2020
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Monitor Daily Podcast

July 31, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

After setback, House Republican women poised for a comeback

Last summer, when GOP Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota came to the Monitor Breakfast, he talked up all the Republican women planning to run for Congress. Let’s just say I was skeptical. After all, Representative Emmer, who chairs the House Republican campaign committee, is good at spin. 

Turns out he was right. A record 227 Republican women filed to run for the House this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. That crushes the prior record of 133, set in 2010. 

House Republicans were decimated in the 2018 midterms, and saw their female ranks plunge to 13. Democratic House women, meanwhile, spiked to a record 89. 

Two House GOP women led the charge to rebuild their numbers: Susan Brooks of Indiana and Elise Stefanik of New York. Some impressive women are running. Nancy Mace of South Carolina is a state representative, the first female graduate of The Citadel, and a single mom. She tells NPR that when a Democrat won her local congressional seat in 2018, her daughter said, “Hey Mommy, when are we going to take out [Rep.] Joe Cunningham?” 

Michelle Steel of California, a first-generation Korean American, serves on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and boasts cross-party appeal. 

Republicans overall face strong headwinds in November, with an unpopular president at the top of the ticket. House Democrats, too, boast a record number of women, 357, filing to run. But it’s the GOP breakthrough that’s the story. 

Last summer, Republican women in Congress seemed an endangered species. Now they’re aiming for a comeback. And with that comes the diversity of thought and experience that can only enrich political discourse as a whole.

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A deeper look

The election is in 94 days. Will the results be seen as legitimate?

A surge in mail-in voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic means the outcome may not be known right away. Potential irregularities – such as invalidated or missing ballots – could further erode trust in the process.

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Messy primaries from Georgia to Wisconsin this year have been held up as examples of what could go wrong on Nov. 3 – how long lines, difficulties processing a surge of absentee ballots, and delayed results could undermine the legitimacy of an election widely seen as the most consequential in decades.

“COVID is causing us to have these huge technical or administrative challenges in running the election,” says Edward Foley, a constitutional law professor at Ohio State University whose September 2019 paper on a potentially disputed election has suddenly gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks. “But even more worrisome, in my view, is that the politics and our psychological attitude about the politics may be a barrier to accepting the sense that we have completed the election and have an authentic result.”

Officials and citizens across the nation are already springing into action to avert such nightmare scenarios, from Iowa Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate recruiting high schoolers to fill shortages in poll workers to NBA teams opening their arenas for early voting. Government agencies and nonprofits, meanwhile, are helping bolster election offices’ resources on everything from cybersecurity to communications, aimed at ensuring a fair and secure election.

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1. The election is in 94 days. Will the results be seen as legitimate?

It wasn’t just the voting machines that blew a fuse during Georgia’s primary election in June.

The rollout of 30,000 new voting machines, which required far more electrical capacity than their predecessors, would have been challenge enough for the state’s election officials, who scrambled to find polling locations with enough space, outlets, and wattage for the new equipment. Add the need for social distancing and a dearth of available poll workers, and counties were forced to reduce the number of polling places, leading to long lines – in some Black communities frustrated voters had to wait until after midnight to cast ballots.

“Even before you introduced the pandemic, the new voting machines were daunting,” says Dele Lowman Smith, a member of the Board of Elections in DeKalb County, a majority African-American county that includes part of the Atlanta metro area. “You layer the pandemic on top of that, and it was a nightmare scenario.”

The logjams occurred despite the fact that more than half of voters cast an absentee ballot – a 2,500% increase compared with the 2016 primary. It took more than a week to process all those ballots, delaying final results. In New York, where about 1 in 5 absentee ballots have been invalidated, it’s taken more than a month, prompting lawsuits.

The primaries in Georgia, New York, and Wisconsin earlier this year have been held up as examples of what could go wrong on Nov. 3 – how long lines, difficulties processing a surge of absentee ballots, and delayed results could open the door to narratives about voter suppression and voter fraud, undermining the legitimacy of an election widely seen as the most consequential in decades. Meanwhile, registration of new voters has been lagging by as much as 95% in some states.

“COVID is causing us to have these huge technical or administrative challenges in running the election,” says Edward Foley, a constitutional law professor at Ohio State University, whose September 2019 paper on a potentially disputed election has suddenly gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks. “But even more worrisome, in my view, is that the politics and our psychological attitude about the politics may be a barrier to accepting the sense that we have completed the election and have an authentic result.”

In his law review article, he envisions a hypothetical scenario in which the entire election comes down to the swing state of Pennsylvania. On Election Night, the vote tally shows President Donald Trump leading by 20,000 votes, but the media say it’s too close to call and his Democratic opponent refuses to concede. Protests break out in the streets as vote-counting continues and Mr. Trump’s lead dwindles. Then, updated numbers show his opponent pulling ahead, and the Democrat proclaims victory. “THIS THEFT WILL NOT STAND!!!” the scenario envisions Mr. Trump tweeting. “WE ARE TAKING BACK OUR VICTORY.”

Since Professor Foley laid out the potential for a disputed election, the pandemic and the corresponding surge in mail-in ballots has opened the way for other disturbing scenarios. For example, if the election comes down to a swing state like Florida, where absentee ballots cast by young and minority voters were invalidated at disproportionate rates in 2016, the president could win by a smaller margin than the number of invalidated ballots – leading Democrats to claim his victory illegitimate. Or thousands of ballots could mysteriously go missing en route to voters or on their way back to election officials, as they did in Wisconsin’s primary this year, while the president squeaks by with a margin of just several hundred votes – unlikely, but not impossible. (In the 2000 election, George W. Bush won the decisive state of Florida by just 537 votes.)

