Category Archives: Covid-19

Individual Behavior and Community Safety: Cycling Edition

More than 30 years ago, I ventured into road cycling as a hobby. I rode alone for a couple years before discovering a vibrant cycling community in my home town.

In the mid-/late 1980s, most of the organized group rides started at the local bike shop (just down the street from where I lived) or the downtown YMCA.

When I started joining these rides, most of the cyclists were veteran and highly skilled cyclists—and friends. In those days, nearly no one talked to new riders, and worst of all, I started most of these rides desperately struggling to stay with the group.

None the less, within a few miles, I was dropped, left to ride alone the rest of the route. When I returned to the start, everyone had already left.

I am not sure why I (or any other new rider) kept at it, but I did.

Over the next twenty years, I gradually developed into a solid rider, and then, one of the stronger riders leading group rides and pushing the pace on the more intense rides and cycling races or events.

During that time, group riding also changed. More rides were offered for different abilities, and the rides in general were more likely to encourage and foster new cyclists into the cycling community.

My lessons in group cycling came from a few elite riders who took the drill sergeant approach to whip me into shape. But “shape” in cycling is more than fitness since how any individual cyclist behaves impacts the dynamics and safety of the entire group.

Cycling is very regimented (expected behaviors) for both the efficiency and the safety of the group.

As with many other activities, Covid has significantly impacted group cycling in my home town, and I have been away from group riding for well over a year, until recently.

Joining my group rides again included a significant number of new riders—often struggling with their fitness and how to ride in an organized group ride.

This reintroduction has made me think about the larger Covid situation: Individual behavior in group cycling is a necessary element in the safety of the group in the same way that masking and vaccinations are about both individual and community health.

We have restrictions, as well, on individual driving of cars (speed limits, bans on impaired driving) for both individual and community safety, for example, which is also the same dynamic as masking and vaccinations for Covid—or having the fitness and the skill to ride in an organized recreational cycling group ride.

Learning to ride in a cycling group, then, is a lesson in the importance of individual behavior for community safety.

For anyone new to group cycling (specifically recreational cycling), here are some of those behaviors:

  • Avoid abrupt changes in speed or direction. Direction and pace are incredibly important for cycling groups, and thus, consistent speed and direction help a group move efficiently but they also make the group safer. Most cycling groups (due to state laws) ride two abreast, and any sudden changes in speed or direction have rippling effects throughout the group. Changes in speed or direction should have a reason (change in terrain, turn on the course, or potholes, for example), and should be accompanied by verbal and hand signaling (more on that later). Hold your line and maintain as compact spacing as you can (developing better spacing skills as you gain fitness and experience).
  • Don’t be that guy. Here is one of the best guidelines for group cycling: If you are doing something different than everyone else, you are probably doing something wrong—and dangerous. Don’t dart in front of an oncoming car, don’t ride three abreast, don’t leave large gaps, don’t cross the yellow line—the examples are endless, but for a new or inexperienced rider, a great strategy is to watch the veteran riders, and do as they do.
  • Positioning matters. New cyclists often gravitate to the back of the group, which is a bad decision. The larger the group, the more inconsistent the group is the farther back you are. The back of a large group is often very hard for a new rider who still lacks enough fitness because the back has more slowing and accelerating than the first half or two-thirds of the group—where new riders should position themselves.
  • Balance matters. Another mistake new riders make is positioning on the bicycle; your weight should be mostly on your sit bones and pedals—not on the handle bars. Before joining a group ride, new riders should have a good bike fit and should be able to ride comfortably with their hands resting lightly (de-weighted) on the handle bars. Leaning heavily on the handle bars makes a bicycle unstable; while it is counter-intuitive, rotating wheels are very stable and track straight ahead, unless you hit something on the road or disturb that momentum.
  • Head up, eyes forward. When new cyclists become taxed, stressed, because of still-developing fitness, they often drop their head and eyes; this is extremely dangerous. Another problem is that many recreational rides are also social so people chat. When cycling, resist making eye contact when talking to the person next to you. It is really simple: Head up, eyes forward.
  • Know your place. If you are new to a group, and unfamiliar with the course, you should stay off the front until you know the course. Also, you must know the expectations of the ride (most rides identify a level such as A, B, or C based on overall speed, etc.) and how the group plans to handle group dynamics (no-drop ride, for example, or what the group does if someone has a flat or mechanical). Watch, listen, and ask questions, and as noted above, don’t be that guy.
  • Understand group and paceline dynamics. Many recreational cycling groups will use a pretty relaxed paceline with two riders taking longer pulls at the front before rolling off and two other riders taking turns. Because cyclists use open roads, some groups choose for both riders to pull off to the left and drop back single-file (what we tend to do in my community) while others use the one rider dropping off on both sides approach. Simply put, know the expectations. The same applies for more aggressive pacelines that have a continual rotation (typically with the right line pulling through and the left dropping back; although technically the through and back line can [should] be determined by wind direction). In all cases, riders pulling and/or pulling through must maintain a consistent effort (don’t accelerate the group, don’t dart through on a pull, and don’t half-wheel the rider beside you in the two-by-two method). The key here for new riders is know the expectations and then watch the experienced riders so that you can mimic their behavior.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Cycling is a highly verbal sport. Always alert the group to turns, dangers in the road conditions, problems with other riders, and the proximity of cars. New riders should listen and learn how the local riders alert each other (including whether or not hand signals are the norm, etc.). An important rule is if you hear messaging from the front, pass it back, and if you hear messaging from the back, pass it forward.

