Rethinking Education during Coronavirus

On March 11th 2020, the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) had become so widespread, impacting humans across the entire globe, it was officially labeled a pandemic. The ensuing discourse in the United States highlighted many of the longstanding social issues plaguing our society. However, this discourse has yet to move into action for America’s top decision makers beyond a small stimulus check and invasion of Zoom meetings. With over 25 million unemployed, 20 million facing evictions as September nears, and countless deciding which bills will go unpaid, the economic instability Americans experience provides us with little reason to believe the situation will improve in coming months — or even years.

For many leaders across the country, reopening schools is believed to be the best avenue for “getting back to normal” — despite the potential health risks to students, employees, and community members. Additionally, “normal” was almost 1 in 6 U.S. children living in poverty and education not existing as an avenue to alter that — but I digress. Colleges and universities across the country are reopening their doors as I write. Academic and higher-ed analyst Jeffery Selingo pointed out earlier this month that college staff are being left out of the conversation surrounding reopening, despite doing the brunt of the preparatory work. This unequal treatment has persisted throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. While full-time university professors and administrators continued to work from home as the outbreak struck, many staff were furloughed.

“About half of the colleges that enacted layoffs did so only for staff”

— Jeffery Selingo, The Atlantic

College staff are essential for everyday operations and allow for faculty to allocate their time teaching and producing knowledge. During the pandemic, college staff are also charged with preparing to reopen for Fall semester, which places them in a vulnerable situation. However, like most lower-skilled workers, staff are left of of the decision-making process, undervalued, and viewed as expendable by those they are paid to serve, in this case — administrators.

Colleges’ responses to the COVID-19 outbreak highlights the continual exploitation of college staff, and that of the entire working class. As laborers, we are valuable provided that we our labor creates a surplus for those who provide our paycheck. When we aren’t, employers have no use for us. Should we be surprised that the lower-wage workers, such as college staff, are being put at higher risk than the rest? Has there ever been a point in time that lower-wage workers were not viewed as expendable?

Ashley Fetters also contributes to this conversation by considering the problems of reopening K-12 schools during the pandemic. She provides parents and decision makers with some intriguing alternatives — at least at first glance. As we all [should] know by now, COVID-19 spreads at higher rates indoors and when people are talking. This inherently makes the previous mode of schooling difficult — especially with already oversized classes that have been spoken about for decades (which disadvantage low income and minority students — consistent with the current state of schooling in America).

Although attending school in-person is a major public health risk, Fetters points out that reopening K-12 schools this Fall connects parents with needed resources (food, medical services, etc.) and cheap child care, which is a permit to get back to doing what adults rely on to obtain the necessities of life — selling their labor.

Without the ability to sell labor, most individuals cannot obtain the material needs for life.

Among the different “creative” solutions Fetters examines are a nationwide compassionate-leave policy, utilizing existing after school programs, and having students work in small pods outside or spread classes throughout various unused meeting spaces across their cities. However, as Fetters notes, all of these solutions require a large increase in resources. Although we live in the most resource rich society in the history of the world, decisions are made as though resources are scare — except when it comes to the military and preventing excessively large and destitute corporations from going belly up. This makes really restructuring schools a difficult, if not impossible, task.

Beyond cheap child care and material support, schooling (specifically in-person) is the primary avenue for learning about the culture, ideology, values, and behavioral norms in our society — socialization. One norm it teaches us is how to engage with consumer culture and to become a dutiful laborer.

Do we need to continue to learn how to labor?

Resulting from automation, 20 million manufacturing jobs alone have been eliminated since 1987, and up 73 million more could be destroyed in the next ten years. Regardless of whether or not the jobs of 25 million currently unemployed Americans will return, the advent of the microprocessor chip in the early 1970s has fundamentally changed the relationship between labor and production, the basis of our economic system and human society as a whole. In many ways, humans are no longer needed as laborers — just as humans no longer need horse labor. Business owners and innovators are nowable to circumvent human labor. Although many have hope that new jobs will be created as automation takes place, this goes against the most basic capitalistic principle — produce everything at the lowest possible cost. Folks, we are living through a paradigm shift as significant as humans have ever seen — we must prepare!

How do we prepare for a society where selling labor will no longer be the avenue to acquire our needs?

If school is the primary source of socialization, in a society that expects us to labor in order to obtain the resources required for life (food, clothing, shelter — not to mention happiness, love, prosperity, etc.), what then is the role of schooling in job-scarce but resource-rich society where selling labor can no longer support ourselves? I am not sure anyone has the answer to this question, but adjusting education to only meet the immediate changes is shortsighted, unimpactful, and frankly irresponsible.

The COVID-19 outbreak has required each of us drastically change our daily lives and has provided us with the potential to have an entirely new perspective of all aspects of our society and way of life. However, it seems as though most people are rushing to get back to just the way things were pre-outbreak. However, as those calling for drastic changes to America’s criminal (in)justice system following the murder of George Floyd, small reforms are no longer going to cut it. The People want lasting change and an end to the devaluing of individual’s lives.

Our future is uncertain. This uncertainty has been amplified by the COVID-19 outbreak and our future remains in question. An unquestionable reality is that our society is not working for all Serious and fundamental changes need to be made in order to be on the right side of history. We must restructure our schools to meet the needs of the future, not that present.

Our society has an abundance of resources — that do not benefit the majority. In fact, the abundance in the United States of America, and throughout the world, benefits a small group of highly privileged people that continue to pursue profit over people, luxury over lives, while disregarding the people and the planet. In my humble opinion, the way resources are distributed is the most alarming change needed in order to bring about a society that makes any sense whatsoever.

We need to harness the frustration people are having during this uncertain time and channel that energy into lasting change — not small reforms. This can start with education by making lasting changes to the entire structures — not small and easily implementable reforms.

What we are learning is much more important than where we are learning. What does it mean to teach our youth to become laborers when they may not ever have a job? If we are not educating our youth about how to analyze their own society, learn from the past, envision a new world, and empower them to enact that vision, we are not just doing a disservice them. It puts the next several generations at a disadvantage with harmful effects.

Right now we have an opportunity to correct the course of history. Our world is rapidly changing. We cannot be reactionary We must be revolutionary. If we don’t act fast and build power by organizing the masses of The People, our lives will move from expendable to expended. If we don’t begin to create new systems and institutions based on a vision for the future, not the past, we will do nothing more than survive — I want more than to survive.

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