Alternatively, in a more dramatic version of Professor Foley’s hypothetical outcome, Mr. Trump could have a clear lead on Election Night, but Democrats’ disproportionate use of mail-in ballots could then result in a dramatic shift in former Vice President Joe Biden’s favor – leading the president to challenge the validity of those votes, claiming that some ballots may have been sent to ineligible voters or filled out under coercion from Democratic campaign workers.

Those and many other nightmare scenarios are proliferating in the minds of people who are paid to lose sleep over such things. And as daunting as the technical and administrative challenges may be to carrying out an election amid a pandemic, the greater hurdle may be Americans’ declining trust in democratic institutions, including the electoral system.

President Trump’s drumbeat of warnings about voter fraud since before he was even elected – for which he has never produced any substantial evidence – have alarmed Democrats, some of whom worry he will refuse to vacate the White House even if beaten at the polls fair and square. Meanwhile, Republicans aren’t sure Democrats would actually accept a Trump reelection, particularly if any irregularities are discovered – or if foreign interference is suspected.

A key sticking point is expanded mail-in voting, touted by Democrats as critical to ensuring that everyone can safely cast a ballot amid the pandemic. While even Mr. Trump has come around to supporting absentee ballots, which voters must request, he and other Republicans worry that if states simply mail ballots to everyone on their voter registration rolls without first cleaning up those lists, ballots could end up in the wrong hands. And while the overall rate of known voter fraud is extremely low – one study put it at less than 0.00000013% of ballots cast in federal elections – the possibility for friends, family, or even campaign workers to influence the decisions of voters who use mail-in ballots has raised concerns among conservatives. A wave of GOP lawsuits is challenging various state efforts to expand mail-in voting ahead of November.

According to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, about three-quarters of registered voters are worried about voter fraud, and a similar proportion expressed concern about voter suppression, with significant bipartisan overlap. The poll was conducted online and had a credibility interval of plus or minus 4 percent.

“The question is whether we have a result that a majority of the public believes was credible and has integrity. A big part of that is going to rely on the losing candidate accepting the results,” says Matt Mackowiak, a Republican political consultant based in Austin, Texas. “I do hope the losing candidate, whoever it is, puts the country first at that time. This is the first election where you can credibly wonder whether that will occur – and that is a scary thing.”

Timothy D. Easley/AP
Voting stations are set up in the Kentucky Exposition Center for voters to cast ballots in the Kentucky primary in Louisville on June 23, 2020. The November election is coming with a big price tag as America battles the coronavirus pandemic. The demand for mail-in ballots is surging, election workers are in need of additional training, and polling booths might have to be outfitted with protective shields.

The disputed election scenario

One key to thwarting competing narratives about who won is to get media outlets to change the way they cover Election Night results, says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., who is organizing a media summit in September to foster a discussion of such issues. For example, even if 100% of precincts are reporting, that won’t mean that 100% of votes have been counted, because those totals won’t include mail-in ballots.

“You need to be able to say, ‘Remember, everybody, what you’re seeing on that screen is perhaps a third of all the votes that have actually been cast in this election. So the totals you see there may have little connection to the final outcome,’ ” says Dr. Ornstein. “Because of course one of the things we’re worried about is Donald Trump saying, ‘See? I’ve won.’ ”

In a recent interview with Chris Wallace of FOX News, the president claimed that “mail-in voting is going to rig the election,” prompting Mr. Wallace to ask the president if he would accept the results of the election and ensure a peaceful transition of power.

Mr. Trump refused to answer yes or no, and blamed Hillary Clinton and her party for failing to accept his election. “From before I even won, I was under investigation by a bunch of thieves, crooks,” he said, referring to the FBI’s investigation into suspected Russian collusion, in the course of which the agency relied on uncorroborated claims from the Steele Dossier to wiretap Trump campaign associates.

When Mr. Trump floated delaying the election in a July 30 tweet, many Republicans lawmakers and governors pushed back sharply. But his base may be more willing to follow his lead. “If he says it was stolen, they’ll think it was stolen,” says Republican strategist Ed Goeas, president of The Tarrance Group, a survey research group in Alexandria, Virginia.

Likewise, many Trump supporters may not trust legacy media institutions’ call on a close election, after four years of seeing those publications pillory the president, and the president labeling them “fake news.”

To avoid disputed elections, the mantra of election officials has long been, “Lord, let it be a landslide,” says Dr. Ornstein.

But there’s no guarantee of that this fall, even if many polls currently show Mr. Biden with a substantial lead less than four months out.

A month before the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton was heavily favored to win, but the election was ultimately decided by a group of people not even big enough to fill the University of Michigan football stadium, spread out over several Midwestern states. If key swing states see such razor-thin margins again this year, even a small rate of undelivered or invalidated absentee ballots could tip the election one way or another.

The closer the race, and the more mail-in ballots there are, the longer it could take to determine a final result. Professor Foley says that from a legal perspective, it’s not an issue if it takes time, so long as the right process is followed. But it will require a shift in voters’ expectations, after years of seeing a victor declared on Election Night.

“As a matter of law, you never have an official answer as to who won the states until there’s a certification of the vote tallies. That’s never on Election Night,” he says. “Normally there’s no problem – it’s clear who the winner’s going to be on Election Night, there’s a concession speech, and everything else is a formality.”

If such clarity is lacking this year, he says the country will have a choice over whether to follow the Bush v. Gore model of 2000 in which the Supreme Court ultimately had to settle a dispute over the Florida recount, or the example of oft-forgotten presidential elections in 1884 and 1916, when it took weeks to determine the results but both parties agreed on the outcomes.

