The sky above Joseph is quiet and clear—I can’t remember the last time I looked up to hear the sound of a jet engine and see a contrail. The streets are silent. I walk the dog and ride my bike each morning, and the sounds of diesel engines warming up, the steady stream of traffic on Main Street, and school buses and students gunning their rigs up the hill to the high school are all muted or gone.
No kids talking and walking to school either. After a long spring break with local school leaders talking to each other and state officials, of figuring out how to get wi-fi coverage to students and basic learning materials to the youngest, the three school districts in Wallowa County are moving forward.
Some parents are still working in health care and grocery stores, and picking up garbage. Farmers are spring farming, ranchers checking new calves and lambs. Other parents are working from home. Many are not working and worried about paying for food and shelter. We are told that tensions and even abuse are rising in locked-down homes. But all of these parents are now directly involved in their children’s education.
I think we’re lucky to be in these small Oregon towns. Schools and classes are small, and teachers know students, know who needs what kind of help. Some may still fall through the cracks, but imagine being elsewhere! In a recent New York Times article, authors Goldstein, Popescu, and Hannah-Jones report that “teachers in some schools across the country report that less than half of their students are participating in online learning.” While online attendance in several affluent schools reported almost 100 percent participation, it was far lower in low-income schools, which will “further deepen the typical academic achievement gaps between poor, middle-class and wealthy students.”
The affluent will undoubtedly manage this crisis with greater ease than will middle class and poorer students—don’t they always—but all students and families and the country itself will lose educational ground with COVID-19. Everyone will fall behind. No “Red Rover Come Over” and group reading to teach and bond young ones. And how do you teach lab classes without labs? Sing or play in choirs and bands? Act in a play? Compete in track, baseball, or tennis? Some high school and college seniors will not have a graduation ceremony.
Everything was not right with the world before COVID-19. Daily revelations about the disparities in incidences and deaths among African-Americans and American Indians remind us of underlying problems. The polar ice caps continue to melt, and firefighters—some of whom were in Australia fighting fires this winter—prepare for the worst this summer. The world will go on with and after COVID-19. And I’m an optimist, and think and hope that our long-term response to COVID-19 is not back to “business as usual.”
My hope is that we pick up from this crisis like we picked up from the Depression and World War II. The Depression and President Roosevelt gave us Social Security, Workmen’s Compensation, federal insurance on bank deposits, and the Works Progress Administration. Under the WPA, Civilian Conservation Corps put over 8 million men to work, and built more than 4,000 new school buildings, erected 130 new hospitals, laid roughly 9,000 miles of storm drains and sanitary sewer lines, built 29,000 new bridges, and paved or repaired 280,000 miles of roads—miles of them in Wallowa County. In the wake of WW II, the GI Bill gave millions of veterans college educations—and created the middle class.
That “Great America” of the 50s was built on the shoulders of government WPA programs and the GI Bill. Rather than returning to “business as usual,” let’s remember the past and create something better.
Let’s begin with education—for all students, from kindergarteners to grad students—making sure that extra time and teachers catch young ones up, and that college is free or cheap enough for all; that medical school does not mean $300,000 in loans; and that all students—and all Americans—have health insurance and access to care.
Let’s aim some of that college curriculum at getting plastic out of the oceans, at making all air and water cleaner, and at finding homes for the homeless.
And let’s come together with a new CCC, and induct all young Americans into a year of meaningful work in forests, hospitals, rivers, and schools across the country.