Waguespack: The Path Back to Normalcy

“What’s the plan?”

For many, before 2020, that question was usually reserved for routine decisions such as where to get dinner on any given night, how to spend a weekend after a long work week or how to tackle the latest home improvement project.

In 2020, the question now is used routinely to determine actual important life decisions like whether we all still have a job, life savings or a future… whether our children will ever go back to school… whether sports, entertainment, travel or tourism are allowed… whether it is safe to venture outdoors, go to the store, visit neighbors, shake hands or even hug family.

It has been an alarmingly quick evolution in mind-numbing severity, without any consistently clear guidance to be found, and despite all that has changed in such a short period of time, the same simple question remains: what’s the plan?

The truth is, no one on the planet truly knows… which is scary as hell.

When most of the nation shut down commerce and the schools several months ago, the justifiable rationale was a convincing mix of hospital capacity challenges, ventilator shortages and the general unknown of this new virus spreading across the land. Against that backdrop, it was hard to argue with the extreme responses being tried at the time. Now, months later, we thankfully find ourselves with a better understanding of ventilator usage, medical treatment protocols, and the virus’s impact on healthier and younger people. While there are still huge questions to be answered in terms of hospital capacity and vaccine timelines, gone are the days of publicly discussing drastic PPE shortfalls and how best to reuse old ventilators in a hospital setting. In fact, you can now pick up an individually wrapped mask or two at the CVS counter as you check out, right alongside the gum and gossip magazines. American ingenuity to the rescue.

But months into this whole thing, it does seem we as a nation are all collectively stuck on what to do next and how best to incorporate a heavy dose of American ingenuity to our federal, state and local public responses, especially when it comes to the absolute need for some economic recovery and for students to return to school. When in reality, we should have started with school in mind. We should have been thinking of school as an essential service, just like the grocery and hardware stores that remained open in those early days. Because as this drags on, we are realizing, a little too late, just how much of our economy, our pubic health, social services and indeed, our children’s future and well-being, is dependent on our schools.

It’s ok to admit we need some outside the box thinking right about now. It doesn’t make someone a bad person to worry about the economic fallout of all of this. It shouldn’t be beyond the pale to start having some frank discussions about new approaches to safely dig us out of this shutdown cycle we can’t seem to escape.

In the days after the floods of 2016 or the tragic hurricanes of 2005, Louisiana did whatever it took to recover quickly. The National Guard was deployed, citizens stepped up to help their fellow man, critical goods were dispersed in numerous distribution locations and pop up sites were literally put in place overnight to treat, house and feed those in need of medical care. Remember the Cajun Navy and the shelter at Celtic Media Center? Remember after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike the National Guard was quickly trained to drive RSD school buses to help folks evacuate, even retrofitting some of those buses and National Guard vehicles to handle complicated medical patients?

Where is the thirst for creative ideas today to get us back on our feet quickly and safely? If the justification today for continued economic shutdowns is largely hospital capacity, lack of supplies and the risks of spread to more vulnerable populations, why aren’t similar triage concepts or sites from those storm lessons used now? If a drive-up test is available at several locations in an area near you, why not make it just as easy to use an empty conference center, ballroom or sports arena or two to set up socially distanced beds to handle non-critical care if needed to help with hospital capacity? Even if you had to incentivize other medical personnel and medical students to help with some of the non-critical care, if places like that were up and running, could more of our economy be back open already?

A few weeks from now, school is scheduled to start up. Families across Louisiana are depending on that happening safely and on time so that they can hopefully get back to work and get their children off the couch and back to learning. It has been several months since many have been in a classroom and experienced the benefits of in-person learning. So, what creative plan is being drafted and driven to make sure this goes smoothly, as well as safely? It seems every school has a different plan that changes by the day.

Why not consider longer school hours or new temporary locations to space out children while allowing them to attend each day? If virtual curriculum is going to be used instead, why not set up socially distanced areas in the community where parents can bring students to collectively learn virtually and safely, allowing parents to return to work? Most schools have gymnasiums, cafeterias… most local governments have other facilities, courtrooms, gathering halls, etc. Many hotels are losing their shirt right now staring at empty ballrooms and conferencing space. Why not use some of these federal funds to rent some of those spaces to provide an in-person learning experience? Where is the creative solution to give parents a guarantee that a safe, five-day-a-week learning environment is ready for their child next month?

To be fair, State Superintendent Cade Brumley has made it crystal clear he thinks the students are best served by going back to school as scheduled. He is to be commended for that. Where is the chorus from other administrators, teacher unions and elected officials for getting students back in school? If a nurse, doctor, hardware worker or grocery clerk can safely work nonstop the last few months, why can’t an educator be asked to develop a reasonable plan to do the same for our children?

Main Street small businesses across the country have seen their doors closed by government mandate and then gradually reopened one percentage at a time. Larger companies have trimmed costs by drastically cutting expenses like travel, contractors, maintenance, advertising, etc., which is a fiscal punch hitting local small businesses that feed off this type of spending more than others. Parents have trouble working, either remotely or in person, with our schools closed. The federal loan programs that have masked much of this impact are about to run out. Economic reality is about to hit hard for many working families, and it is not going to be pretty unless we can get some creative solutions soon.

We all should know by now this virus will be with us for a long time. Most businesses I speak with are more than willing to do whatever it takes to help control the spread, but they are also sick and tired of being sacrificed and made to feel guilty for wanting to save their livelihood at the same time. They do not mind wearing a mask, or a pink tutu for that matter, if it allows them to stave off bankruptcy, foreclosure, and unemployment.

It is time for a plan that goes beyond ignoring the economic realities of the world and just waiting for Congress to simply dump borrowed money on the problem. Testing will continue to show confirmed cases for months if not years, we must have a more complex answer to this phenomenon for the next several months besides shut it all down until the curve flattens for good.

We have to learn to live with this. We have to adapt.

Politics has started to spread across the land on this issue just as much as the virus. One side attacks the other side, neither listening to the other. Social media has become a garbage dump of misinformation and inflammatory political rhetoric. The truth is everyone is trying their best, but everyone is really frustrated. We need to stop giving a damn about who gets the credit or blame for all of this and start focusing more on what we in Louisiana always do in the face of a tragedy: rally together, help our fellow man, make a plan and do whatever it takes to get through this quickly and safely.

The first step of a plan is to define the goal. That first goal should be finding a way to safely restart our schools with in-person instruction even if longer hours, innovative locations or spacing accommodations are needed to do so. Society, the economy, Louisiana students and their working parents need schools to open and the last several months should have been ample time to prepare for this moment. If schools open up, working parents can start working on rebuilding their incomes to provide for their family.

Look, everyone gets it, the challenge of COVID-19 is enormous. The problem is tough to figure out. 2020 just is not very fair. But then, neither is life… and the sooner our students learn that and see our example of overcoming what we’re letting cripple us, the better off they will be to find their own paths to success in the face of adversity one day.

The path back to normalcy seems to begin with safe and open schools. That lesson plan should start today.

Steven Waguespack is president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.