In 1884, Republicans were concerned over possible Democratic corruption led by Tammany Hall, and both parties had hawk-eyed lawyers monitoring the vote count ballot by ballot. In the end, Republicans conceded that the Democrats really had won more votes, fair and square, and conceded the election to Grover Cleveland.

Mr. Mackowiak says he expects an “unprecedented election integrity effort” on the Republicans’ part, sending lawyers to battleground states to ensure that electoral laws are being enforced. “I imagine that those efforts will be better funded, more aggressive, and numerically larger than they’ve ever been,” he says. Democrats are also preparing to deploy thousands of election monitors and lawyers, and have hired voter protection directors in 19 states.

“There are so many eyes on this presidential election, we have to hope that the counting process will be fully transparent – and if it is, we should be able to have confidence in the results,” says Professor Foley. “If every single American was able to look at the situation with ideal objectivity, despite their own political preferences, I think there would be very few breakdowns of the electoral process that couldn’t be resolved.”

Teen poll workers and NBA arenas for voting

Across the country, many Americans are already springing into action to help pull off a fair election amid the pandemic. Iowa’s Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate is recruiting high schoolers as poll workers, replacing senior citizens who are staying home due to COVID-19 concerns. LeBron James and other basketball stars have formed a group, More Than a Vote, to increase African-American voter registration and fight voter suppression – including by opening NBA arenas in Atlanta, Detroit, and Milwaukee for early voting.

Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Colorado have deployed an extensive network of drop boxes for absentee ballots to circumvent issues with the beleaguered United States Postal Service, where cost-cutting measures are causing delays in delivery times. States are working closely with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to protect against cyber intrusion into electoral systems, after Russia was discovered to have targeted such systems in all 50 states in 2016. And organizations like Vote at Home, run by Denver’s former director of elections, Amber McReynolds, are helping understaffed election offices prepare for a deluge of absentee ballots and ramp up their communication strategy to ensure that voters are clear on where, when, and how they can cast their ballots.

“Most [election] offices operate with very few resources, and communications tends to be one of those add-ons that are not always prioritized,” says Ms. McReynolds, whose organization is rolling out a toolkit on Aug. 6 with recommended timeframes for communicating with voters, and even social media posts that can be copied and pasted. “If you have no staff, you as the clerk can basically take it and run with it.”

Following the 2018 election in Georgia, which sparked a lawsuit by losing gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ organization Fair Fight Action, charging that the state’s electoral system disproportionately disadvantages voters of color, the DeKalb County Board of Elections formed a bipartisan working group that brought in Ms. McReynolds to help improve their election administration. After years of laboring in an office with leaky ceilings and low morale, they secured the support of the county’s Board of Commissioners to increase their budget for needed improvements, including hiring additional staff, and elevating the woman in charge of absentee ballots to a managerial post and supporting her with a new certified project manager.

Despite Republican pushback elsewhere to expanding mail-in voting, that hasn’t been an issue in DeKalb, whose Board of Registration and Elections has two members from each party, plus a nonpartisan member.

“When we sit down as a board, I and the other members try to take off our Democratic and Republican hats and look at what’s good for the citizens of the county,” says Baoky Vu, the Republican vice chair of the board whose family fled South Vietnam after the U.S. pulled out, opening the way for the communist North Vietnamese to take control of the country. “We’ve become so polarized that it is a critical moment in time, because I’ve seen the extreme in other countries where you don’t have democracies – it’s either you win and you rule 100% or you lose and you get nothing.”

“Everyone feels the pressure”

That polarization was exploited and exacerbated in 2016 by a Russian campaign to interfere in the U.S. election, seeking to sow discord and distrust, and weaponizing the country’s own citizens to weaken it from within.

To help bolster public trust in the electoral process, the National Association of Secretaries of States, which proudly proclaims itself to be the oldest nonpartisan professional organization of public officials in the country, launched a campaign last year under then-president Paul Pate of Iowa called #TrustedInfo2020. The goal is to encourage citizens to flag any suspected misinformation about the election or voting on social media and seek verification from their election officials directly.

“That’s a campaign we’ve started and under my administration we’re going to continue and ramp up,” says the new president, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, in an interview.

“We have to demonstrate nonpartisanship, fairness, and integrity to ensure that every voter in our state believes and trusts that there will be a fair election,” she adds. “The reality of political polarization and toxic rhetoric out there that has really invaded the election space is clearly harmful and detrimental to the voting process, and we are all combating that individually and collectively.”

Back in Georgia’s DeKalb County, Board of Elections member Ms. Smith says she is cautiously optimistic about the November election.

“And I say that because we have a great deal of eyes on us – I’m a huge fan of accountability,” says Ms. Smith, a former local government executive who previously worked in Georgia’s Fulton County and Florida’s Broward County, two other locales whose elections have been scrutinized. “That is making everyone feel the pressure to really step up.”

Teachers unions demand their say as schools debate reopening

Teachers unions have a leading role in deciding whether and how to reopen public schools. Their voice is generally respected but their opposition could prove risky if more parents opt out of public schools in future. 

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Teachers, parents, and administrators all agree that nothing beats in-person learning. But how to reopen public schools safely in a pandemic is proving a tough nut to crack. 

Teachers unions, concerned about at-risk members, have balked at reopening schools absent stringent viral control measures. Some school boards have pushed back, and the White House has added to the pressure to resume classroom teaching. But 11 of the largest districts, including Los Angeles, will be starting the academic year online. 

Many parents sympathize with teachers’ caution, but worry about the drawbacks of remote teaching and the strain it puts on working parents. 

For the unions, who enjoy the goodwill of parents, this could be a difficult balance to strike, if better-off parents turn to private tutoring. Some analysts see a parallel with New Orleans’ pivot to charter schools after Hurricane Katrina; disasters can force radical changes on systems. 

