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,