Abrome

Changing the Context

By Antonio Buehler

“Hello, Kenton,” I said to the eleven-year-old seated across from me on the floor. [1] He sat slouched over, avoiding eye contact, staring at the shoe on his extended leg, a seeming warning not to get too close. I asked him why he was interested in joining our education community. He did not have an answer, but he was eager to share that he had “really bad teachers” at his prior school. “No one took the time to listen to me,” he added.[2]

After a long pause I asked him what he likes to think about. “Robots,” he answered, “I had an idea about why robots will take over. Humans can’t contain emotions.” He added that Star Trek was not a perfect human society because “humans have a lot of problems.” When I asked what could lead to an improved society, he raised social justice issues. He was most concerned about police brutality and colonization, and he wanted to learn more about those issues at Abrome. 

At Abrome, the Self-Directed Education community I spend my days at, we have limited time to build relationships with young people. We reject the designation of school, just as we reject most of the practices and structures of schooling; but similar to school, we are a place where young people spend six hours a day, for about 180 days a year, for up to 13 years. That is a lot of time, particularly if someone is forced to spend it where they do not want to be, yet it is only about 20 percent of their waking hours in a given year.

Families who seek us out tend to fall into one of two camps. The first consists of those who are running toward us, most often with a focus on finding a liberatory environment where young people can practice freedom on a daily basis. It is with the young people in this camp that we often have the luxury of time, as they tend to stay with the community long-term.

The second consists of those who are running away from something that has deeply harmed their children, although sometimes they are just hoping to stop the compounding violence of schooling that amplifies other forms of trauma. This camp tends to be more focused on emancipation from a harmful institution. In large part, we are seen as a trauma center for families that have run out of options. But we want to do more than just stop the bleeding; we want to assist healing. Too often though, when the bleeding stops, with comfort knowing that the worst is behind them, the family moves on, sometimes reintroducing their kids into the same environments they were running away from in the first place.

Without the certainty or luxury of time, but freed from the constraints of trying to shape young people into some idealized adult vision of what they are to become, we focus on changing the context instead of changing the individual. Changing the context is the quickest and easiest way to support young people no matter the level of distress in their lives.

Opt out

I met Barb and her 15-year-old son, Devin, at the local coffee shop. I introduced myself to Devin, but he just stared at the table in front of him. Barb explained that Devin had recently been hospitalized and needed to find an alternative school as soon as possible because of the harm that school was causing him. I turned and asked Devin if he wanted to leave school. Keeping his head down, he said nothing. I told Barb, “he doesn’t have to go back to school tomorrow.” I explained that finding a new school was secondary in importance to stopping the pain, which she could do by withdrawing him from school immediately. Devin looked up and said, “I would like that.” 

Dominant culture believes children cannot be trusted to make their own decisions; if left to their own devices, they will derail their futures. Therefore, by way of parenting and schooling, children must be guided into adulthood. Although the manner of parenting (e.g., authoritative, authoritarian) and schooling (e.g., progressive, classical) that is accepted is not uniform, control over children is the narrative that society has internalized, and it has become so entrenched that opting out seems radical.

Baked within the conventional assumptions of what parenting and schooling should be is a belief that children are not capable of understanding what is in their own best interests. These beliefs are too often the justification for ignoring the cries for help or relief from young people, which ultimately leads many children to completely withdraw from meaningful engagement with their families and the communities around them.

Individually scrutinized, the generalized beliefs around conventional parenting and schooling can be seen as absurd on their face. Does a child need to be able to sit quietly for long periods of time around adults? No. They could be free to play, so long as guardians are not wedded to the belief that children must be docile. Do they need to learn to read by the age of five? No. They could learn to read when they are ready, so long as they are not placed in environments where they are ranked against same-age peers.

But even when we pick apart the individual arguments, people still revert to a general faith in adults wielding power over young people, arguing that we should just tweak or remove the more absurd practices, instead of recognizing that power over is the root absurdity. The first step to changing the context can be acknowledging that conventional parenting and schooling are nothing more than harmful belief systems that have been conditioned within us, and that opting out is a possibility.

A month later, Barb gave me an update. She took my advice and withdrew Devin from school, allowing him to stay home, and she believed it saved her son’s life. 

Personal autonomy

Stephanie told me that her autistic child Zachary was in a constant state of distress at school, and that he would bring that distress home to the family each afternoon. Stephanie first tried to advocate for accommodations at the local public school, and when that did not work, she enrolled him in the most progressive school she could find. Yet she still found herself physically prying his fingers from the door frame each morning to go to school, while trying to find ways to ameliorate the compounding symptoms of physical illness that seemed to stem from the stress. Zachary felt trapped in environments where he was expected to contain his emotions, ideas, and movements so that the adults could feel comfortable.

When young people are in distress, adults often attempt to help the child manage through it. This rarely serves to benefit the child as the causes of the distress are usually external. Depending on their identities and places of being, young people can be impacted by the wide variety of social, economic, and legal forms of oppression that adults face. Additionally, other than those who are incarcerated, no group of people are more routinely denied autonomy over their bodies and minds than young people. Autonomy is a basic human need, and distress in response to violations of that autonomy is not a defect of the child. We can change the context for these young people by removing the oppressive practices and structures that are placed upon and inhibit the autonomy of children.

Removing such practices and structures requires self-reflection on the many ways that we as adults police young people for the sake of convenience. Whether we head to work while we send kids to school, or we stay at home and allow children to roam unschooled, we tend to make decisions for them with our own needs or the needs of people other than our children in mind. From an efficiency perspective this can make all the sense in the world. Young people are more impulsive than adults, and are less likely to abide by social norms, especially social norms that prioritize docility in young people. If the goal is to minimize social disruption or move everyone along a similar path (e.g., classroom activities) then tolerance for individual deviations from the group quickly wanes. But what makes sense to those with power in terms of efficiency can lead to terrible outcomes for individuals, with many historical examples of the worst of outcomes when efficiency over autonomy becomes institutionalized and systematized.