For Judith Grey, a teacher at North Miami Senior High School, the limits of online instruction for her students are obvious. But she says it’s not safe for her or her students to be in class when Florida leads the nation in per capita infections. 

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2. Teachers unions demand their say as schools debate reopening

Even for a teacher of the year like Aileen Gendrano Adao, starting public school in August will be a big adjustment. She’s switching from teaching senior English at a magnet school in a low-income, Latino neighborhood in east Los Angeles, to teaching at a more diverse high school in a gentrifying area.

She’s also making another change: Her school year will begin entirely online. While she would much rather work with her new students in person, Ms. Gendrano Adao is relieved not to be in a classroom during a pandemic. “It just gave me a lot of anxiety, so I was happy about the decision that we were going to start online,” she says.

The region has seen a surge in COVID-19 infections, and her son, about to enter kindergarten, has asthma. She’s grateful that her union, United Teachers Los Angeles, an affiliate of the two top teachers unions, got out in front of the superintendent – and the governor – on this issue, and insisted that the nation’s second largest school district starts with remote learning. “They have our back,” says this union member.

As nearly 14,000 school districts across the United States prepare for a new year, teachers unions are playing a leading role in how students and the country will get back to work. While wanting to protect their members, the unions could also have an effect on America’s sagging economy and potentially the course of education in the next year – and beyond. 

So far, 11 of the largest school districts are starting online, reflecting teacher concerns and local virus conditions. Teachers generally have a lot of good will in their communities, but that could slide the longer in-person school is delayed. Already, parents across the country are trying to form small “home-schooling pods” with other children and tutors as an alternative to remote learning. 

Sara Hinkley, of the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center, recalls how Hurricane Katrina decimated teachers unions in New Orleans because the city did not hire the previous union teachers when they switched to charter schools. “Disasters, including pandemics, are often times when there’s an opening for privatization. Sometimes, the public sector can’t really adapt because it’s required to serve everybody,” says Dr. Hinkley.
 
Teachers unions have to “thread a needle” as they protect their members during the pandemic and make sure it’s safe to go back to school, says Rick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank in Washington.

Lawsuits and strike threats

In California, they helped sway a governor with four young children from favoring in-person school to mandating remote teaching in more than half its counties. In New York, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, sat on the governor’s commission that set metrics for reopening schools. In Florida, the largest teacher and education worker union sued the state to block an order requiring brick-and-mortar schools to open.

Now, “safety strikes” are a last resort if authorities can’t protect the health of educators and others at schools, Ms. Weingarten told the AFT’s virtual convention this week. The union is the nation’s second largest, with 1.7 million members, and is leaving it up to locals to decide whether to strike. Two years ago, teachers walked out in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona to demand higher pay and school funding. 

Most public school teachers belong to unions, whose influence varies by statedepending on collective bargaining, which is illegal in seven states. Right now, the AFT and the National Education Association – the country’s two biggest teachers unions – have “really big megaphones” in the debate over the safety of reopening in a pandemic, says Mr. Hess. 

Paul Sancya/AP/File
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, listens to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, speak during a town hall for the AFT in Detroit, May 6, 2019. The second largest teachers' union authorized its 1.7 million members to strike this week if needed to ensure schools reopen with proper safety precautions in place.

Parents on all sides of the school-opening issue have strong feelings, but aren’t organized. That allows unions to fill that void, making it easier for school boards and superintendents to not open or open partially amidst health and safety concerns, says Mr. Hess. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s threat to withhold funds from schools as the U.S. continues to pass grim COVID-19 milestones is only strengthening unions’ resolve.

Politically, teachers unions are the biggest union donors to the Democratic party. Presidential candidate Joe Biden, who spoke at the virtual convention on Thursday, has called for more funding to open schools safely, and for decisions about opening to be made at the local level.

Teachers unions say it’s the health risk that’s guiding their approach. The Kaiser Family Foundation finds that 1 in 4 teachers have a condition that puts them at higher risk of serious illness from the novel coronavirus. Age is one of those risk factors: More than 18% of all public and private school teachers and 27% of all principals are over age 65. 

Virtual drawbacks

Educators say they would much prefer to be with their students, where they can better relate and hold their attention, and where students can socialize. Suddenly having to teach virtually when many schools closed in the spring was like trying to build an airplane in flight. It crashed.

In Los Angeles, 50,000 Black and Latino students in middle and high school did not regularly participate in online school, laying bare deep disparities, according to a report by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Indeed, it would be easier and more fulfilling to return to school, were it not for health concerns, say teachers. Consider Judith Grey, a veteran teacher at North Miami Senior High School in North Miami, Florida. When she taught English as a second language in the classroom, she would be home by 2:30 p.m. Teaching online, she went till 10 p.m. almost every night, calling students and parents individually. 

Still, she supports her union’s lawsuit, arguing it’s not safe for her or her students, given that Florida leads the nation in cases per 100,000 over the last seven days. “Even one case of COVID puts everyone at risk,” she says.

In California, though, legal action is going in the opposite direction. The Center for American Liberty has sued state leaders on behalf of parents and students over the blanket closing of in-person public and private schools.

“The governor’s decision to shut down educational facilities in more than 30 counties denies children in these counties their right to a basic education,” said Harmeet Dhillon, the founder of the center and the California chair of the Republican National Committee. She’s getting calls from parents on both sides of the political spectrum.

