From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject This Empire Has No Clothes: In the Classroom That Zoom Built
Date May 13, 2020 12:09 AM
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[Today, all we’re left with is a deafening silence that muffles
the sound of so much suffering. The unfolding public health, mental
health, and economic crisis of Covid-19 has laid bare the fragility of
what was.] [[link removed]]

THIS EMPIRE HAS NO CLOTHES: IN THE CLASSROOM THAT ZOOM BUILT  
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Belle Chesler
May 11, 2020
Tom Dispatch
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_ Today, all we’re left with is a deafening silence that muffles
the sound of so much suffering. The unfolding public health, mental
health, and economic crisis of Covid-19 has laid bare the fragility of
what was. _

Perhaps it’s a rare opportunity to acknowledge that our nation’s
public schools should not be left so alone to provide food, mental
health care, and digital connectivity for our nation’s children.
That should be, in a fashion almost unimaginable in Americ, Ryan
Stanton/flickr/cc

 

Do you hear that silence?

That’s the absence of footsteps echoing through our nation’s
public school hallways. It’s the silence of teaching in a virtual
space populated with students on mute who lack a physical presence.
It’s the crushing silence of those who are now missing, who can’t
attend the classroom that Zoom and Google built.

Maybe you heard the shouted pleas of teachers across the country last
year as we walked out of our classrooms and into the streets, begging
for affordable housing
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health care
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and access to equitable funding
[[link removed]]and resources
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for our students? Or maybe you heard the impassioned screams of
frightened kids as they stormed into the streets and onto the news,
demanding safety
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to the threat of gun violence in our nation’s school buildings? Now,
there’s nothing left to hear.

Today, all we’re left with is a deafening silence that muffles the
sound of so much suffering. The unfolding public health, mental
health, and economic crisis of Covid-19 has laid bare the fragility of
what was. The institutions charged with caring for and guiding our
most valuable assets—our children—were already gutted by half a
century of chronic underfunding
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misguided curricular policies that prioritized testing
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over real learning, and social policies that favored austerity over
taking care of
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the most vulnerable members of our society. Now that so many teachers
are sequestered and alone or locked away with family, our bonds of
proximity broken, we’re forced to stare into that void, scrambling
to find and care for our students across an abyss of silence. The
system is broken. The empire has no clothes.

Not so many weeks ago, I used to be a teacher in a sprawling public
high school outside Portland, Oregon. Before the virus arrived, I
taught painting, drawing, ceramics, and filmmaking in three different
studio classrooms. There, groups of students ranging across the
economic, ethnic, religious, racial, and linguistic spectrum sat
shoulder to shoulder, chatting and creating, day after day, year after
year. Music played and we talked.

On some days, the classes were cacophonous and chaotic; on others,
calm and productive. In those spaces, we did our best to connect, to
forge thriving communities. What I now realize, though, is that the
physical space we shared was the only thing truly tying us all
together. Those classrooms were the duct tape securing the smashed
bumper on the wreck of a car that was our public education system.

Now, it couldn’t be more obvious: no one’s going to solve the
problems of our present and near future with the usual solutions. When
desperation leaves us without imagination, clinging to old answers,
scrambling to prop up systems that perpetuated and solidified inequity
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it means missing the real opportunity of this otherwise grim moment.
The "great pause" that is the Covid-19 shutdown has allowed us all to
stare into the void, to see far more clearly just how schools have
long shouldered the burdens of a society that functions largely for
the privileged, leaving the rest of our nation’s children and
families to gather the crumbs of whatever remains.

THE PRIVILEGE OF HOMESCHOOLING

In the first weeks after schools closed across the country, as parents
struggled to "homeschool" their children, memes, rants, tweets, and
strongly worded emails to school administrators popped up across the
Internet. They expressed the frustrations of the moment. Those shared
tales of the laughably insane trials and tribulations of parents
trying to provide a reasonable facsimile of an education to kids
sequestered at home, while still trying to work full time under the
specter of a pandemic, amazed and depressed me.