A more nuanced debate about the limits of autonomy may be warranted when it comes to culture building within groups. It serves everyone’s interest within a group to be able to feel safe, necessitating that each person consents to being a member, and that there are agreed upon boundaries that each member honors. Boundaries often include expectations of or limitations on ways of being (e.g., noise, eye contact, active participation). The challenge for young people is that they do not get to choose their family, they are often placed in communities against their will, and they typically lack the resources needed to navigate out of spaces that violate their autonomy. Understanding this lack of power, adults must endeavor to strictly limit any encroachments upon personal autonomy to only those that are necessary for the well-being of a consent-based community, or to protect the autonomy of others. We must scrutinize the many generally accepted expectations of or limitations on young people that are not reasonable, such as demands for performance and productive output, controls on movement (e.g., stimming), and notions of respectability. And bodily integrity should be non-negotiable.  We must also provide ways for young people to opt out of situations where they perceive their autonomy would be unduly inhibited.

Stephanie’s decision to move Zachary from environments that disregarded his personal autonomy to one that openly acknowledged it resulted in many of Zachary’s struggles quickly disappearing, and the quality of his life and that of his family improving substantially. For example, the tussling each morning at the door disappeared, allowing Zachary and his entire family to avoid a stressful event at the beginning of the day, which helped head off a cascade of follow-on crises.

Acceptance 

After our morning meeting on Gabriel’s first day, he asked if he could play video games. I said, “yes, you get to decide how you spend your time here.” Thirty minutes later I was walking through the space and I noticed a cable running from an outlet into a closet. I knocked on the door and heard, “come in.” I opened the door and saw 14-year-old Gabriel on his knees playing on a laptop. I asked if everything was alright, and he said it was. I asked if he wanted to interact with others, and he said he preferred remaining in the closet. He stayed there until the end of the day.

Gabriel’s routine continued day after day. The other Facilitators and I became more and more concerned that perhaps we were not properly supporting someone who chose to wall himself off in a closet for the entire day, each day. Our schoolish lens had us worried about missed opportunities for development, as well as possible questions from his mom about how he was spending his time. We chose to push down our insecurities, prioritize being welcoming and inviting, and honor his desire to be by himself. 

We live in a society predicated on hierarchy. We judge others (and ourselves) by where they fall within various hierarchies. And where they fall determines to a large degree what access, privileges, and so-called rights they have. The pyramid structure of society requires large numbers to fill out the base so that a select few can benefit from their place near the apex. In other words, most people have to be labeled as losers in order to justify the outsized gains of the winners in an ostensibly meritocratic society. We see these hierarchies in most all economic, legal, political, and social institutions. These hierarchies not only determine who benefits and who exist to serve those who benefit, they also perpetuate and reinforce the unjustness of other existent hierarchies (e.g., white supremacy, ableism).

Young people are not immune from the impacts of hierarchy. In fact, hierarchy is a primary force in shaping them. As an oppressed group with negligible economic and political power, they are seen by government and industry as raw material to be molded into reliable workers and consumers (the base), while their family often encourages a climb to the top. Because the aforementioned groups are constantly measuring the youth (e.g., grades, athletic performance, leadership positions) in an attempt to rank and sort them, young people learn quickly how they measure up to their same-aged peers.

Unfortunately, the cloud of competition leads to a denial of self, as ways of being become scrutinized and used as inputs for placement within hierarchies. While families with sufficient material resources may find ways around it, children who are considered too far below or behind arbitrary behavioral or performance norms are often singled out and treated as defective. Children whose identities are not idealized by dominant society (e.g., Black, Indigenous, trans, undocumented, autistic) risk amplified marginalization.

Because of the unforgiving nature of the pyramid structure of society, young people must expend significant energy masking their emotions to ward off scrutiny from adults in positions of power. This harms young people in the moment and in the future, as it forces them to ignore their most basic needs, denies them meaningful relationships, and hinders their natural development. Adults can change the context by accepting the child for who they are and their ways of being. Acceptance allows for the emergence of psychologically safe spaces where children are free from assessment, judgment, or ridicule. Instead of declaring what is important and then measuring it, adults can trust kids to take what they need.

The closet door in many ways was a physical boundary that Gabriel used to protect his emotional boundaries. And for perhaps the first time in his life, Gabriel’s boundaries were honored. Like many young people who have been wounded both in school and in their personal lives, Gabriel did not need to be pushed into activities or behavior that made adults feel comfortable—he needed to be accepted for who he was in the moment, and to have his needs centered. After a month, Gabriel left the closet for good, and fully embedded himself at the heart of the community.

Question authority 

During one of our twice-weekly Flying Squad days, we stopped by the Texas State Capitol. Flying Squads is an intentional effort to support young people in reoccupying public space in an anti-child society. The young people I was with chose to explore the grounds, and 20 minutes later Kenton and Harriet came back to tell me that they had been kicked out of the Visitors Center. I asked why and they said because they were without a chaperone.

Children are oppressed in contemporary society in part because many ostensibly well-intentioned adults believe oppressive practices are necessary to prepare children for an unfair world. This is shortsighted on two accounts. First, oppressing children doesn’t better prepare them for future oppression. Abuse wears people down, forcing them to expend limited personal resources trying to minimize, resist, or escape it. Second, oppressing children seeds future oppression. It is easier for people who have internalized the oppression of one group (i.e., children) to rationalize harming others (e.g., the houseless, BIPOC) or supporting institutions that do (e.g., capitalism, white supremacy). And simply having been oppressed in the past is not automatically some form of inoculation against being willing to accept the oppression of others, particularly when people get to graduate into the class of the oppressor (i.e., adulthood). Adults can instead engage in the struggle of youth liberation.

