School reopenings and Netflix’s ‘Challenger’: vicarious lessons on shame

School reopenings and Netflix’s ‘Challenger’: vicarious lessons on shame

Netflix’s ‘Challenger: The Final Flight’ has a lot to teach us about self-congratulatory leaders and how our current lot view teachers and students.

Published: October 1st, 2020 at 3:44 pm EDT
Last updated: March 31st, 2021 at 11:30 pm EDT

Our American culture metastasizes as it grows. Its benefits and downfalls are several and the same, results of a country with heightened patriotism, and a history of revolt and individualism, secessions both personal and national. So when American school officials nationwide insisted on holding in-person classes, the results became predictable immediately:

  • Individualistic, time-strapped parents would send coronavirus-positive students to school without notifying authorities.
  • Individualistic, risk-attracted students would break social distancing rules intermittently at school.
  • Individualistic, risk-attracted students would resist wearing masks at least for some of their time present in school, or exhibit at least restlessness and inconsistency in their vigilance. 
  • Two-individual oriented student couples would reunite.

Ours is an airborne pandemic of a virus highly transmissable, so as a result of the very, if not uniquely American inevitabilities above, and as a result of the virus’ ability to prosper even absent these stupidities… 

  • outbreaks will occur at schools. 
  • many staff, students and proximate relatives will fall ill. 
  • some with fall permanently ill.
  • some will fall gravely ill.
  • some will die

These are not predictions; they are red, white and blue dominoes, from causes to effects. School officials’ suggesting that they are doing and have done all that they can do to keep students, staff and relatives safe, while simultaneously opening physical schools and unleashing these cultural inevitabilities in our country, we have a word for: “lies.” 

More damning, even, are their decisions given a general awareness of the prominent, individualistic, anti-mask cultures, the anti-vaccination cultures and the conspiracy-theory cultures, particularly those related to coronavirus conspiracies. 

Add these to the first list above, and school officials’ push to open schools during pandemic spikes begins to come into focus as, at best, outright negligence, and at worst, second-degree murder. The reality most likely falls somewhere in between, a shade of grim.

In one of Maryland’s most affected counties, Montgomery, the local autonomy the state’s GOP governor Larry Hogan had once supported in coronavirus openings abruptly reversed in late summer, the situation becoming political and even personal. Officials in the county concluded sanely that schools must remain temporarily closed for the safety of the individuals directly involved, indirectly involved by small degree and the broader county. The common sensical decision affected both public and private schools.

Montgomery County, affluent in its southwestern tip, is home to dozens of private schools, providing Northern DC families with a supposed relief valve from their worst city-school nightmares. Diplomats and statesman, among other connected networks in Potomac, Bethesda and D.C.’s Georgetown, pay relatively small tax percentages to fund in part the public education nearest them and then go on spend tens of thousands to send their students to private schools instead, tipping every scale (as is their right, perhaps). 

When Montgomery County reaffirmed that both public and private must remain closed, GOP governor Larry Hogan sided with private schools publicly and repeatedly, adding fire to his tones. 

The schools and parents should have the freedom to endanger their communities if they so choose, proponents singed. Each private school’s families were low risk, a rich and privileged many who could socially distance at home, who could afford days off and, if anything, were overinsured. They were largely white. Less obese. Less chronically ill. All of the major coronavirus indicators, minimized.

Where was the harm? 

Loud uproar in Maryland, cousin to the antimask movements, coalesced, with protesting and phoning the county and the state. Hogan signaled quickly: he would overrule Montgomery County. An overstepping of small government, he said, inverse to typical conservative talking points that suddenly seemed selectively applied. 

So while public schools began preparing for robust, synchronous remote education, private schools opened their doors.

In a surprise to what should be no one, in the first month of school this fall, outbreaks began to occur at these Montgomery County, Maryland, private schools. As of early September, county officials reported seven ongoing investigations and contact tracings. Schools sent students (back) into quarantine. Hogan, vocal and bellicose in August, was quiet. 

Since then, more outbreaks have occurred at these schools. By mid-September, Bethesda Magazine reported that local private school families had been uncooperative with the assigned contact tracers, placing county health officials in a tighter bind and endangering not just strangers, but those closest to each family, too.

Private choice, public consequence.

In Massachusetts, the reality childcare organizations had already faced over the summer manifested as an outright horror for public schools: parents of a coronavirus-positive child sent them to school and notified no one. The mayor of the offending parents’ town placed blame squarely on those parents, as if the statistic that adults like these existed was somehow a surprise. 

“The school department did everything they were supposed to do,” said Mayor Paul Heroux. 

