2 stories, and a special guest

Hope everyone is holding up OK and finding good stuff to watch on TV. Yesterday was my birthday — and while I can’t say it was my best one — I did do some reflectin’ on the year and felt genuinely grateful that I’m still in this field, reporting stories for all of you. This newsletter also recently celebrated its 2nd anniversary! So thanks for being here, and helping me do this work.

I have two new stories to share this week, and a letter I received from my favorite high school teacher about what it’s been like to teach virtually during coronavirus. He has has given me permission to reprint it here.

The Washington Monthly, a really fantastic 50-year-old magazine I interned for in 2013, set out in their latest issue to investigate the policy consequences of re-electing Trump. Different journalists were asked to explore what a second Trump term could mean for immigration, civil liberties, the social safety net, health care, and more. You can read the full series here, and my contribution for it, on what a 2nd Trump term would likely mean for workers + labor.

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You probably know that schools nationwide are closed and millions of educators and students are grappling with remote online learning for their very first time. Many are doing it on the fly, many low-income and rural households lack the home wi-fi and technology to jump right into it, and online schooling can be challenging enough for students even with good tech access and no pandemic. I myself struggle to retain focus on Zoom calls even with just my friends.

For The 74, which is an education news site, I looked at virtual charter schools, the one set of schools that has been able to operate largely unimpeded during this crisis. I talked with virtual charter leaders in states like Oregon, Oklahoma, Indiana and Pennsylvania to hear how they’re sharing, or in some cases leveraging, their experience with online learning. You can read that story here.

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So one thing I’m thankful for is the continued relationship I have with my high school teacher, John Grace, who taught me history in tenth grade. Remarkably we have kept in touch for eleven years beyond when I was sitting in his class, and it’s a friendship I really cherish. I asked him the other week how it’s been to transition abruptly to online schooling during COVID. I’m sharing what he said below, in part because I think it’s too rare that we get to hear candidly from educators, unless, you know, they’re on strike and then the press covers that. (reader guide: “JJG” = his initials, “LM”= Lower Merion High School and “LMSD” = Lower Merion School District).

Dear Rachel,

The sudden, not unexpected, shift of teaching and learning from a school to home depends, of course, on a foundation that has three elements.

Most importantly, can I teach kids from home, without depending so completely on practices I never use, or used?  Am I going to succeed or fail with Zoom?

If I have established a foundation with each student in the same way I have tried my entire career- to know an individual student well enough intellectually, academically and personally- I have a chance of succeeding and so does a student.  If she disappears with all her classmates to thirty homes, and I am expected to ‘teach’ her, do I know her well enough even to try?  My answer is, I hope so.  We both know it is how I try to teach- find the balance between an investigation of a global effect of World War I and each kid.  Give all students a degree of choice, to chart ‘semi-independently’ a path toward history and historical understanding.

So, if I can do it in the classroom, can I transfer this relationship to learning from home?

Very hard to do, even with broad support from LM and the LMSD.

For me, this historic experiment in education dependent on home and remote instruction succeeds or fails on the willingness of a student to contact me.  It depends not on whether I invite 30 kids to a Zoom meeting.  It depends on whether a student can find it within herself to write an email, and admit to me she has a structure to life at home, finds time to discipline herself to read and to take notes on a reading and then send a piece of work to me…

…or can write to me and admit that none of those things are remotely possible.

As you realize, both of those students live in Lower Merion, and I teach more of the latter type than I do the former.

So, the first problem is also to recognize a second one: it is the limit to which things we ‘do’, as teachers, reach their outer limit at the door to the school.  Think about it…how many teachers do you recall, and have you observed in writing now, who characterize too many students by a profile of what they ‘don’t’ or ‘won’t’ do, at home?  That vocabulary, those unexamined assumptions about students’ lives, is huge, right now, because students do not have the chance to leave home and attend school, with all its recognizable, and, for many, comforting structure.

So, everything depends first, and fundamentally, on students’ willingness to contact me, and at least to answer the basic question, How are you?  When she writes, and answers, then I have reestablished the relationship individually from my classroom.

Next, I need to diagnose which kinds of work are possible, and which kinds of work will yield too much frustration.  That diagnosis is challenging, unless I already try to teach kids with a range of choices- in the questions they might answer, and in the selections of things to read and, eventually, in the type of work they want to use, to demonstrate their ability.

A traditional quiz, test, assignment approach gives all of us a greater challenge to overcome.

And, you recall, those traditional practices are not in my repertoire.

So, because a student has already navigated our class realizing there is some value to some choice, we can try to transfer that approach to home, and it might have a greater chance of succeeding, especially if I have established the first foundation, contact.

The third element, or problem to solve, is defined within the context of support from the LMSD and LM.  The support depends on technology, sure.  But, most importantly for me, it is the empathy, sympathy, patience and grace encouraged by the district-level administrators in all their communications to families and teachers.  Those communications are overlapping; this is a good thing.  Emphasizing the shared responsibility among administrators, building-level principal and assistant principals, teachers and families has been an extension of the way I have always appreciated LM’s support.  It is clear; we share different responsibilities for succeeding- not for ‘making’ kids work from home but, instead, for finding somewhere, somehow a plan for each student.

I value that view of education that defines Lower Merion.  I think it is the support key to anchor the first two elements.

Measures of proof?  How is JJG succeeding or failing?

