It’s Complicated!

As a former educator, I am frequently asked my opinion on the great send-the-children-back-to-school-in-the-fall debate.  Will it be safe?  Is it wise?  And the inevitable question: What would you do if they were your kids?

My short answer?  It’s complicated!

I lived the first twenty-two years of my life preparing, as it happened, for a career in education, and I’ve spent the most recent twenty-two years in happy retirement.  The intervening thirty-two years had me working as a teacher, vice-principal, principal, HR superintendent, and finally school district superintendent (director of education) in two jurisdictions.  Those jobs were sometimes more challenging than I might have wished, often more difficult than I could have imagined, yet, thankfully, always rewarding.

During my working years, the security and health of everyone I was responsible for—pupils, teachers, and business operations staff—were of paramount concern to me.  Everyone was entitled to a safe learning environment: one free of harassment in whatever guise; one free of assault or intimidation in any form; one clean and in good repair; one equipped with up-to-date learning materials and curricula; an environment welcoming and open to all.

I don’t say those objectives were always fully met, but any shortcomings were never due to lack of effort and good intent.

Today’s students and education workers learn and teach in an environment similar in many ways to that which I inhabited, the many advances in technology notwithstanding.  But there is one major difference they face just now, a threat the likes of which we have never encountered before to this degree.  The COVID-19 virus is a stealthy, merciless, oft-fatal disease that stalks us all, old or young, especially if we congregate in significant numbers in indoor spaces.

A prime example of such spaces:  schools!

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And so, the great question:  Should we be sending kids back to school this fall?  And I do have a longer answer.

During the final years of my career, the provincial government removed from locally-elected school trustees the power to levy taxes for educational purposes.  This left school districts totally reliant on government grants to pay for the costs associated with the provision of an education appropriate to their local communities—communities often poorly understood by the government decision-makers.  As a result, those grants frequently proved insufficient to the needs, and continue to be inadequate to this day.

Whether the school district was located in a large urban environment, or in a remote, northern rural area, the special needs associated with their discrete makeup were only partially accommodated when funds were allocated.  In the years since I left the profession, although the actual dollar amount of those grants has increased, it has not matched the concomitant cost-of-living growth.

Hence, I believe it is not safe to send kids back to school this fall—nor all those who will accompany them back—without a significant expenditure of money to ensure their health and safety.  And it is the government’s responsibility to do this.

Many school districts across the province already have a staggering backlog of capital repairs that are needed to aging buildings, undertakings they cannot afford with current funding.  Believe it or not, there are still schools burdened with asbestos and lead plumbing, not because people don’t understand the need to replace them, but because they haven’t the funds.  There are schools with leaking roofs, aging wiring, saggy floors, inadequate heating and cooling, and windows that won’t open.

Absent COVID-19, everyone would have been going back into those buildings this fall to cope as best they could with such conditions.  It’s inconceivable to me that they would be allowed back without massive measures to safeguard them against the relentless virus preying on the land.

Scientists and medical professionals know better than I how money might best be spent.  Here is a partial list only, gleaned from my reading of many of their posts—

  • developing ongoing channels of communication with provincial and local health departments to stay updated on COVID-19 transmission and response, including contact tracing in the event of a positive case,
  • making decisions that take into account the level of local community transmission,
  • deep-cleaning and disinfecting school buildings daily, especially water and sanitation facilities,
  • increasing airflow and ventilation in schools,
  • promoting best hand-washing and hygiene practices for everyone, and providing hygiene supplies,
  • providing children with information about how to protect themselves, in ways that are developmentally appropriate,
  • implementing multiple SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies, such as social distancing, cloth face-coverings, and hand hygiene,
  • holding school in shifts to ensure smaller class sizes,
  • staggering mealtimes and breaks at school,
  • re-purposing unused or underutilized school (or community) spaces for classroom use,
  • moving classes to temporary spaces or outdoors,
  • integrating SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies into co-curricular and extra-curricular activities,
  • limiting or cancelling participation in activities where social distancing is not feasible,
  • developing a proactive plan for when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19,
  • supporting the mental health of students and staff, and combating any stigma against people who have been sick, and
  • educating parents and caregivers on the importance of monitoring for and responding to the symptoms of COVID-19 at home.

