Back to School, Sort Of

 My school district is threatening to start school up again in a few weeks.

Yes, I used the word threaten. I don’t think they intend to go through with it. I think it’s a negotiating strategy, an “I WILL turn this car back around” opening gambit. I don’t know who, exactly, they think they’re negotiating with. The teachers union, the parents, the media. Probably a mixture of all three and more besides, considering their scorched earth approach.

IF Y’ALL WON’T SIGN UP FOR DISTANCE LEARNING, WE’LL INFECT ONE STUDENT PER DAY UNTIL OUR DEMANDS ARE MET!!!

I’ve been involved with many school districts in my life. Between the districts I’ve worked for and the ones teachers and admin I know have moved on to, plus throw in the fact that my daughter is (allegedly) starting first grade in less than a month, I have understanding of the inner workings of upwards of ten different school districts. 

This might shock y’all, but school districts are a fucking mess.

The average district office is an awkward mishmash of former teachers who couldn’t wait to get out of the classroom and lifelong bureaucrats who are most comfortable when articulating the subtle differences between form 47(f) and 72(q), and don’t forget to write hard enough for the goldenrod triplicate and page twelve requires two initials and a signature. Add into that mix the Board of Education, a group of would-be politicians who aren’t savvy enough to win a competitive election like, say, dogcatcher.

So it’s no surprise the the average response of the average district is to put their heads in the sand and hope that the issue de jour blows over before there’s any blow back. Which isn’t to say they don’t spend money. They spend shit-tons. We get guest speakers for some fancy new fix that’s going to have all third graders solving differential calculus. Then we move onto another fix the following year, long before we get any data about if those now-fourth graders can do any third-grade math, let alone z-axis graphing. 

Most districts think that REAL education occurs far, far away from the classroom. If you’ve never encountered a child, you’re probably the best educator in the world. After all, those fucking students fuck up all of our well-laid plans. During the budget crisis a decade ago (returning soon to a school district near you!), my district laid off close to fifteen percent of the teachers along with about five percent of the district staff. After all, a teacher with a class size of forty is a minor issue compared to an assistant superintendent cutting down to ONLY two secretaries. How the hell can she get ANYTHING done?

Here a good example of how my district meanders its way through the average “catastrophe”. After Sandy Hook, the federal government sent a bunch of money out for security improvements. My school wrote out a proposal for keyless (badge) entry to our buildings. The proposal was approved. Everything was set to be installed over summer. When we came back, we had the same shitty doors. The district decided they would “test run” the keyless entry at the district office. Because, you know, it’s EVERY DAY we’re bombarded with horrific stories of school (district office) shootings. We all know those horrific stories of the admin assistant who quietly ushers all of the NCR paper into a closet seconds before…

Even better, they only gave badges to district office employees. Why the fuck would teachers want into the district office? We are inconsequential in the business of running a school district. We have to check in through the front door like the rest of the riffraff.

The badge system worked so well that they added a second one to the elevator. Personnel and Benefits are on the bottom floor, they argue, why should any teacher need to know what’s going on up there on the second and third floor? If we really have legitimate business there, we can (I shit you not) call whomever we’re supposed to meet and they can go send the elevator down to us.

Here’s another example: During that budget crisis, we negotiated a reduction in the school year. We got rid of the two bullshit “teacher development” days plus five student days. That way, we could say we agreed to a two percent pay cut while actually taking an eight percent pay cut. When the recession was over, they gave us back the seven days and added three more bullshit days. But not the two percent pay cut.

The bullshit days don’t have to be bullshit days. But they’re always bullshit days. You see, the year we negotiated the days back, the school year calendar was already set. So we just threw the now five extra non-student days on at the beginning of the school year with the idea that we’d move them around the following year. That was back in 2013. Want to guess where the bullshit days fall on the current calendar?

If we were serious about using these days as development days, which is what they’re called, or if we were interested in legitimately following through on whatever we’re working on the first day, we’d spread them out throughout the year. Have two of them at the beginning, then check in at the beginning of each quarter to check progress and reassess. Instead, we go to six hours of meetings for five straight days. By the time we see a student, we’re fucking exhausted. And any bright a-ha moment we had on day one has been lost behind a fog of tardy policies and dress codes. Come mid-October, somebody in the lunch room will throw out a, “Hey, weren’t we supposed to be doing something with vocabulary this year?” and none of us will the slightest idea what the fuck he’s talking about. 