Even if you aren’t a cyclist, this post is about the problem with seeing the rights of the individual and the needs of the community as an either/or proposition. The reality is that individual behavior is always a factor in community dynamics.

Asking a new cyclist to conform to the dynamics of a cycling group is not a denial of the individual rights of that cyclist but acknowledging that individual development is linked to the dynamics of the group—just as the safety of any individual cyclist is linked to the safety of the group.

If a rider doesn’t want to conform to group expectations, then that rider is always free to ride alone.

Group cycling is an incredibly powerful thing that allows very strong and experienced riders to participate with weaker inexperienced riders; and both benefit from the experience.

For many years, I participated in a 220-240-mile ride from the upstate of South Carolina to destinations along the coast of SC and Georgia. The key to this ride was a coherent group that worked in ways that benefitted the weaker and less experienced riders. Almost every year, everyone completed the ride—a truly remarkable feat for groups of 10-20 riders experiencing an 11-14-hour day of riding.

These rides were individual and group accomplishments that demonstrate a truism that fits more than cycling: Individual behavior is inseparable from community safety.


What Do White Folk Fear?

Consider this description of public schools in the U.S.:

[P]ublic schools … [are] a “dragon … devouring the hope of the country as well as religion.” Secular public education … [is filled with] “Socialism, Red Republicanism, Universalism, Infidelity, Deism, Atheism, and Pantheism—anything, everything, except religion and patriotism.”

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby, (pp. 257-258)

Some of this language is archaic, but the attack on public schools here is little different than the current climate in the U.S. where Republicans in several states are taking aim at Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project, as Sarah Schwartz reports:

In total, lawmakers in at least 15 states have introduced bills that seek to restrict how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and other social issues.

The legislation, all introduced by Republican lawmakers, uses similar language as an executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to ban diversity training for federal workers. The order has since been rescinded by President Joe Biden.

Supporters of these laws say they’re designed to get schools to stop teaching critical race theory, an academic framework that examines how racism has shaped the U.S. legal system. The Idaho legislation specifically mentions critical race theory by name. Lawmakers claim that teachers have adopted its tenets, and are teaching about race, gender, and identity in ways that sow division among students.

Four States Have Placed Legal Limits on How Teachers Can Discuss Race. More May Follow

The current conservative attack on confronting racism in the U.S. is little different than the opening condemnation of public schools, which comes from John Hughes, Catholic bishop in New York in the mid-1800s. Hughes was known as the “‘father of Catholic education,'” Susan Jacoby adds, and if we dig deep enough, this attack on public schools had little basis in facts but was a market response to the creeping threat of public schools to Catholic education.

For well over 150 years, then, conservatives in the U.S. have been launching false claims that public schooling is liberal indoctrination, home to socialism, communism, and anti-religious bigotry. The recent attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project are nothing new, except now public schools are accused of being anti-white (despite about 80% of public school teachers being white).

While simplistic, provocative messaging is effective because it triggers an emotional response, the truth about K-12 public education in the U.S. is that it has always been and is now extremely conservative.

I make this claim in several important contexts: I have been an educator for 37 years (18 years as a public school teacher and another 19 years as a teacher educator at a private university, both in South Carolina), and my scholarly background is rooted in the history of public education.

But here is the most important element of my background; I am a critical educator. Critical pedagogy and CRT (among many other critical lenses) do inform my teaching.

Until the Trump-inspired attack on CRT, however, almost no one outside of graduate programs in the U.S. had even heard of CRT, much less were implementing it in any way in K-12 schools.

Certainly, in recent years concurrent with the increased media and public awareness of police killing Black Americans at a disproportionate rate—and with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement—K-12 and higher education has begun to adopt programs and teaching that address diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The rabid assault on CRT is mostly a solution in search of a problem; however, many schools have adopted, for example, concepts such as culturally relevant teaching (the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings) and have sought ways to diversity the field of teaching and the curriculum.