Youth liberation compels us to change how we interact with kids. But it also requires that we go further by using our relative privilege to alter the ways that other people and institutions interact with young people. One of the most powerful methods of doing so is to question authority. We must start by critically examining whether forms of authority are ethical, the ways in which authority is established (or imposed), and how authority is perpetuated. Then, we need to identify ways to subversively challenge that authority.

When we interrupt child oppression, young people see that we stand in solidarity with them. We change the context. We let them know that just because we are free from the age-based discrimination they face does not mean we do not concern ourselves with their struggle. We let them know that their experiences and their lives matter to us. And that recognition can open up conversations about how liberation is intertwined, how none of us are free until all of us are free, and how we can support the liberation of others. In this way we not only stand up for them, and children everywhere, we seed in them the capacity to stand up for others.

When I walked into the Visitors Center with the young people in tow, a member of the staff and a security guard met me at the main desk. I asked why they kicked the young people out of the center. With the young people listening intently, I wanted to model how we can question authority. The staff member said they were worried about kids being in the building without an adult. I told them that we believe that young people have as much of a right to navigate public space as adults do.

Their supervisor then joined us at the desk and stated that it was policy that children have a chaperone with them. When I asked to view their policies, she told me that it was not written down as a policy, but it was instead a commonly enforced practice. I pointed out that since it was not a policy, that they did not have any right to restrict these kids from being able to roam unaccompanied through the center. The supervisor then asked who would be held liable if the kids injured themselves or damaged something. I said I would be. I then turned toward the young people and told them to enjoy themselves. Kenton’s eyes met mine while I was saying it, and he smiled. Then Makayla, recognizing that everyone was still standing around, said, “alrighty,” and off they ran. 

Place within society 

I looked out the window and saw Kenton, Leo, and Raj about 50 yards away playing in the grass. Then I saw seven-year-old Leo, who was visiting as a prospective member of the community, throw a large rock into the road. I walked outside to have Leo remove the rock from the road and to bring everyone back to Abrome. I then turned to Kenton, who was a few years older than the others, and said, “we need to take care of each other.” He replied, “I’m not a babysitter.”

I asked Kenton, who had only been with us for a couple of months, if he felt he had any obligations to others. Kenton changed the topic and said that he was upset because this was supposed to be an “activist school” and that he did not feel as though we were doing enough in the community. I responded that we were trying to create something that went beyond protesting or getting arrested. I explained that we were trying to live prefiguratively, meaning we were trying to organize and engage with each other in ways that not only allowed us to navigate and improve the society we live in, but to model the relations that a better future society would entail. 

Why should young people believe that this world is for them? They cannot vote even though the consequences of political decisions will most often impact them more than any other age group, as they are the ones stuck with laws and policies the longest (because older generations die off). In sick societies that value wealth accumulation over collective well-being, this leaves younger and future generations with the burden of reckoning with legacies of human rights violations, dispossession, poverty, and environmental degradation.

Young people also have limited control over their own bodies. Thanks to compulsory schooling laws, kids are situated in environments where they are forced to compete against peers on measures that often have no meaning to them, and subjected to punitive rules that regulate everything from what they can wear to when they can talk. The lack of bodily autonomy also extends beyond the schoolhouse. They are age-limited on employment options, and the number of hours they can work “when school is in session.” At home, even in cases where young people are being abused, states prohibit children from emancipating themselves until their mid- to late-teens, and then only if they are self-supporting, which is an impossibility for most because of the restrictions placed on youth employment. And even in the most supportive of homes, kids are unable to access certain types of healthcare (e.g., birth control, vaccines) without the permission of their parents or guardians.

While youth liberation can seem like a fantastic delusion at times, particularly from the point of view of young people, we can help them reconceive their place within society, and support them in acting on society, so that they can take ownership of changing the context of their lives and of the world around them. We may not be able to liberate them by ourselves, but it can be liberating for them to realize that we trust them to not only make decisions about how they spend their time and what their education looks like, but also to engage with the world in order to alter it. Being able to live what we want to create in the world can be the most liberating feeling of all.

Two weeks later, we dedicated our tri-weekly field trip day to supporting the houseless community, spurred primarily by a vicious public backlash by rightwing groups to the Austin City Council decriminalizing houselessness. The decision was a personal one for one of the kids, who had been houseless the year prior. We made hundreds of lunches and a large pot of soup, and went to three houseless encampments in the city to distribute the food. Many of the young people got into extended conversations with the houseless folks, particularly Kenton, Harriet, and Olivia. The experience allowed them to feel as though they could take action to materially improve the lives of people beyond themselves. 

Moving on

Kenton had joined us in the fall of 2019, hoping to put an end to a string of bad schooling experiences. While I was shocked by how he had been treated at his prior schools, it was learning about the trauma he faced in his personal life that really floored me. That trauma helped explain many of his initial difficulties: defensiveness, angry outbursts, an unwillingness to trust others, and dissociation when stressed. But, by changing the context in all the ways mentioned in this essay, over the span of about half a year, he slowly learned to trust us, trust in himself, and trust that he could improve the world around him. Unfortunately, once the pandemic hit in 2020, he had to move out of state to be closer to family. 

Changing the context has an outsized (arguably the greatest) impact on the quality and direction of the lives young people. Parents and guardians have about 18 years to support children, while caregivers and educators have far less time. While we can lament the years children may have needlessly suffered through the expectations and limitations of dominant society, today will always be the best day to change the context.

[1] This essay is a work of nonfiction. Names, genders, and some descriptive details have been altered to protect the privacy of individuals.

[2] This essay was originally published in the book Trust Kids! Stories on Youth Autonomy and Confronting Adult Supremacy, edited by carla joy bergman, AK Press (November 2022).

Autonomy is not just about the individual

Youth autonomy is one of the core pillars of the Abrome community. It is not a talking point. All people should be able to choose how they use their time, have control over their bodies and minds, and have their boundaries respected. Children and adolescents are people, too.