Ms. Dhillon said that science supports the case for in-person schooling. Various studies and data show young children far less susceptible to getting and transmitting the virus than adults and the American Academy of Pediatrics describes COVID-19 child deaths as uncommon. That’s why California is allowing elementary schools in counties on its COVID-19 “watch list” to apply for a waiver to reopen. Still, schools don’t exist in a bubble, and public health officials now say older children can get infected and transmit the virus at a similar rate as adults.

A safe reopening?

Ms. Weingarten acknowledges that different conditions allow for different approaches, and that returning to school will not be risk free. Her union points to Montana as an example where schools can open safely with social distancing.

This week, the union approved a resolution setting a daily community infection rate below 5% for schools to reopen, along with “effective” contact tracing and isolation. It wants masks for students and teachers, physical distancing of 6 feet, sanitizing of buildings and buses, and necessary updates to ventilation. The union puts the total cost for schools, colleges, and day cares at $400 billion. Congress is far from agreement on the next aid package. 

In Los Angeles, where virtual classes are planned to begin Aug. 18, the union is negotiating the conditions for “crisis distance learning” first, and the logistics of reopening second. Under discussion: rules on teacher schedules and hours, student screen time, and online instruction quality. But media reports that the union is negotiating for social justice measures such as defunding the police are inaccurate, says union President Cecily Myart-Cruz. They are goals, not conditions to reopen, she says in an interview. 

Bootsie Battle-Holt, a teacher coach who visits Los Angeles schools to help bridge inequities in math, particularly for African American students, says the virus numbers have to decline to a point where she feels safe enough to return.
 
When she does go back, she hopes that it will be to an education experience that borrows what’s useful from online learning and repairs the gaps that have been exposed. “We have to think about how we are going to do things differently, and not just this rush back to the old normal.”

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Hajj without the crowds: How pilgrims are persevering

The coronavirus has hit prayer gatherings and religious rituals especially hard. And the annual hajj is perhaps the quintessential mass participation religious rite. Yet, even without crowds, the pilgrimage still has meaning.

Linda
Saudi Ministry of Media/Reuters
A Saudi man uses incense outside the Kaaba amid a highly regulated, coronavirus-limited hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 26, 2020.

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The hajj, a rite all Muslims should complete in their lifetime, is scaled down and micromanaged this year – what Saudi authorities are calling an “exceptional pilgrimage” for exceptional times. While 2.5 million people normally throng Mecca, this year a few thousand Muslims residing in Saudi Arabia – most of them frontline workers and health care professionals leading the fight against COVID-19 – were chosen to participate.

Precautions are many. Pilgrims’ luggage is disinfected; their temperatures taken before they enter a bus, a site, or return to their hotels; lines around the Kaaba keep them two meters apart as they circle the black shrine – at set times; masks are mandatory.

Fawzia Yusof, a Malaysian nurse at a Riyadh hospital, has spent much of her days studying and practicing prayers and hajj rites on Zoom with other pilgrims, all in hotel rooms. “Even though I have never met them in reality, we are becoming close,” she says.

“My prayer will be for COVID to disappear so I can reunite with my family and the world can heal,” Ms. Yusof says. “I want to pray that coronavirus is gone,” she shakes her head. “Gone, gone, gone.”

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3. Hajj without the crowds: How pilgrims are persevering

Quarantines, social distancing, praying in masks. The Islamic world has never seen a hajj like this in more than 1,400 years.

While the hajj’s hallmark of community has been stripped away by coronavirus precautions, other tenets have been intensified for pilgrims who have spent months living in uncertainty: determination and hope.

This year’s hajj, a rite all adult Muslims should complete in their lifetime, is scaled down and micromanaged in what Saudi authorities are calling an “exceptional pilgrimage” for exceptional times.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

While 2.5 million people normally participate over the same week, this year a few thousand Muslims residing in Saudi Arabia – a mixture of Saudis and foreign nationals – were chosen for the pilgrimage that ends Aug. 2. A majority of them are frontline workers and health care professionals who have been leading the fight against COVID-19.

“Reducing the number of pilgrims for Hajj 2020 was a necessary precaution to make sure the virus does not spread while there still isn’t a vaccine,” the Saudi minister of Hajj and Umrah, Dr. Muhammed Saleh bin Taher Benten, said in a statement. 

Conducting the hajj this year is a feat few thought possible. Mecca has been mostly closed the past four months, and Saudi Arabia’s COVID-19 cases have passed 275,000, with several thousand new cases per day.

Lines around the Kaaba

Precautions are many. Luggage in brand new bags containing clothing and supplies – all provided by the government – is disinfected, sterilized before it is moved from one stage to the other. Pilgrims’ temperatures are taken before they enter a bus, a site, the Kaaba, or return to their hotel rooms.

Multicolored lines around the Kaaba are painted to ensure pilgrims are two meters apart as they walk in staggered lines for the counter-clockwise tawaf circles around the black shrine.

Pilgrims are given set times for their visits, ensuring that only a couple hundred are at a site at a single time; face masks are mandatory.

In addition to prayer books and Qurans, hand sanitizer is an essential item tucked into their fanny packs.

But perhaps the greatest change is the lack of the community and camaraderie that marks the annual rite. Normally contingents from each country camp, sleep, cook, and perform the stages of hajj together, building bonds and meeting Muslims from across countries and cultures.

This year, after spending a week in home quarantine and undergoing multiple COVID-19 tests, pilgrims spent four days of self-isolation in their hotel in Mecca before embarking on hajj rituals.

It continued a way of life many had already become accustomed to.

Saudi national Hamza al-Harzi, a field emergency medical specialist for the Saudi Red Crescent Authority, had spent the past five months self-isolating while testing and providing urgent care for COVID-19 patients in their homes in Riyadh.

Unable to see his father and mother for most of the year, he has connected with his family via video calls.

