The rearrangement of life when survival and health are in doubt is as startling as it is swift. Necessities come into sharper focus. Survival becomes the goal. All else is secondary or inconsequential. When my daughter was diagnosed with a chronic illness four years ago, our priorities changed in an instant. The typical concerns a parent has for their child were boiled down to “I just want my daughter to survive.” Preserving her health and stopping the progression of her disease filled my every waking moment. This is all instinctual. When life is threatened, we focus on survival. This is the concept behind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And it’s through this lens that we need to view the risks and benefits of returning to school this year.
Abraham Maslow theorized that human survival can be categorized by five basic needs: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self actualization. The Hierarchy of Needs posits that some needs can only be met when the lower needs are satisfied. Survival supersedes all other needs. Safety matters more than thriving. Health matters more than pleasure. Under normal circumstances, these needs and wants are calculated on an individual level. Assessments are made with little impact on our neighbors and community. But how do we decide which needs are prioritized when we’re experiencing a mutually shared viral threat?
We can do this the same way parents of kids stricken with a devastating disease do. You prioritize surviving above all else. You get creative with ways to make surviving be as pleasant and enriching as possible. You accept, very quickly, that normal is not an option. Not now at least. You adapt. And you tell yourself over and over that this will make you all stronger in the long run. As we consider returning to school, the Hierarchy of Needs is no longer an individual determination. It is communal. To be a safe community, the wants of some cannot be allowed to come at the expense of the health of others.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of leadership, this is the sticky point. The muck of inequities in our communities is stuck to all of us. And it’s hard to ignore when we’re making decisions about what is best for our children.
There are the students who need to be in school for vital services they can only get in person. There are kids who live in homes that are unsafe, homes with no internet, homes with no food. Their needs are more crucial than the child who misses their friends. Their needs should take precedent over the parents who just want their child to have a “normal” school year. There are teachers who are worried about getting sick, dying, or passing it along to their loved ones. There are families who have young children at home and have to work. These are the needs our communities need to be prioritizing. Triage the community, assess who will suffer the most, and take care of them first.
Instead, many Governors and legislators are more concerned about the appearance of normal. And they have put the burden on school officials and teachers and parents to make up for their lack of leadership. Measures that could have been taken to prepare schools better, to ensure the most at-risk students were prioritized, to lessen the spread in the community, were put aside for “normal.” And normal is a luxury we can’t afford right now.
In the weighing of needs when it comes to going back to school during a pandemic, we need to be clear eyed about the situation. Your children’s health and safety is first. The health and safety of their teachers and friends and neighbors is first. All else is secondary. Sound extreme? Ask yourself why the NBA cancelled it’s season last Spring. Why Disney closed it’s parks for months. Why most companies went to remote work models, restructuring how they do business. These are crisis actions. Yet we’re acting as if going to school will be a breeze. A few plexiglass barriers and shuffling around desks will take care of what the most advanced and wealthy corporations couldn’t. Google has shut down their offices until Summer of 2021, but sure, your neighborhood school that is already overcrowded and underfunded will be fiiiiiine.
We have been failed. We have been failed during a deadly worldwide pandemic. And now we’re left to make the hard decisions none of us feel equipped to make. I didn’t feel equipped to decide on treatments and mental healthcare and schooling when my child was diagnosed. I was drowning in terrifying unknowns. But one thing I knew was that pretending like everything was fine would only do more damage. Proceeding as if a horrible disease wasn’t ravaging her body would have been neglectful at best. And right now, we’re dealing with an unknown virus. One that is showing us different information every day. It’s ok if you don’t know exactly what to do. You didn’t choose any of this. But how we deal with it, how we share a common concern for our neighbors and communities and people outside of our own four walls, can make all the difference.
It’s ok to worry about your child’s mental health. We are all rightly concerned about this. We are all weighing how our decisions will affect them. A monumental assessment. It is crucial to remember that school alone doesn’t solve anxiety and depression. If it did, we wouldn’t have a mental health crisis with our youth. What kids struggling with anxiety and depression don’t need is the pretense of normal. They know things aren’t normal and if the adults in their life are pretending like it is, they will instinctually feel less safe. You don’t have to be negative and cite scary statistics to your kids. But you can be honest about the situation. You can acknowledge that their fears, this time, aren’t imagined. And you can model resilience and strength. But schools are not the cure-all for mental health.
