Respect science on COVID-19 — masks are essential; remote learning is not

If ever there was a time when we needed to respect science, it is now.

Minimizing the destruction of COVID-19 can be done at local and even personal levels. But it requires people to accept a few basic facts, which is proving astonishingly difficult for far too many Americans.

Let’s start with the most obvious — masks. To see why masks work take a squirt bottle of water and spray it into the air. The droplets shoot forward and disperse, much the way saliva droplets do from a mouth.

Next, hold a mask in front of the bottle and spray again. The result is far fewer airborne droplets. COVID is spread by infected airborne droplets. Limit the droplets, limit the transmission. It’s that simple. And yet many people cannot seem to understand this.

Perhaps they don’t believe the virus is real or, if it is, it’s not that dangerous. A friend of mine who’s a hospital nurse told me last summer that anyone who misunderstands the seriousness of COVID should spend a day with him at work.

During World War II, Americans sacrificed greatly to defeat a common enemy. Food, gasoline and rubber were rationed. Citizens donated all they could to scrap and rubber drives. Victory gardens ensured enough food was available for the military. Women gave up nylon stockings and donated silk ones to be repurposed into things such as parachutes.

In comparison, wearing a mask is but a minor inconvenience in fighting our current common enemy. Yet in today’s crisis, too many people aren’t doing their part.

Another friend runs a preschool near Columbus. She told me that mask wearing to prevent the transmission of COVID this fall has had an additional benefit: far fewer cases of typical colds and flus.Get the Afternoon Update newsletter in your inbox.

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Which brings me to another act of science defiance: zero in-person instruction at Akron Public Schools. Science tests our assumptions to see if they hold up. While it may seem intuitive that 100% remote learning is the only safe way to educate our children this year, it’s not.

Last spring, schools nationwide understandably closed when this new virus invaded our nation. But we have since learned much. First of all, masks work. Secondly, we now understand the risk levels of different situations.

There is now a huge body of evidence indicating that schools aren’t super-spreader locations and younger children in particular, for whom remote-only learning is most detrimental, are far less likely than middle and high schoolers to bring COVID into the buildings from home.

While APS has remained remote-only, schools locally, nationally and internationally opened their buildings this fall, some with five-day full instruction, others in hybrid form. By following standard protocols and creating classroom bubbles, the risk of transmission turns out to be far lower than that of contact sports, indoor dining at restaurants or in gyms–all of which have been prioritized over education.

Locally, Copley and Norton’s school districts switched from remote- or hybrid-only after the first weeks of school, when it became evident that schools aren’t super spreader locations, to optional 5-day-a-week instruction. Neither have resulted in COVID catastrophes.

Meanwhile, the negative effects of not having in-person instruction are also well documented. Drop-out rates increase dramatically, which in turn leads to loss of income potential and even earlier death rates. For districts that have recalcitrantly remained remote only, they may well be responsible for a lost generation of students.

Last year our daughter Lyra, who has Down syndrome, repeated kindergarten. After testing in January, it was determined that she was finally first-grade ready. Then, in March, schools closed and Lyra regressed. We’ve worked all fall to get her caught up.

Her father and I pay a special education teacher to assist Lyra with her remote learning, something few families can afford. And while this has been helpful, it cannot replicate in-person instruction and Lyra remains where she was academically a year ago. Furthermore, she cannot derive the important benefits of speech, physical and occupational therapies through virtual instruction.

That’s why we were relieved when APS announced in late October that they would supplement remote-only learning with what they called “remote plus,” or in-person support. But the then district reversed course, as they have so often, cancelling the program before it began.

When they did, Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda stated that large districts such as Akron’s cannot safely bring all 20,000 students back into the buildings, that they can’t bring even half that into the buildings.

That formula is overly simplistic. First of all, remote plus would likely not have brought half the student population into the buildings. But even if it did, that doesn’t mean they all had to be there at the same time.

For those who think now is not the time to consider alternatives to remote-only education, that is exactly what New York City schools, the largest district in the nation, did last week. Preschool and elementary students now have the option of returning to the buildings, even while the city faces increased COVID cases.

Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show, often decries the lack of nuance in important considerations. All-or-nothing approaches all too often reign the day. This, coupled with people who are motivated by hubris or fear informed by unreliable sources, is not a recipe for getting out of this pandemic swiftly or with minimal losses.