Some people think that giving kids the choice of which learning app to use, or which character they want to represent on a project is autonomy. Others think it is having students ask the questions that will help structure the learning that they will be guided into next. But that is not autonomy, it is the illusion of choice.

Autonomy is much bigger than the pedagogical approach we take to education at Abrome. But fully supporting Self-Directed Education is certainly necessary if we are going to support the autonomy of young people. Young people do not have autonomy if they are made to focus on math or writing at certain times, or if they must perform for adults.

In order for the environment to support youth autonomy it is necessary to shift from thinking how adults should act on young people through manipulation, motivation, or coercion; to how adults can serve as allies to the youth and as partners in their journeys.

“[Youth] are only autonomous when their environment provides them with the space to freely explore and to use their agency to learn. Autonomy is therefore both about the person (who needs to feel that they have the power to change things) and their environment (which needs to give them the opportunity to do so).”
~Naomi Fisher from the book Changing Our Minds: How children can take control of their own learning

Abrome receives gift to implement pooled household LAMP surveillance testing and to serve as a model for robust multilayered COVID protections in schools

September 19, 2022

Abrome is pleased to announce that it has received a $29,000 USDC gift from Balvi, a direct giving fund established by Vitalik Buterin, the co-creator of Ethereum. The gift will fully fund an innovative onsite daily COVID-19 surveillance testing program developed by FloodLAMP Biotechnologies, a Public Benefit Corporation. In addition to the testing program, the gift helps fund Abrome’s continued improvements in filtration, ventilation, and masking efforts for the 2022-2023 academic year.. 

Abrome is a liberatory, K-12 Self-Directed Education community serving young people ages 5-18 in Austin, Texas, USA. Abrome operates with an ethic of community care that centers those who are most impacted by our actions, and this focus allowed for a quick transition to a multilayered approach to protecting the community from COVID in 2020. Our multilayered approach to protection has resulted in zero cases of COVID at Abrome over the first three academic years of the pandemic, and prevented spread into communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID (e.g., BIPOC communities, the immunocompromised, those without access to quality healthcare, essential workers, the unvaccinated).

An important additional layer of protection is provided by the new surveillance testing program.. The program uses a molecular test based on loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP), an alternative to PCR that can be visually read and deployed in a decentralized testing model. LAMP tests offer significantly improved sensitivity over antigen test strips, thus catching new infections earlier prior to infectious levels that cause disease spread. Unlike other school pool testing efforts, our approach would not pool student samples to determine if there is a likely infected young person in the facility. Instead, Abrome goes a step further and has each household of every young person and staff member pool their samples each morning, and then those pooled samples are tested on site. Because Abrome is already a COVID-safe(r) environment, the greatest risk of exposure happens at home, where household members risk bringing the disease home from their workplaces, non-COVID-safe schools (i.e., siblings), and other spaces. 

“With this generous gift, we are able to add household LAMP surveillance testing to our pandemic protocols. This will not only allow us to identify infection risks before they enter our space, it will allow us to be able to serve as proof of concept and as a case study for the benefits of a robust multilayered approach that includes surveillance testing in school settings everywhere,” said Antonio Buehler, the director of Abrome.

Our AY 2022-23 pandemic plan

This is a brief overview of the layers of protection that we are applying at Abrome for the 2022-23 academic year. Abrome has been able to remain COVID free for the past three years of pandemic schooling.

The success we have had in protecting each other and local communities from the spread of COVID is something we are very proud of. We were only able to do that thanks to a collective commitment to community care, transparency, and candid and honest communication.

Community care means centering the needs of those who would be most impacted by our decisions and actions, and leveraging our privilege to support them. We must acknowledge three realities about the COVID pandemic (and likely Mpox, too):

1. COVID continues to fall heaviest on BIPOC communities, the immunocompromised, those without access to quality healthcare, essential workers, the unvaccinated, etc. All of our pandemic decisions must center those most impacted. Nothing we do impacts only those at Abrome.

2. All Facilitators and Learners go home to families, friends, and into other communities each day. If we were to spread COVID at Abrome, we’d spread it elsewhere, too.

3. There is no such thing as a harmless single case of COVID. Including cases that are “mild.” Each case has the potential to lead to long-term chronic health problems and disrupt quality of life, seed a superspreader event, and host a mutation that can become a new variant.

To limit the likelihood of infection and spread, we will use a multilayered approach to not bringing COVID into our education community, and not spreading COVID if it does find its way into the community. Please see our pandemic plan for greater detail.

Masking: Everyone will wear KF94s, KN95s, or N95s (or higher filtration masks or respirators) whenever we are indoors, and any time we are close to one another outdoors above the lowest risk level. All snacks and meals must be eaten outdoors.

Physical distancing: As cases rise we will reduce reduce density, cohort, and meet outdoors. Quarantine and isolation lasts 7 and 10 days, respectively, including a test out requirement. Abromies will receive remote support, and Facilitators receive paid sick time off.

Air quality: We will aggressively ventilate the space and monitor ventilation with CO2 monitors (800ppm max). Each room is also equipped with at least one HEPA purifier or Corsi-Rosenthal box, producing in excess of 12 air changes per hour (ACH) in filtration based on air volume.

Testing: Each morning every Learner and Facilitator completes a quick screening questionnaire before, each family submits a pooled household sample for LAMP surveillance testing, and we follow up with diagnostic testing based on results or stated concerns of exposure.

Vaccines: This year we also have a vaccination mandate except in very rare cases of medical necessity. Our definition of fully vaccinated includes being up-to-date on boosters.

Risk levels: We will use our updated COVID risk level system to determine when, where, and how we will gather. The five risk levels have cutoffs based on the average new cases per 100,000 and the test positivity rate, locally.

