"The kids are anxious, I can tell you that much," a teacher explains. She's been seeing her high school students only digitally for months now. She teaches English, and, she says, that leads her to get to know them better. "I talk to them years later. Somehow, they get my phone number. I connect with them."
The way her students have been acting this past year has been strange—in a very particular way. "They're behaving too well." She wonders whether it's because their parents are at home with them while they are in their Zoom sessions, or if some other factor's in play. Either way, it's very out of character for students of this age, she says. "They're doing unusual things—like asking about their homework. Come on. They don't do this normally."
She was speaking to colleagues, including one who is a counselor, who shared her concerns. "The students are almost obsessive compulsive about their homework," she says. In a year when all their aspirations have been cancelled, when their social contacts erased, and they're regular activities postponed indefinitely, she says, "They're trying to hold on to some type of structure."
Some of them, she says, are working fulltime in one of the big stores. "I thought, My God, you're 16, 17 years old." Some, she says, are working because their parents can't. Others just want to get out. Her own son, a student getting an advanced degree in a lucrative field, said he was going so crazy with digital-only classes that he took a job with an app-based delivery service. "He was getting to the point where he couldn't sleep. He's 27 years old. He found himself up at 3 am." He told her he would go crazy if he didn't get out of the house. "It's not like he needed the money—he's on a scholarship."
"He just wanted to have contact with people," she says. "They can't meet girls. He goes out with his friends. He goes to church. He goes to band practice. He'll come down here to San Francisco, but he'll sit in the car, six feet from us. He hasn't been in the house since March even though he comes to the city to visit."
She wasn't sure she would have wanted to return to in-person learning this fall. "I'm afraid of the Covid," she says. "On the one hand, I don't believe in it, but I'm taking all these precautions because of my age." But in not returning, she's seeing a major downside. Many of her high school students are struggling with the technology. She's frustrated that the school district has not offered more resources to guide teachers on how to best use it.
"The kids are all anxious," she says again, thinking about the sentence and the big world it contains for her, then adds a note. "They need to be together."
"I have four children, one in preschool, one in elementary, one in high school, and one in college," he says. Usually, that statement would be accompanied by pride, but this time it brings with it a grim assessment. "The closures have ruined their lives and the lives of all of their peers."
He describes his son's first day of kindergarten, usually one to celebrate. Like most parents, he took a picture of it for posterity: a boy, seated in front of a Chromebook. "I don't understand how anyone can look at that and not think they're living in a dystopian nightmare."
Each of his children have been affected differently, he says. "But like all humans, they require social interaction—and they've basically been forbidden from interacting with their peers for seven months. Lack of social interaction is harmful to all humans, but particularly young humans."
His son was told by his friends that he was "evil" for wanting to see them. "It just boggles my mind."
"My wife and I have been living in the city for a long time. Like many, we're considering leaving. Before Covid, San Francisco had the lowest percentage of children of anywhere in the country. I can only imagine it's going to be vastly fewer children now. No one cares."
He notes the skewed priorities for re-opening. "For instance, libraries are not being opened. The playgrounds are being opened, but only in two weeks, and it's a prison playground; 2-year-olds are required to wear masks. Children who are in diapers will be wearing masks. They don't even know how to get dressed! Plus, they're required to stay 6 feet apart from other children. They're not allowed to play with each other. With the basketball rims, there's no plan to ever restore the rims in the re-opening. Rich people who live in the suburbs or who have a driveway, they can play basketball. But all the kids in the city who depend on the basketball courts won't get them."
"These closures are the biggest example of institutional racism that I've seen in my lifetime. In a couple weeks, every private and parochial school will be open, and none of the public schools will be. No big city public school in the country will be open. Everyone in the country will be going to school except poor black and brown children. We're opening all of the activities except for the activities they would be playing."
Talking to his network of friends around the world, he believes that San Francisco and Berkeley are the world's most restrictive areas for children. "The playground issue, for example, nowhere on the planet is there a place where the playgrounds were closed for six months." Older kids, he says, are stuck in front of their computers and he's observed their lives have lost those things that gave them meaning. No junior prom, no summer job, no internship, no sports, no activities. Arts and culture: eliminated.
His wife believed that the moment the election was over, things were going to ease up. He doesn't believe that anymore. He sees people in the Bay Area are too wedded to the narrative. "They're too locked in," he says. "When I started seeing the same discussion with the flu, I thought I was going to lose my mind." What he's realized is shocking. "The people here want it. The whole masking-people-outside business is based on the consent of the governed. If the people didn't want it, we wouldn't have to wear them."
He went to the last School Board meeting, and heard an official say they couldn't open schools until it was safe for teachers. "Who's representing the children?" he wonders.
"I do yoga. I was happy hanging out at home, going for long walks. But this," he says, "this is too important. If I stay here, I'm going to fight."