.
  • This loss of industrial production in turn led to the U.S.’s transformation from a production economy to a human and financial services economy, accompanied by
  • A precipitous drop in union membership (down to 10.3%, from 20% in 1983), which in turn
  • Depressed wages for workers, while it simultaneously
  • Increased profits for owners, leading to
  • An ever-growing gap in earnings/savings between owners/the (higher) professional classes and workers/service providers. (Cf. for example the 70% increase in wealth for U.S. billionaires during the pandemic, whose worth soared from $2T to $5T since March 2020), which has
  • Resulted in 40% of Americans not having savings of $400 today to cover an unforeseen emergency (car repair, dental work, death in the family)

During the past 30-40 years, as (1) through (10) were occurring, the working middle class lost ground continuously. Factories closed and no comparable jobs came to replace them. There was a shift from a “production” to a “service” economy. Democrats, whose most powerful base – both in terms of funding and in terms of voter turnout – was falling out of the middle class and into the “working poor,” had to figure out a way to continue to attract the displaced and discouraged. The solution they arrived at was “go to college” – a university degree suddenly became the ticket (formerly provided by high-paying union jobs) to the middle class.

But many – most – of those to whom this new mantra was addressed couldn’t afford the cost of a college degree. And so, another “solution” was found: the college loan program.  

Given that this mantra was financially-motivated (“Go to college and you’ll get a good job”), colleges and universities obliged by gearing ever more programs of study to getting a job after graduation. Many degrees have ended up as what was once referred to as “technical training” with a much higher price tag. In consequence, the humanities and social sciences have seriously declined in terms of enrollment and offerings; entire degree programs have been cancelled. Many university graduates have only rudimentary (or no) knowledge of the subjects which once formed the foundation for an educated human being – philosophy, history, literature, foreign languages. All have fallen out of favor because they don’t automatically guarantee a decent job.  

Today, about 37.5% of the U.S. population has college degrees; 13% has a master’s degree, and 1.2% has a PhD. Although many graduates don’t enjoy middle-class salaries, one thing both higher- and lower-end graduates share is upper-class debt. In 2021, 43.4 million students (sixty-two percent of the total) were burdened with $1.6 trillion dollars in debt; average debt held by individuals for undergrad student loans is $28,950, and $57,520 for families where both partners carry debt burdens (2019 figures). Loan totals increase considerably at the professional degree levels (e.g. medical school: $201,490; law school: $145,500). Sixty-two percent of students graduate with debt weighing down their future – the prospect of owning a home, for example, diminishes considerably for those with student debt, which is nearly impossible to discharge in bankruptcy (thanks, Senator Joe Biden).

The dream of gaining admission to the middle class through education, which has for a generation been touted as the solution to the loss of manufacturing and production jobs as the latter were being offshored has not materialized, nor will it.

Of course there were other means of steering the economy in new directions in the wake of offshoring, and there were other tools in the political economy toolkit to address the drastic decline in prosperity of the former blue-collar middle class. Medicare for All, a permanent Child Tax Credit that applied to all incomes, even those too meager to be taxed, a progressive taxation system for the top 1-5% (remember – it reached 90% during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency), tuition-free study at all public colleges and universities are a few that come to mind. And the specter of climate change, the urgent need to transition to renewable/sustainable energy, to retrofit the entire U.S. housing stock for extreme temperatures, to rebuild our infrastructure and urban cores sustainably – all of these needs have been known for the last 20 years, we just haven’t implemented them on a scale that would have both gainfully employed former industrial production workers and made the U.S. more resilient in the face of what is coming in the next half-century. Creating a sustainable and resilient new national infrastructure to ward off at least some of the consequences of climate change would have compensated for the working class prosperity which has been lost.

But none of the above happened, and there are only faint prospects of action before it’s too late, both for the working class and for the climate and natural environment.

Education must walk in lockstep with the overall goals of a society – and in societies where the greatest possible profit for the smallest possible number of beneficiaries, without regard to economic externalities that harm both people and the environment reigns above all, there is little chance for education to accomplish what the business class, the financial class, and the political class do not want it to accomplish.

Neither K-12 nor college education can put food in hungry children’s mouths (in 2019, 10 million children, around 20% of school-age children, were living below poverty level), nor money in their parents’ pockets when they’re earning $7.25 an hour (the federal minimum wage since 2009). Education cannot pay their own or their caregivers’ medical costs in case of a major illness or life-threatening accident; it cannot clean up the air they breathe, or the water they drink, or the food they eat. And in the absence of all of these, teachers cannot do their job, which is to teach.

What we are left with, then, are the idealistic promises and goals (today more honored in the breach than the observance) set forth in the state constitutions quoted above. More than 40 million students/graduates are burdened with debt that will never permit them to enter the traditional middle class, symbolized perhaps most conspicuously by home ownership following World War II (the U.S. is now in the early stages of a seismic shift from a home ownership society to a rental society, as we will discuss in the post on Housing and Homelessness later in this series). Our population has been gravely harmed by the coronavirus pandemic, from which an estimated 10%-20% of those infected will suffer from “long COVID” for an unspecified and unknown period, and with as-yet unknown costs for the economy. And we confront a K-12 public education system which, already weakened over the past 30 years, is now being subjected to a brutal frontal attack on its very existence.

In our next – and final – post on Education in a Time of Pandemic, we will consider the push towards privatization which is threatening a foundational institution of the United States: free public education for all.

Further Reading

I Am Not a Proof of the American Dream

If You Think Republicans Are Overplaying Schools, You Aren’t Paying Attention

Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice

Moral Relativism and the Bottom Line

*“The Page Amendment Is a Trojan Horse to Destroy Public Schools

2022-03-25 Education in a Time of Pandemic III

Governance & Education Policy: Where Have All the Grown-ups Gone?

It’s just not one or two people here — there’s a mind-set coming from the governor on down to ban conversation and to segment communities and to erase life experiences from classroom discussion”(Hedy Weinberg, director, ACLU Tennessee)  

The sociocultural, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical schisms in the U.S. which we observe daily on the national front cannot avoid being reflected at the local level. And one local governance body which has been especially vulnerable to spillover conflict is the school district.

School districts are representative government at its best (and worst): members are elected for set terms, and, at least traditionally, have tended to be individuals with children who were or had studied in the district schools, former teachers or other district employees, or civic-minded individuals inclined to involvement in les affaires educatives.

Boards set general policies for their districts (remember: there are 13,000 districts across the nation; Illinois alone has 859 – a fact that deserves a post of its own), and the degree to which individual boards become involved in the day to day running of schools varies from extremely hands-off to way too hands-on; Superintendents (who are hired by the Board and answer, ultimately, to them) are de officio members of the Board, although they may not be voting members.

The “Great Unraveling” of civility and civic-mindedness has not occurred in all 13,000 districts, of course. One of the most strife-ridden districts, Loudoun County, is next-door to another district in Alexandria which has experienced a conflict-free pandemic.

Most media reporting contends that the civil war that’s erupted in many school districts was caused by the pandemic. In contrast, we believe that the pandemic simply hastened a process of “unraveling” that had been underway for decades. The initial triggering event was, understandably, school closings (March 2020) and the almost-overnight shift to online/virtual instruction, for which many districts were, also understandably, unprepared.

Parents suddenly found themselves in the role of tutors-in-chief, or overseers of their children’s educational curriculum and day-to-day learning experiences, and there were not a few parents who didn’t like what they were seeing and hearing onscreen, whether it was how math was being taught (or not), or what books their children were reading, or how crucial racial issues in American history were being presented and discussed.

The early weeks and months of the pandemic have practically retreated to the status of ancient history two years on, but from March to September 2020, chaos reigned throughout the country. Schools, which in industrial and post-industrial societies serve in loco parentis for seven or eight (or more) hours each weekday so that children may be under adult supervision (i.e. “cared for”) during adult working hours, were unable to fulfill their twin role as community institutions of learning and looking after children before and after school. For those parents able to switch to working from home – by and large, middle and upper-middle class office workers – this situation was stressful. When both parents were working from home and trying to supervise / mentor two or three school-age children simultaneously, patience waned and tempers flared. But where were parents to direct their anger and frustration?

In late May 2020, George Floyd’s murder was captured by cell phone and the country erupted in horror. Protests and demonstrations continued for weeks, and millions of Americans began, perhaps for the first time, to awaken to the harsh reality of systemic (structural) racism in the nation’s justice system. Much of the background and some of the foreground of the School District Wars has been played out over What to Teach about Our Nation’s Racist History, and is currently before state legislatures (states have a major role in funding and dictating state educational policy, as a result of our diverse, non-federal system of public education) in the form of bills that would, for example, forbid schools to teach subject matter that might make students feel “uncomfortable.” Clearly, some state legislatures do not fully grasp the purpose of education itself: if you’re not feeling uncomfortable, you’re probably not learning.

Below we examine, in chronological order of their emergence, the issues which have made governing local school districts so difficult during the pandemic:

School Closures (March 2020)

When school districts across the U.S. began shutting down in March 2020, mostly within about two-three weeks, what ensued can only be described as chaotic. Among the issues children and their guardians confronted when schools shifted to virtual (online) platforms: (1) many families (poor urban, rural populations) could not afford or did not have access to high-speed broadband required for synchronous online learning; (2) Public schools offer meals to children of eligible families (those earning below 130% of the poverty level, or who are on TANF or SNAP), and emergency accommodations had to be made for meal preparation / pick-up / delivery so that children wouldn’t go hungry during the first few months of the pandemic; (3) Public schools, for want of a more flattering description, offer childcare services (aka “babysitting”) during the normal workday (8-4/ 9-5), and when schools closed suddenly, parents/guardians were left scrambling to make alternative care arrangements. At every socioeconomic level, knotty problems emerged.

There were two-parent, two-income families living in cramped urban apartments trying to work full-time from home while simultaneously supervising their children’s online learning – a “first-world” problem, but a problem nonetheless which drove thousands of professionals to seek somewhat cheaper and more spacious dwellings in the suburbs, and this problem, for which those with the financial means found a solution, is going to have knock-on effects on public school enrollments and thus, finances for years to come.

There were children of essential workers whose parents’ jobs couldn’t be performed from home; who was to look after the youngest of these, and who was to supervise the coursework of their older siblings? There were no adults at home, so inevitably, older siblings looked after younger ones, often to the detriment of their own learning. Families which had relied on older relatives (grandparents / great-aunts) for childcare when their children missed school due to illness could not responsibly expose elderly caregivers (many of whom were not comfortable using a laptop or iPad) to COVID-19. Of course, in multi-generational households, such exposure was unavoidable.

Parents of children under five who were in daycare or preschool programs had nowhere to leave them during the first months of the pandemic as daycare centers too were shut down (many, apparently, permanently). As a solution of last resort, some engaged friends/neighbors to look after the under-5s during the first several months, but we should remember that COVID-19 was running rampant in densely-populated urban neighborhoods, particularly those inhabited by POC. Everyone was fearful, and rightfully so.

It is understandable that many parents – often those parents who were financially able to confront the crisis in school closures – became upset and later, angry. They began writing emails to school boards, attending meetings via Zoom, and posting on closed Facebook groups, lobbying to re-open schools. Those most likely to become the object of anger were local school boards, populated by their friends, neighbors, fellow church-members – people they knew or knew of, people they might even have voted for in local elections.