Wear a mask. And let’s give our most vulnerable children the option of some form of in-person instruction.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 13, 2020.


Pandemic pauses family traditions, not thanks

Thanksgiving 2018

Every August, as predictable as summer fruit ripening, my three eldest sons begin to announce, “I’m really looking forward to Thanksgiving.”

For more than 20 years, we’ve made the 450-mile journey to Charlevoix, Michigan, for the November holiday. My stepmother has lived in the same 950-square-foot house near Lake Michigan since 1972. She and her husband (not my father) are my big boys’ only grandparents.

After my first three boys grew adult-sized and I had two more children with their stepfather, Max, we found it necessary to caravan north in two vehicles. For five years, when my eldest son, Claude, studied at the University of Michigan, his brothers picked him up in Ann Arbor, and they’d have a mini-reunion in the car.

Though we always reconvene at Christmas, it is Thanksgiving that our family most enjoys. Free of gift-giving pressure, and not tied to a specific religion, it has a simple requirement: eat well and often while enjoying each other’s company — a comfortable perch for gratitude.

Last year, we did not go home for Thanksgiving, but in everyone’s mind, it didn’t count.

Hugo gave his senior recital at Eastman School of Music the Saturday before the holiday and we were all there, including Grandma. She flew to Rochester and then rode with us to Akron where she stayed for a few days. Same show, different station.

Now in 2020, we, like everyone, regularly make plans — whether to take trips, go to school or buy more toilet paper — only to find it necessary to adjust them.

The neighbor’s home in Charlevoix, where for many years we’ve stayed over the Thanksgiving weekend, is no longer available. Last summer when the kids and I were there, Barb, a good friend of 40 years, invited us to stay with her.

On a day with breezes blowing from the lake and boat horns regularly bellowing for the town’s draw bridge to open, Barb and I sat on her porch and planned the Thanksgiving our families would share this year. An artist of local note, Barb plotted out the tables and decor for the feast, which our family would happily provide.Get the Afternoon Update newsletter in your inbox.

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My second son, Hugo, who recently moved to Illinois with his girlfriend, bought a one-way plane ticket from Chicago to Dallas. Claude, who is in graduate school at Texas A&M, was to pick up Hugo at the airport and then they’d promptly begin driving home. On their way, they were to pick up their younger brother Jules in Columbus, where he’s a sophomore at Ohio State.

First to fall was Thanksgiving in Michigan. By the end of October, we all knew. The boys and I talked about it, Max and I talked about it and then, finally, my stepmom and I talked about it. With the pandemic spreading like a California wildfire, it would be irresponsible for us, coming from three states, to visit the grandparents.

Then, two weeks ago, Hugo called and told me he wasn’t going to fly to Dallas. Illinois may soon enact a travel ban, and he and Claudia, who was going to drive here to join us, didn’t want to risk getting stuck in Akron.

With several podcasts downloaded on his phone, Claude drove home over two days last weekend and will stay here until his classes resume in mid-January.

Finally, the Friday before Thanksgiving, Jules and I had the following text-message exchange:

“Hey, I’ll stay in Columbus over Thanksgiving.”

“Feels kinda like getting a text break up.”

“OMG, but I think we both know this is for the better.”

Yes, we do. I was the one who had alerted Jules when Franklin County (where OSU is located) was declared purple, the worst possible COVID rating in the state’s color-coded health advisory alert system.

“Jules could have called you,” Claude said, “He’s going through some weird bro phase.”

I chuckled. We all go through phases, and what Claude calls Jules’ “bro phase” is far preferable than others I can think of. But yeah, he could’ve called.

Several weeks ago, Max and I ordered a fresh-killed turkey large enough to feed 10 with ample leftovers. We picked it up from Fresh Fork Market on Wednesday, but instead of brining the bird whole as we usually do, we quartered it.

On Thanksgiving Day we served only the breasts, which had been brined in buttermilk and salt. We’ve used the rest of the bird in soups and casseroles, some of which we’ve frozen.

No, our favorite holiday was not the same this year with our family scattered hither and thither. But my feelings of gratitude are, in fact, significant. I’m grateful we are all healthy, that none of us ignored science over minor inconveniences.

