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Gimme a break!

The comfy old American plea “Gimme a break!” has been around for a long time. And we all know what it means: “I’m doing the best I can, whether you realize it or not.” And before the recent pandemic of hostility and divisiveness that we’re currently suffering as a society, it often did the trick. The critic backed off a bit, maybe even with a fleeting hint of self-criticism for failing to appreciate the effort going on. But these days it seems a national sport to beat up on people making impossibly complicated decisions on our behalf.

Today I’m particularly thinking about how folks love to lambaste the people running our COVID-threatened schools–those who have to decide whether to open or close a school, whether to require vaccinations or masks or distancing, whether to reconfigure schoolroom spacing or not, whether to furlough those who don’t conform, whether to purchase more laptops for distance learning, whether to evaluate students and faculty on pre-COVID criteria or not, whether to invest in upgraded air-handling systems, whether to “mandate” anything at all, whether to…

Wait! What educator ever signed up for those kinds of decisions? Heck, until COVID the toughest call was whether to declare a snow day or not. Frantically check the forecast at 4AM while the media wait for your verdict. And what if the forecast is wrong? The kids would love a day of sledding, but the parents would go nuts rearranging work schedules and child care. Stay open and invite car wrecks. Close down and see the mistaken forecast evaporate. Snow day? A guaranteed no-win situation. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But whichever way it went, day after tomorrow it’d all be over with.

Not today. The COVID variables are nearly infinite, the mistaken decisions potentially lethal, and a bulletproof consensus of wisdom and truth is laughable. A school official’s decision will live on to dissatisfy almost everybody indefinitely and figure in their contract renewal as well. In the upscale district where my niece teaches, 41 faculty tested positive in the first three days of school opening last week. The news reported yesterday that a quarter of a million schoolchildren tested positive somewhere at some point recently. Didn’t say how many were tested. Were those kids who tested positive a tiny fraction or a large portion of the sample?

We both know that I could write a thousand more words about how impossible a situation these school authorities find themselves in. (Or a million words about the no-win decisions any President has to make every day. That’s why you almost never hear a former President criticize a sitting one, as they alone understand the impossibly conflicted alternatives.) But there’s no need for more examples. All that is needed is for us to give ’em a break. And maybe practice another old American axiom: unless we have walked a mile in another person’s moccasins, exercising a little empathy wouldn’t hurt.

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