Wednesday, October 14, 2020

on SASD's scuttling the plan to go hybrid

On Monday, October 12, the Shippensburg Area School District Board of Directors made the difficult decision to reverse plans to transition to hybrid schooling for grades 6-12 on November 10th.  Instead, the district will continue to offer an all-online delivery model through the second marking period, with exceptions for some students in special education.

I know this news comes as a considerable disappointment to many parents and students.

On the other hand, I know a large number are relieved by the decision, as the move to open schools has been viewed with skepticism and apprehension by many others.

I’ve received numerous communications from parents and other community members expressing both viewpoints.

As for me, I'm heartbroken over not being in school. I want to send my own kid back to school. And, frankly, telling him that he won't be going back--even for two days a week at the beginning of November as we had planned--was really hard. He wants to go back. Still, I believe it was the right decision.

While I certainly cannot speak for the entire board, I want to try to explain at least this one board member’s reasoning.

First, if we were to transition to a hybrid system in the beginning of November for the upper grades as planned, we would be doing so AGAINST the recommendations of our superintendent, the principals of the middle and high schools, and what appears to be a plurality of our teachers. This is not a small matter. If we were to direct our administrators to move to a hybrid system, I’m confident that they would do it as well as they could. I’m also confident that our teachers would do their very best. However, with a decision of this consequence, to go against the recommendations of the professionals that live and breathe the ramifications of these decisions daily is a heavy ask.

It should be noted that this recommendation did not come all-of-a-sudden. Planning for a hybrid-schooling model of some kind began even before the end of the last school year. I’m confident that the administrators, teachers, and staff involved in that planning have turned the matter around every which way. I know they’ve wanted to make it work. And I know they are disappointed they could not find a solution they felt comfortable recommending, as am I.

So, why has administration recommended against transitioning to a hybrid system for the upper grades? For a more detailed explanation, I strongly recommend listening to the presentations of the principals of the middle and high schools from Monday’s meeting. You can find a link to the meeting from the district website; click “School Board” —>  “Recorded Meetings" (or just click here).

For me, the reasoning for maintaining an online-only delivery model for the upper grades can be summarized into two categories of concern: logistic hurdles and educational outcomes.

To understand the logistical issues, please watch the principals’ presentations in Monday’s board meeting. For me, it was eye opening. Some notable examples: scheduling complexity resulting in class sizes that would exceed CDC social distancing requirements, position vacancies that we have been unable to fill, a substitute shortage that the COVID moment has only exacerbated, the reverberating consequences of a teacher needing to quarantine or isolate, and complicating teacher job duties to the point of absurdity.

But the educational outcomes piece is also critical. I have long assumed—and I know I’m not alone in this—that for most students any time in school would be better than no time in school. That while a “normal,” five-day, face-to-face model is preferred, a two-day hybrid model would be better than all online. For the lower grades, I still believe this to be the case. However, for the upper grades, this no longer seems at all clear. And as our public health professionals have strongly advised against going back to a "normal," five-day-a-week, in-person model until we dip below the 10 active COVID cases per 100,000 residents threshold, that really leaves us with only one choice.

(Cumberland and Franklin Counties have bounced around between 20 and 50 cases per 100,000 residents for the past three months. How other districts can make decisions that stare CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Health recommendations in the face is beyond me. I wish them luck, but I can't help but believe such decisions border on malfeasance.)

We could, of course, change our expectations as to what school is. In our present online model, kids get four days of live instruction from each teacher and one day of unsupervised, self-paced activities. In a hybrid system, I think the best we can expect is two days of live instruction, and three days of self-paced activities, but those two days of live instruction would be in-person rather than online. (I realize there are other hybrid models, but from what I understand, what I’ve described here is the least likely to break the backs of our teachers and therefore the most realistic—without teachers, we will have no school.)

Maybe, eventually, we will need to change our expectations. But, for me, the extra days of live instruction of an online delivery strategy coupled with the logistical entanglements of maintaining CDC guidelines with a hybrid system, are enough to convince me that at this point it would be inappropriate to transition our upper grades to a hybrid model.

