Susan J. Demas: We failed on COVID-19. An entire generation of kids will pay the price.

September 3, 2020 7:05 am

Getty Images

Over the last week, my two teenagers went back to school online during fairly momentous times in their educational development.

My youngest is a high school junior who has a year of college boards and, in normal times, college visits ahead of him. My oldest is a freshman at Michigan State University, where she was supposed to live in a small residential college and get a taste of adulthood, but instead gets to deal with her parents as roommates (lame).

They both deserved to go back to school instead of doing more remote learning, but they are making the best of it and trying to keep up with friends on Xbox and Zoom. I’m glad that their school brass prioritized their safety over politics during the pandemic. We thankfully haven’t been faced with difficult decisions about sending our children into unsafe environments, as millions of other parents have, especially in states where coronavirus is raging.

Many schools across the country have shuttered already amid COVID-19 outbreaks and the news from college campuses is predictably grim. You can’t just reopen because donors tell you to and hope for the best. That’s not a plan.

I’ve rarely seen such boneheaded decision-making, like Iowa State University officials’ initial call to host 25,000 screaming fans for this weekend’s football opener (which they eventually canceled). I’ll admit that as someone who attended the University of Iowa (which has had its own awful COVID-19 crisis), I am predisposed to believing Iowa State sucks, but it’s amazing they would even consider something so reckless. Not surprisingly, the state has become a hot spot.

Every day, I vacillate between rage and despair, and not just because complete strangers online are eager to lie that coronavirus isn’t damaging for kids and we should stop worrying. It would be far easier if those who choose to live in denial weren’t so belligerent, screaming about having to wear masks in stores because freedom. Meanwhile, responsible people don’t have much of that, as we’re still mostly trapped at home, partly to avoid motley scenes like that, and unable to travel out of the country because other nations don’t want us to bring in the disease they’ve mostly eradicated.

And of course, babies and children have died of the disease. I can’t think of anything worse for parents than having to deal with ignorant nonsense like that through their grief.

The long-term effects on survivors still aren’t known. Many have permanent lung damage, studies have shown, while other have had recurring cognitive issues and heart problems, the latter raising particular concerns for athletes.

Why would any parent want to gamble with those odds?

It’s just so profoundly depressing, because I know that kids could be back at their desks if we had a functioning federal COVID-19 response, as we’ve seen in other countries. That’s what our kids deserve, especially those in marginalized communities and abusive homes who often get a small respite with caring teachers and warm meals. But now have a generation of kids who are falling behind where their peers are in much of the world.

Getty Images

And it was so avoidable.

But in America, we never got the virus under control. Some parts of the country, like Florida and Alabama, have barely seemed to try. We just had President Trump, backed up by many Republicans and business lobbyists, spewing conspiracy theories and insisting the illness and numbers weren’t that bad.

They are. They are devastatingly, soul-suckingly bad. More than 185,000 people are dead and more than 6 million have been infected. We’re on track to top 300,000 dead by Dec. 1. In Michigan, more than 100,000 people have been diagnosed and almost 6,500 people have died.

This week, the city of Detroit opened up a memorial with huge photos of 1,500 victims of the disease that’s rocked the city. Every politician who has downplayed the pandemic and pushed for business reopenings because they prioritize profits over people should be required to go. I’m sure almost none of them will, of course. It’s harder to sell the illusion that we’ve learned to live with the pandemic when you come face to face with those who didn’t and their families that have been ripped apart.

And now as the leaves are starting to turn, we need to brace ourselves for another spike in cases. It’s not clear that the coming disaster in the fall and winter can really be called a national “second wave,” as we’ve never bested the first wave.

But we can be sure that it will force thousands — likely millions — of kids back into remote learning. One of the driving factor for business leaders’ and Republicans’ push for in-person school reopenings was so parents could get back to work. What will it mean for the economy for us to go backward once again?

What I’m most concerned about is the scar tissue an entire generation of children will bear. It will be a long time before we truly understand the profound impacts of this sustained isolation and often substandard education.

We’ve already gifted them a barely functioning electoral system, climate change, massive inequality, a creaky, expensive health care system and more. They don’t deserve any of this. And they don’t deserve to have to clean up the fallout of our failed pandemic response, either.

And that is probably our biggest failure of all.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.