In the cult movie classic Zoolander, Will Farrell famously shouts, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” Here lately, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills, too.
Things that seem so abundantly self-evident now appear to be missed or, worse, ignored when it comes to this pandemic. Back in March, when businesses and schools were forced to close, we were told it was because of the danger to our health care systems, that the virus was so contagious and so dangerous they could be overwhelmed. Today, after the deaths of more than 140,000 Americans and when cases in many states are higher than ever, that is apparently no longer the primary concern.
Where I live, at the intersection of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, local and regional cases are higher than they ever have been, and our local health care systems are moving medical professionals around to brace for impact. Some predict we will face PPE shortages across the country again this fall, and yet, some of our elected officials — local, state and federal — seem intent on sending students and teachers back for in-person instruction, come hell or high water.
I’ve heard all sorts of arguments about sending children back to classrooms this fall, but I’ve personally found none of them convincing. Here are a few of the most common that seem to appeal to compassion and justice but actually do not:
Children are going hungry. Yes, but that also happened when schools were shut down in March. Tragically, little here has changed. Furthermore, why are we expecting our school systems, which are chronically underfunded, to address what is a societal problem when they are not given the resources needed to adequately tackle that problem and when it is beyond their scope of work?
“I’ve heard all sorts of arguments about sending children back to classrooms this fall, but I’ve personally found none of them convincing.”
Children are in abusive situations. Yes, but they were in those situations in March when schools were shut down. Tragically, little here has changed either. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to such arguments, but if this reason was insufficient to keep schools from closing the first time, why is it sufficient enough to reopen schools now when conditions are worse and more people would die?
This virus doesn’t affect children like it does adults. This argument is proving to be scientifically dubious, but even if it’s correct, what about school employees or children’s families? Won’t they overwhelm our health care systems?
For social and mental health, children need to be back in school. I’m sympathetic to those arguments, but I still don’t see how they outweigh the human costs that in-person instruction will bring.
We just finished with a virtual Vacation Bible School at First Baptist Bristol, and it’s been hugely successful. Last night was the final night. After my wife and children signed off, my 4-year-old son had a meltdown. It wasn’t a behavior-related meltdown. It was emotional. He began crying and wanting to know why everyone left. He wanted to know why he couldn’t see his friends in person anymore. He wanted to know why he couldn’t leave the house and why he couldn’t be around other people. He wants to go back to school, and he wants to go back to church. It was heartbreaking, and a sign of the real emotional toil this pandemic is causing him.
Make no mistake, I am sympathetic to the arguments about the mental, emotional and social health of children. I can’t help but wonder, however, how much greater that mental, emotional and social trauma will be for children if they lose friends, teachers and family members to this virus because they go back to school. I can’t help but wonder how much more mental, emotional and social trauma children will experience if they themselves are left with long-lasting side effects from this virus.
“How are we ‘doing it for the kids’ when we can’t ensure their physical safety or the safety of their families if they return in person?”
How are we “doing it for the kids” when we can’t ensure their physical safety or the safety of their families if they return in person?
A tragedy that’s not being talked about enough is the damage this is doing to families currently. Parents across the country are faced with a myriad of bad choices, and they are extremely stressed because none of their options are good.
Additionally, children from poor families and children in rural areas are being especially harmed. Those parents face the choice of keeping their children home— when they don’t have access to quality internet because of where they live or because of how much they make — or sending their children to school, where they could contract a disease that could potentially kill them or their family members. That families are having to make such a choice isn’t just sinful; it is a moral and societal failing of the highest order.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and in this case, we might see any number of steps that could have been taken at local, state and federal levels to prevent the situation in which we currently find ourselves. Rural and poverty-stricken areas could have been blanketed with high-speed internet. Schools could have been given grants to purchase and loan out technological equipment to their students. Free internet hotspots could have been expanded across the country. Money could have been allocated for additional mental health training for teachers. More counselors and school psychologists could have been hired for students. Training in online education could have been offered for families. School systems could have pushed back their start dates and prepared to begin the year virtually. Few have.
Instead, we’re barreling down the road in a car we secretly know is going to crash. Despite the costs, we’re trying to convince ourselves it won’t be that bad because of our desire to return to “normal.” God help us. Let us pray that I am wrong. Let us pray that I am being an alarmist. Because otherwise, we’re going to be burying lots of children and their teachers in a few months, and those elected officials pushing to resume in-person instruction are going to have an awful lot of explaining to do.
Kris Aaron serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Bristol, Va. He holds the doctor of ministry degree from McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, the master of divinity degree from Mercer and a master of theology degree from Brite Divinity School at TCU. He is married to Clary Gardner Aaron, and they are the parents of two young children.