American Parents Are Coming Apart at the Seams

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Photo: Will Leitch

There’s a school here in Georgia, not far from where I live in Athens, that has developed a unique strategy to deal with the unprecedented nightmare that is trying to run a public education system in the year 2020. In a document called NEW VIRUS PROTOCOLS released back in July, the school, which I’ll do the favor of leaving unnamed here, has a few recommendations that you’d expect from a school attempting to open to in-person learning during a pandemic: Staggered cafeteria lines, more spaced out car pool lanes, a spray bottle for every classroom, if not every desk. But the primary protocol was something called “the bracelet system.”

Here is the bracelet system:

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I know we are inexplicably living in a world in which the CDC is changing its mind about fundamental facts of this virus on a daily basis. But I suspect even the most lick-spittling Trump toady would recommend more protections be taken in indoor spaces than “a bracelet that lets people know whether or not you think the coronavirus is real.” It is lunacy in every possible way.

But then again: What choice did this school district have? Schools in Georgia, and in many states across the country, were forced back in late July to open to in-person schooling —Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia, demanded public schools open and threatened, like the president he is fiercely loyal to, to withhold taxpayer dollars from school systems that didn’t — despite having little financing to actually institute any concrete safety measures like distancing or improved ventilation. What were they to do? If you can’t afford to keep kids and teachers safe, but face overwhelming pressure to open schools anyway, you start coming with desperate measures just to do something. You end up with bracelets that let people know it’s cool if they come up to you and hug you, pandemic be damned.

And you thought middle school was stressful enough already.

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The sad part about this: I find myself envious of the parents at this school.

I live in Clarke County, Georgia, home of the University of Georgia, and I couldn’t ask for a better local government situation. The mayor is a Black Lives Matter-supporting, Confederate monument-removing reformer, the voting base is a solid blue dot surrounded by fields of red, and the town mostly takes on the personality of the educated professorship of the university and the legendary progressive music scene that launched R.E.M., Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, the B-52s, Drive-By Truckers and many more. I moved here in 2013 after 13-plus years in New York City, and it was the perfect next step; the only things I truly miss are not having to wait a month for independent movies, and probably the sushi.

But the downside of living in a progressive, cautious community that sits in the middle of Trump country becomes apparent when you are trying to send two small boys to public school in a pandemic. My two sons are bright, and social, and conscientious, and of all the contingency plans my wife and I came up with for raising them to stay that way, having them spend their third and first grades staring at an iPad alone in a dark room had never been one of them. Yet here we are. It is the third week of schooling, and my children have not met their teacher, have not packed a backpack, have not gone to recess, have not made any new friends. They have not learned any of the socialization tools school provides, which is to say, I’m not sure they’ve learned the most important lesson school has to teach. They are staring at screens, alone, all day. And calling it elementary school.

Other districts around us, every district around us, has gone back to in-person schooling, something parents of the children who go to those schools never fail to remind me of every time they see me staggering, haggard and unkempt, outside of my house in public to, you know, just get away from my children for a couple of damned minutes. I know the district’s decision to keep schools closed is prudent, that they are simply trying to keep children and their staffs safe, that they are only trying not to further exacerbate a public health fiasco that has been bungled by our national and state government from the beginning. (Even as evidence continues to mount that keeping special needs children and young elementary school children like mine out of school is causing untold long-term damage — and probably still isn’t keeping anybody that much safer.) I am glad that my district is trying to do the right thing. But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch my children sit indoors while every other school district in the surrounding area has opened to in-person learning and, it’s worth noting, have not been forced to shut down in the month since they opened, as many had predicted.

And my children of course have it easy. My wife and I both work at home and both have the means to provide reliable wireless access to our children, unlike many, many children in our county. The lack of Internet access among underprivileged children here was so widespread here that the Georgia football team had to do a fundraiser to get as many kids as possible set up on hotspots. It is still not unusual to see flocks of kids with iPads in their laps sitting outside a Wal-Mart here, trying to glom the free wireless so they can attend the fourth grade. This, to put it mildly, is unsustainable. Yet even with announced metrics that would lead to a return — metrics that have been reached in counties like Atlanta’s Fulton County, which is starting back this week, though it’s hardly assured that that situation is particularly safe either— the county is farther away from them than ever, thanks to the tens of thousands of college students who have come back to school for mandatory in-person classes at the University. (Which has had a series of well-deserved public relations nightmares over the last fortnight.) It has led many to wonder whether, in this environment, schools will ever open at all.

The blame, if you’re looking for such a thing, seems in my eyes to fall on the pratfall that was the federal response, pushed along by incompetence and cronyism from both the governor’s office and the University (whose leadership has long been closely aligned with the governor). But I’m not really too concerned with blame right now. All I know and care about is that my children are missing the third grade and the first grade. So many children are.

Do you remember grade school? Close your eyes and think back to it. You don’t think of your classes, or your studies, or your tests. The mind goes to hallways, and water fountains, and playing basketball at recess, and your best friends. My children, and millions of other children, are missing that right now. I don’t know how to fix it for them, and no one else seems all that willing to try. I’m not sure what the right thing to do is. It doesn’t seem 100 percent safe to send children back to school. But it sure doesn’t seem 100 percent safe not to either. I don’t have the answers. Who does? It is difficult for anyone to keep it together right now. But know this: Every parent you know is coming apart at the seams. And there is no end to this in sight.

Hell … maybe it’s the wristbands. No one seems to be trying anything else. In the absence of vision or strategy, lunacy begins to feel like a plan. Lunacy at least means someone is trying. Lunacy might be all we have.

Will Leitch will be writing multiple pieces a week for Medium. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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