2020-6-30: K-12 in a Time of Pandemic

Opening K-12 Schools: Basically, Nobody Knows*

Michelle Goldberg outlines some of the issues facing the country’s biggest school district (NYC) in September (or maybe, August).

We’ll address some of her points below, but here are some underlying considerations right off the bat:

  1. American public schools, like the rest of the public infrastructure in the U.S. (think “streets, highways, bridges, dams), are suffering from several decades of targeted disinvestment while conservatives who favor privatization of the entire system were engaged in systematic denigration of public schools themselves, teachers, and in ginning up support for private schools (through publicly-funded vouchers) and charter schools (privately-run public schools). Schools are not equipped to deal with a crisis like Covid-19, period. We have to start from here.
  2. Cases are increasing in a majority of states and it’s nearly July now – a lot of school districts have said that they would reopen in August to allow for review of material the mass school closures meant that many students didn’t learn last year. In many states (probably, most), it would be dangerous and irresponsible to force students (+ teachers, administrators, support staff – all of whom are adults, we recall) back to in-school classes. If the curve in most states hasn’t been severely bent downward in a month (and how’s that going to happen?), then in-class sessions are off. This is the second consideration.
  3. Some universities (which are basically in the same position, but dealing with a larger, older age cohort that, realistically, can’t and won’t maintain social distancing rules – or probably wear masks, either) are planning to cram an entire semester in between August and November in order to get their students off campus and home before the anticipated “second wave” begins in (late?) fall. Can K-12 schools plan for this eventuality?

Finally, Goldberg (who has children and is understandably anxious to have them back in school again) states something at the outset that every parent in America is thinking, but few have had the courage to say out loud. And Goldberg enjoys a huge platform – the Times, for goodness’ sake. Here’s the quote (it’s on NYC specifically, but it holds true everywhere):

Yet the nightmarish withdrawal of the key social support underlying modern parenthood is being presented as a fait accompli, rather than a worst-case scenario that government is mobilizing to prevent.”  

If this is what you believe – and we’re not saying most people disagree – then your priorities in opining on “how to get the kids back to their state-sponsored baby sitter” probably disqualify you from opining on the subject at all.

Another important point: There’s no solid evidence to date that school children either catch the coronavirus very easily, nor is there any solid evidence that they’re highly contagious vectors. There have been only sporadic outbreaks in other countries when schools reopened, and any school that had a documented case shut down immediately and did a full disinfection routine.

The people at risk here from Covid-19 when K-12 schools reopen aren’t the little ones, they’re the adults who staff schools and keep them running. Apart from administrators (upper middle class) and teachers (middle class), most of the support staff in public schools is poor, some very poor. They may have to take public transport to work; they may be living in homes where isolation/ quarantine are de facto impossible should someone in their family become ill; they may not have decent (or any) health insurance (lots of contract support staff to save districts money). What happens if there’s an outbreak among the adults who keep the school functioning? What if your entire maintenance staff tests positive? What about several bus drivers? What about substitute teachers, who in many states are drawn from the recently-retired? Is anybody even thinking about these issues?

Three points Goldberg notes that are worth commenting on:

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that if schools reopen, students’ desks should be placed six feet apart, which means far fewer kids in most classrooms. But there’s been no crash program to find or build new classroom space, or to hire more teachers.

Observation:

See what happens when you’ve been systematically defunding your schools for 30 years, increasing average class sizes to 30 or 40, and you’re hit by a pandemic? Most classes would need to split in half to maintain anything like “six feet apart,” and we believe school districts should start their logistics planning from here. (There’s no money to do this, though, so although it’s crucial, it’s also a moot point.)

“Few seem to be exploring the possibility of outdoor classes where weather allows. Experts I spoke to knew of no plans to scale up child care for parents who will need it. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, described school districts as ‘immobilized’ by lack of funding.”

Two observations here:

  1. Outdoor classes are a great idea (George Monbiot has written about outdoor education recently; for Deedspeakout on his idea, see here), and we agree – as much of the curriculum as possible might well take place outdoors. But that means (a) a new, experientially-based curriculum for K-12 (in two months? really?) and (b) it can’t be done year-round everywhere in the U.S.
  2. The entire country’s school districts are “immobilized” by lack of funding. This is true – if that substantial sum for schools in the House’s version of the HEROES Act doesn’t get approved by the Senate, it’s pretty much hopeless. And we’re not talking here about costly efforts like doubling the number of classes per grade (i.e. splitting classes in half across the board) or hiring a brand-new staff to man the “second shift” (that’s what the U.S. needs) or hiring out-of-school college students to serve as after- and before-school carers/tutors and in-class teachers’ aides (we have already written about how such a program might be envisioned as playing a critical role, as a national “Coronavirus Service Core” in many sectors of the service economy). If there’s no money coming down the pipeline to states/local districts, then there’s a very good reason why school districts are “immobilized” – in fact, they’re closer to “paralyzed.” If those billions don’t materialize, many districts – the poorest districts, where the need is greatest, will as always be the hardest-hit – won’t have the money to purchase masks, PPE, disinfecting materials, or hire extra maintenance staff for purposes of cleanliness. And if you don’t have the money to make these absolutely bedrock investments in public health, forget it, frankly. It’s online – remote education for the foreseeable future.