So remember that these institutions are the ones responsible for reinventing their entire industry in the span of a few weeks.

I hear you saying, “a few weeks? Haven’t we been shut down since March? What the hell have they been doing since then?”

And the answer is, mostly, twiddling their thumbs and hoping everything was going to be better. 

My district ran fourth quarter in a “no-harm/no-foul” mode. If you liked the grade you had when we shut down, you can keep it without doing a fucking thing! Distance learning where everybody gets a trophy. The result was predictable. The A students continued to do work, because they’re A students. Some B students did, if they were bored. C and D students didn’t do a fucking thing, because what if they do an assignment and it lowers their grade? Even though we set the rules that, not only could your end grade not be lower than it was in mid-March, no SINGLE ASSIGNMENT could lower your percentage at all. So if you had a 76% in my class and you sent me a picture of feces, congratulations, you just got 16 out of 20 on that assignment. A few F students did enough work to get up to a 60%.

But it’s okay, because by August, we’ll have licked COVID and everybody will be excellent at social distancing and wearing masks and washing our hands. Movie theaters and sporting events and restaurants would be alive and well, right?

Oops.

To be fair, we’ve had a whole bunch of meetings over the summer. My department chair is part of the “High School Task Force,” so he’s regularly come to the rest of us with updates and to ask for suggestions. We’ve come up with alternative schedules whereby only 25% of the students are on campus at any given time. One batch comes Monday AM, another on Monday PM, then two more on Tuesday before we cycle back to the Monday peeps on Wednesday. Friday’s an “all distance learning” day, which is also a teacher catch-up day, because if I only have my students in my class one hour a week instead of one hour a day, I’m going to be spending most of my time in front of the classroom. I can’t exactly give them seat work so I can update my blog like usual.

Of course, this schedule wouldn’t work for younger students. High schoolers can legally stay home by themselves on the three days they’re not at school. I don’t see that working for elementary school kids. I’ve been faced with that option for my daughter. We could send her back full time or two days a week. But what will we do with her the other three days? Send her to daycare? Isn’t that pretty much the same as sending her to school, only without the education? Her school is also offering a full distance learning option. But again, where would that distance learning happen? She’d probably be sitting in my classroom with teenagers getting a whole DIFFERENT type of education. Daddy, what’s a fucktard?

But it doesn’t really matter what our task force or the middle school or elementary versions thereof came up with, because the district replied with a nice, resounding hell-to-the-no. Comically, the Board of Education isn’t even involved with the negotiation, and they weren’t there when we negotiated the shutdown back in March. They just told the superintendent to figure out the minor stuff while they focus on the important educational stuff like, I shit you not, spending millions of dollars on a fence around the district office because one time there was a homeless person nearby. The fence would only be passable by people with badges, which the teachers don’t have. Not sure how we’ll get to personnel or benefits now.

Oh, and on the same board agenda as the gate was starting to look into pay cuts for teachers next year.

What the district did decide on was a two-fold approach. Parents have the option to sign up for 100% distance learning for the entire school year or 100% live instruction for the entire school year. No switching from one to the other after you’ve made the decision, which they gave parents one week to ruminate. Who needs more time than that to decide such a minor thing?

Now the numbers are in. Clearly I’m not the only parent who went with the “what the fuck am I supposed to do with my kids when I’m at school?” option. Not that my district offered a hybrid option. Still, the results are informative. In my largely low-income, two-worker family district, only six percent of parents opted for distance learning. In my daughter’s district, where there are a shit-ton of stay-at-home parents and lots of personal computing devices, not to mention a hybrid option, only ten percent opted for some sort of distance learning.

So yay! Only 94% of my students will be in my class on a typical day. So now my class of 40 students will have… 38.4? Super easy to socially distance those 38!

And all of that was before the COVID spike. Now districts are scrambling.

Last week, Daughter’s district blanketed us with phone calls and emails about our county potentially being put on Herr Kommandant Newsom’s “watch list.” Great name, Gavin. You know we were already putting your face on the principal from The Breakfast Club, right? Like you can keep this up all weekend? And your response is to come up with a “Watch List.” Only it’s not a watch list. Because once you’re on the watch list, you’re already shutting down. If you’re saying, “this county will probably go on the watch list the day after tomorrow if x, y, z doesn’t change,” isn’t that county already being watched? 

