|Hannah Watters’s photo|
Some stories are significant because they’re so singular: the explosion in Beirut this week is an example of this phenomenon. Some stories, on the other hand, are significant because everyone knows they represent the tip of the iceberg… or, in this case, the tip of multiple icebergs. And it returns Curmie to the erstwhile centerpiece of this blog: education, specifically idiots in charge.
Curmie wonders what the cumulative noun for school administrators is—you know, herd of buffalo, murder of crows, pod of dolphins… what for school administrators? A constipation? A harrumph? An idiocy? A Stasi? Well, anyway, a collection of these critters at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia decided on a set of rules that seem pretty much designed to suppress the rights of their students and to avoid any responsibility for their imperiousness. And then they decided to prove how unfit they are for positions of authority.
To be fair, they were put in a tough position by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who is a contender, along with Iowa’s Kim Reynolds, for the title of Most Irresponsible Handling of the COVID-19 Pandemic by a Non-President. Let’s face it, if you’ve outpaced the likes of Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis for this… erm… distinction, you’re a LOT longer on arrogance than on sense. Kemp has not only not ordered a statewide mandate to wear masks; he has forbidden local jurisdictions from doing so. It’s unclear (to Curmie, at least) whether an individual school or school district could enforce a requirement should they choose to do so; the school’s own rhetoric suggests they could. North Paulding officials were undoubtedly pressured (at least) into re-opening with no regard for student and staff safety: this doesn’t let them off the hook, especially for the real thrust of this essay.
As anyone who has ever been in a high school knows—hell, as anyone who has ever seen one of the zillions of movies, plays, or television series about high school knows—the changeover time between classes approaches bedlam, with virtually every student in the school (at North Paulding, that’s normally well over 2000 of them) spilling into cramped corridors and staircases. The chances of physical distancing are precisely those of Curmie voting for Loony Louie Gohmert in November: zero. Plus, of course, a significant number of them, whether on their own adolescent initiative or at the behest of troglodyte parental units, aren’t wearing masks. It doesn’t help that School Board President Jeff Fuller, holder of a BS in Political Science, thinks he knows more about epidemiology than people with… you know… relevant credentials, and declared CDC guidance “complete crap.”
It should also be noted that several members of the football team had already tested positive, a staff member who was exhibiting symptoms (!) came into contact with most of the faculty, and there weren’t enough slots available in the school’s virtual learning program. Parents who mistakenly assumed the school would
give a shit about its students and faculty enforce masks and social distancing guidelines missed the artificially imposed deadline to enroll their children in the virtual program.
And so the school forged ahead with on-site classes. Students who didn’t get into the virtual program were told they face expulsion if they don’t attend in person. The school, by the way, would neither confirm nor deny the positive test of that staff member. Note: it’s hardly a violation of individual privacy to admit that yes, “a staff member” has been infected. They’re weaseling around trying to claim they’re concerned about literally anything but their public reputation, denying responsibility for the effects of their own actions. Certainly the safety of all concerned doesn’t seem to have been very high on their list of concerns.
I know, I know, death tolls from the Rona for those under 24 are much lower than for old farts like Curmie, and masks aren’t a foolproof protection, especially for the wearer. Here is where Curmie offers apologies in advance: few people find their way to this blog without having an understanding of the basics of all the standard liberal arts subjects, including (in this case) history and biology. But let’s consider a few facts:
1. There are other negative outcomes than just fatalities. True, the only personal friend of Curmie’s to have died from COVID-19 so far was in his seventies and already in poor health. (He still didn’t deserve to die!) But the number of Curmie’s former students, none of them as much as half his age, to have tested positive is now in double figures. (And they’re just the ones he knows about.) Several have/had serious symptoms for over a month. Two, at least, will have permanent damage to vital organs: one to her heart, one to her lungs. This is no hoax.
2. There are other people in schools than students: teachers and staff are people, too… although there was that one gym teacher Curmie wasn’t so sure about. Some of them are in high risk demographics because of age, general health, height (!), or specific medical conditions. Others have high-risk family members at home.
3. Students have families to whom they might spread the disease. Parents tend to be older than their offspring, and grandparents even older than that. Duh.
4. COVID is highly contagious, and can be spread by people who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. (Typhoid Mary, anyone?)
5. The medical community is virtually unanimous that wearing a mask and staying at least six feet away from others is the most effective means of controlling the spread of the virus. This professional opinion is particularly prevalent among immunologists, epidemiologists, cardiologists, and pulmonologists, so Curmie doesn’t really give a flying fuck what Jim-Bob on Facebook or even ophthalmologist Rand Paul have to say on the matter.
