Bringing students, teachers, and staff together inside classrooms and schoolhouses during a pandemic is tyranny. School was already tyranny for children for all the non-pandemic reasons: forced attendance, age segregation, lack of autonomy, sit down and shut up, forced curriculum, testing, homework, grading, and ranking against peers. But with the pandemic the tyranny spreads. Now there is the tyranny of risking one’s life to a disease we are still learning about. Students may be facing that risk so they can be with their friends, play sports, or maybe their parents just don’t think that Covid-19 is easily spread by kids (they’re wrong) … so off you go to school, child. Teachers and staff may be facing that risk so they can pay rent, or pay for childcare so they can go to work to pay for childcare. Or maybe they don’t want to lose their job in the middle of an economic depression.

And the tyranny of pandemic schooling is only compounded as the number of people who are coming together in schools increases, and as the percentage of those people who are not taking the pandemic seriously rises. This part is simple math. If there are only 30 kids in a school and 6 staff members then the likelihood of one of them bringing Covid-19 into the school at any given time is relatively small. But if there are 3,000 kids in a school and 250 staff members then the likelihood of one of them bringing Covid-19 into the school at any given time is relatively high, especially given the current infection rates across most of the country. Now, in a school with 30 kids and 6 staff members it is likely that everyone will have a general idea of how seriously the other people in the building are taking the pandemic. And there is a certain degree of accountability in such a small setting should others find out that your mom went out with friends to a restaurant on Friday, your dad went to the barbershop on Saturday, and you went to an indoor birthday party on Sunday. But in a school of 3,000 kids and 250 staff there is just a lot of questions as to who is doing what, and how is that finding its way back into the school?

The tyranny of pandemic schooling also lies in the ways in which the schools are responding to the risk of the disease. They could be coming up with innovative and safer ways of being and learning together. They could use the pandemic as a really good excuse to let go of the practices and structures of schooling that they were bound to in non-pandemic times. They could simply take the school outdoors, leaving the schoolhouse behind. They could spend all day, every day in nature where the risk of transmission plummets because the children, teachers, and staff are not stuck in rooms where the air (and droplets and aerosols) is recycled.

Instead, schools have found ways to make a sterile environment more sterile. It was bad enough that kids were forced to school before the pandemic. But it was worth it for many because at least they got to be with their friends. But now they can’t get close to their friends because they need to remain six feet apart. Some of their friends are not even able to be at school at the same time because of hybrid schooling. Of course social distancing is necessary right now, but at least outside of school one does not have to be stuck in the same room as their friend listening to a teacher giving a lesson about something they don’t care about while having absolutely no hope of being able to hang out with their friend between classes. At least in pre-pandemic times they had lunch. During lunch they got to sit down with their friends and rush through a meal and a conversation in 20 minutes before having to go back to class. But now lunch is at their desk in their classroom. No talking. The inability to socialize with others is another form of tyranny to students.

The problem with the sterile school environment is that it is unnatural for young people to not socialize with others. That’s why even in non-pandemic times schools need to spend so much time policing students. But now, with social distancing, the policing is increasing. Now students will be punished for talking during lunch, for not wearing their mask or for not wearing it properly (which is admittedly less problematic than making mask wearing optional), for walking on the wrong side of the hallway, for not properly washing their hands for 20 seconds at a time, for passing a note to a friend, for playing tag, for fake coughing, and for trying to whisper in a friend’s ear. But there is also another form of policing that will take place — policing students for exposing the ways in which the school is failing to protect the community from Covid-19.

What happened in North Paulding High School in Georgia is a case in point. A social media post by an unidentified student shows a picture of a crowded hallway where a minority of students were wearing masks. Another student, Hannah Watters, later posted a similar picture. The pictures went viral, and people from across the nation began to come down on the school, the school district, and the community. And instead of using that moment as an opportunity to reflect on their shameful lack of safe practices, the school focused on making excuses for their (lack of) reopening plans, punishing the students who took the photos, and threatening all other students to prevent them from taking photos.

Their excuses were insufficient, just like their reopening plans. For example, superintendent Brian Otott sent out an email that said, “students are in this hallway environment for just a brief period as they move to their next class. I have attached a document from the [Georgia] Department of Public Health that states exposure to COVID-19 occurs after “Being within 6 feet of a sick person with COVID-19 for about 15 minutes.”” The problem with this excuse is that it leaves a lot out. The source for this statement never claimed that the only way that one could become infected was to be within 6 feet of a sick person for about 15 minutes. Not everyone is the same, and some people shed much more than others and you should not be comfortable around those people for even one minute, or from 10 feet away. The very next bullet says one can be exposed by “being in direct contact with secretions from a sick person with COVID-19.” It is not unreasonable to believe that one could be coughed on, for example, by someone in that hallway. And the problem with being indoors with others is that droplets and aerosols do not easily dissipate. And if there are multiple people who are sick and shedding, then the calculus of “within 6 feet of a sick person for about 15 minutes” changes (more droplets and aerosols from multiple people means that it does not matter if each sick person was never within 6 feet of you for 15 minutes).

The superintendent also said that wearing a mask is “a personal choice and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them.” Which is a very sorry excuse considering that (1) we know how vital mask wearing is to reduce the number of viral particles that are expelled by any one person into the air, and (2) they have an extensive dress code that they can enforce (e.g., shoulders cannot be visible but students are free to spread Covid-19). And while they are not willing to police mask wearing, they are willing to police those who post pictures of the failures of the school online. The two aforementioned students were suspended for their postings and principal Gabe Carmona threatened everyone else, saying that “any student found criticizing the school on social media could face disciplinary consequences.” Thankfully the administration responded to an outraged public and lifted the suspension of the students.

But the tyranny of pandemic schooling will not end for the students of North Paulding, even as the administration has backtracked on punishing students for their social media posts. Students (and teachers and staff) will still be pressured into going to school even though the schoolhouse is not a safe place to be during the pandemic. While the school has a virtual option, “some students at North Paulding say they were forced to attend school in person [or be declared truant] because all of the slots for the district’s virtual learning option were filled.” For the time being, though, the students and staff at North Paulding have a brief reprieve from the tyranny of pandemic schooling—they will be closed today and tomorrow due to nine students and staff members testing positive for Covid-19. Nine that we know of.