Some will say that what the district needs to do is provide choice—hybrid for those that want it, an online option for those that prefer that strategy. By necessity, going hybrid requires both, because if a student needs to quarantine or isolate for whatever reason, they’ll need to move from hybrid to online and back again. However, in offering both delivery methods, we’re putting an expectation on teachers that they manage both. That is, both, simultaneously. In essence, we’d be requiring that each teacher now do two jobs. In the lower grades, we’ve been able to deal with this problem by assigning some teachers all-online duties. In the middle and high schools, because of schedule complexities, this just isn’t possible for a district our size.

A reasonable person would certainly be excused if they were to ask why, if the hybrid system is so problematic, had the board recently approved a hybrid start for grades 6-12 at the beginning of the second marking period?

Well, why did the board move toward a hybrid opening? Strong demand from the public, for sure. Wishful thinking on the part of the board, too. But also the assumption that a hybrid model would be educationally superior to a fully online model, and a misunderstanding of logistical issues at play.

So, to me, Monday night we corrected an error of judgment that we had earlier made--an error of judgment that went against the recommendations of the professionals we have employed to manage our community's schools. Furthermore, in the time that has passed, we’ve learned more about the challenges and shortcomings of hybrid schooling from those doing it.

For this flip-flopping, I am very apologetic. I deeply regret the confusion and frustration in the community that is an understandable result of this reversal of plans.

Finally, I absolutely recognize that reasonable people will disagree on the right way forward. I certainly do not have all the answers. I wish I did. In the end, as always, I vote in a manner that I believe is in the best interest of the children of our community. I have no other incentive.

I welcome your comments.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

some (incomplete and unordered) thoughts on school reopening

(1) I’m frustrated by so many public comments in defense of face-to-face learning. No one is arguing that face-to-face isn’t preferable to virtual learning. That just isn’t the conversation.

(2) The decision as to how schools should reopen in the fall is bigger than the students and faculty and parents directly impacted. It’s a decision with very real public health ramifications, and (unfortunately) must be considered in that light.

(3) The fact that these decisions are being made by local school boards represents a massive failure of state and federal leadership. I support local governance, but a pandemic is not a local issue, and your local school officials do not have access to the same tools and expertise that state and national governments do.

It’s a pandemic… It should be self-evident that local action should be coordinated at the broadest level possible.

(4) I’m again and again struck by how terrible we (humans) are at evaluating risk, and, by extension, terrible at evaluating the efficacy of any risk mitigation strategies or protocols. We are terrible naive statisticians. I know this, and yet it still does not help me in making decisions, it just makes me more wary of anything that I think I know.

(5) While I believe that public schooling is an entitlement program that every American should embrace and even express pride in, there is a kind of ugly selfishness in the way some talk about their entitlement.

An illustration: When faced with the possibility that schools may reopen something close to virtual only, many respond, “WTF. Is the district going to compensate me for my childcare?!” Whereas a person embracing a paradigm of responsibility might say, “Shoot, this stinks. I do not like this, I do not agree with it, but I’ve gotta figure out a way to make this work.”

(6) Where is the teachers’ association in this discussion? I have not heard anything, neither directly nor indirectly, from our local teachers’ association.

I understand that teachers are divided in their positions and preferences, but helpful guidance might look something like this:

“If you go face-to-face, here are some concerns we’d like addressed.

“If you go virtual, here are some concerns we’d like addressed.”

(7) Related to the previous comment, any discussion of reopening MUST consider the health and safety of our teachers. As their employer, that is the district’s responsibility.

If even a minority (but significant number) of teachers do not feel safe in returning to face-to-face instruction, that poses a serious structural problem for the district. If, say, 10 teachers decide at the last minute that they can’t risk coming back to school and choose not to return, that puts the district in a serious pickle.

Furthermore, for those teachers who would return, but still do not feel safe doing so, one has to ask what impact that feeling of insecurity has on their ability to effectively do their job.

(8) Administration and faculty committees have been working on plans since before school let out. We’ve been discussing school reopening plans (not a complete plan, but bits and pieces) at board meetings for over two months.