All of this is also occurring as the U.S. becomes more racially diverse—less white—and as public schools have become majority-minority populations (more Black and brown than white students).

So we have a problem. Again, CRT essentially doesn’t exist in K-12 education, and the 1619 Project is not an adopted curriculum, although some teachers (probably very few) likely have used the materials as a resource for teaching history.

That means something else is behind these efforts to control what is taught in schools—just as the attack by a Catholic bishop in the 1800s was more about turf than any real moral failure (or creeping socialism) in public schools.

What is behind the current attack on public schools addressing racism? In other words, what do white folk fear?

As I recently wrote, the attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project are grounded in white people (notably those with the most power and wealth) fearing a loss of the white privilege they claim doesn’t exist (in the same way they claim the U.S. isn’t a racist country):

White privilege is a system of advantage that benefits all white people (or to be more clear, all people who are perceived of as white).

That racial privilege, however, is no guarantee of success or shield of protection for some individual people who are white. White people fail, white people suffer inequity and disadvantages (such as poverty), and white people in some individual cases are substantially worse off than individual Black people.

Racism is a system of power and race that disadvantages all Black people in the U.S. (or to be more clear, all people who are perceived of as Black).

Racism is not a universal barrier to success or happiness or achievement, but it is a pervasive burden that tints every aspect of living for any Black person.

Black people are typically more starkly aware of racism (nearly moment by moment) than white people are of white privilege; white privilege works in an invisible way for white people while racism is a blunt object for Black people. …

To be blunt, reaching a state of equity and equality in the U.S. would be a material change in the lives of white people. Change is terrifying to those who are born into a state of advantage.

Equity and meritocracy realized, then, in the U.S. is a threat to white privilege.

A Case for Critical Race Theory, and More

On Busted Pencil with Tim Slekar this week, we confronted that fear by noting that the conservative attack on teaching about race and racism is an effort to avoid facing the reality than many wealthy and powerful white people in the U.S. in fact did not earn that power and wealth by their superior effort and character; they may not even deserve that power and wealth.

White people in power are afraid of other people recognizing that the U.S. is not a meritocracy, and that if we work toward true equity and meritocracy, many of the elite will no longer be among the elite.

The game is rigged in the U.S. in the favor of white and male Americans, resulting in this reality:

New Study Confirms That American Workers Are Getting Ripped Off

The rich (mostly white) is getting richer while everyone else (increasingly Black and brown) is being cheated by the rich.

Much of this tension has been increased during Covid because the shut downs highlighted just which workers in the U.S. are essential—the least well paid (such as service workers) and those living in the most vulnerable conditions (hourly laborers without guaranteed insurance or retirement).

If all the service workers in the U.S. did not go to work tomorrow, the country would shut down; if all the CEOs stayed home, no one would notice.

White people are afraid of losing their unfair advantage of simply being white, and that fear is driven by a changing world, a changing country.

Attacks by Republicans on CRT and the 1619 Project are crass fear-mongering and a distraction, driven by white fear.

CRT and the 1619 Project are not any significant part of K-12 schooling, and white students are not being taught they are inherently evil because they are white.

White folk perpetuating these lies are doing so because they are afraid; they are afraid of what they see in any mirror they face.

Poetry of Pain, Poetry of Hope

When I posted my newest poem yesterday, we weathered winter (silence & shouting), I realized this is my first poem of 2021. It is unusual since it is mostly a poem of hope, a poem uniquely set in the Covid-19 pandemic.

As I looked back, I also realized that the last poem of 2020 was about my aunt’s suicide, a human throat (ineffable), a poem of pain anchored to the frailties of being human—although this poem too cannot avoid the ghost of the pandemic lingering there.

My newest poem feels out of character for me, a person prone to cynicism and a general negative outlook on life paraded as a “realistic” view. The poem is also unusual because most of my poetry comes in bursts; first there are entire sections that come to me whole (often in sleep or near sleep) and then several hours of tinkering and shaping the poem that is calling to me to bring it forth.

I ended 2020 in the paradox of writing about the ineffable, a suicide of a family member who filled me with contradictory and confusing emotions. So starting 2021 with some hope feels both odd and perfect as I sit in South Carolina where spring is teasing us with warm weather and pollen.

we weathered winter (silence & shouting) is a spring poem, and I could have written something like it even before a pandemic. But the poem did not come in a burst; it came over many weeks and quite unexpectedly:

we weathered winter once again
the sun slipping away later & later
daylight & hope expanding

this winter like all winters
was unlike any winter before
unlike any winter ahead

The opening section above did come in a burst, which I typed out on a Word document many weeks ago. It sat on my screen since then, was eventually closed out, and then almost nearly forgotten.

