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What the Hell Are We Doing About Schools?

Five ways to think about re-opening schools in the pandemic.
July 6, 2020
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1. A Weird Year

Right on schedule, the national school panic is here. Not just from parents and teachers, but from Our Great President:

It’s hard to know what to do with this. Is it an exhortation? An aspirational proclamation? A policy proposal? Most of the country is supposed to go back to school in September. Parts of the country go earlier. And despite what Trump is saying here, nobody has any idea what they’re doing or what’s actually going to happen.

Let’s lay out some guide rails for how to think about schooling in the pandemic, because there are some universal truths worth keeping in mind:

  • No one is going to be happy with the plans that are eventually implemented because there are no “good” answers. Only less bad ones.
  • Everyone is going to take a hit. Parents are going to keep shouldering heavy loads. Kids won’t get the best education. School workers are going to get shortchanged one way or another.
  • There are so many variables and so many blind spots that we cannot assume that a solution which works in one place will necessarily work in another. Or a solution that works at one time will be the best option all the time.

Here are some basic facts that make figuring out school protocols extremely hard:

For starters, even talking about “school” as a singular entity is a mistake.

As an epidemiological matter, there is a world of difference between large schools and small schools, between small children and high schoolers. It makes no sense—none—to assume that the same best-practice for a room that houses a dozen 5-year-olds in daycare will be the same for a high school with 3,000 students.

By the same token, we don’t know enough about the coronavirus yet to understand the differences in likelihood of, say a 5-year-old catching and spreading it compared with an 18-year-old catching and spreading it. The data we do have on these differences is wildly conflicting.

And there are going to be large-scale geographic differences, too. On July 4, Vermont had 2 new cases diagnosed and Florida had 11,458 new cases. Why should we think that best practices for these two states would be the same?

Also there will be temporal differences: The true state of the infection in July may not be the case in September, which may not be the case in December.

You can see what I’m trying to get at here: There is no one “right” way to do school in this environment.

2. Risks and Needs

The one thing the data does suggest is that the risks of death from coronavirus for individuals under the age of 20 are lower than they are for people over 20. (And the risks of death for kids under 10 is lower than kids aged 10 to 19.)

That’s obviously a good thing. But the health of the kids in school is only one part of the equation. The other is the spread of the virus. There are workers in and around schools, who may be more at risk. And there are families. Because a kid who picks up the infection and brings it home is going to put others at risk, even if her own chances of dying are quite small.

If a family has someone over the age of 50 in the house, that’s a problem. If someone in the family is immunocompromised, that’s also a problem.

So different families will have different levels of risk.

And by the same token, different families have different needs. Just off the top of my head, here are three scenarios in which what a family needs to get out of schooling are radically different:

(1) A two-parent family in which one parent stays home and the other parent can telework has a very high level of flexibility. Maybe they can manage remote-learning with a high degree of success and a relatively small economic burden.

(2) A single mother who cannot telework and has to report to a workplace for 40 hours a week. How is she supposed to manage if her kids aren’t physically at school for 8 hours a day?

(3) A family with a special-needs child for whom school isn’t about working towards college admissions but about early intervention to help them manage their challenges. For them, remote learning may be impossible and what the child misses from school is the critical help from a team of people who are experts in special ed.

Now overlay the different risks that families have with their different needs and you start to see, again, how it will be nearly impossible to have a one-size-fits-all protocol for opening schools.

And here I cannot stress this enough: Anyone who says either “You must open all the schools like normal” or “You cannot open any schools at all” is either foolish, or hysterical, or trying to create part two of The Great Mask Culture War of 2020.