Most important of all, perhaps, is the need to engage and encourage everyone in the school and community to practice preventive behaviours.  That is the most crucial action to support schools’ safe reopening, and to help them stay open.  Until transmission rates in local communities are reduced to an acceptable level, it will be unsafe to send anyone back.

Most of the experts I’ve read believe children should be going back to school, not just for the sake of our economy, but for their own emotional welfare.  But only if it is safe for them to do so.

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So, how much will all these measures cost?  I confess I have no idea; I am too long departed from the scene.  I have read different estimates from government sources, unions, teacher associations, and parent advocacy groups.  Perhaps a consensus is possible.

But whatever the amount, it is not too much if it ensures the safety and well-being of all who head back to school in September, because there is one thing that has not changed since I last was there—the education of our children is not an expense; it is an investment in the future of our country.

And that fact is not complicated at all!

Who Will Mourn Us When We’re Gone?

Who will mourn us when we’re gone?  For many of us, I suppose, it will be our families and friends, those left behind when we have shuffled off our mortal coil, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

But who will mourn us as a species when the last of us has gone?

In fact, who will even notice that we’re gone?  Or care?  As far as we know, we are the only sentient life-form extant on this planet we call home—the only species who can think coherently, who can ponder the unimaginable, who can ask ourselves Why? and What if?

It is quite remarkable when you consider that, in more than four billion years of life on earth, it is we who are the only species ever capable of rational thought.  And irrational thinking, too, unfortunately.

planet-earth-from-space1

According to National Geographic, more than ninety-nine percent of all organisms that have ever lived on earth are extinct.  Yet today, it is estimated that almost nine million species of life—plants, animals, and micro-organisms—cohabit the planet, most of them unknown to us.  Many of those will probably become extinct before ever being identified.

Scientists believe that in the long history of the planet, there have been five mass extinctions, each lasting anywhere from fifty thousand to two-and-a-half million years, the fifth occurring before mammalian forms of life (of which we are but one) began to appear.  Some believe we are currently experiencing a sixth such event.

Our species, homo sapiens, has been around for approximately three-hundred-thousand years, a mere sliver in the timeline of life on earth.  In that relatively short period, we have come to regard ourselves as masters of our universe.  We are the alpha predator, almost surely; yet, increasingly, we find we are not insulated from the predations of deadly life-forms in the shape of bacteria and viruses—most of which evolve and reproduce at a much faster rate than do we.

What accounts for our air of superiority might be summed up in one word—hubris.  Hubris, defined as excessive pride, or self-confidence bordering on arrogance, has allowed us to convince ourselves of our invincibility.  To this point in our history, we have successfully erected barriers to ward off all enemies who would harm us, be they human or otherwise.

hubris

Increasingly, however, I wonder if those preventive measures are like levees and dikes erected to shield us from the rising waters, many of which are proving insufficient to the task of protecting us.  Indeed, they may prove to be no more sturdy than the walls of Jericho.

The COVID-19 pandemic currently sweeping the world should give us pause.  Given that it is, perhaps, just one of many new viruses that will assail us as our planet warms and our ice-caps melt, how can we be sure we will avoid our own extinction?  What can we do to ensure—not hope—ensure that will not happen?

And even if we discover what to do, will we muster the determination and the courage to do it?  What do your own observations tell you about that as you participate in our current struggle?

And so, I come back to my question:  who will miss us when we are gone?

Without us, the sun will rise and set as it always has, the moon will traverse the nighttime sky.  Rain will continue to fall, grass and flowers will continue to grow, waves will continue to crash against rocky shores.  Trees will fall and rise again in forests that are rejuvenating themselves, fish stocks will multiply in the vast oceans, animals and birds will reclaim the land.

Tundra and deserts will rejoice in their emptiness, mountains will cease crumbling under incessant boring and drilling, earth and sea will no longer be plundered of their natural resources.

There will be no war, only peace.

So truly, who among them will miss us?

Alas, none.

Perhaps we do not care.  If our prevailing attitude is that we must acquire as much as we can before we’re gone, and that nothing else matters, it is hard to make the case that we should mend our ways before it is too late.  Many believe we are here, after all, for a good time, not a long time.  Based on verses from Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, we should enjoy life as much as possible.

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

The Bean King.

It is a seductive philosophy.  And if we are coming to believe as a species that no one will miss us when we’re gone, anyway, then why worry?  Live for the moment.