This anger was expressed despite the fact that school closures were not the fault of school boards or districts; members / administrators were, however, a lot more accessible and vulnerable to attacks than the federal government, whose refusal to issue clear guidelines / explanations through the CDC will ultimately be seen as responsible for a pandemic whose end is not yet in sight. The CDC’s policies, while helpful after some months had elapsed (although by then it was too late), never clearly identified the coronavirus as aerosol, even though this was clear from the earliest superspreader events in Washington State and Boston.

Why did the virus’s airborne transmission matter? Well, it turns out it mattered more than just about any other characteristic feature of the virus, particularly in regard to transmission in congregate settings like public schools.

What’s the problem with our public schools? By and large, they’re old, and they haven’t been properly maintained and retrofitted during the past 30-40 years. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) most recently graded the U.S. public school infrastructure (2021) with a D+. Many urban schools in older industrial cities whose schools were built between 1900 and 1950 have outdated, malfunctioning ventilation systems and/or windows that hadn’t been opened in years. With aerosol viruses, ventilation is the key to successful mitigation; when the air in a school (both central areas like cafeterias and classrooms) can be changed every 10 minutes, the virus’s spread is significantly lessened. Air purifying systems producers made millions from contracts with school districts in 2020-2021, but many of these systems actually did not meet the requisite standard of air replacement classrooms required to be considered (relatively) safe.

Today there’s a DIY means for ventilating classroom-size spaces called the Corsi/Rosenthal box. It’s cheap (around $100 for all materials), and can be assembled by amateurs. And it works very well, even in spaces that are otherwise poorly-ventilated. Every classroom should have one.

In short: parents/guardians were right to be angry that schools were closed by the force majeure imposed by COVID-19, but their anger was misdirected. School boards and administrations could as a practical matter do little to ameliorate the virus’s spread in old, poorly-ventilated, over-crowded and under-staffed buildings. Furthermore, districts didn’t possess reliable information about the virus’s airborne spread.  

The George Floyd killing (May 25, 2020)

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer in late May, which was recorded on a cell phone, ignited a series of protests and demonstrations across the country (starting from Minneapolis itself on the day after Floyd’s killing). Suddenly, Americans “woke up” to the realities of structural racism in the U.S. justice system. During most of the summer, public and private institutions and organizations scrambled to step up racial justice programs (often referred to as DEI = Diversity, Equity, Inclusion programs). There is a highly profitable service industry devoted to training schools (boards, administrators, teachers, students) to be more racially aware both in practice (e.g. active recruitment of Black / AAPI / Hispanic teachers and senior staff) and in the classroom (e.g. through use of teaching materials which more accurately reflect the country’s racist history, including the 20th-century civil rights movement, etc.).

Cultural Conflicts (2020-present)

CRT

Not all districts reopened with in-person classes in the fall 2020 semester; many remained closed until spring 2021. Overcome by despair at their children’s prospective “learning loss” and concerned that precious teaching/teacher resources were being devoted not to the basics but to sociocultural initiatives, conservative parents in (primarily red/purple) districts directed their anger against an acronym, CRT, i.e. Critical Race Theory. Let’s clear up a much-misunderstood point: CRT is not taught in K-12 schools anywhere in the country. Rather, it’s a term plagiarized from legal analysis which was introduced in some law schools in the early 1980s. DeedSpeakOut is clear about this because the types of issues CRT actually considers – how persistent negative effects of earlier practices continue today (examples: redlining in housing, school segregation in education, environmental sacrifice zones, the school-to-prison pipeline in education/justice) -are precisely the sorts of issues this blog has been dealing with the last five years.

From a purely academic perspective, we believe that a 12th-grade AP American History or Sociology class could undertake incredibly useful archival research into these areas – we’ve often thought that high school seniors could, for example, study the original deeds for houses built between 1920 and 1960 in their neighborhood/city, or examine K-12 school boundaries as these were drawn and redrawn during the same period (or up to 2000; the process of gerrymandering school attendance boundaries continues), or examine publicly-available detainment/arrest/sentencing records of young juvenile offenders between 1960 and 2020, or partner with an investigative reporting group (the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting comes to mind; another group is ProPublica) to examine historical zoning regulations for residential/light/heavy industry within the boundaries of their district.

Such research projects, depending on how they were ultimately presented (and deployed), could legitimately be considered “critical race theory-related/relevant” (although their primary focus would not be on legal issues, which are graduate-level). But what angry parents are protesting isn’t this sort of student work. Rather, they’re disturbed by efforts to introduce more racially- and ethnically-sensitive texts and discussions of U.S. history. Nicole Hannah Jones’ The 1619 Project (which came out in 2019, on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves in Virginia) has provided a lot of fodder to the anti-CRT movement, which has now spread to numerous state legislatures via bills outlawing the teaching of racism in various iterations, even going so far as to forbid the teaching of material that would make students feel “uncomfortable.” Such bills originate from a small number of conservative activist groups; in some states (e.g. Alaska), The 1619 Project is explicitly banned, while in Missouri, “Students must be presented with a positive picture of US history. Discussions of current policy issues are banned.” Many of these bills (not all have been voted into law; some remain pending and may be voted down) also include clauses forbidding classroom discussions of LGBTQ (or sex or gender) issues; Virginia has expanded on this with a bill that would require students to use their original “biological sex” bathrooms. Ah, Virginia.

Book Banning

When difficult and painful subjects are banned from K-12 education, whether by states or individual districts, can the banning of books which treat difficult and painful subjects be far behind? A small Tennessee school district board (McMinn County) enjoyed nationwide notoriety for several weeks over its decision to ban a modern-day classic, the graphic novel Maus, which garnered the Pulitzer Prize for author Art Spiegelman. The novel is a story of the Holocaust, and apparently the bones of contention were the use of “mild swear words” (as if students in 2022 had never heard them) and the depiction of a naked female mouse.

Another book on the blacklisting list in 2021-2022 is Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1988). Glenn Youngkin, then a Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia (now Governor), featured the mother of a former high school student who had been assigned the novel in one of his campaign ads. The controversy, which culminated in a book banning (or “explicit content warning”) bill that then-Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed twice, eventually was capped by McAuliffe’s infamous – and eminently quotable – quote “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” – a statement which the national press believed cost McAuliffe the election. The main objections were that the book depicted violence, sex, and above all, the heroine Sethe’s killing of her baby daughter.

It should be noted that Beloved was taught at the AP level only (Morrison’s other classic, The Bluest Eye, was taught in regular English classes). The campaign to ban Beloved because the heroine killed her little girl so she wouldn’t have to suffer the depredations of slavery (in line with the conservative line that “all life is sacred,” which is honored by conservatives mostly in the breach) reminded us of another American classic, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1932). We checked to see whether The Good Earth had similarly been banned for its depiction of a mother killing her newborn daughter. Yes – it had been banned, but not in the U.S. It was banned in China because it depicted poverty in a way that made the Maoist-era Communists “uncomfortable.” The U.S. may want to think carefully about whether it wants to follow China’s example.

Having set the stage, we now proceed to a consideration of the havoc wrought by the pandemic – school closings – school re-openings on two school boards, one on the East coast (Loudoun County, Va.) and one on the West (San Francisco). The bitterness and successive controversies which rent both boards asunder (literally) were well-documented in the national and independent media, and illustrate the complex issues which each board confronted before and during the pandemic.

Case Study 1: Loudoun County, Virginia

“The core misread of the national press is an idea the Equity Collaborative essentially labeled taboo. ‘The culture war is not a proxy for race,’ is how Grim put it. ‘It’s a proxy for class.’” (from Matt Taibbi, “Loudoun County Epilogue”)

“‘Economic diversity across the county/division complicates the discussions about race, leading many people to steer the conversation away from race to focus on poverty,’ would be among their main initial observations about Loudoun.” (Taibbi, “Part 2: The Incident”)

Loudoun County lies in Northern Virginia; it is heavily populated by federal civil servants and high-tech employees (with many overlaps between the two groups; since the Clinton era, it has been known as “the Silicon Valley of the East”). Loudoun is the wealthiest county in the U.S., and that’s germane to the story of what happened there between 2018 and 2021, although it’s hardly ever mentioned by anybody.

Here’s how the MSM story goes: Terry McAuliffe lost the governor’s race in November 2021 because of white (i.e. racist) backlash against social justice movements within schools and over whether parents should have a say in what their children are taught.

But that’s not what happened in Loudoun County, which has for several election cycles been seen as a quintessential PMC voting bloc – i.e. Democratic. Matt Taibbi, an experienced and open-minded independent reporter, decided to go to Loudoun County and find out for himself what was going down.

Our summary of his four-part series (here, here, here and here): As noted above, Loudoun County is wealthy and predominantly white (67%). However, during the past 20 years, its population of Asian and in particular, South Asian first- and second-generation immigrants has risen to more than 20% of the total (Blacks, on the other hand, account for just 8% of the county’s population). This newly- and recently-arrived population have flocked to Loudoun for its well-paying high-tech jobs, and for its nationally-ranked public school system.

Loudoun’s School District has for years maintained an agreement with neighboring Fairfax County (also wealthy; it ranked no. 4 in 2020) so that 250-300 students from Loudoun could attend Thomas Jefferson High School (rank: no. 1 in the U.S.) in nearby Fairfax County. Fairfax’s accommodation of its neighbors doesn’t come cheap; the cost is more than $4 million a year. Each spring when it comes time for LCS to approve the upcoming year’s budget, there is grumbling, especially since Loudoun built its own state-of-the-art Thomas Jefferson clone, Loudoun Academies.  The Board was unhappy with allotting $4+ million for TJ when the district had spent a bundle on Loudoun Academies, and parents whose children were destined for admission to TJ – the biggest public feeder school in the country to the Ivy League (and MIT, naturally) – weren’t at all pleased at the idea that their children might have to attend a knock-off school which could take decades to acquire the reputation of Thomas Jefferson.

The grumbling grew worse over the past three years, and then racial justice initiatives entered stage left. The local NAACP and activist parents began maintaining that a blind admissions system based on examination was racially biased, although blind admissions were actually created to avoid racial bias (it’s a topsy-turvy world in racial justice land these days). They began lobbying for admissions based on criteria that would take into consideration children’s race, recommendations, and so forth. (One wants to say “and SES,” but that’s a bit of a stretch in a county were the average income is more than $150,000 a year).

The thing was, Black students were somewhat underrepresented in admissions to TJHS, but the group that was most seriously underrepresented was white students, whose parents were unhappy but have resolved the issue of non-admittance by sending their children to private schools in the wider area for some time now.

What was the irony here? The group that was over-represented (by a factor of +3:1 in relation to their population share) in Thomas Jefferson admissions was Asian / South Asian students, many of whose parents / grandparents had left South India to escape racism in their own country. As Taibbi notes, many of these students are darker than their Black peers, but in Virginia they are classified as “white.”

Indian and South Indian parents had moved to Loudoun County for jobs and its public schools. Their mantra was that by working hard and excelling at academics, they could succeed in America in a way their skin color would not have allowed them to do in India. In other words, they believed in the American Dream.

These parents, who had previously voted pretty solidly Democratic, were unfailingly polite but really, really angry, and in November 2021 they expressed their anger by voting – many for the first time in their life – Republican.