A couple nights ago, I had what I consider sort of a poem vision that accompanies words, specifically “everything ascending into the trees.” In my slumber brain, I was writing a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, and I was jumbling literally all people climbing into trees with some nondescript memory of watching a nature show about monkeys scurrying into the trees when avoiding predators. I also was thinking about the Crakers from Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy.

When I woke up, I began playing with that kernel and eventually the second section appeared:

i imagine late at night
you do not understand
the silence & shouting

everything ascending
into the trees
completely quiet & afraid

But this could not have developed if I had not remembered the “winter” section abandoned weeks ago. I opened the file, thought about the need for section dividers, and plopped in the section section, drafting and playing with the original ascending idea as well as the “do not understand” part that also came to me during the night.

What developed was a poem with three-line stanzas, with two each per section. What I began to imagine, though, was how this ambiguous ascending scene matched the winter/end to the pandemic idea of the first section.

The silence/shouting contrast along with the sense of fear in ascending to escape something, to feel safe, needed something to combine the impressions. That is when I began to think about two beings huddled together, a conflating of two beings huddled together in a tree and two beings cuddling in sleep; and thus the third and last section:

how we huddle here
like lovers entwined asleep
hoping with spring

maybe there will be drums
maybe there will be horns
maybe there will be singing

One of the many things we have lost due to the pandemic is music concerts so my message of hope—imagining us all sitting in trees, afraid of Covid-19 and hoping for a return to something closer to normal (not a tree life)—about the possibility of returning to large crowds at a concert (drums, horns, singing).

The sound motif—silence, shouting, music—works, I think, to create the sort of tension that comes from the change of seasons. In the case of winter to spring, that tension is the feeling of hope resting against a nagging fear that spring somehow may not come after all.

My initial joy over the first section—the “W” alliteration of the first line I dearly love—were mostly affections of language, although I thought the idea of pandemic winter being more different, just as every winter is different, was clever enough and engaging. But there was no poem there.

The missing elements were about breathing a story into the “we” and also allowing those characters to develop even as I left much of the context ambiguous and even not directly spoken.

What is the job of poetry? I have been wondering. My poetry of pain next to my poetry of hope.

I understand that poetry is essentially concrete—images, characters, plot, setting; poetry is about the physical world doing stuff. But I also know that poetry is about what is not stated, what is not specifically identified.

My poem of pain ends with a sort of brutal specificity that attached itself to my own experience of discovering the cold details of the suicide. My poem of hope is suggestive, elusive, and in the most basic sense, hopeful.

Hope became symbolized by attending a concert, The National. Something I have done before so something I can reconstruct and imagine. During the writing of the poem, I had “I’ll Still Destroy You” on replay in my brain, although mostly different lines than what I chose to preface the poem: “Put your heels against the wall/I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you” cycling over and over in my mind’s ear.

2021 is now racing by, and with spring, many of us in the U.S. are overwhelmed with hope for more than the usual joy associated with longer daylight and warmer weather.

What if the vaccinations allow us to return to something we have missed—gathering close together to sing along and sway to the drums, the horns, and the singing?

I am hopeful because it is too painful not to hope.

Pandemic Pedagogy: The New Normal?

The evening before the first day of school for students, a high school teacher opened their district email to discover that the schedule for International Baccalaureate (IB) students had changed.


That new schedule is also layered onto the tentative district-wide pandemic schedule that has four color-coded waves of students, divided by last names, who attend one day a week Monday through Thursday with all students remote on Fridays.

This teacher was distraught. To tears and hopelessness.

This teacher has already expressed what I am hearing and reading across the U.S.: Teaching has become unmanageable, and the current teacher shortage is about to take an even greater hit with even more teachers leaving the profession.

To demonstrate that the last-minute changes and the complex system mixing face-to-face (F2F) with remote teaching are, in fact, nearly impossible, this teacher created a mind-numbingly elaborate chart and shared it with the principal.

This is the new normal for K-12 teachers in the U.S. An already nearly impossible profession has been made even more bureaucratic and dehumanizing by the sheer weight of managing all the moving parts.

As a college professor—a teaching profession dramatically less stressful and complex than K-12 teaching (which I did for 18 years)—I have also resorted to color-coding my rosters in an effort to manage that I now have first-year students and seniors on campus and in class (except for those choosing remote learning all semester) as well as sophomores and juniors who are remote until September 14.

On any day, also, students may be remote due to health concerns or quarantine.