Type-A bureaucrats’ lack of creativity in finding a unique solution to pandemic schooling woes is not in itself unusual, nor is the lack of willingness to ask undervalued stakeholders, like teachers, for their ideas for solutions and honest takes. What each instance is, really, is just demoralizing. Confirmation that our leaders are ineffectual, clueless, and right now, dangerous. 

They are captains whose experience only extends as far as navigating during a thundershower, experienced in the successful convincing of those aft that the lightning strikes hitting each sailor were their own individual faults, conductors, all. 

Now, these captains face a hurricane coming from one miserable direction. Ship sinking, the hull hemorrhaging, we hear, “It was the best anyone could have done, really.”

Regrettable, but no regret. 

Mayor, you said the school system did everything it was supposed to do. No. No it didn’t. It opened schools knowing lunacy like that of these malicious-minded parents wasn’t just likely, but was a guarantee. 

The parents weren’t alone in their idiocy, of course. The same crime occurred, that we know of, at least in Connecticut, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Kentucky public schools, and at a camp in South Carolina, all as of only September. A similar crime transpired in Indiana, as parents waited for coronavirus results for their child; they received them, “positive,” while that child sat in class among others.

We have laws for this type of malice. Judges send people away for decades if defendants are found to have knowingly spread a deadly virus, like HIV. And if a knowing friend drives them to the scene of the crime, laughing, well, they just might become a defendant themselves. 

To how many degrees of blame should we prosecute? Clearly not the minor. So these parents, then. Or how about an employer who put the adults involved in double-binds securing childcare? What if the employer had good reason? What if they had none? 

And what of the leaders who enabled the entire narrative, scripting the large, dropcapped and serifed letter, like what’s to follow would be a fairy tale and not a twisted Poe ripoff? Do they deserve prosecution? 

The stories, too, from college campuses and teen house parties, reveal a risk-taking immaturity among our youth that not only was already well researched prior to 2020, but most of us personally remember feeling and acting on. Common sense tells us children, younger still, struggle with the ability to rationalize earnest vigilance and implement safety for themselves and others. 

They need adult leaders in their orbit to create safety for them. They trust them to. 

That trust never is without utility, even as we each age. We rely on structures of leadership, as Rousseau wrote, in social contracts whereby we forgo a small amount of immediate freedom to gain immeasurable benefits societally, sharing power and responsibility. 

We’re supposed to replace leaders when they blow it, though. Citizenry, we’re supposed to maintain the power to replace, always, and to exercise power whenever needed. 

In the recent Netflix series Challenger: The Final Flight, ’80s NASA leaders Larry Mulloy and William Lucas, 34 years later, maintained everything about their decision to send the Challenger Space Shuttle and its crew to launch despite knowing of a long-documented and serious risk their engineers reported judiciously. The issue: fuel seals’ failure during freezing weather. NASA personnel scraping icicles off the vehicle the morning of the launch, the shuttle exploded just over a minute into liftoff. 

A Reagan-commissioned investigative committee included astronauts Dr. Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong, Manhattan Project physicist Richard Feynman and two generals tapped to understand NASA’s choices. Commission head former Attorney General and Secretary of State William P. Rogers pressed Mulloy during the hearings. The transcript reads like a future, 2022 coronavirus inquiry about businesses or schools. 

Rogers: “Were you familiar with the concerns that had been expressed in the previous years, I guess?”

Mulloy: “I had been aware of the problem… My assessment was that it was a reasonable risk to take.” 

Rogers: “Beginning in April… did you then begin to think it was a problem with… safety?“

Mulloy: “I did not think it was a problem sufficient to ground…”

Rogers: “The waiver says ‘Actual loss: loss of mission, vehicle, and crew.’ I don’t see how you could say that didn’t involve… safety.”

NASA director William Lucas reiterated to Netflix documentarians his and Mulloy’s stance, showing himself truly adept at shirking blame and then shifting it to no one, an amorphous scapegoating:

“Thirty years have not changed the way I think about it at all,” said Lucas. “Going into space is something that great countries do. They want to advance technology. They want to learn. It’s also risky. You have to take some chances.”

…another route had been available the whole time, one that was choppy and complex, but did steer clear of the iceberg. 

He continued: “There’s no way you can account for those seven lives, except to say that’s the way development happened. My forebears came across the Appalachian Mountains in a wagon with horses. Some of them didn’t make it. It’s regrettable, but costs sometimes are very difficult. And those lives were it.”

Regrettable, but no regret. 