And this wasn’t all. The District had hired a consultancy firm to carry out racial sensitivity training on a no-bid contract ($500,000, an amount the Board would normally have had to approve). The firm, “Equity Collaborative” out of Oakland, California (its headquarters located not far from San Francisco, the wokest of woke school districts as we’ll see below) implemented something called the “Action Plan to Eliminate Systemic Racism” which was approximately like igniting a torch to the kindling of parent discontent.

By late 2020, Loudoun County still hadn’t reopened its schools, and with white-collar workers returning to their offices, suburban mothers were furious. Schools reopened in early 2021, but by this time parent anger had reached the boiling point – and the Board’s patience, particularly that of members who had fully and uncritically embraced the Equity Collaborative’s anti-racist training had come to an end. School Board meetings devolved into shouting (and more); parents set up small groups of “for” or “against.” A special security detail had to be hired to protect board members during meetings, and parents who wished to speak before the Board were let in one by one to avoid rioting.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ student rights had come to the fore in Loudoun County and Virginia as a whole, with a focus on bathroom choice. The national press, Taibbi documents, got a particularly ugly incident in spring 2021 wrong. This led at least indirectly to the arrest of the father of a 16-year-old student who was sexually assaulted by a fellow-student in a (girls’) bathroom. Her attacker was wearing a skirt, but was apparently not transitioning. The school transferred him to another school in the district, where he promptly assaulted another student. The incident was misrepresented as an attack on transgender student rights, when in fact it was a case of a sexual assault on a minor.

Finally, we come to Terry McAullife’s “gaffe” when he maintained in a late September 2021 gubernatorial debate with his opponent that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin took that statement and ran with it – and won.

On the surface, this sounds pretty extreme – and Taibbi (who should perhaps be forgiven since he has three young children of his own) got this one wrong, as did the national press.

Jennifer Berkshire, writing for the Nation in the wake of the November election, fills in the details: in fact, McAuliffe was correct when he said that parents won’t be telling their children’s schools what to teach in future. But neither the state nor individual school boards/districts will either. McAuliffe had several years previously (2017) signed away curricular privileges for Virginia public schools to Amazon when Crystal City was awarded Amazon’s HQ2 in 2018. Cue Berkshire: “Virginia is essentially retooling its schools to train an army of future Bezos employees …”. Henceforth, the state will be divided up into regional workforce development districts, and companies / curricular development businesses will present curriculums tailored to training students to work for local employers.

Here’s the most ironic thing of all: Youngkin (co-CEO of private equity firm the Carlyle Group before entering politics in 2020; est. net worth $440 million) and McAuliffe are in perfect accord regarding who’ll be telling schools what they should teach in future.  And it won’t be parents.

Case Study 2: San Francisco, California

And now for San Francisco, whose Unified School District has around 120 schools and 54,000 students (7th largest district in California). Like Loudoun and Fairfax Counties, San Francisco County is perched near the top of the income pyramid: it’s in 5th place in the nation, right behind Fairfax.

San Francisco schools closed early in the pandemic and reopened late (not until spring 2021); thus they remained closed for three full terms, only beginning to return in April 2021. This was in line with the county’s health department recommendations – San Francisco was more proactive about closures and required mitigation measures than most cities/counties in the state (or country), and as a result experienced a comparatively lighter incidence of COVID-19 during its first wave than other comparably-sized cities/counties.

But enough was enough. Parents wanted the schools reopened earlier than the Board did, and San Francisco being San Francisco, the City ended up suing its own School Board to force schools to reopen. Clearly, relations had worsened during the first year of the pandemic.

Given that schools were closed for a year+, how did the San Francisco School Board spend its time during this period? One issue that appears to have occupied it intensively (since 2018) was that of renaming no fewer than 44 (out of 120) schools in a gesture towards racial equity – not empty, admittedly, but not exactly geared towards solving San Francisco’s desperate housing shortage, not with even the business of reopening public schools safely. The Board’s decision, which included renaming Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln (yes, Lincoln) schools due to the racism of the three Presidents, had to be rescinded in the wake of public opposition (partly motivated by a host of historical mistakes by a presumptive “blue-ribbon” committee which undertook the renaming project), but for many, they’d crossed the Rubicon of racial equity extremism. In a recent (and very rare) recall election, three of the Board’s most outspoken anti-racism advocates were recalled by margins exceeding 70%.

There’s more – in fact, the story of the city’s various excursions into the tangled web of racial equity sans economic equality deserves a post of its own.

The next post in “Education in a Time of Pandemic” will look at how educational entrepreneurs seized on the opportunity afforded by pandemic school closures to hasten the process of school privatization on the public dime.

Further Reading: Governance & Education Policy

General

School Boards get death threats amid rage over race, gender, mask policies

Death threats, online abuse, police protection: School board members face dark new reality

Why Public School Supporters Need to Keep On Pushing Back Against Laws Banning

of ‘Divisive’ Subjects at School

 “This Is Not Transparency

Opinion: Cruz Attacks Jackson for ‘Critical Race Theory’ — But Sends His Own Daughters to Learn It

Book Banning

Where Have You Gone, Laura Bush?”

The Woman Who Wanted Beloved Banned from Schools Is Right about One Thing

 “Virginia Governor Highlights Irony of Banning ‘Beloved’ from Schools

Holocaust Novel ‘Maus’ Banned in Tennessee School District

The Fight over ‘Maus’ Is Part of a Bigger Cultural Battle in Tennessee

Loudoun County, VA

Loudoun County, Virginia: A Culture War in Four Acts

A Culture War in Four Acts: Loudoun County, Virginia. Part Two: ‘The Incident.’”

 “The Holy War of Loudoun County, Virginia

Loudoun County Epilogue: A Worsening Culture War, and the False Hope of ‘Decorum’

 “Corporate Democrat Goes Down to Defeat in Virginia” …

 “Fairfax Schools Request Stay of Judge’s Order Invalidating TJ Admissions System

San Francisco

San Francisco Sues its Own School District for Not Reopening

San Francisco recalls school board members seen as too focused on racial justice

The Radical History of the Murals at George Washington High School

What Happens When an Elite Public School Becomes Open to All?”

2022-03-05 Education in a Time of Pandemic II

Where Have All the Teachers Gone?

Most American readers will be familiar with the euphemistically-termed “teacher shortage,” often presented in the media as an out-of-the-blue consequence of the pandemic. But just as we saw with nurses and nursing home workers, the teacher shortage has been decades in the making.

Like nursing, teaching is both a profession and a vocation. The best teachers are “called” to teach (cf. derivation of “vocation” > Lat. voco -are, “to call”); their knowledge is acquired through university attendance, honed through teacher training, and later, professional development courses which committed members of the profession continue to enroll in throughout their careers. As the parents of school-age children who were at home doing virtual classes in the early months of the pandemic have realized, teaching is not a matter of showing up and handing out homework at the end of the day. It requires an incredible amount of mental energy – even for the “natural” teachers among us – and the 20 or 30 hours of in-class time standard for most primary and secondary school teachers are accompanied by as many hours again of out-of-class preparation and grading. It’s easily a 60-hour week for a conscientious teacher.

But most teachers gladly give of themselves – their time, mental engagement, dramatic skills (yes), because that’s why they entered the profession in the first place. They chose to contribute to children’s growth through the acquisition of “book knowledge” as well as “social knowledge” – a fair amount of school time in the primary years involves socializing very young children to the idea that there are other people in the world outside their family. It’s not easy.

Througg the middle decades of the 20th century, teaching was still deemed a middle-class profession; salaries varied considerably by state (considering both cost-of-living differences between states/regions and the fact that wealthier districts / states paid higher salaries than poor districts/states), but in most states a teacher could maintain a decent lifestyle, particularly when they were one of a two-person working household. Of the three options available to lower- and lower-middle-class women in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, it was the most secure.

Today, there are two major national teachers’ unions: the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) with 3 million members (it includes teachers and all others who work in education as well as future teachers and retired ones). The AFT (1.7 million members) has around 3,000 local affiliates and is currently led by one of the nation’s best-known public unionists, Randi Weingarten. Of the two, the AFT was from the outset a true union (militant, strike-ready), while the NEA began as a professional organization which only later acquired the characteristics of a true union (with collective bargaining, for example). Individual districts (recalling that there are 13,000 of these), when unionized, become “locals” – thus, the Chicago Teachers Union is “Local 1” of the AFT; that in NYC is the “United Federation of Teachers” (UFT). Since the 1960s, teachers unions have wielded considerable lobbying and ballot box power at the local, state, and federal levels.  

But teachers and the unions which represent them are not without powerful opponents. To some extent this has always been the case, its origins going back to the mid-19th century when teaching shifted from the home and into the institutional setting of the school room – often, throughout the smaller towns and rural regions of the U.S., the one-room school house [note: our blog’s masthead features an early 20th-c. one-room schoolhouse in Central Illinois]. Young women assumed responsibility for imbuing a small group of children (aged 5-18) with sufficient “reading, writing, and arithmetic” to enable them to function in adulthood as farmers and laborers, but their tenures were short – only until marriage, when they were normally required to resign – their ambitions seen as non-existent, and their “vocation” a temporary one which terminated once they had a husband and family of their own. The emerging professional class (white, male dominated), in its effort to professionalize office work / management of enterprises both service- and production-oriented, looked down on the nation’s teaching ranks as inferior, largely due to the profession being dominated by young women, whom they saw as docile and obedient but not really up to the job of educating the country’s youth.

For the past generation or more, teachers have been attacked by numerous organizations which have systematically downplayed / downgraded their work and its results, and which have lodged an equal amount of vitriol towards their unions; while men began entering the teaching profession in significant numbers after WW II, especially at the secondary school level, much of the activism that led to collective bargaining rights, decent pensions, health insurance, sick days – all the benefits of white male private-sector unionism, in other words – was conducted by women, and two of the most powerful unions – the UFT and the CTU – are or were led by women in the 2010s.  

Over the past 30 years, teachers have been systematically attacked by both political parties for the inadequacy of “outcomes” as these privately-backed groups began hacking away at the primacy of public schools through the introduction of the “Big Test,” VAM (value-added-model of teaching), charter schools offering parents “choice” if they were unhappy with their children’s outcomes in public schools, voucher (private) schools, online (virtual) schools, and home schools, of which the “pod” or “micro school” which gained some traction during the pandemic was but a recent variant.

When teachers themselves, their profession and their union are being assailed on all sides for decades, it’s hardly surprising that applications to schools of education decreased in the years leading up to 2020; in fact, what’s surprising is that applications didn’t fall even further.  Deeds have consequences, and the consequence of late 20th and early 21st-century “teacher bashing” was that when the pandemic arrived, it was already estimated the system would be 200,000 teachers short by 2025 out of a required 3.5 million to maintain fully staffed classrooms.

As we enter Year 3 of the pandemic (apparently having decreed that it is at an end), U.S. school districts across the country are struggling, often unsuccessfully, to find staff. One reason is clearly the pandemic: teachers at or near retirement age, considered to belong to a COVID-vulnerable group, took early retirement. Others were forced to quit because of family obligations – caring for elderly relatives who were vulnerable themselves, or for young children who were at home due to pandemic school closures or COVID. Similarly, the ranks of substitute teachers shrank as many districts’ substitute corps is made up of retired teachers.