But that is not a mindset to which I willingly accede.  Surely we are better than that.  Surely the best of us will drag the rest of us through the storms we face, if only we allow them.

I wonder if we can.  I wonder if we shall.

Intelligence and Change (2)

Three-and-a-half years ago, I published a post expressing concern about our human resistance to change, and our ignoring of evidence presaging a calamity—an event which is, perhaps, now upon us with the covid-19 pandemic.

You may not have read the post at the time, but I recommend you do so now, for two reasons.  First, it may help to explain just how we have arrived in this situation, particularly the paragraphs highlighted in blue.  And second, it may point the way to a correction in our future behaviours—assuming, of course, our species survives.

– 0 – 0 – 0 – 0 –

If the history of our planet and the existence of life upon it were to be displayed as a clock-face, with its beginning at twelve o’clock, the appearance of the first humanoid beings—our distant, distant precursors—would not occur until the hands had swept around to the merest sliver of time before twelve again.

clock-681645_960_720

Life itself, however, in its earliest, most basic form, would have begun much earlier, when the hands were approaching two o’clock.  The difference in real time is about four billion years, based on the fossil record so far uncovered.  Bacteria, for example, are a subset of prokaryotes, the earliest type of life on earth.

Life existed, in other words, for four billion years before the first hominim stood up on hind-legs, discovered oppositional thumbs, and (possibly) wondered who or what (s)he was.

All this time later, modern humans claim supremacy over the planet and everything living in its embrace.  Such foolhardiness, as we shall see.

We do so, I suppose, out of a belief that we are the most highly-intelligent life-form yet evolved.  Our basic intelligence—distinct from other species because of our imagination and curiosity, which allow us to ask such questions as Why?, How?, and What if…?—varies widely among individual humans, but is demonstrably more advanced than that of other species.

If the specie-specific intelligences of all life-forms, as we measure them, were arrayed on a graph, the human sort would be a tiny triangle at the very top of a much larger triangle, the lower intelligences of inferior life-forms spreading out below ours.

But that ranking may be misleading because of the definition of intelligence we apply in order to do the grading.  If the essential purpose of every known life-form is to perpetuate the species, to survive, and if each group’s success at doing so is the ultimate measure of intelligence, then our ranking would certainly be much different on the graph.

Very recently, a study undertaken at Indiana University posited that the earth might presently host almost one trillion distinct species, of which less than one-thousandth of one percent have been identified.  We might imagine that we are one of the very few species among them to possess an awareness of the others’ existence, but that awareness may not matter much.

A parasite life-form, firmly attached to a host, may not be cognitively aware of its host, but it thrives and reproduces because of their symbiotic relationship—even as the host dies.  The trillions of bacteria that live on our bodies, most of them in the intestinal tract, may have no cognitive awareness of us, but they are essential to our survival, and they reproduce exponentially.

In fact, it has been argued that our human bodies are nothing more than carrying-cases for our microbiome, a coalition of genes from several different species, only one of which is human.

Most bacteria are beneficial to us, but certain types, pathogenic or disease-carrying, can be harmful.  They exist in three main forms—cocci, bacilli, and spirilla—and reproduce so quickly that they can overrun an otherwise-healthy organism, causing illness and even death.

covid-19

Another species posing a threat to us, perhaps the smallest and simplest life-form of any on earth, is the virus.  By themselves, viruses are inanimate, requiring a host in which to multiply and grow—which they do by invading a host-cell, causing it to produce infected cells that attack other cells, and eventually killing the host.

The drive to survive among bacteria and viruses is relentless.  Human intelligence has inspired the development of methods to combat them—antibiotics, such as penicillin, amoxicillin, and tetracycline for bacteria; vaccinations and antiviral drugs, among them acyclovir and interferon, for viruses.  For a long time, these have been effective.

There is some evidence, however, that pathogenic bacteria and viruses are evolving into organisms with an immunity to the drugs we administer.  This comes as no surprise, really, because all living things evolve over time through a process of random mutation and selection.  The alarming thing is that these ‘superbugs’ may be outstripping our ability to develop new drugs to combat them.

Imagine, for instance, if all our defenses against bacterial infections and viral illnesses were to be rendered useless.  Which species would survive, the highly-intelligent one of which we are a part, or the simple, ruthless ones that have existed for the better part of four billion years?

