To Slaughter

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High schools nationwide ask athletes to sign coronavirus waivers in case they die (New York Daily News via MSN)
Wisconsin teachers unions urge online-only start (WIFR)

Several years ago, I was put in the uncomfortable position of having one of my students at the start of a semester die before the semester’s end. This would have been a serious problem under even the best of circumstances, but the college I was teaching this class at didn’t even tell me of the student’s passing; I only learned about it when I went online to submit final grades at the end of the term, and under the column that normally lists when students withdraw for any reason, there was simply the word “Deceased” next to this student’s name. That was the closest I’ve ever come in my teaching career to wanting to scream at my bosses, because of all the things that instructors should be alerted to when it comes to the classes they teach, the death of a student is pretty freaking high up on my list.

This student was probably a good decade older than I was, and had been exceedingly kind to me in a previous class I’d taught, but my main concern was that another student from that first class was also in the second class where this student passed away a few weeks into the semester, and I didn’t know if these two students knew each other. That second class was full of students fresh out of high school, and first-semester college students don’t tend to socialize with older students that much (those barriers slowly break down as students work their ways through college), but even if none of those other students really knew their classmate who’d passed away, the fact that the student had died was something that they were as entitled to know as I was.

Ever since this incident, I’ve thought about what I would say to my students if I do eventually get put in the position of having to pass along the news that one of their classmates had just passed away. One of my seventh grade teachers died three weeks after the start of the school year, but I never had a classmate die when I was a student. (Two of my best friends from my University of Toledo days are now dead, but both those deaths happened years after my graduation.) One of my biggest strengths as a teacher is my ability to take students into uncomfortable discussion areas — politics, religion, and so on — and help them understand their positions and conduct respectful dialogues with their classmates for everyone’s benefit, but passing along news of a death of a classmate is a task that I’ll probably never feel ready for, simply because no amount of preparation can really help you deal with all the powerful emotions that such a tragedy is bound to create.

As these past few months have gone by, and I’ve been working on preparations for the coming semester, it’s hard to avoid thinking back to this issue of dealing with a student’s death, and what I would do in the event that COVID-19 claims someone on my campus, whether a student or a co-worker. I’ve never received formal training on what to do if one of my students passes away mid-semester, but I’ve always assumed that the institutions I work for have developed contingency plans for such a situation. (Maybe that was a rash assumption, given how I was left to learn of my one student’s death several years ago.) Even if there’s not a significant probability of such a tragedy happening on a campus in a given year, it’s a significant enough event that everyone who works at a college or university — especially those of us in leadership positions, as all instructors are in their classrooms — should at least know that their institution has a plan to deal with a student’s death.

I imagine that academic institutions all over the world are developing and communicating these plans with their employees now, in the wake of the current pandemic, and preparation is certainly something to be commended. Given the way that many of these institutions are communicating, though, it’s clear that they’re not considering the death of a student as the remote possibility that it once was, but as something approaching a likelihood. With the exception of war, going into any situation under the assumption that some people will likely die as a result of your actions is unconscionable. When those people are likely to include children, it’s completely inhuman.

For all the writing that’s been done about how the pandemic needs to be under control before schools can safely reopen, it still doesn’t seem to be enough. Not only are COVID-19 case numbers continuing to rocket up throughout America as a whole, but after a lull in the county where I live, total reported cases here have now gone up 20% in the last ten days. Add in the fear of many people that we’re no longer going to get reliable information about the pandemic thanks to government intervention, and the situation of the pandemic alone is enough to frighten many Americans out of their minds. (Far too many of us have several other reasons to be scared about this country right now, but that’s a topic for another blog.)

There are no good solutions to how to handle the effects of this out-of-control pandemic here in America, and I wouldn’t dare to suggest that I have one, but I do know that any solution which assumes a certain number of children are just going to have to die in order to keep “the economy” healthy is not acceptable. As many nights of sleep as I’ve lost thinking about how I’m going to handle my return to teaching in September, I’m willing to accept that risk as a part of my job in these difficult times, especially since I’m teaching adults who aren’t forced to attend my institution, and I’m doing everything I can to mitigate risk to my students by moving my classes online wherever possible. If even one child is forced to attend school in-person while this pandemic keeps getting worse, that is one child too many, if not for the child’s safety then at least for the safety of every person that child comes in contact with.

I keep a browser tab open to my campus email whenever I’m awake, and my tablet chimes at me whenever I get a new email from that account. In the two years since I started teaching here, I’ve gotten a number of emails about important alums and former employees passing away. I’m already dreading the possibility that this summer won’t go by without news of one of my former students here passing away from COVID-19, and I fear that the chance of one of them dying in the fall will be even higher, especially with the current trajectory of the pandemic here. It’s enough to make me want to scream every time I think about it.

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