Other staff essential to operating and maintaining our public school systems similarly decreased in numbers throughout the pandemic, including classroom assistants (aides), bus drivers, cafeteria workers, crossing guards, and custodians. Many of these workers live in poverty, in communities hit hard by the initial wave of the pandemic in 2020, and in multi-generational settings with elderly relatives whom they were loath to expose to the virus.

How have states dealt with personnel shortages, which have not yet abated? Two states, New Mexico and Massachusetts, have called upon their National Guards to fill in for sick teachers (New Mexico) or for bus drivers (Massachusetts). Oklahoma has recruited police officers.

New Mexico holds the dubious distinction of having the highest child poverty rate and the lowest average teacher salaries in the nation (an argument could probably be made that these two data points are connected), although salaries are slated to go up 20% this summer. So the state, in collaboration with its National Guard, normally tasked with providing assistance in times of natural disasters and serving abroad in military missions, created the “S.T.A.F.” (Support Teachers and Families) program. The Guard was hoping around 70 of its members would step up; in the end, 96 did. This may not sound like many, but for some schools like those in rural areas featured in this NYT story, it meant that schools could stay open even when 10% of their staff was absent.

In Massachusetts, which in January had over 1,000 school employees out sick on an average day (20% absence rate in food/nutrition, 100 bus monitors, 30 bus drivers),  hundreds of school administrative staff went into classrooms, including the Boston Public Schools Superintendent herself. When administrators and clerical staff must enter classrooms, their work doesn’t get done in a timely manner; often, those teachers still working are tasked with additional paperwork and quasi-administrative tasks which add to the burden without benefit to children’s learning.

In 2021, 37% of all teachers were considering leaving the profession earlier than they had planned. Between July 2021 and January 2022, teacher retirements and resignations jumped 85% in Chicago Public Schools, in addition to 72 resignations by principals and assistant principals.  With a total workforce of 39,000, there were 1842 resignations and 524 retirements during the same period, up 50% from 2019-2020.  Percentage-wise, the highest turnover was observed among principals/assistant principals. While the stresses on school leaders have been different than those on teachers, they’ve been no less severe: the initial shift to online learning, reopening (or not) school facilities, ensuring the safety of students and staff through mitigation measures, resisting anti-vax and anti-mask activists (mostly parents, not students), dealing with the repercussions of the annus horribilis 2020 for our country’s race relations, managing massive amounts of federal coronavirus assistance responsibly, confrontational school board meetings, critical race theory, book banning,  and the list goes on.

But there’s more than the grievous effects of the pandemic at work here. We have often read about “teacher burnout” and “low morale” during the past two years, but teachers were burning out and morale was falling well before COVID-19. In a recent post, education writer Peter Greene suggests another name for the ill that has befallen our public school personnel: “moral injury.” He adopts the definition employed by Syracuse University’s Moral Injury Project: “Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.” Greene – a long-term high school teacher in Pennsylvania who recently retired – gives an example of one classroom practice which he considers as having inflicted moral injury, viz. “teaching to the test.” He estimates in another post that between 6 and 10 weeks a year were devoted to practice, preparation, and taking standardized tests – when you have only around 180 teaching days, and 50 of those have to be devoted to “the test,” that’s a lot of valuable real teaching time lost, to nobody’s benefit apart from the testing companies’ bottom line.

But there are many other aspects of teaching today which contribute to moral injury, i.e. the sense that what you are being forced to do goes against your values and indeed against the very reason you entered the profession in the first place.

It’s easy to say “Well, let’s just all pull together and agree on our values so teachers can inculcate them in our students.”

The thing is, our country’s values are fractured along very deep fault lines today. And inevitably, these fractures are played out in classrooms.

Teachers didn’t create them, but they’re paying the price in moral injury.

Next up: Governance & Education Policy in a Time of Pandemic. Lots of misbehaving and conduct unbecoming to adults – stay tuned.

Further Reading:

 “Opinion: I see firsthand why teachers are burning out and quitting. We owe it to children to fix this.”

Teacher Voice: Why We Are Being Driven Straight Out of Our Classrooms

I’m Never Going Back

Who Wants to Be a Teacher?”

 “Burnout and Moral Injury

The Blame Game: 100 Years of Teacher Bashing

 (Episode #84, Have You Heard Blog)

 “Iowa Won’t Require Schools to Put Live Cameras in Classrooms after Republican Bill Dies

 “Who wants to lead America’s school districts? Anyone? Anyone?

In Chicago Public Schools, More Principals and Teachers Are Leaving

 “New Twist on Pandemic’s Impact on Schools

“‘We Are Losing Good Teachers and Staff Every Day’: Report Reiterates Pandemic Shortages

2022-02-26 Public Education & COVID-19

Part I: Why is Public Education Public?

“…it’s hard to think of an education-related policy that has effectively and sustainably worked, beyond the granddaddy of all ed policy: a free, high-quality, fully public education for every American child, no matter what they bring to the table.” -Nancy Flanagan, Teacher in a Strange Land

We return to our overview of what COVID-19 has revealed about systemic weaknesses in the various areas DeedSpeakOut covers, starting from public education.

Let’s start this group of posts with a question: What is the purpose of public schools? Sounds simple, right? But the answer has become more controversial over the past 30 years as the U.S. has been inundated by “school choice” (charter schools, expanded voucher/quasi-voucher programs for private schools, home schooling, virtual [online] schools), national curricular and assessment programs (Common Core, No Child Left Behind [2001], Race to the Top [2009], Every Student Succeeds Act [2015]), anti-union and anti-teacher agitation, and aging school facilities. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 with its drastic budget cuts have not been made up for in many states/districts by a return to pre-2009 funding levels. And then the pandemic arrived.

The almost-overnight shift to online learning did not proceed smoothly in many schools/districts. It particularly affected those already resource-strained before the pandemic, i.e. high-poverty inner-city and rural schools (a significant percentage of which lacked adequate [or any] broadband coverage).

By 2021, parents in better-resourced districts were lobbying for school re-openings. Working parents (particularly mothers, who still bear the burden of most child-rearing) were obliged to return to their offices but could not leave children at home all day without an adult presence; mothers of preschool-age children struggled to find day care facilities because so many such centers had closed. Lobbying sometimes turned into hostile confrontations with school administrations and boards; parents, goaded by frustration at lengthy school closures, continuing mask mandates, curtailed extracurricular programs and “learning loss”, accused boards/district leaders of infringing on their own and their children’s “freedoms” (to attend in-person class, to ignore mask mandates at will). For these parents, COVID-19 has devolved into a minor inconvenience to be treated as “endemic.” “We’re done with COVID,” parents and like-minded community members claim. How many ever pause to ask whether COVID is done with us?

To return to our initial question: Why is public education public?

The U.S. public school system is not a federal one, although federal funds are disbursed to support schools, for example through Title I, which provides additional support to poor schools in the amount of $16.7 billion (2020). But we have no “national” prescribed curriculum (the closest thing being the “Common Core”), and the various states are largely free to determine, in collaboration with school districts, the curricula, textbooks, and requirements for graduation from primary and secondary schools.

This, as we shall see in this group of posts, has proved a double-edged sword.

Individual states have enshrined their commitment to educate all residents within their constitutions. The fourth Illinois Constitution (1970) is typical:

Article X.

Goal – Free Schools

A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.

The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law.

The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.

Thus: “the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities” is defined as a goal, further elaborated as an “efficient system of high qualityinstitutions and services” It “shall be free.” And the State “has the primary responsibility for financing ….”

To restate for the purposes of discussion:

– the public education system is for all persons, i.e. it is universal

the public education system shall be efficient and of high quality

the State shall provide primary financing

Defined in these terms – universal, high-quality, state-financed, free – public education is a public good. In this it resembles our interstate highway system, our bridges and dams, our public parks (national, state, local), our public libraries, our law enforcement personnel (local, county, state police), our fire departments, and emergency services. All of these are public goods for everyone who uses/needs them.

The guiding principle behind public goods is that they are financed by everyone (through taxes) and are equally-accessible to everyone. They thus differ from private – consumer – goods in that the latter are paid for by individuals, at their individual discretion, and consumption should not materially affect the availability or quality of public goods. Private consumption is a matter of individual preference in concert with financial means, and is sometimes referred to as discretionary consumption.

Applying the terminology and adopting the criteria associated with private, discretionary consumption to refer to public goods is intellectually disingenuous and deliberately misleading. Over the past 20-30 years, school reformists have insisted on using the term “consumers” to refer to public school parents. This is strange, because while parents (along with all other taxpayers, parents or not) are indeed funding public schools, if anyone is a “consumer” it is their children, not themselves. The appropriate term should be “beneficiaries” – you won’t see that term being bandied about – or simply “users.” (Think of “library users” or “highway users” – we’d hardly call people who check out books from the local library, or drive their autos on public interstates “consumers,” would we?)

Public goods are public because they demand massive investment, planning, coordination, oversight, long-term maintenance, and regular renovation/replacement, all of which are too costly for any private individual to fund. Not even billionaires could have built the Hoover Dam, or the New York Public Library; to take a recent example, not even Elon Musk could have funded the James Webb Space Telescope.

In the case of public education, both private individuals – students – and the public itself – “society” – are beneficiaries. Each student benefits to the “limits of their capacities,” and when those limits are attained, society as a whole reaps long-term benefits.

What sort of “freedom” is involved for parents here? Well, there is the freedom to opt out of the system entirely, for one; wealthy parents may choose to send their offspring to private schools whose tuition ($60,000 per year is not uncommon for an elite private school today) their fellow citizens could never afford. This doesn’t, however, mean that wealthy parents’ obligation to the universal good ensured by public schools can be abnegated; they can opt out of sending their children but they cannot opt out of the more general obligation to the common good. Thus, the rich continue to pay local property taxes and state and federal taxes, some portion of which return to states/districts in the form of public school funding.

Against this background of public schools as public goods supported by public funds as enshrined in our various state constitutions, we will examine a number of issues exacerbated by the pandemic but not caused by the pandemic.

First, we’ll consider personnel shortages. It’s estimated that 90% of public schools are currently short of staff, including administrators, teachers, teachers’ aides, substitute teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodians. What happens when 20% of a school’s bus drivers are out on any given day? Some students won’t get to school, or they’ll get to school two periods late. When 10% of your teaching staff is out, and there are no substitutes to call on? Administrators, secretaries, custodians are asked to fill in, or classes are combined and placed in a gym – in which case, gym classes are curtailed. Many districts depend on retired teachers for substituting, but because this population tends to be over 65, many were reluctant to serve during the pandemic.

Second, we’ll look at school infrastructure. The U.S. has 50,000,000 school-age children enrolled in 13,000 districts and around 100,000 separate school facilities. Many schools couldn’t manage to make their facilities COVID-safe because the buildings themselves were too old to renovate quickly or indeed at all. The great period of public school construction was the first third of the 20th century; many of these structures are still in use, but they have not been maintained or renovated to 21st-century standards. This is particularly true for our older industrial and commercial cities both large and small; when COVID struck NYC, for example, where more than 50% of all schools operate out of facilities more than a century old, many had non-functioning windows, or ancient ventilation systems that would have required gut renovations to upgrade to COVID ventilation standards. This had consequences for the virus’s dissemination.