Gathering guidelines: Risk determines where we gather, how big our cells can be, whether we must mask (always indoors), when we will conduct LAMP testing (whenever in-person), and how close we can be from each other to include when eating (always outdoors).

Some say that we need kids back in schools even without sufficient measures to protect them from COVID infection because of learning loss, socialization, or other racist and classist assumptions. We believe such claims are not only false, they are ethically and morally repugnant.

Here is the Abrome pandemic plan for the coming academic year. Cannot wait to see you all on September 6th.


Covid: three pandemic years in—looking back

Most schools in central Texas reopen this week, and the overwhelming majority of them will have no meaningful COVID protections in place, much less a multilayered approach that would drastically reduce the risk of spread of COVID within their school communities. Needless to say, they will have no meaningful Monkeypox protections in place, either. 

At Abrome, we still have three weeks until the first day of our 2022-2023 academic year, and have yet to put out our finalized pandemic plan for the coming year. We expect to do so in the next ten days, and expect it to be similar to our plan for the past year. Our last academic year wrapped up only five and a half weeks ago, on Friday, July 9th, and we finished our third pandacademic year without a single known case of COVID in the space. The following day I posted a twitter thread that briefly touched upon the multilayered approach we took to stop the spread of the disease. In the hopes of encouraging school leaders, teachers, staff, parents, and students who believe there is nothing they can do to protect each other from COVID in the current political and social environment, I am including the full text of that thread, and where appropriate I expound on what we did and how these practices can be implemented in their schools. I will also address some of the criticisms that many people brought forth. Disclaimer: snark.

Our 2021-22 academic year just ended yesterday. 

We just finished our 3rd year without a single case of COVID-19 in the space. That means not a single person was exposed “at school.” Doubly impressive given the transmissibility of the current variants.

How did we do it?

First, we prioritized community care over white, upper middle class, reactionary insecurity. We recognized early on that COVID was falling heaviest on BIPOC communities, the immunocompromised, those without access to quality healthcare, etc. All our decisions centered them. 

[This really bothered a lot of folks. A quick check of those who complained showed they were disproportionately COVID deniers, anti-maskers, and anti-vaxxers. Yes, I know that those terms are politically charged and may be viewed as pejoratives but in this case it is simply a statement of reality. Surprisingly a select group of COVID minimizers, advocates of only vaccinating people, advocates of only mandating masks, and blue check influencers (official accounts with large audiences) glossed over this and later claimed that our practices that centered BIPOC communities somehow harmed Black students because they were not stuck in school. Note: learning loss is not a thing. And even if it was, it would not be a sufficient excuse to risk exposing kids to COVID, or their parens, guardians, or caregivers.]

Second, we acknowledged that nothing we do impacts only those at Abrome. All Facilitators (“teachers”) and young people (“students”) go home to families, friends, and into other communities each day. If we were to spread COVID at Abrome, we’d spread it elsewhere, too. 

[Some OPEN SCHOOLS NOW people (who argue that we just have to get kids back in schools [as if they haven’t been back in schools] and who are overwhelmingly middle class and upper middle class white people) and COVID minimizers argued that kids were more likely to catch it at home than they were at school. True, because at home you are breathing in each other’s air over extended periods of time, without protection measures. And the parents are bringing the disease home most often from work (schools happen to be workplaces for teachers and staff) or other settings where people come together, usually indoors, usually without masking, and usually without other forms of protections—like schools. And it is a foolish argument against preventing spread at school because when a kid brings the disease home from school then everyone in their family becomes at risk of being infected. The disease does not magically not spread when a kid brings it home.]

Third, there is no such thing as a harmless single case of COVID that someone with “a healthy immune system” can overcome. Each case has the potential to seed a superspreader event. Each case has the potential to host a mutation that can become a new variant. 

So we focused on two things.

1) not bringing COVID into our education community.

2) not spreading COVID if it did find its way into the community. 

To not bring it in we started with going remote during periods of very high spread. This was easy in the spring of 2020 when all schools chose to do the same. It got much harder in 2021 & 2022 when society bought into the argument that kids and teachers should accept infection. 

[See screenshot of daily spread calculation instructions.]

We also had each family conduct a daily COVID screening. If someone showed up having not completed it we did it with them in-person before allowing them to enter the space / join the group. 

It worked. During every wave we had some students or staff get infected outside of Abrome, but because of our practices none brought it into the community (which would have then spread out beyond the community). 

[See screenshot of screening checklist. We will be updating the screening for the coming year.]

To not spread it if it snuck into the community we acknowledged that #COVIDisAirborne. We mandated masks whenever indoors. KF94, KN95, N95, or better. Zero indoor “mask breaks.” And folks had to go outdoors to eat.

Outdoors they had to wear masks when close to each other. 

And we went outdoors for the entirety of the 2020-2021 academic year! In the Texas heat! This year we had at least one cell of people outdoors pretty much each day except when we went remote during Delta and Omicron. During very high levels of spread, everyone went outdoors. 

[One OPEN SCHOOLS NOW and blue check influencer accused us of being remote most of the time, while wealthy schools “used their resources to keep kids safer in person.” Well, we are not a wealthy school, so we didn’t have those resources (assuming they meant money), and they conveniently glossed over the fact that we were not largely remote.]

We also filtered our indoor air. Each room was equipped with HEPA filtration systems or Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, each with a CADR that would deliver at least 6 ACH per room based on room volume, and 8 ACH in bathrooms. That also required calculating the volume of each room. See, maybe you will use need to know that math in the future!

“Sure, but you can only do that because you’re a well-funded private school!!”

Wrong. We are not a rich private school. Our sliding scale tuition give us only 40% of the tuition per student that the local public schools receive. We just prioritize community care! 

[And that tweet was prescient as that same OPEN SCHOOLS NOW and blue check influencer attacked our plan because “MAKING ACTUAL SCHOOLS SAFER REQUIRES INVESTMENT” while completely ignoring that we did on the cheap what schools with an annual budgets that ran into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars refused to do anything to clean their air.] 