My class sessions are a mix of F2F students (no more than 12) and students joining class remotely by zoom, their tiny images in blocks on the computer screen and projected on the drop-down screen at the front of the class.

I am trying to teach and make some sort of contact with both groups; the masked F2F students are disorienting, and the tiny images of students on the screen give a whole new meaning to “remote.”

After the first few days of class, I am also realizing that discussion-based and student-centered teaching are essentially impossible. Our masks make talking and hearing a struggle as we are remaining 6 feet apart, and in order to maintain the social distancing requirements, I cannot ask students to form small groups and interact.

Like many K-12 teachers as school resumes this fall, I must admit that for the first time in 37 years of teaching, I find my work as a teacher something I dread.

And I mean the actual classroom teaching, not just all the other aspects of being a teacher that have always, frankly, been mind-numbing (grading, standards and testing, meetings, etc.).

For K-12 and higher education teachers and professors, we must survive the current pandemic pedagogy (many of the conditions are the only options we have even as they are not good options for teaching and learning), but we must also begin to imagine what the new normal will be on the other side of all this.

When I moved to higher education 19 years ago, one of the first things I witnessed was my university debating a change to the academic calendar, the weekly course schedule, and the curriculum (the general education requirements). This university had a long history of a three-session academic year (students taking three 4-credit courses in fall and spring along with two 4-credit courses in the middle winter session), and students attended all classes five days a week (similar to high school).

This debate took months, but one of the most hotly contested issues was moving from five days a week to the traditional MWF and TTh scheduling found at most colleges.

Many faculty seemed very committed to seat time, acknowledging a belief that learning was essentially grounded in face-to-face instruction. I found that reasoning flawed then, and supported the change.

However, the debate did highlight that the structures we choose for schooling profoundly impacts how we teach and how (and if) students learn.

The pandemic, on the other hand, has foisted upon educators at all levels changes that have not been debated and are often unwanted.

I had to teach my graduate summer course online (with no input on the decision) and have been forced to put all my courses on the university’s course management program that I have always avoided for ideological and pedagogical reasons.

Most educators have essentially no choice except to participate in remote programs (such as zoom) that raise significant questions about personal data and instructional practices.

As I have discussed about moving to remote teaching last spring, there are elements of pandemic pedagogy that match well my practices in so-called normal circumstances, notably individualized instruction grounded in feedback on student artifacts of learning (such as essays).

Ending a well-established course with pandemic pedagogy is quite different than beginning one that way.

I cannot accept that the Covid-19 pandemic will be on balance a positive moment for education—or humanity. The pandemic’s cost to human life and health far outweigh the value of education.

But that ship has sailed; we cannot undo the shift that the pandemic has forced on teaching as a profession, on learning, and on being a human.

It seems certain that what comes next will not be a return to that former normal. It seems certain that we should not want to return to that normal.

However, we should begin the transition to the new normal, and we must do that intentionally.

To accomplish a bit of alchemy, then, we must embrace the pause the pandemic has afforded us in order to reimagine the following:

  • The role of F2F instruction (seat time) and whole-group class sessions.
  • The consequences of inequity grounded in race, socioeconomic status, gender, etc., for teaching and learning.
  • The roles of teacher and student in the teaching/learning dynamic.
  • The purposes and forms of assessment and grades.
  • The spaces (real and virtual) for teaching and learning.
  • The funding for and costs of schooling.
  • The professional autonomy of teachers and professors.
  • The academic calendar.
  • The value and problems associated with technology.
  • The significance of privacy and personal agency for teachers/professors and students.

With almost four decades of experience teaching and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, I must emphasize that these have always been the issues we should have been critically unpacking and reimagining.

The universe has given us a terrible pause in normal, but the pandemic has not taken away our possibilities to create a new normal that will be a better realization of the ideals we often express about the importance of education.

As I have often argued, education in the U.S. is not a failure; however, we have mostly failed the promise of education.

Ideally, I want to sit in the same room with my students and see their uncovered faces. I want to watch and listen as they construct their own meaning and knowledge for themselves.

I do very much miss some of the pre-pandemic world of teaching and learning that was only five or six months ago.

But I am also waiting on a sense of hope for what comes next, a new normal post-pandemic; as Maggie Smith imagines, “This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful.”