Following infrastructure, we’ll take up privatization, which along with governance and policy form two of the most fractious aspects of public education today. Privatization of the public schools has been presented as a matter of “choice” and (personal, individual) “freedom.” Beginning in the 1990s, school “reformists,” funded by various private groups and individuals devoted their efforts to dismantling U.S. public schools and replacing them with charter schools (tax-funded private schools) and vouchers (for private, largely religious schools). Two states (Alabama and Oklahoma) currently have pending legislation that would essentially abolish public schools entirely – parents would be awarded a sum of money each year and left on their own. This isn’t easy (and that’s another reason we call public schools a public service): charter schools are often loathe (or refuse outright) to admit special needs students and English Language Learners (ELL), and in order to keep their test scores/rankings high, are prone to expel students each school year, leaving them to scramble to find a school that will accept them. Nor do charter schools offer any guarantee that they’ll remain open indefinitely; in fact, they sometimes close without notice over a weekend. Vouchers/quasi-vouchers (such as Education Savings Accounts and Tax Credit Scholarships) supposedly enable parents to enroll their children in private schools, but the amount doled out never covers tuition and fees at the private schools of parents’ dreams.  

Governance has become increasingly difficult for many school boards during the pandemic, partly due to controversial virus-related measures such as mask mandates and, during the first year of the pandemic, cancellation of athletics – not everywhere, but in many states/districts. Many school boards moved their meetings online and it proved a lot easier for parents to participate vocally via Zoom than in person. And then in the summer-fall of 2020, CRT hit the public schools like a spiritual-ethical pandemic. Some boards jumped on the pro-CRT bandwagon, others on the anti-, but few had any clear understanding of what CRT even was. Iowa’s governor now wants a camera in every public school classroom in the state to ensure that teachers aren’t teaching “CRT,” but what she means by that is that teachers will be forced to ignore key events in U.S. history and social life from the 16th – 21st century.

The fifth and final topic of this series of posts will be the more general crisis of public education towards which most states have been heading the last 30 years. But the crisis of public education is in fact only part of the crisis of American society itself – schools are microcosms of society at large, and their problems are mirrored in other public sectors. The U.S. never fully transitioned to the form of social democracy enjoyed by many European countries during the post-WW II era extending from the late forties to the late seventies. Its social welfare system remained anemic, universal healthcare was never implemented, daycare / preschool programs were never federally mandated or funded, university-level education was never free. And since the eighties, there has been a concerted assault on the working classes combined with a powerful anti-tax movement which has intentionally starved the public sector of funding to maintain public services at their 1970s level. Poverty has become more prevalent at both the individual and the public sector level. Many reformists and like-minded opponents of public schools – of public anything, really, except perhaps freeways and law enforcement – have for a generation now been engaged in a misdirected assault on public schools as responsible for a plethora of ills.

But social inequality, systemic racism, and a deliberately-underfunded public sector are not the fault of our public schools, and they cannot provide a full redress for larger social failings.

Above all, schools cannot be made to compensate for mass poverty. Nearly 17% of all U.S. children were living below the poverty line in 2020. One in 10 of NYC’s 1,000,000 school children is homeless at some point throughout the school year. No teacher and no school can compensate for such social tragedies.

 In the remaining posts in our “Public Education & COVID-19” series, this stark and shameful reality will serve as backdrop.    

2022-02-14 Valentine’s Day

Romantic and Other Forms of Love

Some months ago, we vowed one day a month to post “on an upbeat note” in order to relieve the downbeat aura our writing exudes. Yesterday was the 13th – the date we’d promised a cheerful post each month – so we’re combining it with Valentine’s Day.

During the past several days, we’ve listened to numerous podcasts on The Nature of Love; if you’re interested in this topic (and who isn’t?), you might like to explore offerings such as “This Is Love,” “Love Letters,” “Modern Love,” and/or the 74 episodes of “This American Life” treating of love in its many forms. If you’d prefer to read about the topic, you could try the Washington Post’s “Date Lab” series, although here there’s a caveat lector: “Date Lab” matches its couples electronically, then provides the $$$ for them to go out on a blind date in exchange for an honest assessment by each party (separately provided) about how it went. The episodes we read weren’t very successful – so far, none we’ve seen has concluded with a “Yes” to that all-important question “Would you ask X out again?” Maybe electronic match-ups aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

A happier note is struck by the New York Times’ “Vows” section. In these stories,  featured couples clearly did desire to see each other again, so much so that they decided to spend the rest of their lives together. The most interesting part of these features is the “how we got together / stayed together” despite obstacles along the way to tying the knot (more and more frequently, a ceremony performed by a Universal Life officiant).  

Clearly, “Love” is an enormous subject, as multi-faceted as the forms of love itself. One of the most moving podcasts we listened to in preparing for this post was about a girl who swam alongside a baby whale for five-and-a-half hours (she was a world champion distance swimmer, but five hours brought her to the brink of hypothermia) as nearby fishermen encouraged her to stay with the infant until its mother returned. Its mother did eventually return, and the two grey whales swam safely out to sea. But during the five hours they spent together, an almost-otherworldly bond developed between the girl and the infant whale. The moral of this story, which she correctly deduced: We are all connected.  

We listened to a story about a young couple from rural Tennessee who’d met when he – a first-year law student at Harvard – called her to assure her that if he could could get into Harvard from the small, strict Christian college her parents wanted her to attend, she could, too. She met him in person a few years later on campus (she did attend the college her parents had picked for her, but was miserable there, just as she’d predicted) and something really, really clicked. She had only two demands: first, that they be married in Paris (which she thought sounded romantic) and second, that they live in NYC. He acquiesced, and she dropped out of the college she’d never liked to move to NYC. He began a career as an 80-hour-a-week underling in Big Law; she enrolled in NYU and worked part-time in a bicycle shop. And their apartment had a (distant, barely visible) view of the Empire State Building, the only landmark she’d heard of in NYC. All this happened within just a few weeks.

Then the calls started, calls from women (a different woman each time) at all hours of the day and night. Dutifully, she noted the callers and numbers and passed them along to her husband, who seemed just as baffled as she was. Turns out, the female callers were asking for someone else – a rock star with the same first name as her husband who’d had their phone number in the past. Mystery solved. Her faith in her husband was vindicated, but she got schooled one day when a waiter asked her how her husband took his coffee and she hadn’t a clue. She realized that 80-hour weeks weren’t conducive to getting to know one’s spouse. The couple packed up and returned to Tennessee, where lawyers’ workloads were lighter and prospects for future intimacy rosier.

And there was the podcast about a man whose wife had died after many years of marriage. They’d been something of a latter-day hippie couple when they first met and married; ashrams, retreats, spirituality and artistic endeavors had been their beat. Their two daughters were born when they were in their forties. The wife, diagnosed shortly after the birth of their second daughter with cancer, died when the girls were still very young.

Following a year of grief support by/in their ashram community, the widower and his two daughters returned to North Carolina, where – in the words of one of his daughters – he sacrificed any hope of financial security to ensure that he could be both father and mother to the girls. He’d raised them as if his wife were still with them, done the things he thought his wife would have done, foregone other relationships (the girls, as they got older, sabotaged a number of incipient involvements), and even today (they’re now grown up), he drops in on them all the time, and they do the same.

True anecdote: when one of his daughter’s fiancé’s got a new job, he went over on the young man’s first day bearing ice cream bars (100 or so) to treat the entire staff. But no one knew where to direct him – it was the young man’s first day on the job and he was in PR or new employee training. But when the man left (not having found his future son-in-law), everyone in the office knew the new employee by name, although they hadn’t yet laid eyes on him. The man’s love, still informed by his wife’s love after 20 years, extended from memory to his daughter to his future son-in-law and thence to the latter’s colleagues.

In short, romantic love, denoted by the Greek word eros (cf. erotic) is but one of the forms this ever-alluring, ever-desired but ultimately, mysterious emotion can assume. Other well-known forms – many podcasts deal with these as well – are storgē (“affection,” “caring”), philia (“friendship”), and the generally-acknowledged higher form of love, agapē.

Storgē is the love we feel towards those for whom we care – our children and our blood relatives. Though we may have little ongoing contact with our siblings/cousins/aunts-uncles, blood ties bind us to caring for them even if we do not feel philia or agapē – witness the family get-togethers during the holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas) caricatured in countless films and all too often enacted in real life (alas, to far less humorous effect) across the country from late November through December.

Philia (cf. Philadelphia, philanthropy) is the love in which we choose freely to engage by virtue of shared tastes, interests, hobbies, etc. Philia is often lauded as preferable to storgē because of its voluntary nature; we don’t choose our relatives, after all, but we do choose our friends (say all our friends and none of our relatives).

It is often the case that two (or more) forms of love are experienced in conjunction with one another, and it is not always possible to disentangle them. In any case, they may overlap and/or succeed one another.

For example, a couple may initially experience eros (in fact, without it there may not be a future to the relationship), philia, storgē, and agapē will come into being as the relationship matures. Each form of love has different foundations and may encompass different phases/stages of a relationship. For example, a couple might initially share common interests, hobbies, and tastes (the basis for philia). These may gradually diverge as each partner continues to develop and cultivate their own knowledge and interests. If they have children and/or care for ill or aging relatives at some point, storgē will be stretched to its caring-for limits. Agapē, characterized as the highest form of love, is harder to define, and many people appear to go through life experiencing the (admittedly) considerable benefits of eros, philia, and storgē without knowing what it is to give or receive agapē.

Agapē denotes both free choice – in this, it resembles philia – and the sort of ongoing caring-for-others parents and adult caretakers associate with storgē. But because it is both voluntary and caring, the combination of the two amounts to more than the sum of its parts. Above all – and uniquely – it is disinterested. Agapē does not ask “what’s in it for me?” but rather “what’s best for the other?” and – somehow – causes us to act accordingly. When our own interests and those of the person(s) for whom we feel agapē diverge, those of the other take precedence. In other words, it requires a conscious decision to look after what’s best for another. Freely chosen, without explicit benefits, it is the “steady intention of the will to another’s highest good. It is an ongoing benevolence—willing (-volence, fr. Latin volo) what’s good or best (bene-) for another.”

In an era which emphasizes self-love, self-fulfillment, and self-determination, corresponding at the individual level to neoliberalism’s emphasis on the private as opposed to the communal sphere (recall Margaret Thatcher’s (in)famous pronouncement “There is no such thing as society”), it is understandable that agapē may not be experienced by all and that it may be confused with eros, storgē, or philia.

A recent Guardian story recounts an ultimate example of agapē. In May 2017, a man named Jeremy Christian attacked two teenage girls (one black, the other wearing a hijab) on a Portland MAX light rail; three unrelated men (strangers to one another, to the attacker, and to the two girls) attempted to intervene. Christian drew a knife and stabbed all three men; two died. Both girls survived.

One of the victims, a 23-year-old named Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche bled to death of his wounds before help arrived. He uttered the following to a fellow-passenger, Rachel Macy, who comforted him in his final moments: “Tell everyone on the train I love them.”

Taliesin’s dying words changed the course of Macy’s life, just as they did that of the article’s author, Maeve Higgins; they had a near-miraculous effect on thousands of others, in Portland and far beyond. Today they still offer faith and hope to his grieving parents; Asha, Taliesin’s mother, recently noted: “Of course, I miss him sometimes, but also I don’t miss him because he often just shows up the minute I think of him – and I feel the love.”