Nifty close: “Airlines got a bailout. Parents are on their own.”

Goldberg is a parent, not an educator, so she’s writing from the perspective of a NYT employee who happens to have school-age children.

Here’s how we’re thinking about this challenge without considering costs:

The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) says it’s absolutely vital that the littles go back to school (their statement was remarkably detail-free and dominated by advice that would have been discussed in the first 5 minutes of any responsible school district’s planning process.)

Social distancing: If you want to achieve it, most classes will have to be split into two. Without renting/leasing additional space, you’ll have to go to split- shift teaching. Say, 9-1 pm and 2-6 pm, with care-giving and tutoring provided (onsite if possible, otherwise …) 7 am to 7 pm for the children who need it, with a general cleaning in between morning and afternoon sessions. (Goldberg rightly points out that enhanced unemployment benefits are ending in July, and the PPP [paycheck protection program] is ending as we write, so a lot of parents are going to (a) have to go back to work or (b) be looking for work as of August.)

There are various ways to do “split shifts” – morning/afternoon as we suggest here (we think it’s the preferable solution as it gets students to school every day, which the AAP tells us is critical for their cognitive and social-emotional development), or “one week on, one week off” (remote) – this doesn’t require more space or (as many) new staff, but it’s disruptive for both children’s learning and parents’ work schedules, or “two days on, two days off (remote),” with a “teacher planning day” in the middle of the week (Wed.). Again, that’s a lot of hassle for not much school time (2 days a week for the academic year), plus it’s also not much help for working parents (if they’re part of the decision-taking equation). Our preferred solution would be “everybody in, nobody out” (like Medicare for All) – but in groups half the size of normal, and with more than double the staff, and with full-service care and tutoring and mentoring and counseling services offered 12 hours a day. Is this expensive? Of course it is. But (a) the U.S. has been systematically underfunding schools for a generation now, and (b) the Fed has figured out how to print money for Wall Street just fine, and guess what? That magical printing facility works for America’s children, too.

Masks: The AAP “recommends” them for all children (and adults of course; that goes without saying) but they carve out lots of exceptions. Apart from those children who cannot wear masks for some physical/health-related reason, they should be mandatory for all. Yes, there are districts / counties where masks are seen as an affront to “liberty,” we know – the tendency here would be to say, “Oh, who cares, let them do what they want (and suffer the consequences),” but that’s the easy way out and harms everybody in the long run. So masks = mandatory, nation-wide.

Vaccinations: No child should be allowed to re-enroll without having received all state-mandated vaccinations by the opening of school. (This was the law when we were young – your folks had to bring your vaccination card to school and present it as evidence.) Exceptions only for children who are medically-compromised and cannot receive vaccinations. And by the way: we vaccinate our own children to protect both them and other people’s children who are ill and can’t be vaccinated; that’s the whole point of vaccine-induced “herd immunity” and it’s gospel for modern-day public health policy). Vaccination too should be mandatory nation-wide. Your little hasn’t had their shots? Sorry, it’s remote learning for them until they come back vaccinated.

We’ll be on the lookout for the big districts’ fall opening plans as they become available – Fairfax County, Virginia (the state’s biggest district) has published one that encountered a lot of strong opposition before the ink was dry – and commenting on these as appropriate.

For now, we’ll close by observing that once again, the complete absence of national policies – and of support, guidance, or leadership from the Dept. of Education and the Sec of Ed – is proving disastrous for the U.S. In consequence, some districts with inspired leadership and plenty of $$ will do a responsible and enlightened job of reopening, with full community support and contingency plans in place; others will tag along, just barely keeping up with their richer and therefore, better-prepared peers, while still others will fall by the wayside, their students condemned to online classes indefinitely.

In other words, those in greatest need of the services provided by our public schools – learning, above all – will suffer the greatest harm over the coming months/years.

It’s the same old story, now poised to be enacted on our youngest and most vulnerable, who represent out future, after all.

It’s a national disgrace, and we don’t use that characterization lightly.

*Update* Two pieces we came across after we wrote today’s post:

Peter Green, “To Everyone Who Was Never a Classroom Teacher, Re Pandemic School Openings

Nancy Bailey, “22 Reasons Why Schools Should NOT Reopen in the Fall

Both authors – seasoned, experienced, knowledgeable classroom teachers – are more pessimistic than Deedspeakout, if that’s possible.

If schools shouldn’t reopen, then what are we to do? We have some ideas about that.

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