Sunday, May 22

Peter Langella: School, pandemic politics, and the poison of personal responsibility

This commentary is by Peter Langella of Moretown, a public high school librarian.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott decided to veto the pension bill that includes school workers and other public employees on the first day of Teacher Appreciation Week, the day after May Day.

This might have been darkly funny had it not come as part of a multiyear attack on public education through other vetoes and numerous decisions around “choice” and vouchers, and this might not have felt like such a sucker-punch were the country not gripped in unfounded hysteria about inclusive public school curriculum, and this might not have hurt so deeply if we weren’t still in a global pandemic that state leaders have decided to move on from.

Because we are still very much in a global pandemic. Right in one of the epicenters, actually. As of this writing, seven of Vermont’s 14 counties are among the 1.74% of counties nationwide that the CDC has classified as high-risk.

Grafton County in New Hampshire, home of West Lebanon shopping centers and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, is also in this zone. The CDC recommends that all people in these counties, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors in public, yet Gov. Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine have repeatedly made “personal responsibility” their policy instead. 

Even though Covid has disproportionately infected elders, children too young to be vaccinated, Black Vermonters, service industry workers, and those experiencing rural poverty, among others, the collective approach to public health is gone.

We’ve lost the “village versus virus ethos,” as Dartmouth College public health expert Anne Sosin has often reminded us.

In schools, students and staff who are immunocompromised or live with someone who is, students and staff who have an under-5-year-old child at home, and students and staff who still want to practice collective community responsibility (or all of the above!), are left with one-way masking as the only option. 

Cases and hospitalizations are way too high for things to be “normal,” no matter how much some people want them to be. 

It’s unconscionable to me that Vermont school districts were disallowed from having remote options for students and caregivers to choose from this year. Imagine being an immunocompromised student and being told your only options are isolation or infection. 

It’s unconscionable to me that a school superintendent was rebuked by Secretary of Education Dan French last month for following the CDC guidelines and reimposing a mask mandate while their district was in the high-risk zone. 

And, it’s unconscionable to me that Democratic legislative leaders like Senate President Becca Balint and House Speaker Jill Krowinski couldn’t or wouldn’t convince even one committee to hold a remote vote on a statewide mask mandate back in January, when schools and hospitals were in severe crisis because of the Omicron wave. They implemented remote options and masking rules for the Statehouse while school communities were at the mercy of inconsistent masking, selectboard votes, crowded lunchrooms and, again, “personal responsibility.”

With all due respect, there is no way I’ll ever be convinced that congressional candidate Balint will stand up to power brokers in Washington, D.C., on enormous platform items like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, for example, given the above.  

Working in a public school is extremely hard. I’m at a high school, and many teens, as I’m sure you know from experience or headlines, are struggling with mental health. The pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges.

It’s also because of social media and poisonous societal norms very much related to “personal responsibility,” and it’s additionally because many of them want intersectional justice to supplant the plethora of systemic inequities in this state and country, like, yesterday.

They want to reconcile with the truth and create a better future. The United States of America’s founding was based on stolen land, Indigenous genocide, and economic gain on the backs of enslaved peoples. Chattel slavery of Black people was enshrined in our Constitution. Women couldn’t vote for almost 150 years. We still had a legal caste system based on race when my Boomer parents were kids. We’re the only country to use an atomic weapon, including the killing of over 200,000 Japanese civilians. 

Humans have caused potentially irreversible changes to our planet’s climate. 21st-century Presidents locked Latinx and Hispanic kids in cages and banned people from predominately Muslim countries. Girls and women and other people with uteruses are at constant risk of having their reproductive freedoms revoked.

Black and neurodiverse students are suspended and expelled from Vermont’s schools at two to three times the rate of their white and neurotypical peers, respectively. Data from the annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that our LGBTQIA+ students are more likely than their cisgender and heterosexual classmates to report “violence victimization, substance use, and suicide ideation.”

I’m not grandstanding here. This is what my students want to learn about, disrupt and transform. I promise you. Public school curriculum must keep up — it must continue shifting to represent, honor and affirm all races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, abilities, languages, religions, classes, immigration statuses, and more. All children in all Vermont schools deserve access to the same opportunities and experiences. All students deserve to learn and grow and thrive along their path toward self-actualization. Equity must be centered on the way to equality.

I know of little that can be more important than this. 

Which brings me back to pensions in a pandemic. School staff must be supported to be retained. 

By the time you’re reading this, it’s likely the veto has been overridden. There’s more to say, however. This is a very unpopular opinion, but the bill itself isn’t even a win. I’ve been extremely confused by the political messaging about this since the spring of 2021. 

Even though elected officials knew that the state would be awash with unprecedented federal relief funds, Democratic Treasurer Beth Pearce insisted on pushing the message that school workers and other public employees must be required to pay more for less. Even though we have paid our share all along as politician after politician, dating back to former Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, chose to underfund and undermine the collective pot of money’s future health. 

Then, despite their current talking points about being the great champions of school staff and public employees, Sen. Balint and Speaker Krowinski did not stand with us (yet again, though this came before chronologically). They said the situation was extremely complicated. Bills needed to be written. Committees needed to hold hearings. Chambers needed to cross-pollinate ideas and come up with a great compromise.

All they had to say was no, a pension is a promise, and we’re going to figure out a way to keep that promise. They could have said, Governor, if you’re really concerned about workforce development, these are exactly the jobs we need to attract skilled young professionals to Vermont — solid pay, quality benefits, a dignified retirement.

They didn’t say those things. Lots of people then put in lots of work only for school staff and public employees to agree to contribute more for the same benefit. Gov. Scott still vetoed it. He wants to make “personal responsibility” a policy here, too.

I understand all of this — a pandemic, curriculum choices, pensions — is very complex, and I’ve been trying to embrace complexity instead of immediately responding to every news cycle with certainty before I’ve investigated facts, attempted to check my biases, and processed the ramifications, especially for those who are most impacted by the particular issue.

I keep coming back to the same question over and over: Do you believe in public school? 

If your answer is yes (and I hope it is), then I urge you to vigorously recommit some of your advocacy and activism energies toward the concept of a truly inclusive public education — one that is affirming and equitable for all students, one that has healthy, supported employees. Please. 

And if you are someone who is already doing the difficult and necessary work to protect and expand and reimagine this important social foundation, I thank you.

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Tags: Balint, Covid in schools, Dan French, global pandemic, Gov. Phil Scott, Krowinski, pension bill veto, Peter Langella, public schools, statewide mask mandate

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