In that context, which of the species is truly the most intelligent?  The human one that spawned Newton and Marie Curie, Mozart and Dylan, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa?  Or the simple ones that have ensured their survival over billions of years on the planet?

Einstein once wrote, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

But history tells us that, although humans are not naturally resistant to every bacterial and viral infection that might assail us, we are naturally resistant to change.

That is a problem.

Intelligence and Change

If the history of our planet and the existence of life upon it were to be displayed as a clock-face, with its beginning at twelve o’clock, the appearance of the first humanoid beings—our distant, distant precursors—would not occur until the hands had swept around to the merest sliver of time before twelve again.

clock-681645_960_720

Life itself, however, in its earliest, most basic form, would have begun much earlier, when the hands were approaching two o’clock.  The difference in real time is about four billion years, based on the fossil record so far uncovered.  Bacteria, for example, are a subset of prokaryotes, the earliest type of life on earth.

Life existed, in other words, for four billion years before the first hominim stood up on hind-legs, discovered oppositional thumbs, and (possibly) wondered who or what (s)he was.

All this time later, modern humans claim supremacy over the planet and everything living in its embrace.  Such foolhardiness, as we shall see.

We do so, I suppose, out of a belief that we are the most highly-intelligent life-form yet evolved.  Our basic intelligence—distinct from other species because of our imagination and curiosity, which allow us to ask such questions as Why?, How?, and What if…?—varies widely among individual humans, but is demonstrably more advanced than that of other species.

If the specie-specific intelligences of all life-forms, as we measure them, were arrayed on a graph, the human sort would be a tiny triangle at the very top of a much larger triangle, the lower intelligences of inferior life-forms spreading out below ours.

But that ranking may be misleading because of the definition of intelligence we apply in order to do the grading.  If the essential purpose of every known life-form is to perpetuate the species, to survive, and if each group’s success at doing so is the ultimate measure of intelligence, then our ranking would certainly be much different on the graph.

Very recently, a study undertaken at Indiana University posited that the earth might presently host almost one trillion distinct species, of which less than one-thousandth of one percent have been identified.  We might imagine that we are one of the very few species among them to possess an awareness of the others’ existence, but that awareness may not matter much.

A parasite life-form, firmly attached to a host, may not be cognitively aware of its host, but it thrives and reproduces because of their symbiotic relationship—even as the host dies.  The trillions of bacteria that live on our bodies, most of them in the intestinal tract, may have no cognitive awareness of us, but they are essential to our survival, and they reproduce exponentially.

In fact, it has been argued that our human bodies are nothing more than carrying-cases for our microbiome, a coalition of genes from several different species, only one of which is human.

silhouettes-of-man-and-woman_23-2147505840

Most bacteria are beneficial to us, but certain types, pathogenic or disease-carrying, can be harmful.  They exist in three main forms—cocci, bacilli, and spirilla—and reproduce so quickly that they can overrun an otherwise-healthy organism, causing illness and even death.

Another species posing a threat to us, perhaps the smallest and simplest life-form of any on earth, is the virus.  By themselves, viruses are inanimate, requiring a host in which to multiply and grow—which they do by invading a host-cell, causing it to produce infected cells that attack other cells, and eventually killing the host.

The drive to survive among bacteria and viruses is relentless.  Human intelligence has inspired the development of methods to combat them—antibiotics, such as penicillin, amoxicillin, and tetracycline for bacteria; vaccinations and antiviral drugs, among them acyclovir and interferon, for viruses.  For a long time, these have been effective.

There is some evidence, however, that pathogenic bacteria and viruses are evolving into organisms with an immunity to the drugs we administer.  This comes as no surprise, really, because all living things evolve over time through a process of random mutation and selection.  The alarming thing is that these ‘superbugs’ may be outstripping our ability to develop new drugs to combat them.

Imagine, for instance, if all our defenses against bacterial infections and viral illnesses were to be rendered useless.  Which species would survive, the highly-intelligent one of which we are a part, or the simple, ruthless ones that have existed for the better part of four billion years?

And if not us, then which of the species is truly the most intelligent?  The human one that spawned Newton and Marie Curie, Mozart and Dylan, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa?  Or the simple ones that have ensured their survival over billions of years on the planet?

As Einstein once wrote, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

But history tells us that, although humans are not naturally resistant to every bacterial and viral infection that might assail us, we are naturally resistant to change.

That is a problem.