US school shutdowns raise concerns for children’s future
Exhaustion, stress and worsening inequality: nine months into the coronavirus pandemic and most American children have not returned to classrooms, disrupting the lives of families and teachers and fueling concerns about the long-term impact on youngsters’ development.
Victoria Mendez — a cleaner of Mexican origin who lives in New York City — had hoped to see her 14-year-old son’s school reopen after Christmas, but, with infections soaring, she no longer believes it will happen.
“The situation is very stressful. He no longer studies,” says the 53-year-old, who is raising two children on her own.
When Mendez leaves for work — just three days a week after she lost her full-time job because of the pandemic — she worries whether her youngest son is in fact going online for his remote lessons.
Noelle Cullimore’s son, who suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, lost the extra educational and psychological support he used to receive before the pandemic.
He has returned to school two days a week recently, which his mother says has helped, but she still fears that his spell without in-person teaching will leave “a huge gap in his education.”
Even families whose children don’t suffer any particular difficulties worry about the effects of their prolonged absence from classrooms.
The reopening of her nine-year-old daughter’s school can’t come soon enough for Amy, a well-off New Yorker.
She believes that although her daughter took easily to wearing masks and attending birthday parties on Zoom children have “lost the routine of life.”
Teachers seem even more tense than parents. Maggie Mock, a teacher from Phoenix, Arizona, has only taught virtually since March for fear of catching the virus and infecting her family.
Despite her 11 years of experience and dedication to her profession, the 35-year-old, a mother herself, considered resigning “multiple times.”
– No sleep –
Mock says she has been left weary by having to master new digital tools and by authorities reversing their decision to reopen schools, a move that meant she was temporarily given new students, doubling her workload.
“It was exhausting. I was not sleeping,” she said,
Now feeling a little happier about the situation, Mock is particularly worried about her students. She has 24 of them but rarely sees more than 18 online at any one time.
“Where are they?” she wonders, after trying in vain to contact their parents.
Mock says children can evade attention more easily when classes are virtual.
“I have never had a student refuse to do something when they are in front of me — they just don’t have the option. But with remote learning, they get by, they just don’t have the pressure.”
The ones who check out are the ones whose parents aren’t following their child’s online education closely, Mock laments.
Parental disengagement is often a symptom of socio-economic disparities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including access to health care and the internet, experts stress.
A McKinsey & Company study published this month estimated that after just a few months of an all-virtual education Black and Latino students were on average three to five months behind at mathematics, compared to between one and two months for whites.
– Vaccine –
Increasing disparities, coupled with European countries reopening schools despite a resurgent pandemic, is fueling debate about reopening schools.
Since September there has been a trend towards face-to-face teaching, according to the website Burbio, which is tracking school reopenings.
Its analysis of America’s 13,000 school districts, all of which are free to choose whether to reopen, found that 48 percent of children were doing virtual schooling this week, down from 62 percent at the beginning of September.
New York has been leading the way among major cities. It reopened elementary schools for part-time, in-person learning last week, despite the virus surging, and promises to have the city’s youngest children back in classes full-time soon.
But in a decentralized country like the United States, where school districts have unequal resources, there is no one solution suitable for all schoolchildren, says Megan Collins, joint head of a health-in- schools program at Johns Hopkins Universities.
“It’s the nuances with resources and geography and COVID transmission rates and availability of testing,” that help inform whether children should be back in classrooms, she said.
Nicholas Wagner, a child psychologist at Boston University, says priority for returning to school full-time should be given to those who lose the most from learning online — younger children and the underprivileged.
“Almost the way the vaccine is being distributed — people who are the most at risk get it almost immediately,” he said.
Turkey’s jailed rights leader Kavala faces new trial
Turkey’s jailed civil society leader Osman Kavala appears Friday before an Istanbul court on charges that rights groups say are part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s effort to stifle dissent.
The 63-year-old social crusader’s trial date comes as the constitutional court mulls whether his detention — ongoing without a conviction for more than three years — is lawful.
US academic Henri Barkey is also being tried in absentia alongside Kavala in a case linked to the 2016 failed coup attempt against Erdogan.
Rights groups view Kavala’s case as a bellwether on the state of freedom of expression under Erdogan — a strong-willed leader who has ruled Turkey as prime minister and president since 2003.
Erdogan branded Kavala the “red Soros of Turkey” a few days after he was first detained upon landing in Istanbul’s old Ataturk airport in October 2017.
The Parisian-born businessman was a founding member of philanthropist George Soros’s Open Society Foundation in Turkey and headed a group that promoted cross-cultural ties via the arts.
Kavala has remained in prison despite being acquitted in February in connection with 2013 protests about the planned demolition of an Istanbul park that morphed into the first serious challenge to Erdogan’s rule.
He was re-arrested before he could leave the courtroom however, on fresh charges of espionage and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order in the failed 2016 coup.
The European Court of Human Rights first called for Kavala’s “immediate release” in December 2019.
– Speculation about release –
His court appearance Friday, the first full day of hearings on the latest charges, comes during a wave of speculation about a possible easing of political and legal pressure on Erdogan’s longstanding foes.
Erdogan was forced to part ways last month with his powerful son-in-law — once viewed as the president’s second in command — and appoint a more market-friendly team to tackle Turkey’s growing economic problems.
He promised to launch judicial reforms at the same time to win back foreign investors who have become discouraged about the current state of Turkey’s rule of law.
The sudden change in tone prompted former deputy prime minister and Erdogan ally Bulent Arinc to say in a televised interview that he was “shocked by the fact that (Kavala) is still under arrest”.
But Erdogan distanced himself from the comments a few days later and Arinc was forced to resign from the president’s advisory body as a result.
Kavala’s supporters are also pinning their hopes on a constitutional court hearing of his appeal for an immediate release. It is unclear when a ruling will be announced.
“I would not be surprised if the constitutional court decides to release Kavala,” said human rights lawyer Kerem Altiparmak.
“The government’s strategy is based on saying: ‘I didn’t release him, someone else did’.”
– US academic –
Kavala would be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of trying to overthrow the constitutional order. The espionage charge carries an additional 20 years in jail.
His case is being heard alongside that of Turkish-born US academic Barkey — a former member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff who lives in the United States and is being tried in absentia.
The accusations against Barkey stem from a conference he organised about Iran in a hotel on an island off Istanbul at the time of the 2016 coup attempt.
The charge sheet alleges Barkey used the conference as cover to coordinate the coup with Kavala.
The indictment also includes data from cell phone receivers placing him and Kavala in the same neighbourhoods of Istanbul at the same time.
Human rights defenders point out that such data is irrelevant and had already been ruled inadmissible by the constitutional court.
“His case is a good example of the lack of rule of law in Turkey,” Truth Justice Memory Centre director Murat Celikkan told AFP.