And, I suspect, after this pandemic-induced break in our annual tradition, future Thanksgivings will be more savory than ever.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on 11/29/2020.


COVID interrupts valued friendship

“I waited on Maureen O’Hara at the MGM commissary. She was an observant Catholic and didn’t eat meat on Fridays, so we’d save a plate of chicken and she’d come by after midnight.”

I’ve written before about Bascom, who became family through my relationship with Max, and my bi-weekly dates with this nonagenarian Southern gentleman.

Last February, as we were driving to Playhouse Square to see the Broadway Series production of “Anastasia,” we were chatting, as we often do, about old movies. Turner Classic Movies is the primary reason why I still pay for cable service.

I don’t recall how the feisty Irish star of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Quiet Man” and dozens of other films came up. I’m sure we’ve discussed her before, but Bascom not only neglected to mention serving her midnight meals, I’d had no idea he’d ever worked for MGM.

“Hold up,” I said while navigating through the five lanes of traffic on I-480 West. “When did you work for MGM?”

“I’ve told you that before, haven’t I?” he asked. Yeah, nope.

“When did you work for MGM?”

“Well, it was after I returned from the war. My friend Julia and I hitchhiked from Atlanta to Culver City, near Hollywood, where she had a friend with a trailer we all lived in.”

After the matinee showing of “Anastasia,” which Bascom loved, we went, as we always do after a show, out to dinner.

No sooner had we placed our cocktail order, than I began peppering him with questions, scribbling down his answers in a notebook, which I always carry in my purse.

After graduating from high school in an Atlanta suburb in 1939, Bascom enrolled in ROTC at Northern Georgia College, but studied journalism at Emory College because he wanted to be a writer.

He was drafted in 1943, in the middle of his final semester. Even though he didn’t finish, Emory understandably gave Bascom his diploma. After basic training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, the Army sent him to New York City, where he arrived on his 21st birthday.

Because large numbers of young men had been conscripted for World War II, colleges and universities were suffering from a lack of students. To help with their revenue losses, the military paid for soldiers to attend college while awaiting deployment. Bascom, who lived on Fleet Street in Brooklyn, took courses at Pratt University.

Nearly a year after he arrived in New York, Bascom deployed to Germany. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge where his best friend, Russell Mohler of Petaluma, California, was killed at his side. Bascom was wounded in the same attack and later awarded the Bronze Star. “Mohler had a wife and children,” Bascom told me. “I wrote his wife, and thought of visiting her, but never did.”

After 33 months in the European theater, Bascom returned to Georgia just before Christmas in 1946. And then, the following spring, he and his friend Julia, whose parents Bascom says were “beatnik types,” thumbed their way to Tinseltown.

As I drove him home after dinner that winter evening, I told Bascom I would have more questions for him on our next date. But we didn’t meet two weeks, or even two months, later. COVID landed on our shores and for six months I feared our evening in February might have been our last.

During our long conversations, Bascom closely listens to me. He then goes off and ruminates on what I’ve said and, at our next meeting, returns with probing questions. I find this an expression of love more meaningful than any tangible gift.

In August, just in time for his 98th birthday, Bascom and I resumed our dating schedule, dining on the patio of a local establishment where he’s well known and beloved.

He subscribes to, and reads, several publications—including the New York Times, The New Yorker, Time and more—and we often discuss articles we both particularly enjoyed. But Bascom doesn’t have a radio or television.

A few days after the election, I called and told him his home state, Georgia, was trending blue.

“Oh, that’s marvelous. That’s grand! I remember when Georgia always voted Democrat.”

“Yeah, but, Bascom,” I said, “those were different Democrats, those were Dixiecrats.”

“Well, sure, you’re right, but, oh, how we loved FDR! You know, he was often there, at Warm Springs. Did I tell you I saw him once when he drove by my father’s business on Peach Street in Atlanta?”

No, he hadn’t. And I’m left wondering what other events and people of the past century my dearest friend has witnessed and not yet shared with me.

Last weekend, when the weather was gloriously warm and dry, we spent hours talking at our favorite restaurant. “Bascom,” I told him before I left, “COVID cases are rising like crazy and it’ll soon be too cold to eat outdoors. We may need to stay apart again for a bit.” He agreed.

And so, yet again in this year like no other, I pray I’ve not seen the last of my friend, who is also like no other.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 15, 2020.