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For the Future of American Education During A Pandemic, Look to Africa

School children in Zimbabwe. Source: Giacomo Pirozzi, Panos Pictures

We don’t have to guess at what President Trump’s school reopening policy will get us.  This experiment has already been done.  Just look at sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV/AIDS has wiped out entire generations of teachers.  As early as 2000, a paper published at the University of Zambia noted that “HIV/AIDS (was) creating a host of problems that threaten to overwhelm the very fabric and structure of educational organization, management and provision as we have known it.” Chief among these problems was the disruption in education caused by the illness and death of thousands of school teachers.

In another study nearly a decade later, teachers in South Africa were found to have a higher incidence of HIV infection and faced unimaginable hurdles in their efforts to teach students who were overwhelmed by the death around them:

“As a result of illness and death of their colleagues, teachers find themselves with large class sizes, resulting in an inability to attend to all the learners. When educators teach subjects, they are not well-equipped to teach, the quality of education suffers. The increased number of orphans and vulnerable children in the school system also puts more pressure on educators’ teaching time… Educators indicated that at times they are supporting their learners’ financial, physical, and emotional well-being, instead of providing learners with the quality education that they need.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the many lessons that early AIDS activism can teach us about the current pandemic.  In it, I outlined how anti-science, racist and homophobic ideology has been instrumental in keeping African countries from implementing the best methods to stop the spread of HIV. This has had a devastating impact.  Millions of lives might have been saved with complete, honest information and resources.  Now President Trump wants to force our teachers and students back into the classroom — not for their education, but to win re-election.

It’s a policy that only a madman could contemplate. 

Currently, states with populations mesmerized by misinformation have reached infection rates of Covid-19 that are nothing short of catastrophic.  Meanwhile, our president has threatened to withdraw school funding to push school re-opening.

If you want to destroy what is left of an over-burdened education system, this is an excellent way to do it.  Here’s what an early report on the impact of AIDS illness and deaths found:

Loss through mortality of trained teachers: Imagine a small town in Indiana or a city like Chicago where schools close because there are no teachers left.  This is what happened in many sub-Saharan communities.

Thousands of support staff, administrators and school employees out sick and dying: If you have school-age children (or have ever worked with them), you know that the first thing you need to buy after pencils and paper is Kleenex.  As soon as the kids converge on campus for a new school year, they play and breathe together.  Then they bring home every cold, flu, and virus they run into.  It’s like clockwork and it isn’t just kids and teachers.  Everyone who works in that environment is prone to infections.  What happens if they never come back?

Reduced productivity of sick teachers: Not everyone will die, but many teachers and school personnel will be out sick for weeks and even months.  Others, whose bodies are overwhelmed by blood clots that appear throughout their body may never be able to return to work.

Closure of classes and then schools:  It’s too early to know how many people will finally succumb to this epidemic, but we can extrapolate.  As of this writing, there are 3,761,362 reported cases of coronavirus infection and 140,157 deaths.  That’s approximately 10% of the U.S. population infected with a death rate of nearly 4%.

Last fall, there were about 3.7 million American teachers in K-12 education alone.  But the rate of infection and morbidity will be much higher if these dedicated professionals are forced back into the classroom.  In Zambia, the rate of  teachers infected with HIV was 70% higher than the general population between age 15-49.  If you’re thinking about the numbers, that would be a potential death rate of over 230,000 American teachers.  In the early stages (1998) of Africa’s AIDS epidemic, unqualified teachers had already replaced skilled professionals in many rural areas.

How will school systems cope when tens of thousands of teachers, teaching assistants and other school employees succumb along with students and their families?   In African towns and cities, the loss of staff followed by population decline led to falling demand.  This resulted in a vicious downward spiral:

“It is estimated that one-third of the Zambian children below age 15 have lost a mother or father or both. A standard coping strategy when there is parental death is to take some or all the offspring out of school, largely because of the difficulty the surviving family experiences in meeting school costs. In addition, more than 130,000 households (out of a total of 1,905,000) are headed by children, that is, by a girl or boy aged 14 or less.”

AIDS Orphans in 2012.  Source: Operation Communication

AIDS Orphans in 2012.  Source: Operation Communication

We have enough information about coronavirus to understand that a similar catastrophe could be in store for American families.  In Sweden, 25 doctors and scientists released a letter about the results their “herd immunity” approach achieved stating “The only example we’re setting is how not to deal with a deadly infectious disease.” With the U.S. reporting 71,558 new Covid-19 cases on Saturday alone, we have ample evidence of what happens if we fail to follow expert advice.  The same results were reported over three decades in Africa for the same reason – misinformation.  But unlike HIV/AIDS, which spreads through sexual contact or blood, coronavirus is airborne.  This makes safety practices like wearing masks even more essential.

