Were you in the classroom when Reye Syndrome was a thing schools were worried about?
Here’s a hint: it first emerged about 45 years ago, a rare but very serious condition that causes swelling in the liver and brain. Reye’s syndrome most often affects children and teenagers recovering from a viral infection, most commonly the flu or chickenpox.
The worst year for Reye (or Reye’s) Syndrome was 1980, when 555 cases were identified, nationally. The numbers dropped precipitously once scientists connected the use of aspirin in children with a viral illness to the onset of the disease. Since 1997, the United States has averaged somewhere around two identified and reported cases per year.
The reason I remember Reye Syndrome so clearly: one of my students had it. A sixth grade girl who was out of school for several weeks. She recovered, thank goodness.
The TV and radio stations and newspapers—state and local—ran stories with boxed and bolded advice: If your child does not recover from the flu or chicken pox, take them to the doctor—or the hospital, if they have a high fever, are vomiting or incoherent. NO ASPIRIN! It was an alarmed topic of conversation at the grocery store, PTA and staff meetings. Caution was the watchword.
That was then.
This week, I read that the large district to the south of the one where I taught was going to require masks for all kids—and that there was concern parents would pull their kids out of Large, Cautious District and send them north to my old district, where masking is, per their website today, completely optional, vaccinated or not.
What happened to the cautious parenting? Damned if I know.
It’s the same overwhelmingly white, middle class suburban district it was, back in 1980. Last year, there were over 300 confirmed COVID cases in the district (so—probably actually way more than the official numbers).
It’s a bright red county, for starters (unlike Large, Cautious District to the south, which is in a blue county). I taught there for 32 years, and lived there for 20. I was always aware that most of my neighbors were Republicans. They were also college-educated and very concerned about their children’s well-being, not to mention their education. I used to think it was an easy district to teach in.
Used to. There’s no reason to doubt that the parents who live there still want the best for their children. It’s just that the definition of what’s best for their children has seriously morphed.
Or maybe it’s because I’m seeing such a place—white, well-educated, focused exclusively on their children’s comfort and happiness—through a different lens. The lens of It’s Not About You, and It’s Not About Little Tyler, either. It’s the lens of community.
If you think that masking children—to keep themselves and others healthy—is an imposition on them, or you, it’s pretty clear what/who matters to you. And if you’re not taking your seventh grader to get a jab, you’re not thinking of your community, or even keeping your family safe.
About 35% of kids 12-15 are vaccinated or partially vaccinated in this county—the number rises to 48% of teens 16-19. Which is a start, but pales in the face of the potentially lethal variant: Up to one-third of children admitted to our hospital have required critical care — including oxygen delivered through high-flow nasal cannula, noninvasive ventilation, and intubation with mechanical ventilation. More than 300 children across the United States have died of covid since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This indifference and opposition to the best available solutions for protecting kids is not the norm across Michigan, by the way. Here’s a cheery story out of East Grand Rapids (another town that is 95% white, upper middle class and well-educated): According to the county, 95% of people age 12 to 17 in East Grand Rapids are vaccinated and 96% of people over 16 in the district have gotten their shots.
I have to say—I’d sure feel a lot better sending my kid to that middle school. But I would still want everyone to mask up. The most important content teachers could be teaching this year is: Why Masking Saves Lives and Respects Others—science, math and civics in one lesson plan.
We could also teach about the prevalence of irrational behaviors and resistance.
I still have lots of friends (and their children, and their children’s children) in this careless school district. I am fond of them. I am heartily sick of covid-related anger and judgment (and yes, I know that this blog has been laced with anger and judgment).
But this statement feels right to me: We can direct our rage not at lost individuals but at systems of power that made our grim national death count the only plausible outcome. Is it so shocking that a caste-based society that exalts individualism and prioritizes profit above wellness — one of the only industrialized nations without universal health care — would fail to rise to the challenges of a collective health crisis?
I still wonder what happened to the nice parents who insisted that the elementary and middle schools send home urgent letters about Reye Syndrome. Systems of power intervened. The blinders are off.
The shift may owe something to the focus on social-emotional health, too. Along with the background noise of individual rights and a distrust of big government, the community’s well-being gets shoved to the side.
You know how you always learn something when you’re writing? What I learned is that *I* have changed, in terms of my understanding of justice and privilege. This is one of those moments when entitlement is laid bare. And the belief in individual rights and distrust of government has been growing steadily in the past four decades.
Systems of power, a “caste-based society that exalts individualism and prioritizes profit above wellness” has always been there. But the balance has tipped–we are close to losing a rational government. Things have to change What’s happening in schools right now is just one symptom of the shape we’re in.
I’m in the same place in terms of my thinking. The injustices and the obvious economic inequity that seem to be built into our society right now can’t be ignored.
One of the tenants of the Constitution of the United States is the ideal of “Common Good”. Unfortunately, so many do not understand the meaning of this important concept. I WILL be wearing a mask when I return to class (in the aforementioned school district. As a science teacher, I learned a long time ago that “science rules”. Nancy, thank you for another excellent insight !
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Thanks, Michele—for reading and commenting. But even more, for teaching the kids in your hometown with such care. I think that teachers who mask (and explain why they’re masking) will serve as role model, especially for younger children. Not all of them, of course–and there will be awful parents who use their kids as pawns in a political power struggle (with weak school leadership). But you will do some good.