Anyway, when it was reported that my county might go on the watch list, Daughter’s district alerted us that, even if we opted for in-school instruction, we might still be starting the school year at home. Be prepared, they told us, for a kooky, crazy school year where we oscillate between in-school and at-home based on how many COVID cases we have and how many of Herr Kommandant’s hairs are out of place. Just kidding, none of his hairs are ever out of place. Have you seen that guy? Only person in America who stayed groomed during the entire shut-down.

Meanwhile, my district, which is in a county that’s already on the watch list and has been surging like a motherfucker, shrugs and says, “what’re you gonna do?” Even on their FAQ, they claim that social distancing is only a suggestion, not a requirement. Kinda like flossing twice a day. So they’re going to jam us in like sardines and just give a vague answer to the dentist. The good news is some of us will start dying off, which should relieve the overcrowding issue. Unless it’s the teachers, which’ll cause the classes to become even more crowded. Because if I die, they’ll need to combine my students with somebody else’s. I doubt they’re going to have a ton of success hiring a sub to go into the classroom where the last teacher caught COVID and died.

Speaking of catching COVID, we’ve been told that if any of our students test positive, we need to quarantine ourselves for two weeks. If that happens, we have to use our own sick leave. We get ten sick days a year. So after we burn all of our sick leave on the first quarantine… 

But as I said at the beginning, I think this is just a negotiating tactic. The district broke off talks with my union saying they couldn’t meet again until the week before we report for the five bullshit days. My inner Nostradamus can predict exactly how that conversation will go”

“We can’t open. Our teachers will die!”

“We’ll give you distance learning for a five-percent pay cut. After all, you won’t need to buy as many school supplies, etc, if you’re teaching from home.”

Or not teaching from home. The latest I heard was they didn’t like giving us that much autonomy. If there is any distance learning this year, they want us doing it from the classroom. 

And that’s pretty much the only thing that’s been “fixed” about distance learning. All that stuff you’ve heard about teachers being trained to do it better this year? Ain’t happening. It’s going to be another big shrug and “figure it out.” 

So my union will probably agree to the pay cut in order to not have any students. Which is great, because then my district can finally build that moat around their fortress.

Yosemite, COVID Edition

Just got back from a couple days in Yosemite. This trip was quite a bit different from those of the past.

I’ve been going to Yosemite since before I was cognizant. Probably been there around forty times total. This was Daughter’s third trip and she just turned six. So if there are two things I know in life, they’re probably Yosemite and being a snarky asshole. The latter I’ve done far more than forty times.

Used to camp there with my family every summer, when it was still possible to get reservations. They used to sell them through Ticketmaster (or maybe Ticketron?) on a rolling basis, whereby tickets became available eight weeks before the date of travel. So some would be released every day. My dad used to camp out at the local record store to get in there the minute they went on sale. 

Nowadays they release an entire month’s worth of reservations online at the same time. If you take the time to consult your calendar six months out to ensure that day isn’t somebody’s birthday or something, you’ve already lost them to somebody else. And whereas it used to be first-come, first-served as to which campsite once you got there, you now have to pick the specific numbered site when you reserve. The one time I tried to reserve, I went off to find a campground map to make sure I wasn’t getting the one right next to the shitter, and by the time I came back, it was taken. I guess next time, I’ll learn to love the vault toilets. 

So ever since the age of twenty or so, it’s been day trips. I used to live a couple hours from the park gate. Nowadays it takes a solid three/-and-a-half hours to get to the valley floor. That necessitates a bit more planning, usually a stay over the night before or after. Because the last thing I want to do after four hours in a car is the 2,000-foot elevation gain hike up to Nevada Falls.

Last year, it was just Daughter and I who went. Wife had an excuse called “having to go into work.” Clearly that’s not a thing anymore. I packed Daughter in the car shortly before her bedtime and drove through the night while she slept, because three hours in a car with a five-year old is torture for her and I. We stopped at a B & B in Groveland around 10 pm, and we were in the valley by 10 am the next morning, “hiking” up to Mirror Lake. If you’ve never been, the walk to Mirror Lake is literally on a road, a leftover from when they allowed cars more places. The road is also still usable if you have a disabled placard. The hike is 1.2 miles with an elevation gain of a whopping 100 feet. But this was enough for Daughter to ask “Are we there yet?” fifteen times and bloviate about the horrific workout I was forcing upon her. That’s about the time I scrapped the whole Vernal Falls idea. 

