UNCASTING THE DIE

— It’s Monday, January 10, 2022. It’s the 20th day of winter – there’s 70 days left.

— On this day 2,071 years ago, Roman general Julius Caesar led his army south across a small river called the Rubicon in what’s now northeast Italy.

That violated an agreement that he stay on his side – a step that resulted in a civil war and his eventual triumph that made him dictator.

Caesar is quoted as saying “Alea iacta est” – “The die is cast” – referring to the games of chance that preceded Wordle as the mass preoccupation in Roman time. The expression now means that you’ve made your move – there’s no turning back.

— In modern Rome, Pope Francis, perhaps the most progressive pontiff of my lifetime, got himself in a flap last week.

He lamented that many 21st century couples shun the idea of raising children or having more than one child, substituting pets for offspring.

“And this denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity,” Francis said. “And in this way civilization becomes aged and without humanity, because it loses the richness of fatherhood and motherhood.”

I am known among family and friends for my distain – hell, I’ll just say it, fear – of animals. And the behavior of some pet owners who believe their creature’s rights supersede mine drives me crazy.

But the pope’s kinda out of turn here. Especially for a guy whose full-time job proscribes him from contributing to “the richness of fatherhood.” 

If people want Rover or Whiskers instead of Robert or Wendy, that’s their business. Better they’re happy with the choice they make than miserable with a choice they resent.

— One thing that likely won’t encourage couples to procreate is the flap over in-person schooling in the wake of the omicron surge. 

In fact, I can only imagine the strain on parents of preschoolers and school-age children right now.

There are some parents who are angry schools aren’t open. They need to work to support their families – and they are not in jobs or circumstances that allow them to work from home.

There are some parents who are angry schools are open. They don’t want their kids to get COVID, even the milder omicron strain. Who knows what the long-term impact is?

This is a mess.

Forcing schools to open in the midst of this wave puts the kids, their teachers, administrators and support staff at risk. It’s why this idea from New York’s new mayor, Eric Adams, that “swagger” will conquer COVID, that people need not fear getting it, is nonsense.

It’s easy for him to say that about your kid. But no one knows how individual children – or individual adults – will cope with illness.

On the other hand, it’s understandable that there’s concern about the impact of two years of school closings and remote learning on the social and intellectual development of children. Many of us – particularly on the left – lament how far behind American kids are in all school subjects compared with their counterparts in other countries.

— At the core of this problem, much as some of the other issues, is the idea that we were lulled into a sense that this pandemic was ending.

Think back to September, when it seemed as though the delta wave was subsiding and cases were dropping fast. We thought we had weathered the storm and that normal was back.

So we didn’t do a bunch of things. We forgot about the idea of developing widely available and reliable home testing or keeping the in-person testing at a high level. 

And we didn’t make contingency plans – the ones we should have made before COVID even broke out in this country – for our businesses and schools.

Thus, here we are. 

The problem with problems in 2022 America is that they’re seen as political opportunities and not, well, problems that warrant solutions. 

— So for those of us who actually want to get this resolved, here’s one idea:

Do you live in a place with a big shopping mall? Or with a large number of strip malls?

Or do you live in a major city with a lot of office space?

Have you noticed how many of these spaces are empty?

Thanks to the pandemic – and to some pre-pandemic trends – there’s a lot of room out there.

Where I live, the only indoor mall has lost two anchor stores and several big box spaces, along with the smaller national chain stores that used to the mainstays of the mall experience.

So why not use that space to solve the COVID education crisis?

Instead of crowding kids into classrooms that are petri dishes for omicron and all the Greek letters that’ll come after it, why not innovate? Honeycomb the empty floor space with sections that can hold three or four kids and an instructor. 

An example: If you take a 2nd-grade class of 40 students, you create 10 cubicles in the abandoned Sears or Macy’s. You separate fully vaccinated kids from those vaccinated to a lesser degree or not at all. 

The regular class teacher supervises and teaches in cubicles within her or his comfort level. The other cubicles are staffed by support staff, administrators, high school or college students looking to be education majors, and parental and other community volunteers.

Yes, you need a lot of “assistants.” A district would need to assess its ability to provide for temporary staffing.

But this gives students the in-person education everyone thinks they need in about as safe an environment as can be mustered.

There are other problems. School buses are an issue.

But instead of wringing our hands and complaining about our dysfunction, let’s do something about it. Consider my idea and see if it’s feasible. Or if it can be reformed to be feasible.

Just don’t stand in front of a microphone and tell scared parents they just need a little more swagger. That’s BS. 

This isn’t an old John Wayne movie. There’s been real sickness and real death in the past two years. And while kids might not face, as a group, more severe consequences from COVID and its omicron variant, some of them do.

Most parents want to enjoy the “richness of fatherhood or motherhood.” They’re not willing to cross a rubicon of risk for the child they love.

So let’s do something to help.

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