GUEST POST: We Must Maintain a Suitable System of Free Public Schools, Chris Goering

NOTE: This open letter confronts the opening of public schools in Arkansas, but this message can and should resonate throughout the U.S. All public schools in Arkansas are being forced to open physically on August 24th by the governor, despite some of the worst infection rates in the country thus far. — PLT

We Must Maintain a Suitable System of Free Public Schools

Dear Governor Hutchinson,

I have enjoyed hearing you speak about how your teachers impacted your choice to take leadership in our state and how your own education has been an important emphasis in your governorship. I would like to ask that you revisit memories of teachers who impacted you. Think of the attributes of amazing teachers you’ve known. Are they selfless, encouraging, motivational, tough? Now, remember the very best teacher you ever had and think of the qualities that made them stand out. Imagine that very teacher called you, like Martha Sandven called me on Wednesday, bawling, angry, frustrated, and scared, and told you, ashamedly, that she was leaving the classroom. You see, I prepare teachers in Arkansas, and Martha is one of the best anywhere.

If your ideal teacher called you to say she was leaving the students she loved, the toughest kids, the neediest kids—the ones who desperately need her undying passion for their learning—she was walking away from a department leadership position and her colleagues who thrive under her mentorship, and turning in the keys to her legendary classroom because of something her Governor said about required face-to-face instruction beginning August 24th, what would you do? Ms. Martha actually apologized as she told me she could not mentor a pre-service teacher or teach junior high or lead her Governor’s Arts Award-winning after school program this year because her mother and niece, who both rely heavily on her, are high risk. If she teaches in person, she couldn’t help them. She was crying. I was crying. Here I am. Here we are.

What the Ms. Marthas of Arkansas need from you right now is the true grit of leadership in trying times. The Ms. Marthas need you to follow the science and keep schools closed on Monday. Ms. Martha and her students should not be subjected to an experiment where we group people together in the middle of a pandemic by opening our schools face-to-face. Look at Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas to see how reopening is going, and note the rising cases forcing quarantines and closures. Teachers, staff, students, and the people at home who love them are going to get sick and die; it’s unfortunately that simple. What is most unforgivable is that the way the pandemic impacts certain communities–including those here in Arkansas–translates to an increased death toll among teachers, staff, and students from minority populations. Please sir, this cannot be allowed to happen on your watch. Given your directives that school must be open five days/week, I wonder who will bear the brunt of the responsibility for those deaths this move most certainly will cause?

Let’s also look to the time beyond where we are; we’ll celebrate when we can return safely to school in person by working to get infection rates in the state below 5%, ensuring each school has adequate PPE, providing equitable, rapid testing, and streamlining effective contact tracing capabilities. That is the real work we must do. We need to focus every conversation we have on equity and allocating large swaths of the education budget on the most vulnerable students in our state who will endure the most suffering at the hands of this pandemic, economically, physically, educationally, and emotionally. We need to imagine smaller class sizes for all students and increase the number of counselors and paraprofessionals available in our public schools. We will have to free our teachers and schools from the constraints and loss of instructional times caused by standardized testing and re-allocate the millions spent on those tests to making schools safer and more responsive. We must give the teachers the authority and support to do what is best for each individual child. This is what school needs to look like, and we have a chance right now to reinvent it. Redesigned schools will require an investment that is truly focused on equity and how to create the best public education system in the country. Arkansans have it within us to do exactly that, especially when we listen to educators.

It’s my honor to get to work with another outstanding class of future teachers this summer and fall. This year’s group is exceptional, investing their funds, minds, and hearts in the teaching profession despite the uncertainty in what the immediate future holds. I’ve challenged this group to be the future Ms. Marthas of the world. We will need the best teachers this state has seen because our students and our communities will look to our educators as we reinvent how to best prepare children for a successful future while we fight and claw our way back from COVID.

Part of what makes our state great is Article 14 of the Arkansas Constitution: “Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.”

If we send our children, staff, or teachers off to die in the schools this fall, I don’t believe anyone could make the argument that what we’ve done meets the definition of “suitable.” If the best teachers leave the classrooms or state in droves or caskets, suitable will become impossible. There are no easy answers and no answers where people won’t be hurt by your decisions. While I appreciate that, I as a public school parent, advocate for teachers, and lifelong educator urge you to act on behalf of the safety of our state in these unprecedented times. Please, before needless deaths and long term illnesses, move the state’s school to start fully online.

Chris Goering

Fayetteville, AR

Social-Distance Traveling during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Cycling through the back roads to the south of Horsetooth Reservoir is an annual adventure.

For nearly a decade, I have been taking about a 2-week trip in July or early August for a cycling/brewery vacation. Many of the trips have been to Colorado, but also Asheville, NC and Fayetteville, AR (where I am sitting now).

To insure a good place to stay, reservations must be made many months ahead of this trip; so for the summer of 2020, I had secured and apartment near Old Town in Ft. Collins, CO many weeks before the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic occurred.