On top of filtering the air we ventilated the indoor space. We opened windows and created lots of cross flow. We used CO2 monitors as a proxy measure for ventilation. When the readings went above 650 we cranked the AC and opened the windows further, if it hit 800 we vacated. 

We implemented capacity limits indoors, for each room and for the total number who could be indoors at any given time.

We also broke our community up into smaller and smaller groups/cells as cases rose. And pushed them outdoors. It is safer outdoors. 

If someone would have inadvertently come into the space / group infected, the smaller cells limited the pool of people who could be exposed.

No one came in infected (as much luck as it was preventative policies) but even if they did the number they could infect was capped. 

[Some critics pointed out that we were lucky and that we could not attribute no one bringing COVID into Abrome or spreading it within the community to our practices. As if we did not acknowledge that luck most certainly played a part. But luck does often favor those who prepare.]

When the CDC catered to politicians and corporations and said that local spread should not be the driver of how we choose to meet, we ignored them. When the CDC said that we could drastically shorten quarantine and isolation periods, or not require testing out, we ignored them. 

[Sorry for also ignoring you, the OPEN SCHOOLS NOW blue check influencers who insist upon a one-size fits all solution that requires multi-billions of dollars of investment from the same government that is actively trying to convince us that we should just live with COVID.] 

Next year we will also have a vaccine mandate except in very rare cases of medical necessity (everyone in our community is vaccinated already). 

[This only got push back from anti-vaxxers. The vaccinate only crowd only took issue with everything else we wrote.]

The pandemic has really tested our community. Centering community care has put a big dent in our enrollment. But we understand our obligations toward our families, our community, and our society. 

And that was the thread.

The COVID minimizers, OPEN SCHOOLS NOW people, and blue check influencers also came out in force to attack us for being too small to take seriously.  Side note, the COVID minimizers, the vaccinate-only, the masking-only, and blue check influencers do seem to be causing much more harm than the COVID deniers these days. This was our response to them:

So the fact that we are a very small education community seems to really gall some people, convincing them to shout that our approach to Covid is irrelevant because of our size. Because if we don’t have at least 100 enrolled there is nothing to learn from our efforts.

We are a Self-Directed Education community that rejects the practices and structures of schooling and instead focus on centering community care and honoring the autonomy of young people. We will never become a large school because we are not what most parents want. 👍

We consider ourselves to be a liberation project, acting prefiguratively to serve as a model for others to learn from and to replicate if it speaks to them. We strive to be an anti-oppressive space, and one of “a million experiments.” Let those experiments propagate!

It is that mindset that allows us to center community care over white, upper middle class, reactionary insecurity. It is precisely because we are not a conventional school that we were able to focus on limiting the risk of exposure and spread through layered mitigations.

Some say that what we do cannot work for everyone because we go outdoors and then go remote when there is uncontrolled community spread. Or because we start at 10a. Or because we charge tuition.

True.

We cannot be all things to all people. We don’t try to be.

We are one experiment. Ideally there would be many schools taking Covid seriously so that there were many more options for families. Even amongst district public schools. But we don’t get public funding, so blaming us for not being free and available 24/7 is weird.

They angrily argue that what we do cannot be scaled up to all public school systems.

Yes. And no.

Yes, public schools, just like conventional private schools, serve power and the status quo. Even where communities overwhelmingly demand safer schools, most schools cannot even mandate masking. Our approach cannot be easily scaled up because it doesn’t serve power.

But no, what we do can be scaled up to all schools because the measures are readily accessible to all who have the courage to push back against politicians and corporations, even if they have to do so in a renegade fashion. Investment is not the problem, priorities are.

The most closeminded position of all is that because of our small size that nothing we do is relevant, or somehow scaling up is not possible. What do people think schools are? Are they not large buildings, that are broken down into grades and classrooms?

Everything we do could be scaled. Mandated masking, monitoring air quality, ventilation, CR boxes or HEPA filters in classrooms, cohorting, daily screenings, quarantines & isolation that is not truncated and requires a test out, going outdoors, going remote.

Are they really arguing that layered mitigation measures are not feasible? Or are they saying that schools with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in annual budgets cannot afford it? Or are they just telling you to get vaccinated and look away?

We’ll still be here.

Cover image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Pandemic plan update for AY 2021-2022

Rejecting normal

Society is burnt out and eager to regain a sense of normalcy after two years of the pandemic. At least that is the message we are fed each day by the media, government agencies, politicians, and opportunists. And their proposed solution is to move on from the pandemic and “return to normal,” operating as if it were 2019 again. 

There are many problems with the proposed solution that we are being offered. First and foremost is that the pandemic is not over, and we cannot simply make it go away by acting as if it is no longer an existential threat to many millions of people who are at risk, unvaccinated, or members of vulnerable populations. Secondly, the crushing exhaustion many people feel is not solely a response to Covid-19 safety protocols, but to much more concerning factors such as: mass disability and death, and being told that disability and death should be deemed acceptable while protocols to prevent such harm should be seen as a burden; a heightened state of white nationalism coupled with state violence directed at historically marginalized and oppressed groups (e.g., BIPOC, trans youth, houseless); economic uncertainty; political instability; and a loss of a sense of connection and community in a fractured culture. Third, and particularly relevant to Abrome, normal was never good enough. 

Abrome is a liberation project. We aim to support young people by honoring the exercise of their autonomy within a context of co-creating a compassionate community with an understanding of our shared responsibilities toward one another. In order to do that, we must reject the notion that it is sensible to focus on what is best for us while turning a blind eye to the ills of society, as well as the ways in which we may be contributing to the harm of others.        