The Guardian piece makes no reference to the irony of the perpetrator’s surname, Christian, and to the parable-like nature of what happened that day, when a young male, a stranger to all on the train, went to save two young girls in danger. They weren’t his girlfriend(s) (eros), they weren’t his sisters (storgē), they weren’t his friends (philia). What Taliesin expressed while dying was a disinterested but overarching form of caring for strangers. He chose to act as he did of his own volition, and in doing so sacrificed that others – strangers – might live.  Most of us can sense, even if we cannot fully articulate, the parallel.

In the meantime, our wishes go to those in the throes of romantic love that they may enjoy this day – after all, it’s specifically designated for lovers; that carers feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities of storgē may feel their burden more lightly, and that those celebrating with friends may take pleasure in common interests, whether in ideas, or books, or film, or Irish music, or electronic games – remember: the pleasure’s in the sharing.

A friend has taken to saying “good morning” each day by sharing Viber messages – jokes or memes or TikTok “Make Your Days” – from her morning feed; she forwards whatever strikes her fancy. Today her message was of three charming stick figures, their frilly skirts formed by red roses (the lovers’ gift par excellence, on sale today in NYC for the bargain-basement price of $59.99). Each rose carried its own command: “Have faith!” “Have hope!” “Love others!” These sounded familiar:

νυνὶ δὲ μένει πίστις, ἐλπίς, ἀγάπη, τὰ τρία ταῦτα· μείζων δὲ τούτων ἡ ἀγάπη

(And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.) (1 Corinthians 13:13, “Hymn to Love”)

Happy Valentine’s Day to one and all, be they lovers, carers, or sharers.

2022-02-08 Covid Revelations IV: The Opioid Epidemic

The Pandemic and the Epidemic

“If you’re alone, there’s nobody to give you the Narcan”

One prevailing theme is the fact that the epidemic now is driven by illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine, and cocaine, often in combination or in adulterated forms. Overdoses related to prescription opioids and heroin remain high and also are increasingly contaminated with illicit fentanyl.” (Issue brief: “Nation’s drug-related overdose and death epidemic continues to worsen,” AMA, Nov. 12, 2021)

We conclude our review of COVID-19 revelations about health/healthcare with a look at the “epidemic within the pandemic”: overdose deaths, which rose more than 30% (year-over-year increase between March 2020 and March 2021: 38%) during the first year of the pandemic. This was the largest increase in overdose deaths in U.S. history. Of these deaths, around 75% involved opiates, and 60% involved fentanyl.

The extraordinary measures required by COVID-19 led to stay-at-home orders, isolation, and despair for both those with resources and those without. Millions turned to alcohol, opioids, and other drugs as coping mechanisms. Those with existing substance-abuse problems feared in-person treatment centers and residential detox facilities as possible sites of contagion; many stayed away and became more vulnerable to relapsing. One of the responses by treatment centers/ clinics was to shift to telehealth provision of services, but participation in online appointments with counselors/caregivers requires an internet connection which is stable and fast – something millions of rural residents don’t have and something millions of urban residents can’t afford to access.

Because so many people who under normal circumstances would have been using in social contexts began to use in isolation, overdoses that might otherwise have been witnessed and reversed with naloxone became fatalities. Naloxone prescriptions decreased 26% during the same period, although this statistic may be connected with a not-fully-explained supply “disruption” in the early months of the pandemic – a disruption related not so much to actual supply (though this may have been the case early on), but to pricing, as the cost for Narcan, which as an opioid receptor antagonist blocks the effects of an overdose, skyrocketed.

The opioid supply chain was also interrupted / contaminated because many people had to seek out dealers they didn’t know and therefore, couldn’t trust to provide a clean product. Producers / distributors / dealers took advantage of this and contributed to the untrustworthiness of supplies; it became commoner for heroin to be laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 80-100 times more potent than morphine.

The “opioid epidemic” has of course been around much longer than the pandemic. Since the mid-nineties when large-scale prescription “programs” began to take off in some of the U.S.’s poorest rural regions (Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia (Appalachia) and Maine), Americans have since the early 2000s associated use of prescription opioids with a stereotypical demographic: poor, white, rural. From the late forties into the seventies, heroin use was similarly associated with a poor, black/Hispanic, urban population.

Stereotypes are hard to overcome, but this pandemic has shown itself to be an equal-opportunity destroyer in the substance abuse sector. Opioid addiction has now spread everywhere, and the demographics have therefore changed as well, with some of the steepest recent rises in opioid use/abuse now found in states west of the Mississippi. And it no longer matter what socioeconomic class users are from: opioid addiction now strikes the rich as it once struck the poor.

Let’s take a short detour to trace the history of opioid addiction in the U.S. The first and for nearly a century most widely-used opiate was morphine, which comes from the poppy (in common with opium, laudanum and heroin). It was first extracted by the German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner in the early 1800s. Initially used for medical purposes only, it rose to popularity in the U.S. during and after the Civil War (“every war has its drug”), when soldiers and veterans received it for acute and chronic pain from war wounds; addiction became so prevalent that it was referred to as “the soldiers’ disease.” But morphine (named after the Greek god of sleep, Morpheus) wasn’t just a soldier’s drug; by the final quarter of the 19th century it was also a “mother’s drug” (the 19th century’s equivalent of “mother’s little helper”). Thousands of middle-class women became addicted, having been prescribed the drug for migraines, gynecological complaints, and general states of “unwellness.” Until aspirin came on the market in 1899, it was essentially the only painkiller widely on offer.

In the early 20th century, the pharmaceutical company Bayer began producing and distributing heroin (rel. to “heroic,” because of its power), and by the 1920s-1930s America was in the throes of its second great addiction wave. Heroin (derived from morphine, but more potent) was marketed as a safe alternative to morphine, even though it was soon realized (by 1906) that it could become addictive after only a few days’ use. Early advertisements were directed at both adults and children (yes, children).

Once heroin was acknowledged to be addictive, an attempt was made to create a closed system, and with doctors no longer prescribing it, production / distribution shifted to the underworld – there was, after all, continued demand, but no legal supply for users. With the arrival of Prohibition in 1920, the “syndicate” began employing the same routes used for alcohol to smuggle in street drugs – heroin, in this case. It was outlawed for all purposes, including medicinal ones, in 1924.

The Boggs Act (1951) imposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, which primarily meant in urban populations of poor minorities. But illicit heroin continued to circulate widely from the fifties through the early seventies. It was deemed a pestilence of the inner cities. America is still grappling with the effects of the Boggs Act 70 years later, as the debate between those who would criminalize use and those who prefer to see addiction as a disease, and thus a public health crisis, continues. It would appear that the pendulum is now swinging towards decriminalization and treatment rather than punishment; many local jurisdictions across the country have introduced innovative programs which aim to keep users out of jails/prisons and shepherd them towards treatment (methadone clinics being the best-known) or at least, harm-reduction programs (needle exchanges).

In the forties, three brothers from Brooklyn, all doctors, all keen on research (together they published more than 150 scholarly articles), took a particular interest in biological psychiatry – i.e., in the use of pharmaceuticals as opposed to psychoanalysis. One of the three, Arthur, also had a distinct talent for marketing and business, and he had purchased a small medical advertising agency. Arthur Sackler must be considered the father of modern pharmaceutical marketing, which was based on direct marketing to physicians (to persuade them to write prescriptions) and secondly, to the public through appeals such as “Ask your doctor about XX drug.” (Cf. “Most of the questionable practices that propelled the pharmaceutical industry into the scourge it is today can be attributed to Arthur Sackler.”) The brothers, who purchased a small, nondescript pharmaceutical company in 1952, turned among other ventures to marketing two benzodiazepines, Valium (= diazepam) and Librium, used primarily as tranquilizers for anxiety. By 1973, physicians were writing 100 million prescriptions a year for tranquilizers. The Sacklers (Arthur as CEO of the medical ad agency, Mortimer and Raymond as co-CEOs of the pharma company, rechristened “Purdue Pharma”) made millions in the sixties and seventies.

During the seventies and eighties, Purdue Pharma had tremendous success with a slow-release formulation of morphine (“MS Contin”). But in 1987 MS Contin’s patent was about to run out, so they needed another narcotic – a drug that would also contain the “twist” of delayed release. This drug, which consisted of the opioid oxycodone, was approved by the FDA in 1995 and christened OxyContin. While oxycodone (synthesized in 1916 by German scientists) was already available in other formulations (Percocet = oxycodone + Tylenol; Percodan = oxycodone + aspirin), in addition to the delayed absorption feature, OxyContin was pure oxycodone. And it was produced in a range of concentrations (titrations), from 10mg all the way up to 160 mg. It was promoted for use for “moderate to severe” pain.

In the mid-1990s, pain was re-classified as the “5th vital sign,” and the opportunities for production and marketing of effective pain medications, including opioids, changed again. The Sacklers found the opening they’d been waiting for. OxyContin was marketed not just for the types of pain opioids had legally been limited to – basically, end-of-life pain – but for just about any type of pain – injury-related, dental-related, surgery-related; back pain, neuralgia, arthritis, athletic injuries – you name it, OxyContin could treat it. Not surprisingly given the technique employed to sell it – by doctors (paid by the Sacklers) to doctors (including general practitioners and other non-specialists) – by 2000 OxyContin was generating a billion dollars a year in revenue.

Throughout the late nineties and into the early years of the 21st century, OxyContin was marketed aggressively to doctors in poor, rural, white communities (with a population described as “opioid-naive”) as a “delayed absorption” opioid, the implication being that it was therefore less addictive (in absence of any objective evidence). It took only a few years for the realization to sink in that OxyContin was just as addictive as other opioids which had come before it.

Purdue Pharma has now been sued thousands of times, but has never admitted complicity to causing the opioid epidemic; cases are settled out of court for dollars on the billions in profit the family made out of others’ suffering. In 2019, Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy, a filing that was recently rejected (January 2022) upon appeal. We shall see; a further appeal is pending with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  

Back to 2022:

The majority of now-adult substance abusers first became dependent as a result of a legal opioid prescription (estimates range as high as 80%). What does one do once doctors become fearful about writing further prescriptions – today, for example, patients are normally given only one week’s supply following routine surgeries and modest injuries – i.e. for “moderate” pain. Initially users turned to street supplies – the “pill mills” which churned out prescriptions in the late nineties and early 21st century put legally-prescribed supplies out there for a price, with pills often being sold as singletons. Once that supply began to dry up, addicts turned again to street providers – but this time, of heroin.

And that heroin is frequently laced with fentanyl (more than 25% of drugs confiscated by the DEA now contain fentanyl), a synthetic opioid 80-100 times more potent than morphine and 25-40 times more potent than heroin, rather than the innocuous baking soda, sugar, or starch which were once used to cut it. In consequence, during the first year of the pandemic, around 190 people died every day of opioid-related deaths, making them the leading cause among all drug-related deaths. It’s a sellers’ market out there, and buyers – at least in part due to the disruption of reliable supply chains during the pandemic – are at their mercy.

We noted above that the most-used antidote for overdoses – especially those caused by unknowing ingestion of fentanyl – also experienced market “turbulence” during the pandemic. Pfizer admitted that it “ran into problems in manufacturing doses of naloxone” early in 2021, but insists that the “issues are now fixed” (without revealing what those issues were). The real turbulence was connected with pricing, with the cost of a single dose of Narcan (produced by Emergent BioSolutions) going from $2.50 to $75.00 for harm-reduction centers, which do not receive a discounted price. The Opioid Safety and Naloxone Network (OSNN) Buyers Club, which Pfizer had been supplying with an injectable formulation, was cut out of purchasing altogether. It’s estimated that the astronomical rise in cost resulted in between 12,000 and 18,000 unnecessary drug-related deaths in the past year.*

That’s a lot of excess deaths, and the explanation for what happened with naloxone – first to the supply (if anything) and then to the price – has not yyet been thoroughly investigated.