Prior to last night's board meeting, grand total of public participants in those meetings? Maybe 25.

Prior to last night's board meeting, grand total of public comments during this planning period? 0.

(9) In public comments last night, one person suggested that the members of the board have already made up their minds so they might as well just vote. I’m not at all sure that’s true. I certainly don’t have things all figured out. My thoughts go all over the place on this. And I am very much swayed by new information or analysis (though hopefully not disproportionately).

(10) Personally, I am super frustrated that it’s taking us (as a board, as a district) so long to make a decision for the fall. It’s not only just really irritating, I also think it’s a pretty significant administrative failure. And I’m sorry.

Monday, July 27, 2020

reopening schools

Tonight, at 6:00 pm, the Shippensburg Area School District directors will meet to (hopefully) decide on a plan for school reopening. While the past months have been full of work and planning and a lot of hand-wringing, the board has yet to approve a course of action.

In the build-up to this decision, I've received quite a few letters and calls from concerned citizens. I appreciate their input and feedback.

Yesterday, I received one such email from a Shippensburg Area High School student. While this student sent their comments to the superintendent and all board members, I was not given permission to make their comments public, so I won't reproduce the letter here. However, I do want to share my response. It's not perfect, but it's not bad, and it gives a sense of where my head is in making this decision.

Also, it will be interesting for me to return to these thoughts in a month, six months, next year, five years from now, and so on. Likely, I will think differently about many of these things.


Hi _____,

I really appreciate you taking the time to write this letter and for sending it. It is very much appreciated.

The district has yet to make a final decision on our re-opening strategy. There is a public board meeting tonight, at 6:00 pm, and I encourage you to attend (it will be broadcast publicly--you can find the link on the district website).

However, I wanted to respond quickly to a few of your points.

First, I know EVERYONE would like to be able to go back to school as we're used to doing school. I would like that. Your school administration would like that. So would your teachers. However, that's just not possible. So we have to find a way to do the best we can under the circumstances.

A few thoughts on some of the points you've made.

I'm afraid you're very much mistaken on the negative health effects of wearing masks. I suggest you check your sources, and research this a little more completely. Your blood oxygen levels absolutely do NOT drop by 5-20% when wearing a mask. It's just not true. But imagine if it were...imagine if a surgery team of 6-10 people, all wearing surgical masks, for sometimes well over eight hours straight, were experiencing blood oxygen levels 80-95% of normal. Would you want that surgical team operating on you? Of course not. Because there is no such disability. Sure, masks are uncomfortable, but so are pants, and we've all got fairly accustomed to wearing them.

You are right that children get sick from COVID19 much less often and experience milder symptoms than do adults. However, older children (think 10-19) can still carry and transmit the virus. So, while the district must be concerned for the health of children, we also must be concerned about how the virus can be transmitted within the school, and then carried from it to more vulnerable demographics. School children do not live in a bubble. They interact with each other, then go home to mothers and fathers and grandparents, etc. Children can become the vectors for disease which can debilitate a community.

Furthermore, kids aren't the only ones in our schools. There are teachers, administrators, and all manner of support staff. These people matter too. Their health matters too. And, as you're already aware, these individuals are at much higher risk of suffering serious negative health consequences should they contract COVID19. Any decision the district makes regarding reopening schools must also consider their health and well-being.

The herd immunity argument you offer is compelling, but unfortunately it just doesn't seem to work quite that way with COVID19. In March, when we first realized--as a country, and beyond--that there was a global pandemic at play, we thought herd immunity would be the eventual answer. But what we're learning about how COVID19 is contracted and how our bodies build antibodies to it suggests that it may not be that simple. You're thinking (as I used to think) that once you get C19 and get over it, you're good. But we're learning that's probably the wrong way to think about it.