The Vernal Falls hike was a rite of passage for me. From when I was about my daughter’s age, my dad would hike us up to the footbridge, the first spot you can see the actual falls. The following year we went a little further. The first time I made it to the top, we took the back route, but my dad showed me the infamous Mist Trail. It’s effectively a staircase made out of misshapen granite that’s slippery as shit because you’re under a constant deluge of splash from the falls. You’d think it’s rain. My dad didn’t think I was able to ascend the Mist Trail that year (good call – at forty-five, I’m still a klutz), and promised we’d attempt it the following year. The following year we went to the Grand Canyon. And Zion the following year. Bullshit! Three years later I made it up. 

The only problem with making it to the top of Vernal Falls is you then realize it’s not even the cool waterfall on that hike. Nevada Falls, an extra two miles and another 1,000 feet up, after already going up 1,000 feet in the last mile-and-a-half, is one of the quirkiest waterfalls in existence. It’s crooked like Bill Clinton’s penis. I might’ve been in junior high by the time I conquered it. Nevada Falls, that is. Not Bill Clinton’s penis.

After that we found a cool trick. Get up to Glacier Point and take the Panorama Trail DOWN instead of up. Of course, that’s when I was a teenager. Nowadays I feel like going downhill is worse than going up. Not as strenuous, but it moves muscles in ways they’re not supposed to move.

My original plan was to try the Vernal Falls footbridge this year, then start Daughter on the same Trial by Hike my dad put me through. Except this year, the shuttles aren’t running as a result of COVID. Which is the impetus for this post. Obviously I can wax nostalgic for thousands of words about Yosemite, but that would be exciting for an audience of one. I know it usually seems like I only write this shit for myself, but it’s not entirely masturbatory.

After closing for three months, Yosemite opened to the public a few weeks ago. As soon as I saw they were reopening, I jumped online to get a reservation. We planned to go up Sunday morning, stay overnight near the park, then go back in Monday before driving home. As an added bonus, Yosemite was limiting entry! Yosemite without visitors is about as close to heaven on Earth as it gets. Just like John Muir intended. Unfortunately, a lot of other people had that same notion. And those rat bastards were parked EVERYWHERE!

Obviously they weren’t limiting entrance too much. They were aiming for half of the usual summer crowd. So the trails and meadows weren’t super full, but without the shuttle buses to get us around, we were on our own. Usually you drive to one of two or three parking lots and then ride the bus around everywhere. This time it was find a spot and walk as far as you have to.

When I heard there’d be no shuttles, I grew curious about a bus-only loop at the east end of the park. On it are two main attractions, the Mirror Lake “trail” I mentioned earlier and Happy Isles, which is where the trail to Vernal Falls, et al begins. Surely they can’t block those spots off, can they? Or are they going to make me walk the mile from Camp Curry just to get to the trailhead whence I have to hike another couple miles straight up? I mean, I’ll happily climb the 1,000 feet in elevation gain over a mile and a half trail, but adding on an extra half-mile of flatland? I think NOT! 

Our first day there, a Sunday, before we parked at Camp Curry, we drove ahead to check out the bus-only loop.. It was now car accessible. Sort of. We could drive to Happy Isles. Tons of cars were parked there. But we couldn’t get all the way to Mirror Lake. Not surprising. There’s plenty of space at Happy Isles for a makeshift parking lot. I don’t know how they’d do that at Mirror Lake. We went the other way on the loop and found the farthest we could get was North Pines/Stables, which is how far you can drive under normal conditions. 

Okay, no problem. It was late in the day by then. I was mainly using Day One to figure out what was open, what was closed. Make some plans for tomorrow when we could hit the ground running. And maybe, if we could drive all the way to Happy Isles, but not Mirror Lake, this would be the year we tackle Vernal Falls, after all. Start Daughter on the same rite of passage as me.

Except when we came back on Monday, the road to Happy Isles was closed. What the fuck? And naturally, the parking lot at North Pines was jam packed. So back to Camp Curry we went. At least there was a yummy-looking food truck there the day before. Its version of chicken & waffles was served in a waffle cone with a maple drizzle. Delightful. We passed on it because we had picked out a dinner spot near the hotel, but we were looking forward to it for lunch the next day.