*Addendum: Further research after this post was written failed to reveal more about what happened to Pfizer’s manufacturing of naloxone in early 2021:

The drab Pfizer website lists the availability of its injectable naloxone formulation as “depleted.” In a perfect world, Pfizer’s listing would be banal. A shortage of one generic WHO-declared essential medication for one manufacturer (among several in the US) doesn’t sound like a crisis scenario. Yet Pfizer’s supply disruptions are causing the worst naloxone shortage the country has faced since at least 2012, when overdose levels were less than half of what they are now.

In a juster world, Pfizer could have diverted some of its estimated net profit of almost $22 billion (2021, up from $9.1 billion in 2020) to ensure that the supply of injectable naloxone could meet demand.

Readings

 “Opioids and the COVID-19 Pandemic”

 “An Epidemic within a Pandemic:  The Opioid Crisis and COVID-19”

 “How the COVID Pandemic Made the Opioid Epidemic Worse Even as Telehealth Helped”

“2022 a critical year to address worsening drug-overdose crisis”

“Drug Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Top 100,000 Annually”

 “It’s really, truly everywhere: How the Opioid Crisis Worsened with COVID-19” (podcast)

 “America’s Opioid Epidemic” (pre-pandemic podcast))

“Price for drug that reverses opioid overdoses soars amid record deaths”

“The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” (on the Sacklers)

“Affordable naloxone is running out, creating a perfect storm for more overdose deaths, activists say”

 “The Evolving Opioid Crisis”

“Opioids, Inc.” (PBS Frontline)

 “Chasing Heroin” (PBS Frontline)

 “7 Days: The Opioid Crisis in Arkansas” (PBS Arkansas)

2022-02-04 Covid Revelations III: Long-Term Care Facilities

The Nursing Home Crisis

In this, our third post covering the failures of the U.S. health/healthcare system over the past two years, we consider the case of nursing homes, the best-known and largest category of Long-term Care (LTC) providers. Other congregate living facilities include assisted living, memory care facilities, group homes for the disabled and of course, prisons, which we will consider under the COVID-19 lens in a later post dealing with the justice system.

When queried, around 77% of Americans state that they would prefer to “age in place,” i.e. to remain in their home during their final years. But there are reasons, both economic and health-related, why this is often not possible. Between 1.3 and 1.4 million people are currently nursing homes residents; another 800,000 or so are in assisted living facilities (considered a “step up” from nursing homes in terms of resident independence).

The only significant portion of this sector publicly owned and operated (by the federal government in collaboration with individual states) are Veterans Administration facilities, popularly referred to as “VA Homes.” Of the approximately 15,000 nursing homes in operation today, 70% are for-profit; the other 30% are non-profits  or “safety net” homes funded by smaller government units, e.g. states /counties.

While the majority of homes are privately-owned and operated, and the majority of these are for-profit, this is not to say that state and federal governments aren’t directly involved in their funding and oversight: Medicare (overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS), under which 97% of nursing homes are approved for receipt of federal funding, provides around $25 billion yearly for the rehabilitation/convalescence of patients released from hospital but not yet able to return home, while Medicaid (federal/state) contributes around $50 billion a year, for a total of 60% of nursing home costs.

During the early days of the pandemic (March – July 2020), those paying attention to the statistics became alarmed when data on nursing home mortality rates began to be published, at least by some states and at least in part, although much of the data was hard to interpret since posting practices differed from state to state, making accurate state-to-state comparisons difficult for epidemiologists and other investigators. Overall, however, it would appear that of total deaths in the first wave, about 40% were of those living and working in nursing homes (140,000 total deaths / 5% of total cases). There was considerable variation, however, among states: in New Hampshire, for example, 81% of all reported COVID-19 deaths were of nursing home residents/staff, whereas in Nevada, only 19% of deaths were attributable to nursing home residents and workers. Data from 18 states showed that +50% of all first-wave deaths were of nursing home residents/workers.

It was noted by pundits and news analysts that this was “natural ” and “inevitable,” given that those over 65 residing in nursing homes normally have multiple co-morbidities which made them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. But, as we saw in our two previous posts (and as we will see repeatedly throughout this series on the revelations of COVID-19), the nursing home / long-term care industry was already operating under its own version of “just-in-time” conditions, something most news reports didn’t make clear.

Some of the challenges homes had long been facing in February 2020:

  • Standards for nursing homes / congregate care facilities exist, but enforcement has historically been lax. This was crucially the case with infection control, which led to many homes’ turning into superspreader sites practically from the onset of the pandemic. Inspectors tended to be too few in number to carry out regular, rigorous inspections; nursing home owners often felt that a modest penalty or fine, e.g. for systematic failure to implement infection control mechanisms, was cheaper than addressing protocol breaches.
  • Funding conundrums. Medicaid, which foots around 60% of the total budget for nursing home care in the U.S., has no age-at-home option, even when someone could remain at home with minimal-to-modest regular visits/support and community services. If a given state wants to use federal Medicaid money to provide community / in-home care options, it must apply for a waiver through an onerous, time-consuming process.
  • Nursing homes are by their nature – as “congregate facilities” – unhealthy environments for the elderly, sick, and frail. Most consist of shared rooms, toilets, and showers; staff often “float” among a large number of residents (even between wings, which led to additional spread before isolation procedures for COVID-19 residents were devised) – and of course, it was staff members who brought COVID into the nursing homes in the first place, given that residents live in a quasi-bubble.
  • Nursing homes are systematically understaffed, and staff that carry out nearly all of direct patient care / service – CNAs (certified nurse assistants), food service workers/janitorial/maintenance/laundry staff – are the lowest-paid in the healthcare provision sector. CNAs earned on average $13.00 an hour before the pandemic (with considerable variation between regions/states based on cost of living and local minimum wage laws). In order to survive, many were working at more than one facility, or in another sector altogether (e.g. fast-food service). The more hours they worked outside any given facility, the greater the danger of their contracting COVID through “community spread” and bringing it into one or more of the homes where they worked.
  • Systematic understaffing soon reached crisis levels in many homes as staff began to fall ill or quit in fear. This led, inevitably, to some homes’ shutting down entire wings, thus reducing the number of beds available to patients ready for release from hospitals into convalescent care. And this had a backward-ripple effect on hospitals themselves, which were forced to keep patients who, although ready for discharge, had nowhere to go, in turn forcing the hospitals to turn away patients who urgently required hospitalization.
  • The long-term care sector provides few decent – and no public, universally-available – options for insurance. Medicaid pays $6,180 per month ($74,160 a year) per resident, but this is not enough to provide sufficient staffing/services even in non-pandemic times. The sector, which is now enormous, is thus both a victim of underfunding as well as an inevitable predatory one, given that the majority of homes are run for profit.
  • The profit motive means that many homes do not provide the bare minimum of professional oversight of facilities, e.g. by having an RN present 24 hours a day, or by employing an infectious disease specialist to monitor for infection control. Homes which do have an RN present experience both lower morbidity/mortality rates as well as an overall better level of care. Given that a federal agency, HHS, has the right to set standards for staffing of nursing homes, it would be possible to establish minimum staffing ratios across the board / across the country (as we saw that California did in 2004 for hospital ratios, and as Illinois and Pennsylvania are proposing). But this would require around 150,000 care-workers be added to nursing home staffs.
  • This leads us to staff shortages, which have now (2022) expanded from primary care providers like CNAs to nursing home directors (liability concerns?), RNs (as part of the overall shortage / fear of liability?), and even dining staff. Today, 54.5% of all nursing homes are experiencing staffing shortages; since February 2020 (i.e. the past 2 years), 420,000 nursing home staff have left the field entirely – partly out of fear of contracting COVID, certainly, but also partly because more attractive / less health-threatening jobs opened up during the 2021 recovery. In some states, the National Guard has been called up to assist with keeping homes open, but overall, 58% of the country’s 15,000-odd  homes are now limiting admissions, either because they have closed beds or due to inadequate (even by minimum standards) staffing, or both.

As if the above weren’t enough, a significant percentage of elder-care workers remained unvaccinated months after vaccines became available to them. In July 2020 (7 months after vaccines became available), 40% of CNAs remained unvaccinated; as of September, it was 30%. Some states (a total of 15 as of Feb. 1, 2022) have mandated that healthcare workers be vaccinated, but in states where mandates do not exist (e.g. Ohio), the rate of unvaccinated workers remains stubbornly stuck at around 40%. The highly-transmissible omicron variant has led to high rates of infection among these workers, and consequently to even more serious staff shortages.

At first glance, this reluctance – refusal appears hard to comprehend or countenance, given the population with which LTC workers interact.

Let’s turn the mike over to the workers themselves, whose initial concerns mimic those of millions of others (some of whom hold PhDs) who refuse to get vaccinated. But nursing home workers have additional concerns rarely aired in mainstream media.

We begin from the well-known standard objection, which may be summarized as “I’m not against vaccines, but it all happened too quickly”:

First up: Kia Cooper, Philadelphia, who has worked as a CNA for nearly 2 decades: “I’m not totally against it. But it was so rushed. I want to wait and see how others do.”

However, Kia has additional concerns:

Her experience with a health-care industry that seems to put profits over the interests of patients and staff—that denies hazard pay, that fails to provide adequate protective equipment—also contributes to her hesitancy. ‘I do wonder if it’s a money thing. These are big companies trying to force these products on everyone. You have to wonder, Are they doing it for us or are they just trying to make money?’” (emphasis added)

Second up: Destiny Hankins, an LPN from Tennessee currently working in Ohio (no vaccine mandate):

Sometimes, it feels like no one cares about us. I’ve worked in places where pretty much the whole staff walked out because the facility lied to us. They said there was no COVID when there was. They didn’t give us P.P.E. They didn’t have the decency to be straight with us.” (emphasis added)

Ms. Hankins has, after reading / reflection, decided she does want to receive the vaccine. “But because she works part time at several facilities, and full time at none, she hasn’t been able to get one.”

And then there’s lack of trust, which must be considered in light of a distrust of the medical establishment among POC/ marginalized communities whose members form the backbone of CNAs:

David Grabowski, a professor of health-care policy at Harvard:

In many cases, vaccine hesitancy is not a lack-of-information problem. It’s a lack-of-trust problem. Staff doesn’t trust leadership. They have a real skepticism of government. They haven’t gotten hazard pay. They haven’t gotten P.P.E. They haven’t gotten respect. Should we be surprised that they’re skeptical of something that feels like it’s being forced on them?”

There were facilities which succeeded in protecting residents and staff during the initial wave of the virus, but this required a genuine sense of community, shared commitment and sacrifice which had been created over time.