I appreciate your thoughts on a culture of fear, and I am sympathetic. Still, I don't let my children cross the street on their own until I know they are capable of making smart street-crossing decisions. I can't just say, "Don't live in fear; just send it!" when I know there's a high probability that "sending it" will result in serious injury or death to my child. There are limits and lines. I wish I knew what those limits and lines are in the present case, but I do not. I do not think anyone does. But I do know that doing nothing--pretending that COVID19 is just another flu--is dangerously irresponsible behavior for making either personal life decisions or decisions for the public good.

As to your comments on freedom, I'm afraid that argument falls on deaf ears here. Going back to my pants analogy, do you also feel that we should be "free" to go to school not wearing pants? Would you feel comfortable sitting next to someone not wearing pants? Or how about sharing a chair with another student who was not wearing pants? No? Well, what of that person's freedom to dress (or not dress) how they like? Should they not be free to not wear pants as you are to wear them? 

Freedom isn't getting to do whatever you want. Our freedom is curtailed everyday in myriad ways by powerful (and usually quite functional) cultural norms. That is a good thing. Personally, I'm quite glad that my freedom to drive is moderated by traffic signals and right-of-way laws. It's makes things work. It keeps us safer on the roads than we would be if we were "free" to use them however we like. 

Like it or not, you live in a community. You share space with thousands of other people. They also have rights. And your ability to exercise your freedom cannot infringe on their ability to exercise theirs. In civics, we call this idea "the social contract." I encourage you to look it up, and perhaps rethink your paradigm of what it means to be free.

Thank you again for taking the time to write and express your concerns. Again, it is very much appreciated. I hope this letter helps clarify some of the issues the district must consider in deciding to reopen schools for "normal" operation. 

Again, I encourage you to attend the virtual school board meeting this evening. 6:00 pm. Link on district website.

If you have any further questions or comments, I welcome them.

Take care,


Friday, March 27, 2020

"That’s all of ’em, Uncle George!"

A story about George Goates, little brother to my great-great-grandfather. It's a story I grew up with. A story that's had an outsized impact on my world view.

This version is a retelling of something Les Goates' wrote. Les Goates was a career sportswriter for the Desert News, and George's son.

It's 1918, in the midst of the Spanish Flu Epidemic. George would have been 55 at the time. Francis was 20, Charles 35.


“Winter came early that year and froze much of the sugar beet crop in the ground,” writes [Les] Goates. “My dad and brother Francis were desperately trying to get out of the frosty ground one load of beets each day.” One day they received a telephone call that George’s nine-year-old grandson Kenneth “had been stricken with the dread ‘flu,’ and after only a few hours of violent sickness, had died.” George was asked to go to Ogden and take the boy to Lehi for burial.

When George arrived at the home he found his son Charles was also sick. Charles asked his father to take the boy and return for him the next day. “Father brought Kenneth home, made a coffin in his carpenter shop, and … with [my brother] Franz and two kind neighbors [dug] the grave...

“The folks had scarcely returned from the cemetery when the telephone rang again.” They learned that Charles had died and four of his young children were also sick. Charles’s body was sent to Lehi by train, but the next day George had to return to Ogden to get one of the grandchildren, seven-year-old Vesta, who had since died. Before he returned to Lehi with Vesta, a call came again that one of her sick sisters, five-year-old Elaine, had also died. So George made yet “another heartbreaking journey to bring home and lay away a fourth member of his family, all within the week.”

The next day George told his son Francis, “‘Well, son, we had better get down to the field and see if we can get another load of beets out of the ground before they get frozen in any tighter.’ …

“As they drove along the Saratoga Road, they passed wagon after wagon-load of beets being hauled to the factory and driven by neighborhood farmers...

“On the last wagon was...Jasper Rolfe. He waved a cheery greeting and called out: ‘That’s all of ’em, Uncle George.’ “My dad turned to Francis and said: ‘I wish it was all of ours.’“

When they arrived at the farm gate...there wasn’t a sugar beet on the whole field. Then it dawned upon him what Jasper Rolfe meant when he called out: ‘That’s all of ’em, Uncle George!’

“Father sat down on a pile of beet tops--this man who brought four of his loved ones home for burial in the course of only six days; made caskets, dug graves, and even helped with the burial clothing—and sobbed like a little child."