Television producer and writer Shonda Rimes tweeted
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"Been homeschooling a 6-year old and 8-year old for one hour and 11
minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a
week." Rimes's tweet seemed to encapsulate the absurd reality of life
at home with kids in the time of the coronavirus. As I read her tweet,
I laughed out loud and in utter solidarity with her. A teacher no
less, I, too, was trying and failing spectacularly to oversee the
"education" of an increasingly frustrated and resistant third grader
from home.

For those of us siloed in our privilege—healthy, with plenty of food
stocked away in cupboards, quiet rooms with doors that shut, ample
Internet access, and enough Wi-Fi-enabled devices to share among the
members of our households—our quarantined home life is challenging,
but not impossible. Our daily frustration continues to be a function
of that privilege. For those without it, those who were already living
in poverty or at its brink when the pandemic struck, homeschooling
poses yet another crushing hurdle in life. How can you provide an
education for your children when simply securing food, work, and
shelter is your all-consuming reality?

Meanwhile, as exhausted parents screamed at school districts,
teachers, and administrators on the Internet about providing virtual
learning resources and online curricula to engage students during the
school day, public school officials (at least in my world) were
scrambling to deal with a far more immediate threat: kids going
hungry. What this pandemic promptly revealed was that the most
fundamental and urgent service schools provide to many children is
simply feeding them.

The gravest and most immediate threat to our most vulnerable students
was, and continues to be, hunger. If schools are closed, so is the
critical infrastructure that helps keep our nation’s children fed.
Aside from SNAP (the food stamp program), the National School Lunch
Program is the largest anti-hunger initiative in the country. It feeds
[[link removed]] 29.7 million children on
school days, with an additional 14.7 million children fed thanks to
the School Breakfast Program and more than 6.1 million via the Child
and Adult Care Food Program. And those numbers don’t even include
the informal system of food distribution that teachers often provide
students in their classrooms. On average, teachers spend
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upwards of 300 of their own dollars yearly providing food to students.

So, no wonder that, as soon as Covid-19 closed the doors of our
schools, administrators, teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, bus
drivers, and volunteers across the country mobilized
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on a large—and downright heroic—scale to attempt to keep those
students fed. In the Beaverton school district where I teach, a "Grab
and Go" curbside meal distribution program was quickly set up, making
daily meals accessible to every student in the district. As economic
conditions head for
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Great Depression-level misery, think of these as 2020 versions of the
infamous breadlines
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of that era, only in this case they’re for children (and sometimes
their families).

The responsibility for feeding students was not the only immediate
concern. The adults in our school typically also serve as first
responders for those students. We monitor their moods and listen to
their stories. We notice when kids are struggling emotionally and, as
mandatory reporters, step in when we suspect a child is living in a
perilous or unsafe situation.

In the first weeks after we left our classrooms, calls to Oregon’s
child abuse hotline dropped
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by more than half. Other states across the nation reported
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similar declines. The drop in calls has frightening implications.
Coupled with increasing economic insecurity and social isolation,
rising rates of child abuse are undoubtedly imminent. When teachers,
counselors, and school social workers are no longer able to observe
and communicate openly with students, signs of neglect or abuse are
much more likely to go undetected and unreported.

The closure of our buildings also poses a huge barrier to the normal
support
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of students struggling with mental-health issues. Our children are
already suffering
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from alarming rates of depression and anxiety. Isolating
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them from their friends, peers, mentors, caregivers, and teachers will
only compound their mental-health challenges.

TRYING TO BRIDGE THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

Add the surreal nature of an invisible foe to a lack of clear
directives
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from both the federal and state government and you have a formula for
problems. When we were finally instructed to leave our school, it was
without advanced warning. In my classrooms, half-finished clay
projects littered the countertops, while palettes loaded with acrylic
paint and incomplete canvases were left to desiccate and gather dust
on the shelves.

Students departed without cleaning out their lockers or often even
gathering their schoolwork and books, not to speak of the supplies
they’ll need to complete that work at home. And even though our
students do have access to technology—three years ago, our district
adopted a policy of providing a Chromebook to each student—it soon
became apparent that there were huge obstacles to overcome in
transforming our brick-and-mortar classrooms into virtual spaces. Many
students had, for instance, broken or lost their Chromebooks. Some had
missing chargers. And even many of those who had their Chromebooks
with them at home had limited
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no access to Wi-Fi connectivity.