Kimberly Delbo, the director of nursing services and innovation at an assisted-living facility in central Pennsylvania:

“‘We’re a small, tight-knit family. The most important thing we can do as an organization is make sure people know that we truly care about them.’ In an industry where a fifty-per-cent annual staff-turnover rate is not uncommon, Delbo’s facility did not lose a single employee in 2019; last year, it had a ninety-per-cent retention rate.” (emphasis added)

Delbo herself engaged in active campaigning for the vaccine:

We’ve been very proactive about building confidence in it, about getting them the facts, about debunking conspiracy theories and social-media myths. We can engage in this dialogue because they trust us. I think what’s important for people to understand is that you don’t build trust in a day and you don’t build it for a specific purpose. We’ve been investing in trust for years. We were doing this before the pandemic, and we’ll do it after.” (emphasis added)

In sum, the major problems identified in the nursing home sector pre-pandemic – all of which were exacerbated by the pandemic itself – included: systematic underfunding and understaffing; unsanitary living conditions (shared rooms/toilets/showers/staff), inadequate senior (RN) supervision and infection control protocols; absence of a stockpile of PPE (masks, goggles/shields, gowns, gloves, sanitizer), whether that stockpile was at federal, state, or local level, and an absence of testing / tracing capabilities.

When the pandemic struck, it was inevitable that COVID-19 would wreak havoc among nursing home residents and staff. On average, the mortality rate in nursing homes among (residents + staff) during the early months of the pandemic was more than five times that among the general population (16% vs. 3%).

As regards PPE, nursing homes were/are not prioritized, and many had but a week’s supply of equipment laid by. This led to competition between homes – hospitals, and homes – homes (similar to that witnessed between states for ventilators), with larger chains winning out, and smaller ones (including safety-net homes) left behind, along with their residents and staff. Price-gouging was common. And during the first months, there was a “nearly complete absence of national efforts to improve the availability of testing and PPE.”

The nursing home crisis must therefore be interpreted within a “wider context of historical disinvestment and chronic underfunding,” rather than as a one-off, unavoidable disaster.

Addendum: The Biden Administration’s “Build Back Better” Act of 2021 foresaw a substantial and unprecedented investment ($150 billion, i.e. twice the amount spent yearly by Medicare and Medicaid for nursing homes) in Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) programs.

It appears that Senator Joe Manchin (WVa) has succeeded in killing the bill’s chance of passage, certainly in its original form and perhaps even in some stripped-down future iteration. (“Pressed by CNN on whether he has had talks on the proposal, Manchin said, ‘No, no, no, it’s dead.’”)

Interestingly, Manchin’s family once built a “safety net” nursing home, the John Manchin Sr. Health Care Center (founded 1899 for disabled miners) in Marion County, West Virginia (near the Pennsylvania border). Until he was questioned about his involvement with the home, Manchin was listed as a corporate officer of the home, which is registered as an LLC (two days after questioning, his name had been removed from the corporate officers). There is currently a concerted effort underway to close the Manchin Center (which provides vital care and health – as well as food-provision – services to Marion County) because it is inefficient – it has around 30 residents requiring a high level of care who would probably not find places in another facility. The ongoing struggle to save the Center – there are only 150 state-run nursing homes left in the U.S. (1%) – would have been aided by the passage of the BBB Act.

The pandemic has revealed that while the U.S. pays lip service to caring for its most vulnerable population, in fact the oldest and frailest among us have been neglected for decades due to increasing privatization and the profit-driven operations of congregate care.

We will see later in this series when considering COVID’s revelations about pre-K thru 12 education that the youngest among us – infants and toddlers – have been similarly neglected. They too would have benefited greatly from the passage of the Build Back Better Act.

Readings

 “Nursing home staff shortages are worsening problems at overwhelmed hospitals”

“Nursing home health care shortages, a ‘crisis’”

“State Policy Responses to COVID-19 in Nursing Homes”

“Nursing Homes Can’t Find Enough Workers: How That Affects Care”

“Rising from the COVID 19 crisis: Policy responses in the long-term care sector”

Don’t You Work with Old People?”: Many Elder-Care Workers Still Refuse to Get COVID-19 Vaccine

Reimagining the Nursing Home Industry after the Coronavirus

“Why Are So Many Health-Care Workers Resisting the COVID Vaccine?”

“Senate Build Back Better Act Draft Language Maintains Historic $150 Billion Investment in HCBS”

“The Fight to Save the Manchin Nursing Home”

2022-01-31 Covid Revelations II: The Nursing Crisis

Where Have All the Nurses Gone?

The issues involving crisis-level shortages of nurses and healthcare providers (for home health care, assisted living facilities) are somewhat different, although the level of crisis in each sector is comparable. The pandemic has made these worse – and more apparent to the public – but both sectors were in trouble well before the onset of COVID.

While general news articles blame the pandemic shortage of registered nurses (RNs) on COVID (most frequently-cited causes: burnout, stress, emotional exhaustion), just as we saw in our previous post on how the pandemic led to a public health disaster in the U.S., the roots of the U.S. nursing shortage go back much further, years before COVID-19 struck.

Most hospitals in the U.S. are now privately-owned and operated. Consequently, they are driven by the profit motive rather than the delivery of critical healthcare services. Given that approximately 50% of a hospital’s budget goes to staffing, the latter has been “streamlined,” i.e. minimized to increase profits. Not-for-profit hospitals, forced to compete with for-profits, have adopted the same practices to avoid being priced out of the market. Thus for practical purposes, there is little difference in how their budgets operate.

This is not a question of an actual lack of nurses – in 2015, for example, there were 2.7 million RNs in the U.S. Rather, hospitals’ “flex-staffing” (equivalent to the “just in time” production-delivery system we saw in the case of PPE in our previous post) has led to systemic understaffing, and which revealed gaping holes during the first wave of the pandemic. Even in the midst of the omicron wave – formally, the third – the U.S. has not been able to make up for chronic, deliberate understaffing. Today, the problem is not so much a lack of beds, but a lack of staffing to care for patients occupying those beds. And because remaining staff are diverted to COVID wards, millions of elective procedures (a major source of profit) have necessarily been postponed and or cancelled.

When staff shortages become chronic, existing staff cannot properly meet the needs of a surge in patients (even, for example, in the case of a major accident / natural disaster). It therefore should not be surprising that 66% of critical care nurses (who bear the brunt of caring for COVID patients) were considering leaving the profession when surveyed in September 2021 (before the omicron wave got underway), and 40% of ALL nurses were considering leaving.

Hospitals have dealt with persistent nursing shortages by “outsourcing” demand to private agencies, which contracted as middlemen for provision of visiting nurses in COVID “hotspots” as each wave has rippled through the country. This practice, engendered by stark necessity, cost hospitals approximately $24 billion in additional outlays, resulting in an increase in total labor costs of 14% (as of Sept. 2021), even though full-time (i.e. regular) employees fell during the same period by 4%, against a benchmark of an average increase in staffing requirements of 20% during the pandemic.

The visiting nurse business has proved enormously popular during the pandemic; in 2020, it increased by 35% in volume (and, predictably, profits). Visiting nurses, who sign short-term contracts for periods ranging from a few weeks to a few months, earn between $5,000 and $10,000 a week. They can go where they choose, and work when they choose, i.e. they can rest and recuperate between stints. Staff nurses, on the other hand, often work 12-hour shifts for weeks on end (when there is a chronic shortage, the term “days off” flies out the window), and it was inevitable that many would suffer burnout and emotional trauma during the multiple waves of the pandemic. And for this, they earn on average around $1,400 per week ($1,200 in rural hospitals). The pay disparity inevitably impacts the morale of staff nurses, some of whom chose to quit their regular jobs and go to work as agency contract workers.

Understandably, the term “price-gouging” has arisen in the discussion of visiting nurse agencies’ charges, but this issue really needs to be addressed at the federal level; individual states which attempt to impose caps on “excess profits” of, say, 10%, or a cap on service charges (e.g. 150%, i.e. “time-and-a-half”) would soon find themselves shut out of the market for visiting nurses entirely.

The outside observer of what is clearly a crisis in staffing – 99% of rural hospitals have declared staffing shortages, and 96% have noted that they have the most difficulty in hiring RNs – may well wonder why RN staffing levels are not regulated. Currently, only one state, California, has legislation (since 2004) regulating RN: patient ratios in hospitals (ratios range from 1:1 to 1:6, depending on the level of care demanded; ICU wards, where critically ill COVID patients are typically cared for, require a 1:2 ratio). Two other states (Illinois, Pennsylvania) have pending legislation to impose similar ratios on hospitals within their jurisdiction; unfortunately, similar legislation proposed in Massachusetts was defeated in 2018, thanks to $25 million invested by the American Hospital Association, which conducted a campaign opposing the bill under the guise of “freedom and choice,” an all-too-familiar slogan. Federal legislation regulating the standard nurse: patient ratios in all hospitals which receive federal funding (e.g. Medicare, Medicaid) is clearly needed, but seems an unattainable goal given the current donor base of Congressional members of both parties.

In the meantime, what is to be done? One solution – although it’s not a quick fix by any means – would be to increase the overall number of practicing RNs in the U.S. Despite COVID, applications to many B.S. programs in Nursing are up. But the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has noted that in 2021, around 80,000 applicants to such programs were rejected due to a lack of teaching staff and clinical placements sites (66,000 rejected from B.S. programs, and 13,000 from graduate programs).

Herein we find yet another problem: teaching in nursing programs pays less on average than actual nursing; thus, many senior nurses with advanced degrees choose to remain practitioners or continue for a nurse practitioner degree (with even higher salaries), or do a few stints of visiting nursing each year rather than enter the teaching profession. In short, the U.S. cannot train more nurses in the short term because there aren’t enough qualified teaching faculty.

Here’s another problem: the RN nursing force is “counter-cyclical,” because the majority of RNs are married and remain outside the workforce while their children are young and while their spouses / significant others are gainfully employed. But because many U.S. schools went online during the first year or so of the pandemic, even those who might otherwise have reentered the workforce were unable to do so due to childcare / home schooling responsibilities. Thus, many qualified nurses were constrained in their ability to return to work (around 500,000 of the country’s 2.7 million RNs in 2015 were not working).

And finally: The peak baby boom year in the U.S. was 1957 – and the large cohort of nurses born in that year will turn 65 in 2022. Thus we must anticipate a larger-than-normal retirement cohort of highly experienced, long-term nursing staff.

Nurses today are university-educated professionals like teachers (later in this series, we will see that similar issues have arisen with the teacher crisis). Staff nurses earn a middle-class wage, but they are increasingly burdened by technology demands many older nurses have difficulty adapting to, by administrative burdens which take many RNs off the floor for extended periods each day they work (most nurses have entered the field not to engage with computers/paperwork, but to engage with human beings whom they want to care for and help), and COVID has greatly increased the levels of stress-burnout-overwork – much of which is caused not by too much patient contact, but too little.

Privatization of U.S. institutional healthcare providers over the past several decades created a crisis-in-waiting. COVID heightened it, but didn’t cause it.

Sources:

Covid will continue to highlight America’s nursing shortage in 2022 and the looming ‘silver tsunami’ (OP-ED)

Why is the U.S. perpetually short of nurses?

Post Covid-19 global nursing workforce challenges ‘too big to be ignored’

COVID-19’s Impact on Nursing Shortages, The Rise of Travel Nurses, and Price Gouging

We Know the Real Cause of the Crisis in our Hospitals. It’s Greed.

Why the U.S. Nursing Crisis Is Getting Worse

COVID-19 field nursing shortage but also inspired new generation of nurses

What does the California Ratio Laws actually require?