Let’s get political

Wait a second—hasn’t most of this blog been political? Well, yes, in that it criticizes the government and advocates courses of action. But I have tried not to make it purely partisan. I’ve looked at the statistics and sometimes changed my initial position because of those statistics. In my post yesterday, for example, I looked at Donald Trump’s COVID-related claims in a recent interview. An anti-Trumper who read it accused me of “looking like you’re supporting Trump” because I conceded that some of his claims about testing and about the travel ban were accurate. Since I thought my post was rather openly and repeatedly negative about Trump’s performance in that interview, I went back and reread to make sure it was. I asked more middle-of-the-road people to read it, just in case I was too close to the writing. And I came to the conclusion that this was, in a microcosm, the problem with politics in the US right now. It’s based entirely on emotions rather than analysis, and if you agree with anything the “other side” says, you are a traitor. This is why, right now, instead of having a compromise COVID aid bill approved, unemployed people are still holding their breath while the people who make the decisions are still collecting their paychecks and bickering and scoring points with an eye toward November. So today, there will be no graphs and few statistics. Instead, I will try to respond to some arguments I have seen, on both sides, in the last 24 hours.

First, the February 2 travel ban. It was too late and had too many restrictions to be useful. The US was also not the first country to ban travel. According to the Washington Post, however, the US was earlier than most of our peers and most of Europe, and banned travel when the “experts” were still saying a travel ban was not necessary. The big problem was that because of Donald Trump’s rhetoric, the ban was perceived as entirely political. Here he is, for example, explaining why he refers to the virus as the “China virus”:

To give him his due here, it did, we think, come from China, and no one questioned identifying the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) virus by its original location, so asserting that a name that refers to the presumed origin will cause acts of violence against people who look like they may come from that place is also politically motivated. Trump’s intentionally inflammatory language, however, did nothing to quell people’s fears or add to their information. By that time, the virus had been dubbed COVID-19 and was being referred to as such by his scientific advisors. When we scoff at Trump’s contention that people opposed his travel ban, however, let’s remember that on February 24, Nancy Pelosi practiced no social distancing when she exhorted people to continue to visit San Francisco’s Chinatown. In this video, she tells people to “be careful,” but I’m not sure what that even means, since she is in the middle of a big crowd:

At the time Pelosi was telling people there was no problem, the travel ban was filled with loopholes, San Francisco is a major entry point for people from China, and there were already almost 80,000 COVID cases worldwide, 77 thousand of which were in China. The US had already identified 35 cases, so it seemed obvious the disease would spread, but our political leaders, on the right and left, were so intent on proving the other side wrong that no one was doing what was right. Whose side am I on? In this case, no one’s. I blame Donald Trump for making every decision he makes more about his own political gain than about what is best for the American people. But I blame Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats, and a large part of the press for reacting to Trump’s perceived racism and xenophobia and ignoring the real threat to the health of Americans. When I Googled the videos and articles that came out around the time of the travel ban, over half had anti-Trump headlines, setting out to prove he was wrong rather than looking at where we were. We all know what Trump’s style is; shouldn’t the “other side” be engaging more in facts than in emotional reaction?

No more is this adversarial approach more obvious than in fights about reopening schools. This morning, I woke up to one of those “copy and paste” Facebook posts, purportedly written by a teacher:

Be honest. If you’re not a teacher, an administrator, or someone who has actually worked in a classroom, then your opinion on what schools SHOULD do is really just what you WANT schools to do. You have no expertise, no training, and no practical experience.

And when you retort that your taxes make your opinion valid, let’s try these scenarios…

You pay for an airline ticket. I guess that means that the pilot is YOUR employee since you pay his salary. Are you going to demand that he fly the plane the way YOU would do it? Does everyone on the airplane get a say? I mean, they ALL have a vested interest in arriving at their destination safely.

You hire a plumber. You’re paying him, so he should do things the way you would. You’re just as qualified, right? I mean, you’ve been using bathrooms your whole life.

You drive a car every day. So when there’s a problem and you bring it to the mechanic, you know exactly how it should be fixed. After all, you’re paying. You should have a say.

The cry for teachers to “get back to work,” is obnoxious and condescending. It’s also inaccurate. Teachers didn’t stop working when the buildings closed. They did not choose for schools to be closed in March, and they have no say in whether they reopen in September. Most of them WANT to return to school because they love their jobs, and more importantly, love their kids. However, they DO have a right to express their concerns. They DO have a right to feel safe in the workplace. And they DO know more than anyone else about the feasibility of the suggested guidelines and whether instruction will be effective when implementing them.

If your only experience with education is that you went to school or have a child in school, then at least be honest. You don’t know what’s best.

I guess, strictly speaking, according to this teacher’s criteria, I do get a say, since I have taught younger children in classrooms and spent a long time teaching in higher education, and have worked on creating and scoring teacher-certification tests. But I’m going to answer as a member of the general public.

Dear teacher: There are plenty of reasons we should at least be questioning the decision to open schools, especially in areas experiencing high rates of infection. But your post relies entirely on emotional arguments and therefore does not persuade me. It also explains to me why analogies are no longer tested on the SAT, since the situations you set up are not analogous.

