Back to school a much different meaning in 2020

by Roger Moore

The concept known as the “Butterfly Effect” comes from the early 1970s and Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who proposed the possibility that small causes may have momentous effects. Originally connected to weather prediction the term became a metaphor for anything and everything.

Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set up a tornado in Texas? Or, in modern parlance, did the onset of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 (named SARS-CoV-2) first reported by officials in Wuhan City, China, in December 2019 lead to the ongoing existential crisis in the United States in 2020? As we hit August, after months of debate about all things science, politics, healthcare, religion, and poverty – throw in racism, too – it is time for elementary school kids, high school teenagers, and college students to head back to school. To join all levels of faculty that include first-year Oklahoma teachers trying to make ends meet and college professors asked to risk their lives in order to help educate willing students in the middle of a pandemic. It sounds like a script for Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. Or for you modern kids, the Joker.

What August usually means for most in Oklahoma – besides the stifling heat – is putting away the summer posture, of recalling that trip to California or Florida beaches or a few Major League ballparks visited. Perhaps a couple of old favorites – Catch-22 or Gulliver’s Travels or The Boys in the Boat – left the bookshelf again for a good summer read. Summer months also allow you to finally watch that Netflix series you’d been meaning to binge for years. And then, in the blink-of-an-eye, it is August and time to think about school again.

But in 2020 the transition from summer to fall is anything but routine. A virus and its related effects that have killed over *135,000 and included over 3 million cases in the United States – almost 500 cases in Payne County (as of this writing) – has created an unending debate. Folks have been asked to avoid large gatherings, a request that has not been adhered to by plenty. The situation is so dire that the Oklahoma State Fair was canceled for the first time since before World War I, that just about every sporting event, collegiate and professional, has been non-existent since March. Post-Spring Break, most classes nationwide were canceled or moved on-line. To say it has been chaos is a mild understatement.

With no clear path to a safe conclusion, there are many who feel it is time for kids to go back to school. It is hard to imagine the lack of compassion this decision involves. It is widely known that Oklahoma school teachers’ annual salaries are in the bottom third of the US. The value of teachers has nothing to do with economics, however. They are the springboard for creativity, perhaps someone’s muse, or the reason someone decided to seek future degrees in physics or history or English literature. A teacher, or professor, might be the reason someone changed their major as an undergraduate and pursued further degrees, perhaps even a Ph.D. that led to themselves becoming a teacher.

And now they are being asked to put themselves, their families, their colleagues, their students in harm’s way with no clear national syllabus. Some will not, deciding to retire rather than face the unknown, an unknown that was made clear by US Education Secretary Nancy DeVos in a July interview.  

“The key is that kids have to get back to school,” DeVos said. “And we know there are going to be hot spots. And those need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. But the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall. They have been missing months of learning.” The Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines say “If children meet in groups, it can put everyone at risk. Children can pass this virus onto others who have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.” DeVos replied to the reporter’s statement saying those guidelines were just “recommendations.”

Similar “recommendations” led to every sporting event being canceled (or postponed) over the last four months. Throw in the closing of restaurants, bars, and the banning of large gatherings, and instead of the usual summer fun, we’ve seen COVID-19 cases increase. One feature, the wearing of a face covering or some sort of mask in public, has been met with resistance from many, including Donald Trump, the current President of the United States. Stillwater received national attention when Major Will Joyce attempted to fight the good fight but instead had to retract because a minority felt wearing a mask was a hindrance to their freedoms. Those freedoms have put fall sports schedules in jeopardy. Oklahoma State’s first game, against Oregon State, has already been nixed. Imagine if the OSU football coach had come out with a social media post asking folks to wear a mask two months back; it would not have ended COVID-19 but it might have helped save a football season and provided an emotional release for many after months of lockdown.

So, while you shop for notebooks with cartoon characters on the cover, for boxes of colorful crayons, for bright yellow highlighters, remember to throw in a mask or two. And hopefully, somewhere out there is a young and impressionable mind that considers the difficulty of what it is to be a teacher and the repercussions of the decisions adults make. Education, now more than ever, is key to negotiating our way through this maze of uncertainty. That education includes compassion for others, a willingness to sacrifice a few things we’ve grown accustomed to and to work harder than ever toward an ideal that seems to have been misplaced. Who knows, perhaps a decision you make this August could have a ripple effect on your surroundings, local, national, or worldwide.

*Editor’s Note: In the two weeks since this was initially written the number of those who have died as a result of COVID19 in the United States has increased from 135,000 to more than 160,000.