Beginning in early to Mid-March, my life has been changed significantly as it has been for most of the world. Also, I and my family as well as close friends have had to make decisions about how to navigate the pandemic in terms of social distancing.

Throughout the first phase of Covid-19, the shut-down phase, and into the phased-in reopening, I have taken a practical approach, recognizing the threat of the pandemic to myself and my communal responsibility.

I have maintained a semi-normal outdoor routine (I am an avid cyclist), but have stopped group riding (riding alone or with one or a very few other cyclists). I have also restricted my “social” activities to outdoor seating or take-out.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the pandemic has been the wearing of masks; yes, I wear a mask for being indoors and especially when being indoors is crowded.

As June slipped by, then, I and a couple friends had to make a decision about the trip to Ft. Collins (which was to include a brief stop in Great Bend, KS and a few days in Fayetteville, AR). Since the U.S. is mostly in a re-opening mode—and since several states such as my home state of SC are handling that badly, with Covid-19 cases increasing at record-setting rates—we decided that a trip while maintaining the same approach to social distancing created only slightly greater risks to ourselves and others.

Our day of hiking at Estes Park was temporarily detoured since park spaces were restricted (and we were unaware) due to Covid-19.

I understand that some would disagree with this decision, and I recognize those arguments certainly have credibility. Here, however, I want to share some thoughts about moving for over about two weeks through South Carolina, Kansas, Colorado, and Arkansas.

Some of the value in taking the trips has been witnesses first-hand the various policy and political/ideological differences of moving across the country. SC has some of the more antagonistic approaches to mask, for example (possibly only outclassed by Georgia), but just before I left the state, many towns were mandating in limited ways the wearing of masks.

Masks were not required in Kansas, and many people were not wearing masks like in SC, but the extreme rurality of Great Bend (very few cases of Covid-19) and the voluntary safety policies of some businesses felt far safer than being in SC.

Great Bend, however, has not moved to expanded outdoor seating as many other states have. The positive consequence of Covid-19 for my hometown, Spartanburg, SC, has been dramatic expansion in outdoor seating, much of which will be permanent (Main Street has been closed off for all restaurants to have open-air seating now).

While we went into the trip committed to outdoor or take-out eating only, the unfortunate result has been a few instances of eating indoors—although in establishments with significant care for safety and social distancing.

A powerful experience for those of us from SC has been to live for several days in areas with strict and clear mask requirements—first in Colorado and then once we arrived in Arkansas (which has just implemented the mask requirement a couple days before we arrived).

New Belgium Brewery in Ft. Collins required booking seating space online and had a diligent outdoor seating and ordering policy.

Maxline Brewery in Ft. Collins was one of the few places where we sat indoors briefly; this wall art, I think, captures well the need for community as part of our economic and social obligations.

Mandatory mask culture during this pandemic is, despite what detractors suggest, extremely conducive to restarting something like a normal economy and semi-normal public socializing.

While what businesses were open or semi-open has been a challenge for visitors, the mask requirement has clearly facilitated not just businesses reopening but consumer confidence.

As some friends back home have noted, being out of SC has likely been in many ways safer than not traveling. Colorado was refreshing in the clear and consistent messages about and wearing of masks; a couple establishments had very direct and even demanding signs outside about wearing masks and there appeared absolutely no resistance or loss of patronage.

As we headed back toward SC with a few-day stop in Arkansas, I expected a return to the new-normal of SC, but arrived in Fayetteville right as the state mandated masks and many business were just reopening.

We have had trouble finding fully open restaurants, but the practices in Arkansas have been even more diligent and reassuring than Colorado—requiring masks be worn until after ordering (and not once you are seated), for example.

I head back to SC in a couple days, and I also face returning to full-time face-to-face teaching in just 3 weeks. While taking the trip has increased to some unknown level risk, I will be required to much more significantly take daily risks with the start of fall courses.

There is no returning to normal after Covid-19, and “normal” has likely always been an illusion, a mirage. The world changes beneath our feet whether we want it to or not.

In my lifetime, over almost 60 years, many of the ways of the world and life have so dramatically changed I have trouble remembering when some of now’s normal didn’t exist.

Covid-19 has forced us to rethink many things, including how we function in relationship to each other, as communities and not just individuals. That, even more so than expanded outdoor eating spaces, may be the silver lining in this dark cloud of a pandemic—but only if we make the right decisions about being responsible members of a community and not rugged and ruthless individuals.

As John Dewey implored, we humans are not either individuals or part of a community. To be fully human is to navigate our individual selves with out communal selves.

To be free is not license; freedom is not without responsibility or accountability.

Mask requirements are no different than stop signs and lights, markers of taking care to balance our individual behavior with our communal responsibilities that often mute or even trump our individual wants.

