Safety has more than one meaning

Physicians like myself have a unique perspective on things like COVID-19.  In short, we take care of the sick, we help many to recover and despite our best efforts, we watch some people die.  This has a profound effect on the way we view policies and people, as well it should.  Around the country, my colleagues in emergency departments and intensive care units have seen a lot of devastation.  And since our job is traditionally to keep people from dying, policies related to COVID-19 create very intense opinions and passionate discussions.

Our medical world is often divided into a pretty clear algorithm that has one path that involves death and another that doesn’t.  But since death is generally permanent, that’s the side that really gets the attention of our physician minds.

However, sometimes we have to step back and look at things from a different perspective, if only for a little while.  And as we decide what to do with school this fall it might be good to consider a few side-effects of our life-saving efforts.

The face of public education is going to be changed, possibly forever, by the pandemic.  Lots of parents are opting to leave the public school system and homeschool.  Some will use the public school online options, others will just go in their own direction and affiliate with other homeschoolers.  We homeschooled for a number of years and loved it, and there are so many remarkable people and resources to help that it’s getting easier and more effective all the time.

But in some ways, as it stands, homeschooling is an option that many families don’t have.  First, because pandemic aside, those parents simply have to go to work. It may be a single parent home, or it may be two parents who really need both incomes, but the move to home education may not be possible either logistically or financially.  Their children will need to be in school, in some way or another, so that their families can survive.  It’s one thing to avoid the virus, it’s quite another to avoid it and be homeless due to loss of income.

Second, some families can’t keep the kids home because they simply aren’t able to navigate the educational system.  There is a wide spectrum of IQ in society. This is not to insult anyone, but the fact remains that many parents are loving, caring folks who provide for their children.  But they may not have been well educated themselves and may even be barely literate.  They want the best for their children but it won’t work at home.

A subgroup of of those with difficulty ‘navigating the educational system’ are those families who don’t have adequate Internet connectivity.  While various communications companies constantly advertise the wonders of their impending 5G phones, and while everyone is advised to stay safe by streaming, Zooming and learning online, a hard reality remains. Large swaths of Americans don’t have decent Internet.  I can speak to this as someone who lives in a rural area.  Our WiFi, both satellite and via phone hot-spot, is abysmal.  So for many families, attempts at online education will be immensely frustrating because videos and lessons simply won’t load in a way that is functional.

Third, and most heart rending, there are children who simply need to be at school for their own safety and mental health.  I have practiced emergency medicine for 27 years.  And there are bad people out there. They abuse their children verbally, physically and sexually. They do so even worse when their ‘kids’ are not theirs biologically but are the children of their partners.  For those children to be trapped for months to years in such settings is a terrible fate.

They may go hungry.  They may develop depression or suicidal tendencies.  Some may be trafficked.  Some will be assaulted.  Many will be neglected as their parents get high on Meth, Heroin or pills.  Shiny iPads sent home to educate the kids will be sold for drugs.  Consigned to such fates, these children may well take the same paths of self-destruction because there simply aren’t other options.  Their opportunities for inspiration or rescue will be fewer since they will not have person-to-person contact with the caring teachers, principles, resource officers and counselors that they would have in school.

But they may be safe from COVID.  And this is what I meant by the title.  The old saying goes, ‘when all you have is a hammer, all the world’s a nail.’  When all we think about is mortality, or even mortality plus morbidity in terms of medical complications, we miss the point that human life and human flourishing involve more than avoiding illness or injury.

It’s all too easy for physicians and others with resources and options to decide that the highest good for everyone is to simply stay home and avoid the risk of COVID infection.  For many it won’t be a strain.  It will be time with family, a time of laughter with food on the table and a unique educational experience.

However, for all too many kids and even parents, staying home in the interest of safety will be less a quarantine and more of a sentence.

There is peril on every front.  I’m not trying to diminish that reality in any way.  Still, we should think carefully about the fates of all those young people before we decide that one form of safety outweighs all other forms of danger.



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