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LETTER: COVID-19 and crowded classrooms — we never learn

Waterford Valley High School for return to school story
File photo - Keith Gosse

What makes us persist, stubbornly carrying on as we have in the past, despite overwhelming evidence that what we are doing is wrong?

With all our K-12 students back to school full-time in crowded, busy, poorly ventilated classrooms, and “social distancing” but a cruel joke I can’t but wonder why senior management at the Department of Education still insists it’s the only way.

Some suggest that it’s in response to pressure from parents who depend on the schools for child care. If true it’s indefensible. The notion of this being a thing for students Grade 6 and above is ludicrous.

As for those in the lower grades, nowadays more parents are working from home, capable of providing supervision. In addition, it’s trivial for the school district to identify the students who need to attend school daily and make allowance.

I believe it’s something else.

My maternal grandfather served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the ironically-named Great War. He never offered a reason why he signed up, but I believe it was because most of his friends and neighbours did — there was an overriding expectation.

He told stories, though, of endless weeks, shivering in the filth of the trenches and of the horror he’d feel blowing the whistle, ordering his comrades over the top and following as they advanced, inch by inch, in the face of enemy fire.

Why did he do it? For valour? For King? For Ireland? No, no and no. He did it for his comrades. He, and his fellow Dubliners, did whatever it took to look after one another in those hellish times.

And, of course, for personal honour. Nobody wanted to the one that let the others down.

Most of you have served, at one time or another, in leadership roles and know, unless you have sociopathic tendencies, how gut-wrenching it can be. That’s exactly what it is for Department of Education. There are never sufficient resources to give the mostly unforgiving public all it wants.

Instead, management uses the best information it can glean, tacks on the demands from cabinet, gives the school boards their marching orders and then remains steadfast in the face of the inevitable backlash.

On an individual level, the bureaucrats cope with the stress in the usual ways. They ease the cognitive dissonance between what they did and what the critics want by discounting or even ignoring the opposition. For strength and support, they rally around one another and defend one another’s actions, to the point of excluding all voices of dissent.

“Hold fast,” is generally a good watchword, and the integrity to do just that is mostly a thing to be admired.

But not always.

The ordeal my grandfather endured in the trenches near Hulluch in northern France did not yield any measurable gains. Owing to attrition, he climbed the ranks and was a sergeant by 1916, supervising a machine gun nest, and providing cover as, one by one, his comrades succumbed to enemy bullets while trying to advance over a crater-scarred mudscape. Still, the generals remained steadfast. “Steady lads! We can do this!”

And he did, until a gas attack tore him from action, his lungs scarred forever.

“And do you think it was worth it?” I was too young, too clueless to ask but now, 42 years too late, if I’m allowed to put words in my dead Granda’s mouth, the response would be: “We got through it, most of us that is, but none of it needed to happen if our leaders had buried their petty loyalties along with their egos and done the right thing.”

“And do I think it will be worth it?” As I ponder the wanton disregard for the safety of our students, our teachers, and for the more vulnerable among us I am left with the same answer.

We all have an inner soundtrack: voices, ear worms that add mood to our thoughts the way only music can. As I type this, I hear only the last line of Eric Bogle’s lonely lament, “Oh, Willie McBride it’s all happened again. And again, and again, and again, and again.”

Maurice Barry
Mount Pearl

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