School COVID anxiety: At least it’s not the A-bomb

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With some local schools reopening for in-person instruction, parents and students are no doubt feeling anxious about COVID-19. Even with appropriate precaution, the worry is understandable. And it’s no fun to have to feel anxious while in school. 

I know, because all this has got me thinking back to my own early schooling when classmates and I felt anxious. It wasn’t about a virus, though; it was about vaporization.  

It was the fall of 1962—the Cuban Missile Crisis—and I was in the fourth grade at Brighton’s Council Rock Elementary School. As I recall, what caused my classmates and me the most anxiety was not being annihilated in a nuclear blast but being required under the school’s Civil Defense Plan to walk home alone when an attack was anticipated and being vaporized—that was the term we used—before we got home. 

But are these memories correct? Did school authorities really insist that in the event of a nuclear attack kids walk home?  

To find out, I recently made a Freedom of Information request to the Brighton Central School District for documents from that time related to civil defense plans. With admirable speed and friendliness, the district’s records officer sent me a small batch of school board minutes and related documents—including the exact one I’d been hoping to find.

Here’s what I learned, but first some background.

It was October 1962. Tension had been building between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over our discovery in Cuba of Russian-made missiles capable of striking the United States. President John F. Kennedy spoke to the nation on television, showing reconnaissance photos of the Russian missiles and announced a naval blockade of the Cuban island—if any Russian ship crossed the blockade line, it would be considered an act of war.

 President John F. Kennedy leans over the table in a crowded Cabinet Room during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Though this was long before 24/7 cable news, and Rochester at that time had only three—or it might have been only two—TV stations, we watched a lot of news and the more we watched the more frightened we became. Nuclear war certainly seemed possible, if not imminent.

In schools like mine across the country, practice alarms sounded, and children conducted “civil defense” drills. Some of these were “duck and cover” in which students would hide under their desks. In our drills, we were marched into a hallway and told to sit against the wall. This was to protect us from the blast, or the heat, or the light—we were never quite sure which. In our school, three drills were mandatory each school year.

Schools in New York were also required by state authorities to develop a Civil Defense Disaster Preparedness Plan. On Sept. 28—and here I’m relying on the documents just released to me—Brighton schools sent a proposed Civil Defense Plan to Monroe County for review, and on Oct. 2 was notified that its plan had been approved. Plan details were then sent in a letter to parents.

The plan had two parts: “Shelter” and “Dispersal or ‘Go Home.’”

The Shelter Plan would operate if there were “insufficient” warning time before an attack to send children home. Instead, children would be sheltered in the school. An in-school “Take Cover” signal would be a “three-minute fluctuating or warbling tone of varying pitch by air raid sirens,” or “intermittent blasts by horns, whistles,” or similar devices.         

(In a letter commenting on the Shelter part of Brighton’s plan, the County Civil Defense director noted: “Conceivably, this could involve a period of confinement of up to two weeks.”)

The “Go Home” plan would operate if warning of an attack were “adequate” to allow children to return to their homes.” The signal for going home would be “a steady blast of three to five minutes duration by sirens, horns, whistles” or similar devices.

I recall as a fourth grader trying to commit to memory: fluctuating siren—we stay in school; steady siren, we go home.

And here’s where it gets interesting because under the “Go Home” plan, students were divided into what we took to calling “Riders” and “Walkers.”     

If you lived more than a mile from school, you were a “Rider” and would get driven home in a regular school bus. As the plan noted, because “time is of the essence” buses would not go to each individual stop but would drop students off at the end of their street.  

Talk about the dedication of frontline workers—those bus drivers would be required to make three roundtrips, first driving high schoolers home, then middle school students, then elementary students—all while sirens steadily wailed and their own children were at home without them.

But students living one mile or less from school would not be bused home: They would be expected to “proceed directly home on foot.” (Or if they had ridden their bike to school that day, they could bike home.) 

I lived less than a mile from Council Rock School, so in the event of a nuclear attack I figured I would be a “Walker.” Hence my fantasies of being vaporized halfway home.  

On this point, however, documents show my memory is a little off. Under its Civil Defense Plan, Brighton did not require students in grades K-4 to walk home; they could walk only if parents had given signed consent. The actual consent form says, “I (name of parent) give permission for my child to walk home in the event of a dispersal emergency.”

(“Dispersal emergency?” Bureaucrats of the era clearly were no slouches when it came to inventing euphemisms.)

Whether or not my parents had consented to me walking home alone during the run-up to nuclear war, I have no idea—and it’s too late now to ask them.

As it happened, President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev struck a deal, the Cuban missiles were shipped back to Russia, and no A-bombs were dropped.  

And yet, the vulnerability my classmates and I experienced during the Missile Crisis was real, nonetheless. I often wonder how such anxiety—millions of young people collectively imagining being annihilated—may have affected my generation. Were the excesses of the cultural revolution of the ’60s—the rebelliousness and anger, the drugs, the protests—in some part an expression of the fear and stress we had experienced?         

In a recent article, “How Growing Up With the Threat of Nuclear War Shapes Kids’ Psyches,” author Elizabeth King quotes a man who in 1962 was 10 or 11 years old: “I remember going to bed one night during the (Cuban Missile) Crisis wondering whether I would feel the heat of the nuclear blast before it killed me, or if it would kill me so fast that I wouldn’t have to suffer.” She cites studies on the psychological effects on children of the threat of nuclear war. Factors include a child’s age (the young experience more trauma) and whether parents calmed them by talking about the threat (I don’t recall my parents ever saying a word).

I can’t say for certain how my own experience during those tense weeks of October 1962 may have affected me, but I do know this: For many years walking home from school didn’t feel quite as safe as it once had.  

As for today’s young people just getting back to school, they’re fortunate not to have to cope with the threat of annihilation. Still, the many precautions they must take against the virus—temperature checks, masks, plexiglass dividers—can themselves be a cause of anxiety. I hope these measures protect our students, and when this crisis finally ends that they can look to the future with resilience and confidence.  

Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected]. All coronavirus articles are collected here.

3 thoughts on “School COVID anxiety: At least it’s not the A-bomb

  1. The big difference here of course is that no one actually died in the cuban missile crisis, and over 200,000 americans and counting are now dead from COVID 19. Not only are kids subjected to the fear at their school or gathering place, restricted from seeing friends, etc – but they may well have experienced personal loss of a loved one, or someone close to them did. The long term effects of a brain washed public by a failed leader promoting the wrong message that eventually killed hundreds of thousands of americans instead of saving that many, will have much longer lasting effects than the effective negotiation and strong display of leadership exhibited during the Cuban Missile Crisis. One can only hope that these kids remember what failure to lead looks like, take that to heart, and ever ever elect another “Donald Trump” to office again.

  2. We moved from the city of Rochester (near Strong Memorial Hospital and Mt. Hope Plaza) to Brighton in the middle of my fourth-grade year. I vaguely remember drills at #49 School (now a medical center!), which was designated as an air raid shelter; something about hiding under desks and filing down to the basement, sitting in quiet rows along the wall. I don’t remember any of that at 12 Corners Elementary School in Brighton, though. Maybe the experience of moving and changing schools mid-year overpowered anything else.

  3. I was about 7-8, when my best friend looked up into the sky at an airplane and said: “That could be a Russian bomber with an atom bomb.” Later that day I asked my mother, “What if it were a Russian bomber, what would happen to us?” She said, and I quote accurately, I think, “We’re all going to die.” Then she walked out of the room.
    I never forgot that.

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