Thanks in large part to recently updated CDC guidelines, schools and other institutions are fast tracking their “return to normal.” We are likely the only remaining education community in Central Texas that still goes remote during periods of uncontrolled community spread, and we may also be the only one that has not gone mask optional. We have been put in the position of having to choose between what makes good business sense and what allows us to continue to center the needs of those most impacted by our decisions. We still choose the latter. 

Moving forward

This updated version of our pandemic plan was released on March 15, 2022. Since the original version of the AY21-22 pandemic plan was released, those ages 5 and above have gained access to vaccines, and we came back indoors for the first time since March 2020. We have also observed how much of society has been lulled into believing that we should not protect ourselves and one another through readily accessible mitigation and safety practices such as masking, staying home when sick or after having been exposed, and vaccination. Finally, we have watched in disappointment as schools and public health organizations have folded to public pressure to abdicate their responsibility to help protect the most vulnerable members of our communities. 

We are still masking whenever we are indoors, as well as when near one another outdoors. We may still go remote during the worst periods of spread, but we may be outdoors depending on local hospital capacity. We still have vaccine qualifiers to go indoors. The most meaningful changes to this updated pandemic plan include new triggers for when we enter into different risk levels; altered protocols for where, when, and how we meet; and adjusted isolation and quarantine protocols. We based the changes on a deeper understanding of the risks of spread in a variety of contexts (e.g., indoor/outdoor, KN95/surgical/cloth masks); renewed humility driven by the diversity of outcomes of recent variants; observing the measures of air quality at the Abrome facility since returning indoors; and improved studies of incubation and infectious periods. All changes were made with a deep concern for how we could best serve the Abromies without leaving others behind. This update also serves as a bridge between the original AY21-22 pandemic plan and the forthcoming AY22-23 pandemic plan. Thank you for continuing on this journey with us.

Protect Trans Youth

Disgustingly, the State of Texas is using police state power to threaten and endanger the lives and welfare of trans kids and their families. For a state that regularly uses violence against children by way of the police in their own neighborhoods, at the border, and in schools, it is the height of hypocrisy that they are defining gender affirming care as “child abuse” as a cover to direct actual violence against parents who dare to support their trans kids. The state is also threatening all those who work with kids, demanding that they report to the state any child receiving gender affirming care, or those providing it.

Trans kids need to be protected.

All doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, teachers, and childcare providers need to publicly assert that they will never comply with these anti-trans, anti-child, anti-humanity dictates. There is an ethical imperative to not contribute to the violence toward trans youth.

We will never comply with such hateful, harmful, authoritarian demands from the state.

Your local school is failing your community by not being remote

It is 10:45 a.m. on Monday, January 24th, and the Abrome Facilitators and Learners just finished our first meeting of the week. Yes, unlike (presumably) all the schools in Central Texas, we are remote and have been since winter break. Well, sort of for all the schools in Central Texas. I’ll get back to that.

Our first day back from the break was scheduled for January 3rd, but recognizing that cases were quickly rising, we postponed our start date by a week to better assess the situation and to avoid bringing Learners back for one day before having to go remote. We told families that the lost week would be made up for by reducing spring break from two weeks to one. As expected, the numbers released by Austin Public Health on January 3rd pushed us into our risk level 5, meaning we would be remote for a while (assuming that institutions would not take necessary steps to help reduce the spread of Covid-19, locally).

Our remote looks quite different from what it looks like for most schools. Our remote is about holding space and maintaining connection with the Learners, knowing we will eventually get to come back together. During remote we host our daily morning meetings and afternoon roundups, and we host weekly Set-the-Week, Check-in, and Change-up meetings. We try to schedule 1:1 meetings with each Learner each week, with additional meetings for those who want it. And we schedule a variety of offerings that might be of interest to Learners, and support Learners who want to host their own offerings. We encourage Learners to attend Abrome meetings and offerings if it works for them, and to not attend if it does not. We have the flexibility to do so because we are a Self-Directed Education community, meaning we do not burden young people with a forced, narrow academic curriculum during pandemic times, just as we did not during pre-pandemic times. Nonetheless, remote is still an exhausting experience for our Facilitators, and a less than remarkable experience for most of the Abrome Learners. The Learners want to be together playing, creating, conversing, and learning together; and they want to be able to do it emergently, instead of according to an online schedule in a virtual space where attendance can be sporadic.

Conventional public and private schools cannot allow Learners to choose a path that works best for them during remote. Those schools rely on compulsory attendance, so the freedom to participate or not is anathema to them. But, because they are in the business of delivering academic curriculum to captive cohorts of students, they can quickly shift their product to remote delivery, as they had done in the spring of 2020. They could even do so relatively competently, assuming the schools are willing to support the teachers with the time and resources to do so. I am not saying going remote would be easy for them. Being remote is an inconvenience to the schools, and they would need to deal with irate parents demanding that their kids be in school, but the essential function of schooling remains the same. For the teachers, remote schooling is still exhausting. And for the students, remote schooling is certainly unremarkable.

But no matter how inconvenient or how poor the quality of remote schooling can be, no schools should be meeting in-person right now during this most infectious wave of the pandemic. Because schools are sites of transmission (including for superspreader events) every school had a social responsibility to their local community to go remote as soon as we entered into a period of uncontrolled community transmission of the disease, meaning every school should have been remote since the winter break. And every school that failed to do so (which I believe is every school, locally) now has a social responsibility to immediately go remote. Unfortunately, there are not many people in Central Texas, and virtually zero institutions, who agree that.

Many argue that because infections due to Omicron are “mild” relative to Delta infections that we should continue sending kids to school. Problem is, “mild” can still cause serious illness and death. In fact, daily deaths are higher now, nationally, than they were during the Delta wave, because of the extremely high number of infections. It also ignores that even “mild” illness can lead to long Covid and potentially very serious long-term medical conditions or disability that will shorten or greatly reduce the quality of life of millions of people.