“My parents were elated to learn that I was going to hajj; it was the best news they have had all year,” Mr. Harzi says in a Zoom interview facilitated by the Saudi media commission. “They are with me as I pray. In a way, this pilgrimage connects us.”

Virtual camaraderie

To avoid mixing of large numbers of pilgrims, their meals are placed at their hotel-room doors; even their prayer times are scheduled.

Instead, the camaraderie has gone virtual.

WhatsApp groups, FaceTime, and Zoom meetings have replaced the meetings in the cafeteria, the prayer groups, or huddling together in mosques long after prayer time.

Saudi Ministry of Media/AP
Pilgrims circle the Kaaba in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 31, 2020. The global coronavirus pandemic has cast a shadow over every aspect of this year's hajj, which last year drew 2.5 million Muslims from across the world. Only a very limited number of pilgrims were allowed to take part this year amid numerous restrictions.

Fawzia Yusof, a Malaysian nurse who works at a Riyadh hospital, has spent much of her days studying and practicing prayer supplications and hajj rites on Zoom with several other Malaysian and Singaporean pilgrims. They, like her, are sitting in nearby hotel rooms.

“Even though I have never met them in reality, we are becoming close,” Ms. Yusof says via Zoom interview.

“Most of our time we are spending together virtually, learning the rituals of hajj, and chitchatting about life and the food.”

Ms. Yusof, who last saw her husband and two daughters on March 10 during a visit home to Malaysia, speaks with her children on FaceTime when not participating in hajj activities. She has prepared her prayers for Mt. Arafat, the site outside Mecca where Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad gave his farewell sermon.

“My prayer will be for COVID to disappear so I can reunite with my family and the world can heal,” she says, visibly emotional.

“I want to pray that coronavirus is gone,” she shakes her head. “Gone, gone, gone.”

Story for the grandchildren

Family is also on the mind of Kehinde Qasim Yusuf, an assistant professor at a university in Medina from Australia.

Mr. Yusuf normally takes the summer off to spend time with his three children in Australia. Unable to travel this year due to the coronavirus, he has not seen his children since August 2019.

“After not being able to travel and being alone, having the chance to cap off the year with hajj makes it amazing,” he says.

“To be in these tough circumstances and to still be able to commit to the act of worship and tawaf in Mecca to pray for people across the world who are sick, dying, and have lost family is something really special. This is a story for my children and grandchildren.”

Atta Farida is another pilgrim who has found a positive outlook through hajj after her life was dramatically altered by the coronavirus.

Mrs. Farida’s husband lost his job with an oil and gas company in eastern Saudi Arabia in June, part of the larger economic shock from the pandemic.

Her husband has been looking for work to continue living in Saudi Arabia as they prepare for a return to their home country of Indonesia. When they found out earlier this month that Mrs. Farida was chosen to embark on the hajj, she thought it was a mistake.

“Every day I cry, this is such an unexpected blessing,” Mrs. Farida said.

Her prayers at each station this hajj are that her husband can find a new job soon and that their daughters would be able to continue their education.

But no matter the outcome, she says she has found a new outlook through pilgrimage.

“I learned that Allah will not let you down,” Mrs. Farida says. “God will give you something beautiful when you are down. You never know from where it will come.”

“Point of unity”

In brief interactions, Mr. Yusuf has met pilgrims from Albania, Afghanistan, India, Ghana, and Ethiopia. Just the knowledge that other nationalities are taking part in the pilgrimage at the same time serves as a source of “strength.”

“Mecca is the one place that unites Muslims across nationalities, ages, languages; all the dividing lines of rich and poor, Black and white, disappear,” says Mr. Harzi, the Saudi health care worker.

“Hajj is not just a requirement for Muslims, it is a point of unity. This is why it is important for it to continue.”

But as they continue the steps of the hajj through Sunday, pilgrims say their smartphones will be turned off and the social media that has acted as their lifeline this year will be put aside. After months of isolation, they will no longer be alone.

“When I am at Mt. Arafat, there will be no FaceTime,” Ms. Yusof says with a smile. “It will only be me-and-Allah time.”

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Bringing light to the news, for those who can’t hear it

All journalists strive to earn trust. Meet one who has become a “guiding light” for a very particular community – in a way that can be lifesaving.

Linda

Can roadsides offer a beeline for pollinators?

Sometimes the best solution is a light touch. This can be especially true when it comes to protecting threatened wildlife.

Linda
Jules Struck/The Christian Science Monitor
A bee sticks its head into a spreading dogbane flower at Browning Fields conservation land in Lincoln, Massachusetts, July 28, 2020. There are over 4,000 species of bees.

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Since the end of the 20th century, many pollinator species, including monarch butterflies, European honey bees, and many different kinds of bumblebees, have faced a steep population decline. But a network of highway departments, government agencies, and conservation groups are taking steps to create a habitat for them using a resource to which most of us pay very little mind: the grassy strips of land on the side of the road.

In one program in Connecticut, transportation officials identify roadsides that could grow wild without posing a fire hazard or a threat to motorists’ safety. Then plant life is surveyed and, if needed, seeds are planted.

“You drive along the roadside at 60 miles per hour and see splashes of color, and you recognize that there are probably flowers out there,” says Jennifer Hopwood, senior pollinator conservation expert for The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an environmental nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon. “We have to be really creative about finding ways to support pollinators in where we live, where we work, where we travel. … So roadsides are a piece of that puzzle.”

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5. Can roadsides offer a beeline for pollinators?

It’s early morning in Meriden, Connecticut, and a foraging bee is making its way from flower to flower, stopping here for a sip of nectar, there for a nibble of pollen. It floats into a patch of flowers, unperturbed by the waves of tailwind from passing vehicles. Here, at Exit 67 off the Wilbur Cross Highway, there is plenty to snack on.

