I rediscovered a video this week, made by my kids’ kindergarten teachers and sent to parents last June, at the end of the school year. The first half featured scenes of pre-pandemic life, outlandish shots of kids participating, unmasked, in cooking classes, field trips and fun runs. The second comprised videos and photos sent in by the kids of homeschooling. Apart from the sheer lurch at the reminder of how much had been lost, the most striking thing about the video was how definitive the line was between before and after. Things were one way; and the next day they were, emphatically, another.
The end of the pandemic won’t be like this. How to measure any ending at all feels like an increasingly impossible task, even as vaccination rates soar and death rates plunge. In the US at least, infection rates remain stubbornly flat, the risk level in New York is stuck at “very high”, and health officials talk of a “fourth surge” in the midwest. Things are much better than they were this time last year, but at this point, anticipating a second summer of disruption and no full return in September, the long tail of this pandemic seems endless.
Part of the problem is that we have changed, too. There’s a credible discussion going on in the US about keeping mask mandates on in schools after the threat of Covid recedes, given the impact they’ve had on curbing other diseases. (Little flu this season, and plunging hospitalisation rates among kids with non-Covid respiratory conditions.) Friends and I have had similar conversations about the subway and, should we ever fly anywhere again, airports; Covid or not, who wouldn’t, at this stage, throw on a mask before passing through a busy transit hub?
The downside to these considerations is, as they say, the depressing optics. For many of us, a fear of returning to normal, with all the social energy it will entail, surges alongside the equally grim anxiety that nothing will ever be normal again. This isn’t entirely a public health issue, either. In New York, as across the globe, public finances have been decimated by the cost of the pandemic, and new forms of pain are on the way.
We are only just starting to feel this. Traditionally in the US, summer, which features a parent-baiting school break of over two months, is an annual period of financial hell, with even the cheapest private summer camps costing thousands of dollars. Prior to the pandemic, public programs in the city sought make up the shortfall by offering free and subsidised alternatives. The Parks Department ran an annual lottery for an affordable summer camp running out of Central Park, and local community centres did a lot of heavy lifting.
All of that has gone. As the risk of the disease itself starts to recede, the division between public and private has never looked so stark. While private schools in New York have been back full-time for most of the pandemic, state schools in the city won’t even commit to a full reopening in September. Meanwhile, private after-school programmes are up and running again, with new post-pandemic pricing – at my kids’ state primary, I am invited to put them in a private three-hour after-school programme for $500 a week for two kids – while the public alternatives remain closed.
This is in part a question of bureaucracy. Huge public institutions can’t be as light on their feet as small, private ones, and there’s a heel-digging cautiousness to the Department of Education that has had parents screaming all year. It’s mainly, however, a question of money. Every single public summer programme in New York has been axed not because of Covid caution, but because there simply isn’t the money to pay for it.
As lockdowns lift and we hit spates of almost-normality, so other changes become more sharply defined. For a long time, many of us put enormous energy into being grateful for small and big mercies. Only now, perhaps, as the initial crisis recedes, can we give ourselves licence to measure and grieve for less obvious losses, and assess how they won’t be returned to us with the last dose of vaccine.