Bookman: School teachers, parents inherit the wind of virus apathy

Columnist Jay Bookman writes that in late February the president said of the coronavirus, “one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” And now as he pushes for schools to open it's left to local officials and parents to risk returning to classrooms as COVID-19 still spreads in Georgia. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

“My view is the schools should open,” President Trump said on Fox News Wednesday. “This thing is going away, it will go away like things go away.”

Trump has been wishing the coronavirus would go away from the moment it appeared. As far back as early February, almost 160,000 dead Americans ago, he was reassuring us that we didn’t need to do much, because it will simply vanish in the heat of April.

“It’s going to disappear,” he reiterated on Feb. 27, waving his hands as if performing a magic trick. “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

“It will go away,” he said on March 10. “Just stay calm.  It will go away.”

It didn’t go away by April, it didn’t go away by Easter. It isn’t going to go away now, not until we decide to make it go away, as other nations have done.

Trump has taken a lot of heat for not having a plan to deal with this crisis, but I think that criticism is mistaken. He does have a plan. The plan from the beginning has been to let people keep dying until they stop dying, and then declare victory. And while overflowing morgues and a crippled economy are unfortunate side effects of that plan, from Trump’s point of view it does have its advantages. 

You see, the best plans are simple plans, plans that require you to do very little so that as you carry out your plan of doing very little you can claim your plan is working perfectly, and in fact works better than anybody else’s plan, like no one has ever seen such a plan work. 

Plans to do nothing are effort-free, risk-free, blame-free and courage-free, because you can’t be accused of failing if you never tried in the first place. You can even say things like “I don’t take responsibility at all,” because you made it very clear from the beginning that the onus of actually doing things would be on other people.

But responsibility, like the virus, does not just disappear, like a miracle. Like the virus, when responsibility is ignored by those at the top, the consequences dribble lower down the political and social chain. When responsibility is devolved down to governors, and when governors themselves decide to shirk it, the duty to do something then falls still further down the chain of command, as we’re now seeing in school districts across the country.

Yes, schools ought to reopen. They badly need to reopen. But if reopening the schools in the fall was as important as we now claim it to be then we should have acted like it in the nearly five months since the World Health Organization declared this a global pandemic. It’s not as if the school calendar came as a surprise to us. Other developed countries have used that time to do the necessary work and will be opening their schools on schedule, with tolerable safeguards for safety of children and adults. 

Not us.

The stress that our own incompetence and apathy have placed on school administrators and teachers is both enormous and entirely unfair. They can’t issue mask mandates or order bars and restaurants closed or commit the resources of the federal government to ensuring that tests results can be reported in two days rather than two weeks. They are forced to deal with this ethical, medical, logistical and personal nightmare because people at other levels of government have abdicated their own duties and tried to take the easy way out.

While our own children are grown now, there are times when I miss our days as parents of school-age children. This is not one of those times. The epic, tragic failure of federal and state governments is coming down most heavily on mothers and fathers, forcing them to make choices that they should not have to make, knowing that any decision might be the wrong one, with major but unforeseeable consequences.

Again, parents should not be in that situation. They are forced to make these choices because people who sold themselves as leaders found it easier to avoid the decisions that come with that job. They had a plan, and their plan was to protect themselves first.

Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.