Yesterday I was talking to some Abrome Learners when one of them mentioned that Texas Governor Greg Abbott was about to make an announcement of some sort. I immediately thought to myself, “bad news.” Not because I knew the content of what he was going to say, but because he has consistently used high profile, public announcements to score political points in ways that usually harm those with the least political and economic power. I then jumped on a call with some remote Learners, and by the time I got off I had gotten the notification that Abbott was lifting the statewide mask mandate, and later learned that all businesses would be able to operate at 100% capacity beginning next Wednesday. This was not bad news, this was terrible news.
Ever since the beginning of this pandacademic we have watched in abject disappointment at the absence of leadership and the abuse and misuse of power by so-called leaders in this nation from the local to the federal; public, private, and non-profit. Time and again the people who have had the most influence and power have opted for the easier wrong instead of the harder right. This is not a slam on Republicans only, because Democrats are guilty as well. In the United States, the opportunity to rally the base to come out to vote is more important than making decisions that make everyone better off. In the United States, the financial health of corporations is more important than human lives. In the United States, being ‘reasonable ‘means kowtowing to irate and irrational demands that put everyone at risk, while standing firm in defense of those who are most vulnerable is deemed ‘radical.’
At Abrome, we chose to put the welfare of the community first. Not just the Abrome community (although, sadly, that alone would make us an outlier among educational institutions) but also the broader Central Texas community because we understand that all of our lives are interconnected. In a pandemic, each additional infection has the potential to lead to a superspreader event or a mutation that can impact thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of lives down the line — particularly in highly overdispersed diseases such as Covid-19. Last March we extended spring break so that we could further evaluate the situation, and then chose to stay remote post-spring break. On April 1st, with no hope that the pandemic would come under control by the end of the academic year, we closed indefinitely.
Over the coming months we pored over as much research and guidance as we could to figure out if it was possible to bring Learners and Facilitators together in September 2020 while preventing the spread of the disease and being in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable to the pandemic. By June it was largely understood that this was a disease that spread through droplets (and most likely aerosols), and that the best way to minimize the risk of spread (other than staying at home) was to go outdoors, wear a mask when near others, and never congregate in large numbers. That informed our pandemic reopening plan that had us meeting wholly outdoors, only in physically distant small groups, and always masked up when near each other. The only exception to this was at the highest levels of community spread, when we would stay remote.
Our approach should have been copied by every school in the country, yet it was copied by virtually none. Instead, schools (that were being bullied by politicians, parents, and businesses) mostly chose to focus on coming back together again inside classrooms. They could not decouple the notion of schooling from the schoolhouse, so they engaged in pandemic theater: doing temperature checks at the front door, putting electrical tape on the floor to guide traffic, repeatedly disinfecting surfaces, and setting up plexiglass barriers. Schools with stronger teachers unions were able to stay remote despite the bullying that was coming at them. But as the pandemic wore on, the will to hold firm began to gave way. After New Year’s, during the worst stage of the pandemic, almost every school in Central Texas was operating in-person or in a hybrid fashion, against the explicit recommendations of public health officials. In fact, other than Abrome, the only school that I know of that continues to refuse to reopen their facility is the other Self-Directed Education community in Austin, Clearview Sudbury School. Maybe there is something about Self-Directed Education that centers … community.
Despite the insufficient efforts of schools to support students, teachers, and staff, and prevent the unnecessary spread of the disease, and in spite of the many attempts to waive off the risk of the pandemic by politicians, at least Texas did the bare minimum with a mask mandate and capacity constraints. Yes, I know that some states did even less, so technically not the bare minimum. Let’s say it is the bare minimum if one acknowledges that Covid-19 is more dangerous than the seasonal flu. And even though the mask mandate was effectively optional in much of the state, and that the capacity constraints had ridiculously high triggers, at least it gave those ‘leaders’ who were too afraid to insist on the most basic safety practices on their own an excuse to do so with the backing of the state. Sadly, the governor also prohibited local jurisdictions from demanding higher levels of safety practices, so even the bare minimum was not necessarily a net positive as it prevented many higher density local governments from doing more than the bare minimum. But at least there was a floor. Until yesterday afternoon.
By any rational standard, “opening the state 100%” is foolish, premature, dangerous, and homicidal. Just because infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are all decreasing does not mean that the pandemic is over. In fact, cases have plateaued. Just because vaccination rates continue to rise does not mean that the pandemic is over. We are nowhere near herd immunity. And new variants of the virus such as B.1.1.7. are much more infectious and seemingly more deadly. Schools across the state were already needlessly bringing millions of students and hundreds of thousands of teachers and staff together indoors for hours a day. Now we get to add restaurants and bars to the mix. Unmasked.
But what would we expect from a state that left their residents to freeze to death during the worst winter storm in a generation? What would we expect from a governor that threatens to defund any city that dares to “defund the police” (i.e., reallocate resources from policing to services that actually help people)? To be disappointed with Governor Greg Abbott’s announcement to lift the statewide mask mandate and to permit businesses to operate at 100% capacity would have required us to have at least a sliver of faith that he would not eagerly endanger the lives of Texans for political gain.
Our nation refuses to own up to the most harmful aspects of its history, and it eagerly pushes forward without any unifying ethical belief system. We cannot depend on the institutions of society to take care of the people of society, or to shape a healthier society. We must continue to choose the harder right instead the easier wrong. If we do not, who will? We need to prioritize community over convenience, and people over profits. At Abrome, we will continue to wear masks. We will continue to stay outdoors. We encourage every school and business to do the same.