Author’s Note: This is one of those rare days when inspiration struck more than once. Rather than combine my inspirations into one lengthy post, I will separate them because they are two very different ideas. The first is on what we would call “toxic positivity.”
2020 seems to be known for a lot of things and one of them is the catch phrase. My web browser gave me one of those little scribbled red lines under “positivity.” It doesn’t seem to know this word exists. Words are invented every year. It’s one of the great things about language. Over time our whole written and spoken language evolves.
Some have defined toxic positivity as “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations.” For some of you, those are just a bunch of words. They all mean something, but put together they just look like a tossed word salad with a side of dressing. Sometimes, an image is much more appropriate.
Kevin Bacon made his cinematic debut in Animal House. Everyone that has watched the movie remembers the iconic scene where he is getting paddled and must say, “thank you sir, may I have another?” However, the scene I’m thinking of here is when their is a riot at the end of the movie. Bacon desperately tells the crowd, “all is well…” as he gets trampled on by the crowd. That’s the mental image of toxic positivity.
That seemed to be the general theme of our meeting yesterday. Kids are returning to school on Tuesday and the meeting was about all of the safety protocols that were in place. The meeting and the preparations for the meeting are a grand study in paradoxes. On the one hand, there has been a lot of thought that has gone into it. On the other hand, there hasn’t been nearly enough thought that has gone into it.
Again, this isn’t a shot at our administrative team. I firmly believe they are doing the best they can even if others are unsure. It’s just that it’s impossible to consider everything. It’s an unprecedented situation. It’s not like we can fall back on a ton of experience in the room. Unfortunately, we don’t have any survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic to conference with.
The district has provided us with our own masks and face shields. They’ve given every classroom teacher disinfectant spray and paper towels. We have signs throughout the building telling students to wear face coverings, socially distance, and to wash their hands frequently. We’ve even set up traffic patterns to alleviate some of the bottlenecks you always have in a high school. Lunch tables have been spread out and classroom seating has been spread out as well.
The toxic positivity comes in when you consider that we’ve been told to put on a happy face. That’s true every year. In the abstract it makes perfect sense. If the students feel like you like them and care about them then they will perform better for you. Most years it’s easy to put on a happy face. In most years we are actually happy to be doing what we are doing. This year we are still happy to teach, but there are circumstances that make us less than happy overall.
For one, the battle plan (for lack of a better term) is predicated on a number of assumptions. The first assumption is that everyone (including 400-600 students) are self-assessing their health honestly before going to work each day. The symptoms of COVID-19 are so generic that it matches symptoms many of us encounter on a weekly or even daily basis. Is that sore throat a normal byproduct of the allergies I get every year or is it something worse? Others have digestive issues normally. I don’t want to get down into the dirty details, but imagine asking say 500 students (or 1000-1500 in a normal sized high school) to each assess their health every morning when they don’t necessarily have a firm grasp on what the symptoms look like, have parents that probably want them out of the house, and they themselves are excited to see their friends in school for the first time since March.
So, that’s just the first layer of positive thinking run amok. We are assuming everyone is accurately assessing their own health. The second assumption is that all of the protocols, building arrangements, and spacing plans are all predicated on the number of students that said they would be returning face to face. We’ve already been instructed that if a student that says they are virtual shows up then we have to accommodate them. What if that is 100 extra? What if it’s 300? What if suddenly everyone that says they are virtual decide they want to rejoin the campus? How do you socially distance in the hallway? How do you do it during lunch?
The third and perhaps most serious assumption is the assumption that students will all come with their own face coverings. We’ve told them to do it. It’s their responsibility to do it. So, we naturally assume that 400-600 students (in our campus’ sake) will all bring face coverings and wear them at all times. I shouldn’t have to tell you how unrealistic this assumption is. After all, we all know what the word assume breaks down into.
Mind you, there is a plan of sorts for when that doesn’t happen. Students will be given up to three disposable masks before a meeting is set up with their parents. They will be strongly encouraged to become virtual students if they cannot comply. The obvious goal on the first day is to catch students as they come in and direct them to the office to get a mask should they not have one. This assumes that the numbers of unmasked students will be low and also assumes they will keep their masks on at all times. Again, we know what that word assume means.
Finally, there really doesn’t seem to be a firm plan of what happens when someone on campus tests positive. Certainly, some people would have to quarantine, but how many would that be? Is it just people in that person’s class? Well, if it is a teacher then does that mean that upwards of 100 students have to quarantine? How many colleagues would have to quarantine? If it is a student then do all of his or her teachers need to quarantine? Would all the students that share classes with them have to quarantine?
My sister used to teach at a school in Central Texas. They had one football player that tested positive. Within a week that one student begat a dozen fellow students and coaches combined. That number quickly turned into 20. It’s a real concern that simply can’t be answered. Again, this isn’t a shot at administration. They can only provide answers when they get the guidance necessary from those above them. Those folks can only provide answers from their superiors. Thus, you get the idea. Eventually you get to a place where someone said “there shall be school” without really thinking through all of the ramifications. Those at the ground level will figure it out. Everything will be fine. Nothing to see here. All is well.