I’ll respond to your last point first. Yes, many (not all) teachers continued to teach online while they were home. In the UK, there were more schools than in the US that remained open for children of essential workers. They were staffed by people who were not in one of the high-risk groups for the disease, and they were organized to allow for social distancing and to encourage increased hygienic measures. Yes, there was some grumbling and argument in the UK (a nation of grumblers) when reopening beyond those schools was announced, but there weren’t so many people taking umbrage at the idea that workers other than teachers rely on the schools to provide childcare. That’s reality. And if schools don’t open up in September, it will put an even greater strain on those workers, more of whom are expected back on the job. Although you say that teachers “have no say” in the reopening of schools, of course you do, as a group. Most of you are organized into unions, some of which, like New York, are very strong. And if you really are anxious to get back to work but just want it to be safe, it might be more useful to figure out how to do that. Read how other countries have opened, try to present ideas for moving forward. Posting memes about Betsy DeVos and having a knee-jerk reaction to any kind of plan to reopen is no more useful than forcing schools to open before they are ready. As the linked article points out, keeping schools closed and continuing to teach online disproportionately disadvantages students at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. They often don’t have access to laptops, their parents often work in jobs that can’t be done from home, and they often can’t afford to pay for childcare. They also don’t have the resources to supplement the online teaching that richer parents have. The awareness of this disparity drives the recommendations of many of the European countries.

I also reject your contention that you’re more expert than the average citizen about what should be done. You are, understandably, nervous about going back. I am nervous about going outside. But because you are nervous, your arguments here are entirely emotional, not based in statistics or facts. You cherry-pick the arguments that further your side. Perhaps you’re too close to the situation. You, certainly, know more about how to teach in your classroom, but I’d wager that a lot of people have more knowledge of statistics than the average elementary school teacher—or even the high school teacher who isn’t teaching math or science. Any intelligent person who has followed all the data with an open mind is justified in having an opinion. You also say near the end of your argument that you want nothing more than to return to school; of course, the rest of society has an opinion because they want you to return to school, too.

I’m sorry, but yes, to a certain extent, the person who pays you gets to have an opinion on how that money is used. Your examples are absurd. I have no idea how to fly a plane, so just as I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to teach thermodynamics, I wouldn’t presume to tell the pilot how to fly the plane. I also wouldn’t be one of those jerks who throw a tantrum when the plane doesn’t take off because of weather or mechanical difficulties. But I did pay the airline to get me to my destination. So if the plane never took off, I would not expect to pay. People were refunded for the flights that were grounded after COVID, even though, just as with teaching, it was an unforeseen event. I also paid the airline to get me there more or less on time. There are EU rules that govern compensation for late flights. When my husband and I flew back from Barcelona, we ended up being compensated because our flight was outside the acceptable time window. (We might not get that after Brexit.)

As for the mechanic and the plumber, although I don’t know how to fix my car or put in a water line, I would expect both to be done if I were paying. Of course, with the mechanic and the plumber (and the flight), I’d also have personally agreed to how much a good job was worth. If I thought my mechanic was charging too much, I could have the work done elsewhere. So I’m already at a disadvantage as to how my taxes are spent on education, since I’m not part of the negotiating team. But your suggestion that the rest of society has no ability to understand what needs to be done is, to borrow your phrase, obnoxious and condescending.

The problem is, once again, politics. People hate Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, admittedly with good reason. But instead of trying to figure out a way to solve the problem of schools reopening, they are focusing all their energy on criticizing those individuals and anything they say. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Just as Trump’s more ardent followers would follow him right over a cliff, his critics would throw themselves over that cliff edge rather than agree with anything he says or work with him to find agreement.

My last story concerns Ohio governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, who in preparation for meeting President Trump last week, took a COVID test. Much to his surprise, his test came back positive. Note that he is reasonable, says that masks are helpful, and refuses to be dragged into a political fight in this first video:

Yesterday, however, he had another test and it came back negative. It was this second part of the story that a right-leaning friend shared with me, suggesting that the entire “surge” is suspect because of false positives like this. Deaths, she now says, are the only valid statistic. Yes, deaths are a lot harder to fool around with, but of course, testing is good and overall an accurate indicator of how your country or state or region is faring, and on where we need to concentrate our efforts. It turns out that the tests DeWine took were two different types, and his first test was already known to be the less accurate type. It was an antigen test, which has the advantage of providing results in minutes, which is probably why it is the standard protocol for people meeting the president. But it is  known to be less accurate than the second test he took, a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR test. There are tradeoffs in speed versus accuracy, and the antigen tests are also more widely available. Also, there’s no indication that a false positive is more likely than a false negative, so the overall numbers for an area would balance out and paint a fairly accurate picture. The idea is that those who test positive, like DeWine, will then have the more accurate but more complex test. This means that some carriers will be missed (the estimate is 15 to 20 percent), but like everything in this pandemic, we have to play the hand we’re dealt. Suggesting that the numbers are intentionally inflated does nothing to address the problem. Refusing because DeWine is a Republican to give credit where credit is due also does nothing to address the problem. Let’s try, somewhere between the continuing first wave and the almost inevitable second wave to figure out what we need to do by truly “following the science.”

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