Social Distancing Without a Social Safety Net: How Shutdowns Came to My Child’s Fragile School Community

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Saturday morning I opened Facebook and promptly burst into tears. On 24 hours’ notice, Conservatory of Music students at Lawrence University, which my older son attends, had staged a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah and posted a video. Not that you could tell from the crescendo filling the historic Memorial Chapel, but it was the first time the current orchestra and choirs had played together.

It will also be the last time. One day this week, I will drive across central Wisconsin and onto Lawrence’s campus. I won’t be allowed to get out of my car. Campus staff will help my son load what he will need between now and next fall, and we will drive home.

We’ll do this in one trip, without stops at any of the places that have become “ours” over the past three years. The girlfriend Royce has been hand-in-pocket with since his first week on campus will get in her own car and head to a different city. They’ve built a cozy nest for themselves at school, making the retreat particularly painful.

Watching the online video of the young musicians gathering to send something beautiful into the world crystallized some things I did not realize I was keeping at bay in the crush of practical decisions that consumed my week.

There are my people, of course: My 82-year-old mother, holed up in her condo, provisioned and weaning herself off of CNN. My high school senior, here while her other parent, confined to his own house, rides out what he’s been told is not COVID-19. I’m a salaried telecommuter, so adjusting to all this is immeasurably simpler for me than for most people.

My daughter has been home — remember, what was it, yesterday, when we felt obliged to add, “out of an abundance of caution”? — but my mind has been at her school. I am chair of the board of a charter school in Minneapolis that serves more than 300 middle and high schoolers. Ninety-five percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

A couple dozen are homeless — the number fluctuates within a population like ours. Some are fending for themselves, their parents having been deported. A staggering number have disabilities.

So, yeah, we have families where mom and dad can’t stay home to oversee distance learning — or ensure that in their boredom, teenagers don’t go out and gather anyway. But we also have students who can’t afford to stay home from their own jobs. Some send remittances to relatives in other countries. Some of our babies have babies themselves.

How do we distance socially without a social safety net?

The past week has been surreal. The slow trickle of guidance from authorities created a vacuum. And as first other districts and then states lengthened spring break or closed altogether, anxiety swelled within it.

The first firm state guidance came midweek, seeming initially impossible. Schools were to stay open and take precautions, including maintaining a six-foot distance between people. I struggled to see how we could accomplish that, given the warren of tight spaces we occupy in an old print shop.

Food insecurity, the topic of so many headlines, is one of the easier issues to address. From there, it’s a labyrinth. Schools are required to maintain a full calendar. Our hourly-wage staff — paraprofessionals, front office folks and drivers — need to support their own families whether school is open or not. It’s not even a pale comparison, but last year here in Minnesota, the Legislature had to pass a bill to hold schools harmless, financially and otherwise, for an excess of snow days.

Our school is technology-rich, so the prospect of distance — within our cramped confines or in semi-quarantine — was less intimidating than for others. By week’s end, our educators had created a series of contingency plans, including going to a staggered schedule, with kids alternating days in the building and online. Allowing for those six feet would be much easier with only half of each grade physically present.

Hotspots for families that don’t have internet were purchased and Chromebooks sent home. Classroom apps were downloaded so kids can do schoolwork on their phones. Plans were made for serving students with disabilities and those who can’t afford an interruption in mental health support.

By the time school let out Friday, there was a solid plan. The weekend brought an agonizing ticktock of waiting to learn whether we could implement it. Sunday morning brought a statewide school closure, the days that to us felt like delay having been spent creating what Gov. Tim Walz called the “most comprehensive plan for what school closing looks like, of any state in the nation.”

Schools have time to plan to transition to remote learning, as well as a state toolkit for doing so. Since we can’t afford for health care workers and first responders to have to choose between going to work and supervising their kids, schools have been asked to care for their children.

I was proud to realize our teachers already had checked all the big boxes.

But of course they did. They know our kids, the blessing of tight relationships. Given the range and the complexity of the need we confront, they are problem-solving ninjas.

And it is the thought of those relationships at least on pause, if not strained in ways we can’t yet imagine, that broke my heart as I listened to the Lawrence conservatory’s hastily arranged concert. For me, to be truly educated means developing one’s gifts in collaboration with others, among other things. It’s been the greatest privilege of my life to watch my son create a rich and full life for himself, out in the world.

For months, my heart has been full to bursting thinking about our first Signing Day, when our school’s founding class — young people whose odds are long indeed — reveal their college or other postsecondary berth to the community. The parents who would show up and cheer themselves hoarse could imagine their future grandchildren’s bettered circumstances.

My own daughter, who has autism and a fistful of college acceptances, was to be among them — a trailblazer as higher ed begins to embrace neurodiversity. I’ve been pinching myself all winter that she will have the same opportunities as her brother.

It’s unclear as of this writing whether Signing Day — and graduation and so many other milestones — will now be observed virtually or in real life. I know we will have losses, no matter how hard we try to keep anyone from falling through the cracks.

My fear as I sit here listening again to the conservatory students — taking a moment to send art out into the world during doubtless the scariest week of their lives — is that for our most fragile children, the odds of equitable access to the opportunities they will need if we are to repair our society just got dramatically longer.

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