Human existence is chaotic and inherently dangerous. To live is to die, and to live with varying degrees of abandon is to flirt with an unnecessary death.

That tenuous reality has a moral imperative in that each of us must live as if our lives are precious while also directing our commitment to the lives of others as equally (if not more) precious.

I did not cavalierly choose to take this trip, but the decision to reach for some tranquility and pleasure is certainly tinged with a degree of selfishness that I do not deny even as I have made the decision with my ethical commitments fully acknowledged.

Covid-19 implores us all to reclaim our communities and intimacies for everyone in ways that sacrifices no one. It is a gross and inexcusable fatalism to suggest that goal is futile.

It is never whether or not humans are capable; it is always whether or not we have the moral will to be fully human.

Unmasking Rational Humanity

Many years ago, just after I moved to higher education, I was having a casual conversation with a colleague in the economics department. He joked that he was socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and that he leaned Democrat because it was easier to teach liberals economics than to make Republicans give a shit about humans.

He also made an off-hand comment about people using Consumer Report when making purchases, or similar rational approaches to being consumers. I paused and stated directly to him that virtually no one shops rationally. I recall that he looked at me as if I were from Mars.

I was reminded of this exchange—and my constant frustration at economics as a field is too often grounded in rational consumer assumptions—when a former student posted on social media about economist Daniel Kahneman, notable for contesting that assumption about rational consumers.

But I have also been thinking about assuming humans are rational in the context of calls for everyone wearing face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A good friend on social media posted this recently:


And my first thought was that it is missing the next level—two faces in masks worn below their noses while touching or adjusting the masks every few seconds.

The research on and calls for everyone wearing face masks are making the rational-assumption mistake too often found in economic theory and models, I think; for example:

A shopper during the pandemic in California (The San Diego Union-Tribune).

Ron DeSantis, wearing a mask, stands in front of National Guard members wearing masks
Gov. Ron DeSantis fumbles mask wearing (Slate).

Models for the effectiveness of face masks seem to assume not only rational wearers but also many other idealistic givens that are decontextualized from the very real (and inequitable) world.

Writing in The Guardian, Aaron Thomas offered some of that reality:

On Saturday I thought about the errands I need to run this week, including a trip to the grocery store. I thought I could use one of my old bandannas as a mask. But then my voice of self-protection reminded me that I, a black man, cannot walk into a store with a bandanna covering the greater part of my face if I also expect to walk out of that store. The situation isn’t safe and could lead to unintended attention, and ultimately a life-or-death situation. For me, the fear of being mistaken for an armed robber or assailant is greater than the fear of contracting Covid-19.

Just as shaming people for not conforming to the stay-at-home orders fails to acknowledge the privilege in being able to stay home, shaming people for not wearing masks fails to recognize the potential flaws in wearing masks and unintended consequences, such as the fears expressed by Thomas above.

In ideal contexts, which never exist, the image above of the advantages of mask wearing is powerful and even compelling.

But when I have visited grocery stores or gone on walks, I see a wide assortment of people with and without masks. Those with masks have on, often, home-made or makeshift masks that are likely not providing any protection, and many wear them pulled below their noses or with the sides billowed out.

Many people seek masks that barely obstruct breathing, which is a sign that the mask is ineffective for the very thing it is being worn to do.

And mask wearers are in a constant state of touching and adjusting those masks—touching their faces, groceries, touch screens.

One of the most troubling negative consequences of the move toward all people wearing masks is that wearers take on a false sense of greater safety, and as a result, fail to respect the 6′ social distancing guidelines, decreasing everyone’s safety especially considering the shoddy masks and wearing of those masks.

Credible evidence suggests that basic cloth masks worn properly can reduce spreading a virus if worn by people who are sick (asymptomatic or symptomatic), but high quality masks properly worn is an incredibly high bar needed for masks to protect healthy people from contracting the virus.

The U.S. and the world are now living a huge and deadly experiment, one that is based in the real world, not a computer simulation, where the vast majority of human beings are simply not rational.

Promoting public policy based on the assumption of rational humans is dangerous folly, one of the many ways we have failed in our economic policy in the U.S., but shifting to a recognition that humans are mostly irrational is not a call for fatalism.

Seeking ways to inform people with credible information is a nudge toward rational behavior, if we see that as evidence-based decision making (instead of the “rational” of faux-objective paternalism), and a way grounded in hope.

But on that long and slow journey, we must find ways to exist that acknowledge the irrational human, the person with the mask pulled below their nose standing directly behind you in the check-out line who taps you on the shoulder and points to the shopper in a KKK hood.


Flattening the Truth on Coronavirus