No question: ignoring solid safety measures to open schools and universities will be catastrophic.

The dangers of pushing teachers to return to work is already visible in places like Arizona, where three teachers took “every precaution” to teach virtual summer school from the same classroom.  All three were infected with coronavirus and on June 26th, Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd died.

Magical thinking will not save our children either.  Last week yet another coronavirus denier, game show host Chuck Woolery tweeted a retraction when reality hit home:

“To further clarify and add perspective, Covid-19 is real and it is here. My son tested positive for the virus,” Woolery tweeted last Monday.  Just days earlier, President Trump had re-tweeted Woolery’s statement that “The most outrageous lies are the ones about Covid-19.  Everyone is lying. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust… I think it’s all about the election and keeping the economy from coming back, which is about the election. I’m sick of it.”  Now that his own child is sick, he’s deleted his Twitter account.

Woolery was not alone in following the president’s rhetoric.  However, by the time his son was infected there was ample evidence that children are not immune. Lauren Fulbrook wrote this Facebook post in late March in which she “emphasized that young children do not have ‘invincibility’ from the virus — and can suffer severe symptoms even without underlying health conditions”:

Source: Lauren Fulbrook via Facebook

“I’ve had to watch my 5yr old son go from having all the energy in the world to not moving, not eating, hardly drinking or urinating,” Fulbrook wrote. “I watched him hallucinating and crying from the headache, being taken to hospital by ambulance to be put in isolation pods and be swabbed for the virus and confirmed positive. He lay in the hospital bed and asked me if he was going to die – as a mother that is heartbreaking.”

 

 

So, what to do?  How can we protect children, educators, school staff and our communities? 

TAMPA, FL – JULY 16: Teachers and administrators from Hillsborough County Schools rallied against the reopening of schools due to health and safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Teachers have found creative ways to protest during our pandemic.  In Arizona, Florida and other sunbelt states hit hard by the spread of coronavirus, teachers delivered a letter with hundreds of signatures to the state capital and staged “motor marches”:

“Inspired by Black Lives Matter demonstrations, hundreds of Arizona teachers… are putting on red t-shirts they last wore in a 2018 strike and driving around cities in cars daubed with slogans like: ‘Remote learning won’t kill us but COVID can!’”

 

 

“We don’t want any children to get this from us, because as a teacher, I don’t want to go to any of their funerals,”   ~ Stacy Brosius, a third-grade teacher who is not prepared to send her three children back to school.

Ignoring the pandemic will not make it go away.  Whether we look to the decades-long disaster of HIV/AIDS in African countries or the current explosion of coronavirus in Sweden and the Unites States, history has also shown that decimating a community or nation of human lives does not help the economy.  It leads to economic ruin.  Just last November, a 15 year study found that “a 1% increase in the prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS in Eastern Africa and West Africa retarded growth in per capita income by 0.64% and 0.47%, respectively.”

If Africa’s 30+ years epidemic experience offers any other important lessons on uncontrolled spread of a deadly virus, we need not look any further than the 12 million children in sub-Saharan Africa orphaned as a result of AIDS.   It isn’t difficult to imagine similar outcomes in Florida and other hot-spot states where infection rates are robbing families of the earning capacity of parents and other hard-working adults.

You don’t have to be a parent or teacher to make a difference. 

Teacher Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd died of Covid-19 on June 26th.  Source: Facebook

Everyone who is concerned about endangering generations of teachers and children can write a letter or send a postcard to your school board, elected officials, and to the White House.  This form of protest is safe and effective – even more so when combined with actions like the motor protests.

It works when millions of us express our frustration and outrage.  Just look at Trump’s new mask policy.  Despite months of misinformation from the president and his favorite pundits on Fox News, today he reversed his position by tweeting that facemasks are “patriotic”.

This is a huge turnaround.  Uber drivers have been attacked by Trump followers who were outraged by the simple request to wear a mask.  But don’t be fooled.  The majority of Americans understand what is happening.  When his poll numbers dropped to a 60% disapproval rate for his handling of the pandemic, the President’s position changed.

Next up: Let’s stop school reopening and approve funding for American families, for our health and everyone’s safety.

 

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