The small patch of wild growth is here by design. Specifically, Adam Boone’s design. He’s a transportation landscape designer at Connecticut’s Department of Transportation (DOT), and he’s watched this swath of highway-side grow into a verdant pollinator habitat.

“I’m encouraged,” he says of the wildflowers popping up after a few seasons of cutting back on mowing. “You just have to see what comes up.”

Mr. Boone is part of a national network of government agencies, highway divisions, and conservation groups working to set aside public land on the sides of highways as habitat for declining pollinators. In practice, that largely means reduced mowing. Such programs mark a shift toward maintaining highways with an eye on wildlife conservation.

“You drive along the roadside at 60 miles per hour and see splashes of color, and you recognize that there are probably flowers out there,” says Jennifer Hopwood, senior pollinator conservation expert for The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an environmental nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon. “We have to be really creative about finding ways to support pollinators in where we live, where we work, where we travel. … So roadsides are a piece of that puzzle.”

That jigsaw is taking shape along Connecticut’s highways, a few years after the state’s DOT started setting aside roadside spots for pollinator habitat. “It’s a developing program” without so much as an official name, Mr. Boone says, and “a whole different strategy” from the norm of frequent mowing.

It works like this: Mr. Boone or local officials identify roadsides that could grow wild without turning into a fire hazard or obstructing drainage, drivers’ sightlines, or access to roadside structures. Then, Mr. Boone surveys the existing plant life. “There may be some nice things already in there,” he says, listing some options over the phone – black-eyed Susan, big bluestem, and goldenrod are good signs. “In that case, let’s just leave it alone,” he says. Otherwise, he’ll plant seeds and wait for blooms.

Jules Struck/The Christian Science Monitor
A car drives by the grassy roadside at Browning Fields conservation land in Lincoln, Massachusetts, July 28, 2020. Reduced mowing alone on roadsides can increase pollinator habitats.

Roadside attraction

Ms. Hopwood is also no stranger to tramping around roadside habitats. She spent a summer in the early 2000s counting bees on Kansas’ sprawling prairie roadsides for research. What was then a nascent field of study has since been endorsed by the Federal Highway Administration and bolstered by former President Barack Obama’s 2015 monarch butterfly corridor plan. Today, at least 33 states have integrated pollinator habitats onto their roadsides, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s website.

But that kind of individual initiative has a flip side, says Evan Abramson, pollination systems designer and planner at Landscape Interactions. His company, based in Northampton, Massachusetts, designs ecological landscapes.

“Seeing lots of bees on the landscape, or seeing lots of pollinators, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s pollinator-friendly, because [the insects] all might be just one or two species,” he says. 

Basically, “not all pollinators are in trouble,” echoes Robert Gegear, a conservation biologist, assistant professor of biology at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and scientific consultant at Landscape Interactions. 

Dr. Gegear is wading through wildflowers at Browning Fields conservation land in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He points out a common eastern bumblebee in a clump of red clover. This bee species isn’t in trouble, he says, unlike the half-black bumblebee buzzing nearby.

Jules Struck/The Christian Science Monitor
Robert Gegear spent the morning counting bee species at Browning Fields conservation land in Lincoln, Massachusetts, July 28, 2020. "We need to think more about what the threatened species need in terms of floral resources," he said.

A “more comprehensive approach”

But making a truly biodiverse pollinator habitat requires lots of site-specific research and planning, not to mention time; Dr. Gegear comes to the Browning Field conservation site every week. The good thing is, that information can be shared within habitat regions, says Mr. Abramson.

Information sharing is a big hurdle, says Heather McCargo, founder and executive director of the Wild Seed Project, a nonprofit in Portland, Maine, that promotes native plants. Ms. McCargo wrote a 176-page field guide of plant species and their preferred mowing practices with Maine DOT in 2018. She hoped it would become a resource for highway maintenance workers.

“They should not assume every plant they see is bad or needs to be mowed,” she said, pointing to plant identification apps as another easy resource. “It’s just, mowing has become the default.”

Interest is growing, Ms. McCargo says, though “the process is really slow.”

But at Mr. Boone’s highway plots, things are progressing nicely. “The reduced mowing alone is having a great impact,” he says. Next year at one site, Mr. Boone is planning to transplant existing wildflowers in hopes of propagating over a bald spot.

A doable strategy for other DOTs: “Just start with what you can manage.”

As cars and bicyclists whiz by the conservation land in Lincoln, beetles march purposefully through the undergrowth, their armored backs to a blazing sun. 

Dr. Gegear shoulders his butterfly net and peers at a bee in the flowers. “We need to target the ones that are in trouble,” he says. “We need to have a more comprehensive approach.”

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The pandemic’s food crisis sparks a green revolution

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As global crises go, the pandemic has had its fair share of teachable moments. One was the sudden shortage of food. Starting in March, the pipeline of food delivery from farms to stores broke down. To its credit, Britain has begun to use the crisis to rethink its entire food system. According to an official report this week, the new vulnerability in food has opened “an unplanned window of opportunity ... to learn something.”

The report explains why a national food strategy is now necessary: “Our food system has just endured its biggest stress test since the Second World War. As COVID-19 swept through the UK, the entire machinery of supply and distribution had to be recalibrated, fast.”

The British food industry was able to innovate solutions around the logjams and lockdowns. The report calls for a “new green revolution” to create sustainable agriculture, even to reevaluate humanity’s relationship with nature. That revolution, according to the report, ranges from using robots for picking crops to building high-rise greenhouses powered by solar panels in cities.