Falling behind is something most of us can check off of our worry list. Yes, really. Most kids will catch up. It’s the at-risk students who are most vulnerable to this being a long term problem. We need to consider if our choices are making room for them or making it harder for them to get the services they need. Most of our kids would be fine if they took a whole year off of school. We have become so attached to the arbitrary goalposts we put on our children that we are considering risking safety and health. Maslow’s Hierarchy. Survival and health is more important than an AP class or graduating on time. Chronically ill children fall behind for years. They still graduate and they still go off to college and they still get jobs. All is not lost by not checking a box in the time frame someone somewhere decided was necessary.
This is our moment to decide who we are. As a generation, as a country. As people who care beyond our own needs.
We fondly recall the times in history when people came together to fight a shared enemy. The Greatest Generation earned their title. They rose to the occasion, together. They sacrificed. They adapted. They made do. They didn’t prioritize wants over needs when it came to rationing food or working in production lines or storming a beach under gunfire. COVID is not the same as a war. It’s a slower, less visible threat. But no less deadly or serious. The bombing of Pearl Harbor resulted in 2,403 U.S. deaths. Since March, over 170,000 Americans have died of COVID. Over 60 Pearl Harbors. Yet we’re still debating how much sacrifice is too much to prevent more deaths. We’re still prioritizing thriving over surviving. We’re still expecting teachers and staff to put their lives and health on the line to cover the inequities we’ve allowed to fester.
The back to school discussion is exposing the gulf in our schools and communities. It’s showing where priorities for one can bump up against the needs of others. Some parents are fearing their child’s health if they attend school. Or the health and life of their household family members. Many teachers are asking us to consider their lives as important in this equation. Reminding us that they will shield our children with their bodies against a school shooter, but that’s very different from sending them into a deadly battle that isn’t necessary.
Socialization for children is important. Their mental health is vital. But the notion that school is the only way to meet those needs is false. Parents of chronically ill children have always had to work within these limitations. When health and safety are at stake, creativity and ingenuity are called for. It is making the best of a bad situation, it’s adapting. Is this not the story we tell ourselves? That we are strong? That Americans look threats in the eye and say not on my watch? Why are we not bringing this energy to the fight against COVID and returning to schools? We are just going to give up and shrug off more deaths? We’re going to ignore the sacrifice it took for other countries to beat the virus? And why do we think it’s ok to push teachers and staff and at-risk kids into the front lines while we stay safely behind enjoying our pretense of normalcy?
The greed for “normal” at the expense of someone else’s safety is a cruel plot twist in a COVID world. And it seems to be what our leaders are operating under: pretend all is fine. Act as if opening school won’t result in death or illness. Proceed as if the consequences won’t be devastating.
There’s a very “let them eat cake” feel to many of the back to school plans. The tyranny of the wants over the needs. Parents of privilege are able to form learning pods, while other parents have no choice but to send their child to school and hope they will not be harmed. Neither parent is wrong. They were both failed by the people we elect to protect us. But it’s disingenuous to act as if who survives and who thrives is not largely based on class and race.
There are no good options. But some are worse than others. Prioritizing normal over life and health is worse. Taking care of the most vulnerable is best. We like to believe we are a fiercely independent people. Being independent means we get creative with our options. We don’t depend on others to sacrifice for us. Serve us. Make our lives more comfortable, while their own lives are at stake. For most of us, our legislators have neglected their jobs. Case numbers are rising and they are ignoring the dangers, knowing that schools will shut down soon after opening. They are giving you the pretense of normal before pulling the rug out from under you. And that brief time in between? People will get sick. People will die. People will have to stay home from work for two week quarantines. All so the leaders can feign shock when putting thousands of kids under one roof results in outbreaks. It is maddening and heartbreaking. But we aren’t powerless. We can demand that they do better. That they keep schools closed while they work to take care of the most needy students. We can each assess our own actions and how they may affect others in our communities. This is the Self Actualization that Maslow places at the top of the hierarchy. The meaning is implied, helping others leads to a better quality of life for you.
The only sustainable way out of this is together. Going from I got mine to How can we do this together? When schools and teachers are being asked to shore up all of our defenses, we need to figure out how best to take care of those who’s needs are at the bottom of the pyramid. Holding off on our wants until their safety and survival is secured. We’ve been asked to do hard things before. Taking care of and recognizing the needs of others should be the easiest hard thing we’ve ever been asked to do.