Her alleged violations (you can see the legalese in the linked article):
1. Using a cellphone without permission.
2. Accessing Twitter during school hours without permission.
3. Using recording equipment with permission. Of special note: this provision seems specifically designed to prohibit “record[ing] misbehavior.” Nope, nothing to hide, these people. Nope.
For the record: Ms. Watters is, as a student in grades 9-12, permitted to use her phone when not specifically in class. Her Twitter post happened outside school hours. We’ve been here before, Curmiphiles. The good news is that we have a school that seems to acknowledge that except in exceptional circumstances they have no right to interfere in the private lives and communications of their students outside school hours. The bad news is that they seem perfect willing to lie (or, more charitably, to pay no heed to facts) in order to do precisely that. So there’s one legitimate complaint.
Ms. Watters was apparently told (or perhaps misunderstood) that the problem was distributing photos of underage kids without consent, but that doesn’t seem to be the real issue here. There’s a law, intended to protect victims of child pornography, which is (of course) sometimes misapplied by schools and other agencies, but surely every small-town newspaper in the country runs photos of the fans at the local high school football game. It’s not that, at least not legitimately.
Documenting “misbehaviors,” the specific target of the policy in question, is, if Curmie might be permitted a grad-school term, vexed. On the one hand, Curmie is not a fan of narcs. On the other hand, he is a fan of whistle-blowers. Curmie would argue that Hannah Watters was functioning in the latter capacity in this case. You, Gentle Reader, are free to disagree. But what matters is that this is an area that calls for discretion, which (needless to say) was not exercised. The school argues pragmatism for both the hallway congestion and the lack of a mandate for mask-wearing. In the former instance, they have a case. There’s simply no way to transport that many students from room to room in a matter of a few minutes other than what we see in that photograph. School officials are correct in noting that the changeovers are brief and unavoidable. Saying the photograph is “taken out of context,” however, is nonsense. The photo shows precisely the reality on the ground, and everyone who has ever been to high school except in the most rural areas knows it.
According to analysis at Georgia Tech, any gathering of 100 people in Paulding County right now is 92% likely to include someone infected by the virus; it’s over 99% for groups of 500. Even with a significant portion of the student population staying home and attending virtually, there are roughly 1700 students in those hallways at a given moment: the chances that one of those kids is infectious approaches ontological certitude… and a single cough or sneeze could (not to be confused with “would”) infect hundreds. (UPDATE: yesterday, the Saturday after the first week of classes, an Atlanta TV station ran a report that six students and three staff members who had been in the school last week had now tested positive.)
All of which brings us to the use of masks. Ms. Watters claims that, on average, well under half the students in her classes were wearing masks. She tracked twelve meetings (classes or advisement): the percentages ranged from a high of 57% to a low of 29%. Of course, the school claims that mandating mask usage is unenforceable. Bullshit. The problem isn’t that they couldn’t enforce such a requirement; it’s that they won’t. (Side note: it appears that Curmie’s current employer will open for business-as-sort-of-usual in a couple of weeks. But masks are mandatory except in one’s own private office or outside if physical distancing can be maintained. Faculty can ask offending students to leave the classroom, and to call the university police if the student won’t comply.)
Moreover, you can bet that girls at North Paulding will still get sent home for wearing spaghetti straps or short skirts… in Georgia… in August. These deeply sexist dress codes are founded on the principle that boys can’t concentrate if they can see girls’ thighs, midriffs, cleavage, or (OMG!) shoulders, and it’s the girls’ fault. Curmie went to high school in the days of the miniskirt, and can’t remember a time in a 40-year college/university teaching career (including ten years at church-affiliated institutions) when a week would go by without some young woman wearing something that would get her sent home from North Paulding High. Somehow, Curmie and indeed all the other males (and interested others) in the room managed to stay on task. Moreover, I suspect that learning my classmate will have permanent organ damage because I behaved like a privileged asshole might affect my concentration more than a glimpse of female shoulders would. There’s no mask mandate solely because school administrators are idiots, cowards, or sociopaths. (Curmie notes that these terms are not mutually exclusive.)
To be fair to the braintrust at North Paulding, they’re the canary in the coalmine. They’re not more reckless, more hypocritical, more craven, more hubristic, or more disingenuous than hundreds if not thousands of other schools across the country trying to achieve normalcy when that’s just not possible. They’re not worse than the others; they just got there first. And Hannah Watters goes to their school. She repeats the famous invocation of “good trouble, necessary trouble.” Somewhere, John Lewis is nodding and smiling.