All this would be compelling, really, if it weren’t for the immediate reality that the shuttle program was perfectly able to pause not just for days, but for 32 months after the Challenger disaster, to quadruple check systems and their redundant counterparts. Every NASA space crew from then on made its way through our atmosphere safely. 

It’s almost as if another route had been available the whole time, one that was choppy and complex, but did steer clear of the iceberg. 

Why would Lucas and Mulloy make their infamous, myopic call in the first place? The docuseries details at great length the political and therefore budgetary pressure placed on NASA to remain on schedule. Senators actually flew on the Space Shuttle, to see for themselves that it really was worth all that money they were appropriating — satellites and NASA tech be damned.

Either NASA’d receive all necessary funding as a direct result of their complete and timely success, or they’d recieve barely any at all. Sound familiar? Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump amplified the same threat about the public school budget during the pandemic, insisting on physical schooling without exception or qualification.

I’m sure as a result the schoolboard decisions that follow will be nothing but safety-based.

These either-or scenarios are fallacy, false dichotomies. Time will reveal space program and coronavirus gray areas for what they are and were, real, and the leaders for what they were, binary thinkers, simplistic and cursory in their scannings. The World Health Organization recently condemned such simplistic decision-making from international leadership, calling each of leaders’ strawmanned characterizations of our current, pandemic predicaments a “false choice.”

We can imagine the future interview with someone like Larry Hogan, circa 2050. 

“Thirty years have not changed the way I think about it at all. Going back to work and schools is something that great countries do in a pandemic. They want to advance themselves. They want to learn. It’s also risky. You have to take some chances. There’s no way you can account for the teachers’ and students’ lives lost, except to say that’s the way development happened. Some of the teachers didn’t make it. It’s regrettable, but costs sometimes are very difficult. And those lives were it.”

Lucas continues, as if scripting Hogan’s or Heroux’s future testimonies further, “I did what I thought was right in the light of the information I had, and if I were going over it with the same information I had at the time, I’d make the same decision ’cause I thought it was right. I didn’t do anything that I thought was wrong then, and I didn’t do anything that I think was wrong in retrospect.”

Lucas’ sentiment, here, is so broad that it says absolutely nothing about right or wrong, or frankly, about anything at all. Yeah, we all believe we make decisions right for us and our goals in every moment ever. It’s all we do. 

Plenty of room, however, still exists for regret, nature’s capacity to revise our programming based on honest assessments of those, in-the-moment, “right” decisions. Turns out, our thinking them strong, brave, necessary, tough, of course doesn’t preclude revision. Nor does such selfish optimism imply truth, the large majority of slim thinking instead that of cowardice, shortcuts and relative ease.

Lucas’ is actually a great argument for universal empathy when humans err, having made “right” choices for themselves as we all do by the second. What his argument is not is one favoring the continued renewal of idiocy. 

Scheduled tentatively for landing in 2022 — at the earliest — is American conscience, hopefully as a byproduct of the pandemic. It’s never visited the country in full, only partially, facsimiles and trails. Leaders sit atop imaginary cliffs and fancy themselves immune, literally prideful.

A conscience who blew the whistle to and on Lucas and Mulloy in the ’80s spent decades blaming himself for not pressing even further than he had, NASA engineer proximate to Challenger as he was. Meanwhile, if we can infer anything from Lucas’ recent words, Lucas has slept, and currently sleeps perfectly soundly. 

One wonders if Lucas and leaders like him were tasked with retrieving the affected’s remains personally, if sleep too might escape them. If regret might find its way into their thickness and flabby strength. 

We should look forward to the arrival of the American conscience, to the arrival of novel shame. The guilt to come — for many of us, I fear — will register as so new, it will seem otherworldly. 


The pandemic and political debris put leaders in dubious positions where they bravely make tough, unpopular decisions to protect the greater good. Evidence to the contrary, whether existing prior to, during, or after a leader’s ruling, means nothing and, for a strong leader, never warrants regret. 

Strong leaders are realistic, not absolutist. They ask for advice and rid themselves of prejudices consciously. They weigh decisions to find gray areas. They don’t pat themselves on the back, ever, for making an unpopular decision. They live with the consequence and repeatedly check for potential edits in their decision-making faculties’ programming. This feature, not a bug of the brain, is precisely what qualifies effective leaders for continued votes. For the observant, errors make them wiser and their decisions increasingly more efficient and effective. Bring these common-sense, reflecting humans to the forefront for elevation. Anything else is just uncivilized.

Also, for school solutions, consider the TIS: Education article “Schools in September and the rest of the century: Errors, omissions and solutions.

IDEAS TWISTED: Challenger: The Final Flight and school reopenings during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist, a Journalism and AP English teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'