Schools Still Need Virus Vigilance

Safety first. 

As children, that motto was drilled into our minds. Whether we were crossing a street, learning how to ride a bicycle, or interacting with strangers, we were told to prioritize our personal security. If we behaved recklessly, then we knew that there might be consequences to our well-being.  

To improve public schools’ pandemic preparedness, Hawai’i Department of Education officials should remember those lessons. 

While our state continues to recover from the latest COVID-19 surge, we are learning more about the Delta variant’s impact on kids. During the summer, health experts reported that youth accounted for as many as 25 percent of total cases tabulated throughout the nation. A total of over 4,100 cumulative cases involving students and staff have been reported by the DOE since July 1, 2021. 

Though case counts are steadily dropping, concerns are still being raised by parents and educators about the capacity of schools to prevent potential outbreaks. Yet, Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi continues to declare that the threat of campus-based transmission is minimal. 

It is time to put public safety before political convenience. Instead of repeatedly claiming that there is nothing for our schools to worry about, the DOE should take proactive steps to thwart future viral spread and strengthen public confidence in the department’s pandemic response. 

To begin, the interim superintendent should immediately engage in impact bargaining with the Hawai’i State Teachers Associations and other public sector unions to finalize a memorandum of understanding that covers COVID safety practices. At recent Board of Education meetings, teachers and community members have described numerous protocol violations, from mask mandates not being enforced to social distancing precautions being abandoned. 

HSTA and the DOE negotiated an agreement during the previous school year that established clear accountability procedures for enforcing safety guidelines. Updating that arrangement for the current year would ensure that breaches of health regulations are taken seriously when they are reported to school administrators. 

Additionally, the department should accelerate its “Operation Expanded Testing” program. Over 160 schools have signed up for the initiative, which expands screening to both students and school staff. Only approximately 60 schools had begun conducting tests as of September, however, in part due to supply shortages. Broadening access to testing is essential in diagnosing the extent of COVID transmission throughout Hawai’i’s public learning system, even as the state’s overall case count declines.

DOE leaders have hundreds of millions of dollars remaining from the department’s American Rescue Plan appropriation. In addition to plugging budget holes and boosting students’ social and emotional learning, the department should spend these funds on augmenting school-based COVID testing programs and amplifying distance learning opportunities for families that are concerned about campus safety risks. 

Finally, when the COVID vaccine is approved for 5-to-11-year-old children, the DOE should work closely with healthcare professionals to facilitate vaccination clinics on as many elementary school campuses as possible. Minors are still contracting the virus at elevated levels and can easily spread it to their neighbors, even if they are asymptomatic. Quickly vaccinating our keiki will prevent them from continuing to be sources of communal transmission, particularly in school districts with lagging vaccination rates. State leaders proclaim that this is their intent, but the program’s implementation must avoid the red tape and bureaucratic roadblocks that have impeded other COVID strategies.

Hawai’i appears to be turning a corner in its battle against the virulent Delta strain of the contagion. As we have repeatedly witnessed, though, the COVID virus is unpredictable. We cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into complacency by positive trends.  We must remain vigilant. And we must reinforce our public education system’s medical resilience, so that our schools are places at which knowledge spreads faster than the virus. 

So Much Left To Learn

Twenty years ago, American naïveté was hijacked.

Before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the United States thought of itself as impervious. Politicians believed that the fall of the USSR had resolved all grand ideological debates. Commentators predicted that democratic capitalism would consume the globe in short order. Even scholars talked about the “end of history,” which exalted “Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Any lingering devotion to the idea that the United States’ preferred forms of governmentality were ascendant came crashing to the ground on 9/11. Far from being perched near the apex of a neoliberal teleology, America found itself reeling from the sudden realization that its $700 billion per year’s worth of military might did not guarantee the nation’s eternal security.

As advertisements showcasing fun-loving families at McDonald’s were replaced with images of planes colliding with skyscrapers on our television screens, the U.S. was thrust into the realm of the uncanny, where the homogeneity of America’s national identity was suddenly destabilized. To borrow from the Bulgarian-French psychoanalytical philosopher Julia Kristeva, a “paradoxical community” began to emerge, “made up of foreigners who are reconciled with themselves to the extent that they recognize themselves as foreigners.”

Ruptures in the U.S.’s security imaginary should have prompted mass existential reflection about the exploitative foundations of America’s obsession with empire. Sadly and at great cost (both in lives and public funding), the nation instead doubled down on its imperial fantasy, with former President George W. Bush launching two wars in the Middle East while urging citizens to “get down to Disney World in Florida,” and “take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

“Don’t let the terrorists scare you away from Walmart,” we were told. Shopping uplifts the private marketplace, that most sacrosanct of American institutions and the architectural symbol of which had just violently collapsed. At no time was the connection between the pursuit of global economic domination and the turn-of-the-century American character called into question.

At no point were the consequences of organizing a society around the worldwide promotion of late stage capitalism reexamined. Though our country’s geopolitical grandiosity lay shattered at our feet, we never had a prolonged discussion about the need to forge new forms of solidarity, allyship, and community that are essential to empowering subjugated voices and advancing international unity.

Money was all that mattered. That was the American way.

Two decades later, the U.S.’s crisis response is still driven by greed. Approximately 41 million Americans have contracted COVID-19 since the coronavirus touched our shores, resulting in nearly 660,000 deaths. Entire swaths of the country, particularly in the southern states, are battling unprecedented case loads and hospitalization rates. Yesterday’s nationwide case count equaled 176,427 new infections, a number that is roughly 44 times higher than the total number of cases experienced by New Zealand during the entire pandemic.