But sure enough, that shit was as closed down as Happy Isles on Monday. What the fuck, people? It’s COVID time. Nobody’s working. There shouldn’t be huge differences between Sunday and Monday. The taco truck was open both days. But when you’ve got your heart set on chicken tenders in a waffle cone, carne asada ain’t gonna cut it.

Perhaps we could get around the loop on wheels. I had the brilliant idea to bring Daughter’s scooter about the eighth time we stopped on the way to Mirror Lake the year before. But we forgot to pack it. Oops. So we looked into renting bikes. Twenty-four bucks each for a half-day. Okay, so seventy-five bones for the three of us? It was a distinct possibility. After all , it’s not like we’d be spending money on scrumptious lunch options. Only one thing dissuaded us. The extra five bucks for her to rent a helmet. It wasn’t the cost, five bucks is excessively reasonable after the exorbitant cost for the rental itself. But something about putting something that’d been worn by every other kid on the face of the earth seems a bit too far these days. 

Ironic, I know, since under normal circumstances, they probably wouldn’t have cleaned that shit since last century and it would be filled with colonies of every head lice ever invented. This time, they’re probably disinfecting it every night. And yet…

In the same vein, Sunday night was the first time we’ve been in a hotel since the beforetimes. It felt weird. The one thing going for us was that, while Yosemite was closed, this hotel was either closed or getting very little action. But I never realized how the carpeting in a hotel room looks straight outta 1979, which was probably the last time it was cleaned. That’s probably Jack Tripper’s chest hair down there.

On the other hand, it’s refreshing that the feces and DNA left behind by previous guests are no longer my primary concern. Go ahead and bring in a black light. Spooge splats are fine as long as there aren’t any Mexican-beer-drinking viruses in the man batter.

After discovering that there was no parking close to Happy Isles or Mirror Lake, we parked at Camp Curry and walked through one of the empty campsites to the river. There’s only one campsite open in the whole park. Man, if I had been one of the lucky few to reserve one of the other sites back in February, I’d be pissed. That’s like winning the lottery only to find out that you won the wrong lottery and the money’s going to somebody else. 

I don’t see why they only open one campsite. If they’re trying to encourage social distancing, shouldn’t they open half of two different campsites? Then again, as I’ve opined before, camping is about as socially distant of an activity as we’ve got in this world. Especially if we’re to believe the newest reports that it’s very difficult for the virus to spread outdoors. True, Yosemite camping isn’t as socially distant as most campsites. Even though there is zero campsites available when you try to reserve, they jam ya in like sardines once you’re there. When I camp there, I actually have to pee IN THE BATHROOM! The Horror! 

Just as John Muir intended.

Speaking of which, halfway across the abandoned campsite, Daughter decided, as six-year-olds are wont to do, that this time, and no other time, was the proper time to vacate her bladder. But it’s cool, even if the campsites closed, they can’t be locking the bathrooms, right? Turns out that yes, they can. Could she make it across the street to the open campsite? Maybe three minutes? If you’ve ever encountered a kid in early elementary school, you know the answer was a resounding no. 

Of course, this was also the moment that a few rangers were walking through the campsite, checking it for, I don’t know, viruses and such? So we took Daughter behind a tree to hide from them, which probably was doing no such thing, and it was off to the races. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to peeing in public. I’m a guy, the world is my urinal. But that’s why I usually camp out in the middle of nowhere. It’s crowded at Yosemite. If I randomly whip it out, I’m liable to splash on hundreds of people. But I guess society is a bit more forgiving of a six-year-old than a mid-forties dude. 

When we finally made it through the campsite, I finally had that “passing it on” moment. We were standing on the rocky bottom of the frigid Merced River, throwing rocks and sticks into the current, and Daughter absolutely loved it. Couldn’t get enough. Sure, my feet were slicing and dicing and turning into icicles, but Daughter’s eating this shit up. And I’m reminded of all the times I walked across or laid down on an inflatable tube or mattress, with nary a thought of internal temperature or why the fuck couldn’t they put some goddamn sand at the bottom of this stream as John Muir intended.

It’s such a rare feeling, that I’m doing this parenting thing right. Sure, I might’ve exposed her to spooge marks and COVID the night before. And sure, I let her play on her Nintendo for all three hours both ways. But dammit, we gotta take the wins when we get them, right? 

She even said she’s excited to go back to Yosemite next year.

I’m sure that’ll change once I make her hike Vernal Falls.