Others say schools should be open because kids are unlikely to die from Covid-19. They’re also unlikely to die from a drunk driving accident, but few would advocate putting them in the car with a drunk driver. Further, like for adults, the consequences of infection are not a simple binary of live or die. Kids who get infected can still suffer greatly during the initial infection, they can suffer from long Covid, and an unknown number may develop serious health conditions that they will need to live with for years or decades into the future.

But even if they want to roll the dice on their children’s health, or other people’s children’s health, those who demand that schools stay open erase from the conversation all the adults who work in schools. Should teachers and staff sacrifice disability or death just so kids can go to school? The reopen schools crowd eagerly ignores the existence of the adults in schools each time they say “the kids will be fine if they get infected.”

And even if the lives of the school teachers and staff do not matter (to the open schools now crowd), each infection that is facilitated by in-person schooling leaves the facility at the end of the day and goes into the broader community. Each one of those infections can infect household and family members (kids have parents and guardians, too), they can seed superspreader events, and they can be the source of a mutation that creates a new variant.

And because of the aggressive spread of this disease, with record numbers of infections, even though it is “mild” compared to Delta, it is straining the capacity of the medical system, and it is crushing the spirits of medical workers who have been struggling to save lives for the past two years, largely without the support of the rest of society. This means that even if the “only people” who die from Covid-19 are those who “refuse to get vaccinated” or “had underlying conditions,” people are going to indirectly die from medical care they cannot get for other conditions because of the inability of the medical system to deal with the surge. By the way, those who refuse to get vaccinated and those with underlying conditions shouldn’t be dying from a disease that we can prevent from spreading.

There is simply no ethical medical or social justification for schools to be open right now. Kids are not safer at schools. Kids’ mental health is far more impacted by being surrounded by mass disability and death, and by adults and institutions who refuse to protect them. And as stated before, kids are also not the only people in schools, and schools are not separate from the broader community. Perhaps the most compelling unethical justification that can be made for schools to be open right now is that businesses need schools open so that their workers do not have to stay home with their kids during working hours. If we assume that keeping the wheels of capitalism turning is more important than the health of society, I guess we can accept the contribution schools are making to mass disability and death.

But, other than the ethical piece, there is another big problem with that argument. When infection becomes too widespread, the wheels of capitalism will begin to slow down. When people are seeing large numbers of their friends, family, and acquaintances getting infected, and some suffering greatly from it, many of them are going to modify their behavior. That modification may include staying home whether or not businesses or schools like it. It may lead to them dropping out of the workforce, or unenrolling from covid petri dish schools. It may lead to them withdrawing from engaging in the consumerism that the economy is built upon. And even if enough people are willing to risk infection, to work through infection and the lingering effects of infection, and are willing to head out into public while infected (as is now encouraged by business and the government), wide-scale illness will eventually leave businesses and schools without enough employees and customers to operate.

And we may be on the cusp of that right now. We were greatly saddened that schools did not preemptively go remote at the end of the winter break, when this wave was upon us. We had hoped that the schools would take their responsibility to their local communities seriously. Instead, they brought students, teachers, and staff together and contributed to the spread of the disease. Yes, public schools have the Governor to deal with; and they must deal with business interests, politicians, and parents who demand schools stay open; and with grifters who seek to profit from promoting the most selfish aspects of our nature; and they need to concern themselves with seat time for the sake of revenue. And yes, private schools also have to deal with much of the same else enrollment may plummet when families pull their kids from school because they don’t want to pay full tuition for remote schooling. But none of those pressures justify in-person schooling.

As of today, it looks like some schools in Central Texas are finally going remote or closing, at least for days at a time. But they are not doing it to stop the spread. They are doing it because they don’t have the ability to keep schools open because too many teachers and staff are unable to work because they’ve been infected or exposed (or disabled or killed). The schools should have gone remote during this most infectious wave of the pandemic before exposing the people they are supposed to care about and serve to the disease within the walls of the schoolhouse. The least they can do now is to go remote to help cut off routes of transmission within the schools, and into the community, so that we can expedite the end of this wave.

——

Cover photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

A remote start to AY 2021-22

Today is the first day of the 2021-22 academic year at Abrome.

Due to uncontrolled community spread of Covid-19 in Central Texas, we will start our year fully remote. Given the elevated number of cases at this time, bringing people together in-person poses too great a risk of exposing Learners and Facilitators to the disease, which they could then take home and into the broader community. By refusing to ‘return to normal’ we inconvenience ourselves to protect each other, particularly those who are most vulnerable to the disease.

At Abrome we will continue to center the needs of those most impacted by the pandemic in our approach to the year, and we call on all education communities to do the same. If we as a society rallied in support of one another and engaged in reasonable safety practices, cases would plummet and we could enjoy being together while also having the peace of mind that comes with knowing that we are not needlessly endangering the welfare of others.

It is not too late for education communities to choose an approach that prioritizes public health. We encourage all communities to adapt, copy, or steal our pandemic plan.

First day of school for local kids (not at Abrome)

Today tens of thousands of students in Central Texas will be returning to school, joining the scores of thousands who returned to school yesterday.

While there is palpable excitement for many students who want to be around large groups of peers again, many other students feel like hostages, knowing full well that they are entering into buildings where their safety is not being taken seriously. This latter group understand that bringing large amounts of people together indoors for hours at a time greatly increases the risk of spread, even with masks. They understand that because their school populations are majority unvaccinated that the risk is amplified, and that some of them, their peers, or the teachers and staff are going to get seriously ill or die. They understand that people who get infected are going to bring the disease home to their families and their local neighborhoods. Yet they have been told they have no choice—schools will not push back the reopening dates, schools will not go remote, many schools won’t even enforce masking requirements. They are told that they must risk their safety and the safety of their community because the schooling machine requires their participation to operate. Some of them will recognize that they do not have participate. Some teachers and staff members will realize the same.

Solidarity to all the students, teachers, and staff who refuse to participate in indoor schooling at this time.