Beyond specific solutions, Britain’s greatest contribution may be its spirit of innovation, which is never in short supply.

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The pandemic’s food crisis sparks a green revolution

As global crises go, the pandemic has had its fair share of teachable moments. One was the sudden shortage of food. Starting in March, the pipeline of food delivery from farms to stores broke down, creating shopper panic and hoarding. Lockdowns kept people at home wondering how to feed themselves. To its credit, Britain has begun to use the crisis to rethink its entire food system. According to an official report this week, the new vulnerability in food has opened “an unplanned window of opportunity ... to learn something.”

The report is only the first of several to come, but it explains why a national food strategy is now necessary: “Our food system has just endured its biggest stress test since the Second World War. As COVID-19 swept through the UK, the entire machinery of supply and distribution had to be recalibrated, fast.”

The British food industry was able to innovate solutions around the logjams and lockdowns. Yet, according to the report’s author, Henry Dimbleby, people must think more deeply about the “big, existential risks” to food security beyond the pandemic, such as climate change and Britain’s exit from the European Union.

The report calls for a “new green revolution” to create sustainable agriculture, even to reevaluate humanity’s relationship with nature. That revolution, according to the report, ranges from using robots for picking crops to building high-rise greenhouses powered by solar panels in cities.

Britain’s nimble response helps set a precedent for poorer countries still struggling with COVID-19. The World Food Program predicts more than 135 million people could be in severe hunger this year. And global poverty is expected to rise for the first time in more than 20 years.

Beyond specific solutions, Britain’s greatest contribution may be its spirit of innovation, which is never in short supply. The pandemic has forced many industries such as health and education to improvise solutions. But the crisis can also bring a lasting reinvention of core human activities.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Counterfeit thoughts in neon sequined dress

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Sometimes our thoughts can become muddled, fearful, or unhealthy. But learning more about God, good, as divine Mind breaks through anxious, negative thinking and brings healing calm.

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1. Counterfeit thoughts in neon sequined dress

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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I’ve heard that when those tasked with identifying counterfeit money are in training, they study thoroughly the authentic bills. There are too many ways to counterfeit those bills for anyone to learn what every possible fake could look like, but by studying the real money so thoroughly they can more easily identify a bill that is false.

I’ve found it helpful to apply the same logic to something we have to deal with much more often than currency: the thousands of thoughts we have throughout each day. I’ve found a way to identify which thoughts are helpful and productive and which aren’t through the teachings of Christian Science. These teachings explain that God, who is entirely good, is divine Mind, the source of all valid thinking.

And the book of Jeremiah in the Bible says of this divinely sourced thinking, “I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (29:11). Other translations refer to God’s thoughts as thoughts of welfare, well-being, prosperity, and goodness, rather than of harm, calamity, or disaster.

So if our thinking is not good and peaceful, then it is not from God. It is counterfeit, with no real legitimacy.

It can seem tricky to identify the opposite thinking as counterfeit, because sometimes fearful, hateful, or negative thoughts feel very strongly as though they are our thinking. But as we understand that God is infinitely powerful Love and Spirit, we come to see that God could never impart anything but peace, harmony, and goodness. The more we see this, the more readily we can identify the thoughts that might try to convince us of something untrue about ourselves as counterfeit, because they are misportraying us as the opposite of God’s perfect, whole, and complete spiritual offspring.

I recently had an experience where I was immersed in learning more about God. This included studying the Bible and the writings of the discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy. I was also engaged in numerous deep and powerful conversations with colleagues as we brainstormed ideas for workshops on helping others better understand God as Love and our relation to God as His beloved child.

In a brief essay in “The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany,” Mrs. Eddy encourages: “...keep your minds so filled with Truth and Love, that sin, disease, and death cannot enter them. It is plain that nothing can be added to the mind already full. There is no door through which evil can enter, and no space for evil to fill in a mind filled with goodness” (p. 210). This is not an intellectual exercise or positive thinking, but a mental yielding to God, good.

And it has tangible effects. I found that when divine Love was at the center of my thought, it became easier to identify and overcome thoughts that were not from God.

For example, one morning I woke up and realized I had fallen asleep sitting up with a book in my lap and the light on, and had slept that way for the entire night. And the thought came, “You are going to have neck and shoulder trouble,” which is something I’d experienced in similar situations in the past. It was tempting to believe I could be harmed for doing something as innocent as falling asleep reading.

But right then and there, I recognized that I did not have to give that thought legitimacy or let it take root and fester in my consciousness. It was a counterfeit to the eternal truth of my being as a whole, upright, spiritual idea of God. In fact, the thought was so obviously not from God, not something I wanted to hold on to, that it was as if it paraded across my consciousness in a sparkling, neon, sequin dress waving flares that announced “I am a counterfeit!”

As I identified the thought this way and instead affirmed what God does know about His children, the fear lifted. And I never did experience any physical discomfort.

The more we let God, good, guide our thinking, the more we are able to recognize and nurture those thoughts that bring us peace and to keep those that are not from God from taking root in our consciousness, right from the start. And this empowers us to see more of God’s harmony in our lives.

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Sunflower serenade

Michael Dalder/Reuters
A field of sunflowers is seen during a hot, sunny day near the lake Steinsee in Niederseeon, Germany, July 31, 2020.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte, Karen Norris and Karen Norris/. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us. And please come back Monday for a special edition of the Monitor Daily, focused on women in leadership, as we celebrate the centennial of women’s right to vote.

Next week, we also will be launching Season 2 of our hit podcast. “Perception Gaps: Locked up” will take you into the criminal justice system, exploring misperceptions about mass incarceration. You can listen to the introduction episode and sign up for the newsletter on the Season 2 landing page.

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