Are we following the Kiwi policies of investing in a green economy, funding an arts recovery, and shuttering businesses to protect public health? No. Here, senators who are disproportionately empowered by Congress’s broken policymaking rules, like stalwart fossil fuel defender Sen. Joe Manchin, are undermining efforts to assist financially vulnerable families and address the climate crisis, no matter what the cost may be to people and the planet.

Pediatric cases are currently surging in the U.S., accounting for 25 percent of new infections. Yet, the possibility of schools returning to distance learning is slim because education systems are viewed as the country’s primary form of childcare for American workers. Even the Biden administration has called for in-person learning to continue, despite evidence that some large school districts, such as Hawai’i’s, are willfully violating federal safety guidelines.

We are literally sacrificing our children to boost corporate profits.

After 9/11, you would think that Americans would be more leery of human sacrifice. Many of us are, but too few of our leaders are listening. The situation is eerily similar to the days after the assault at Ground Zero, when the voices of those crying out for peace were muffled by those clamoring for vengeance. Hundreds of thousands of souls died in the combat that defined the aftermath of the fall of the Twin Towers, in wars that U.S. leaders are only today bringing to a close.

We still have time to rescue a commitment to communal empathy from our collective trauma. We still have a chance to thwart a worsening tragedy by putting human lives before dollar signs. If we steer our ship of state back toward the public interest, then in twenty years we will do more than memorialize a senseless loss of life. We will remember this era as a time when we pursued a politics of compassion like our lives depended on it.

Whether we have learned it yet or not, our lives, in fact, do.

Humanity Needs a Reset

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Finally.

For more than a year, global society has battled a planetary pandemic. Even for those of us who have been spared infection by COVID-19, the virus’s social symptoms have been a persistent challenge. My home of Hawai’i has been besieged by an economic downturn that yielded the U.S.’s highest unemployment rate and is threatening to leave thousands of families houseless when the state’s eviction moratorium expires.

Crisis calls to Imua Alliance, the nonprofit sex trafficking victim service provider for which I serve as executive director, spiked by 330 percent last year, as survivors of sexual servitude were forced to shelter in place with their abusers. An analysis published in Journal of Radiology last August, moreover, found that the proportion of women who endured physical abuse was 80 percent higher during the pandemic than in the three earlier years put together. Researchers also concluded that the injuries inflicted upon victims were significantly more severe than in prior years. The sun-streaked beaches of paradise have a dark side.

From communal health to economic insecurity to gender violence, the coronavirus has revealed our collective inability to grapple with the most pressing issues pestering our present moment. Even our efforts to end the pandemic are sullied by structural inequality. Vaccination access varies widely in the international community, with low- and middle-income countries struggling to finance vaccine purchases, while wealthier governments dither over donating extra doses. World leaders recently announced a plan to share one billion vaccine doses to impoverished areas, but we have to ask: why did it take this long?

COVID-19 may be the most dramatic “teachable moment” in recent memory, from which we can learn that business as usual is the business of destruction. Unfortunately, many governments are doubling down on the status quo. In Hawai’i, for example, state leaders have rushed to reopen the visitor industry, repeatedly undermining the safety blueprint they designed to guide the islands’ recovery strategy. Over 629,000 visitors arrived in Hawai’i in May, giving a boost to the state’s tax collections. Yet, policymakers failed to advance measures to diversify the local economy during this year’s legislative session, despite residents’ resounding discontentment with being financially dependent on an industry that ravages the climate and is prone to collapse during times of crisis.

While coronavirus may have been a once-in-a-hundred years event, the inept response to the pandemic undertaken in many “wealthy” nations is a direct result of institutional neglect. Instead of taxing corporate profits to pay for universal healthcare, the United States has allowed income inequality to grow to historic levels, with billionaires banking over $1.2 trillion dollars since March of last year. Rather than include gender analysis in the policies that it promotes in response to infectious disease outbreaks, the World Health Organization has advanced healthcare frameworks and monetary models that prioritize pharmaceutical companies’ bottom lines over the well-being of the developing world.

One of the most salient examples of pandemic-related inertia is the global reaction to COVID-19’s impact on the climate crisis. Government lockdown policies reduced carbon emissions by as much as 7 percent during 2020, according to the Global Carbon Project. The clear skies were temporary, however, as the industrial world quickly returned to its polluting ways once the lockdowns ended and economic engines began roaring once more, with fossil fuels flowing through their gas tanks. Piers Forster, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds, recently penned an article for the BBC suggesting that the coronavirus’s mass experiment in decarbonization produced environmental impacts that were not only impermanent, but negligible. Forster wrote, “Looking further ahead to 2030, simple climate models have estimated that global temperatures will only be around 0.01C lower as a result of COVID-19 than if countries followed the emissions pledges they already had in place at the height of the pandemic.”

If left unchecked, climate change could generate economic calamities and casualty counts that vastly exceed the devastation of COVID-19. We proved during the pandemic that we can adopt a more sustainable way of being, though, if we’re forced to do so. We shouldn’t need shelter-in-place orders to induce environmental consciousness. We should be able to summon the sanity necessary to advance comprehensive plans to protect the planet. As with the inaccessibility of public health systems in indigent and remote areas, inadequacy of broadband networks to support the rush to teleworking, and impotent fiscal safety net afforded to dormant workforces, the fissures cleaved in the social contracts that govern our lives point toward one end: neoliberalism is a plague that threatens our survival.

Capital markets are subsuming our existence under their control. If politics is the repartitioning of what is deemed sensible, intelligible, and legitimate within a social order, however, then the biggest danger we face in the era of constant calamity may be the accelerating depoliticization of the public sphere. Private profiteers are adept at turning democratic struggles into commodifiable conflicts, selling us an illusion of social cohesion for the cost of our political power. For the sake of our future, it is time to take our power back.