On this Friday afternoon, after three weeks, after nine email letters home from me, three big sets of guidelines sent from the LMSD and LM, 70 of 132 students are in touch with me, and for whom I can admit confidently we are learning and teaching from home.  I have zero research, nor does anyone, anywhere, to verify that I am doing well, so I need to do better- not to threaten kids with ‘getting a zero’ for not contacting me but instead to find the right language, to work a little better toward reestablishing that classroom connection.

Working on, it, as soon as I conclude my letter!  

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If a COVID-19 vaccine gets approved, then what?

And on the reopening of Liberty University

Hi everyone,

We’ve made it through another week. Somehow it is still March 2020, the longest month in the history of all the time, where everything has happened. April will be tough, since it’s almost assuredly going to be entirely social distancing, but March has been a bit of a trip , because I can look at my calendar and say, ‘oh yeah I remember who I got drinks with on March 1, who I ate dinner with on March 11, who I exercised with on March 3rd.’ Yesterday was actually supposed to be my cousin’s bat mitzvah in New Jersey, and there was a stretch of this month, before it was cancelled, where I was calling my parents to try and figure out if they thought it would be a risk to take the train up there. Now I’m at the point where I watch movies and literally get nervous on behalf of the characters who are moving so carefree through their worlds. They touch so many doorknobs on TV!

All that said, I hope you are doing OK. We will get through this.

If you have any bandwidth remaining for COVID19 stories, I have two new ones to share.

The first one — which I’m very proud of — explores some questions that haven’t really been raised in the media so far. If, 18 months or so down the line, the FDA approves a vaccine for COVID-19, then what? Does the U.S have the capacity to manufacture it? How would it actually be distributed? Would it resemble our miserable process to manufacture ventilators, or to distribute coronavirus tests? How can we start preparing for that moment?

I looked at how vaccines were distributed during the swine flu pandemic in 2009, and why we’ve had other vaccine shortages in the past. It also explores the challenges of maintaining research $$ for infectious diseases as panic wanes. The story was published at The Intercept and reported in partnership with the Open Markets Institute, a D.C. think tank that studies corporate monopolies. You can read the story here.

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You may have heard the news that Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University in Virginia, welcomed back students to campus this week. Liberty University is one of the largest Christian colleges in the world, and Falwell Jr. is one of the President Trump’s most stalwart defenders in evangelical circles. Local and state officials were naturally upset, and many also suspected this was a way for Falwell to stand in solidarity with Trump.

At Business Insider I have a story that looks at why many Liberty University families believe the college’s decision was perhaps less about Trump and more about looking for a way to deny students refunds for their housing and meal plans—something many other colleges have committed to doing as students have been sent home for the pandemic.

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That’s all for now. Thanks for reading, subscribing, and staying home!

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Reporting during coronavirus

Hi everyone,

I hope you are all holding up okay and staying home to the maximal degree possible. If you’re a healthcare, service industry, childcare, or government employee reading this — thank you so much for all your work right now.

This is an extraordinarily hard, chaotic time, and calls for a lot of compassion and solidarity. It calls for tipping generously, for supporting local businesses, for doing what you can to help make it easier for the elderly around you, for balancing your mental health with the need to stay informed.

I’ve been working hard from home this week to do coronavirus reporting, and have been so impressed by the incredible journalism coming out across the industry — even as outlets take an abrupt and painful hit from the loss of advertising revenue. (Many outlets, especially local ones, depend on ads about businesses and upcoming events — all of which are being slashed.) If you can afford to subscribe to your local news organizations right now, I’d strongly encourage that.

That said, while there’s been so much strong reporting, I have also worried that too much coverage of the pandemic has sensationalized, and often stigmatized, those who got the disease. Contracting COVID-19 is not shocking news, and it’s going to happen to so many of us. What’s shocking is the government response, and the lack of preparedness for this moment. If you do get sick, please, please don’t be hard on yourself. We’re all vulnerable and extremely susceptible — the blame does not belong with you.

I’m in the middle of reporting a more in-depth COVID-19 story, but wanted to share a piece I published this morning. Earlier this week Minnesota’s Democratic governor suspended parts of his state workers’ collective bargaining agreements. At The Intercept I reported the back story behind this move, and why workers elsewhere are on guard for anti-union leaders who might try and exploit the crisis. Bonus for labor / history fans: Nelson Lichtenstein. You can read that here.


And if you’re a new subscriber to this newsletter, welcome, and thank you. I really appreciate it — it’s an especially uncertain time for freelancers.

Stay safe, enjoy your weekend, and more soon.

some post Super Tuesday thoughts

A lot has happened in politics over the last few days, that I’ve been going back and forth about, reading articles and trying to make sense of. I finally decided to try and write down some of the stuff swirling in my head. I self-published it on Medium if you want to check it out.

The Case for Warren Going to the Convention

As Super Tuesday results begin to roll in, I wanted to share a piece up today at The Intercept co-written with Ryan Grim. There have been a lot of progressives who have said recently that if Elizabeth Warren doesn’t have a clear path to the nomination, she should drop out now and endorse Sanders, so as to help prevent a Biden win.

We took a look at why Warren dropping out now could help Biden more than it could help Sanders, since it’s not at all clear that a majority of Warren voters would become Sanders backers if she left the race. (People who want to see Warren drop out now say if she enthusiastically endorsed Bernie and campaigned hard for him, that would be persuasive enough. I’ll say I’m not convinced of that.)

The question becomes if it’s better for Bernie to face Biden (and maybe Bloomberg) alone, or to try amassing more progressive delegates with Warren also competing for voters who once backed Buttigieg + Klobuchar.

Anyway, give it a read, and do feel free to write your thoughts in the comments section if you have any.


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