Trying to reach all my students across that digital divide became the
central focus of my waking hours. I made calls; I texted; I emailed; I
posted announcements in my digital classroom stating that we’d be
reconvening online. Still, none of these efforts
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mattered for the students stuck at home without Wi-Fi or lacking the
necessary devices.

Before our nation’s schools closed, the Federal Communications
Commission estimated that around 21 million people in America did not
have broadband Internet access. According to data collected
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by Microsoft, however, the number who can’t access the Internet at
broadband speeds is actually closer to 163 million. While districts
across the country scrambled to provide mobile hotspots and working
devices to students, teachers like me began the demoralizing and
herculean task of scrapping years of thoughtfully crafted curriculums
in order to provide an entirely new online learning experience. We
stepped into our virtual classrooms with the knowledge that, no matter
how many shiny new digital resources we have at our disposal,
there’s nothing we can do to provide equitable access to education
remotely.

And even if we were to solve such problems, we couldn’t offer the
space or the support
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students need to learn. Kids living in cramped situations will
struggle just to find a quiet place to attend our online classes.
Those whose working parents suddenly need childcare for younger
siblings have sometimes found themselves taking on the roll of primary
caregivers.

Some students whose families were in ever more perilous economic
situations increased their work hours and scrapped the idea of
attending school altogether. And many of our
English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, students, as well as the 14% of
students nationally who require additional "learning supports," are
now in trouble. They’ve been left to navigate a complex web of
digital platforms and new learning approaches without the
individualized attention or frequent checks for understanding that
they rely on from their teachers.

What virtual learning can never stand in for is the moment when a
student leans over and asks me or a peer for help. That simple act of
vulnerability that builds a bridge to another human being may be the
most important moment in any classroom and now it’s gone. In
Covid-19 America, when school kids need help most, they can’t simply
lean over and ask for it.

THE TIME TO PIVOT

Today, I teach from my kitchen, my dining room, or the floor of my
bedroom. I stare across the digital abyss into the pixelated faces of
just a handful of students. It’s impossible to read their emotions
or body language. Even when I unmute them, most choose not to speak.

Each day, fewer of them show up to class. Sometimes, students turn off
their videos, and I speak only to a sea of black rectangles, the white
text of the student’s name the sole indicator of his or her presence
in my new classroom. Not surprisingly, our sessions together are
stilted and awkward. I try to make jokes and connect, but it’s
impossible to replicate online the intimacy of a face-to-face
interaction. The magic of what was, of 25 to 40 students working
cohesively in community, is lost.

And in the darkest hours of the early morning, when I wake with a
start, crushing anxiety pushing on my chest, I think about all the
third graders unable to participate in my daughter’s
distance-learning classroom. I wonder about the students I’ve still
been unable to reach—the ones who haven’t responded to my emails
or completed any assignments, and whose faces I never see online.
Where are they? How are they? I have no way of knowing.

Our world no longer looks the same. This pause, which has caused, and
will continue to cause, so much suffering may also be a gift, offering
a shift in perspective and a chance to pivot. Perhaps it’s a rare
opportunity to acknowledge that our nation’s public schools should
not be left so alone to provide food, mental health care, and digital
connectivity for our nation’s children. That should be, in a fashion
almost unimaginable in America today, the role of the larger society.

Now is not the time to be silent but to raise our voices, using any
privilege we may have, be it in time, money, or simply access, to
demand major changes both in how all of us think about our American
world and in the systems that perpetuate such inhumane and
unconscionable disparities for so many.

There is no way to continue putting yet more duct tape on that smashed
bumper of a public education system that was already such a wreck
before the coronavirus arrived on these shores. Nor is this the time
to retreat into our silos, hoarding privilege along with toilet paper
and hand sanitizer, too cowardly to demand more for all the children
in this country. It’s time instead to reach out across the six feet
of social-distancing space that now divides us all and demand more for
those who aren’t able to demand it for themselves.

BELLE CHESLER [[link removed]] is a
visual arts teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

© 2020 TomDispatch.com

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