Here is the best summary that I have found thus far on the policy dilemmas facing school boards and superintendents in deciding how and when to re-open schools. It comes from a blog called Electoral Vote. Curated and written by two academics, one (Andrew Tanenbaum) an expert on statistics and public opinion polls and the other (Christopher Bates) a historian.
Every educational policy has one or more prized values embedded in it and when it comes to Covid-19, these values clash. Choices have to be made among sought-after values (health and safety of students; health and safety of faculty; giving parents choices of school options, limited resources to do efficiently what is essential, quality of educational experience, etc.). Sacrifices occur as policymakers with limited funds and knowledge of the virus’s spread and effects strike compromises (e.g., when to open, under what conditions) in deciding which values take precedence. Thus, the policy issues that authors of Electoral Vote have listed.
As part of his program of COVID-19 denial, Donald Trump has demanded that schools reopen in the fall, at risk of having their federal funding cut. His notion, ostensibly, is that if students go back to school, then parents can go back to full-time work. And if parents can go back to full-time work, then the economy will come zooming back to life, and he will ride that momentum to a reelection victory. Talk about your magical thinking.
In any event, the plan—if you can even call it that—is falling apart. On Monday, school officials in (liberal) Los Angeles County and (conservative) San Diego County both announced that they would begin the year with virtual instruction, and that they might eventually go to face-to-face, but they might not. Miami-Dade, which was specifically held out by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as a model for other districts to follow as they reopen, is now tapping the breaks hard as Florida evolves into the nation’s #1 hotspot. Officials in Chicago, Houston, New York City, Washington, D.C., and other locales have also made clear that, at most, students will attend school in person a couple of days a week in fall.
There is no question that, under pandemic-free circumstances, students are best served by in-person instruction. But the barriers that school districts face under current circumstances are substantial. We’ve noted some of them already, but let’s put together a fuller list, all in one spot:
- Space: Most schools do not have enough space to allow students to sit in a classroom and maintain social distancing. They could (and presumably will) wear masks, but that’s not going to get it done when sharing space for 6-7 hours a day. And that’s before we talk about communal situations like cafeterias, hallways, locker rooms, and so forth.
- Student Risk: It is true that younger people seem to be less likely to contract COVID-19, and less likely to have really bad outcomes if they do. On the other hand, consider the Fauci item above and think about what we did not know about COVID-19 six months ago, or even three months ago. Then consider what we might find out in the next six months. Maybe it turns out that the current thinking is entirely wrong, and that kids are just as vulnerable as anyone else. Maybe it turns out that certain populations of kids—say, those of a particular ethnicity, or who are lacking a particular gene, or who have an underlying health condition, or who live in a particular climate—are at risk. Do we want to turn the nation’s schools into the world’s largest virology experiment?
- Faculty Risk: A major part of the reason that schools were shut down in the first place was to protect faculty, many of whom are senior citizens (or near-senior citizens) and/or have underlying health conditions that are known to put them at higher risk for COVID-19 (and for serious complications from the disease). One would hope that Americans would not wish to put these folks at risk. And regardless of what Americans think, the faculty themselves may not be willing to play Russian roulette. One survey, way back in May, revealed that 20% of teachers were unwilling to return to the classroom while the pandemic is underway. A more recent survey, covering only the city of Chicago, put the figure above…70%. At a time when resources and faculty time will be spread very thin, the loss of 20% of your labor force would be a backbreaker. Anything above that, and it gets even more grim.
- Online Classes: Online classes are a very different beast than in-person classes, with different forms of presenting information, different kinds of assignments, etc. It is challenging for both students and teachers to shift back and forth. And it is nearly impossible for a teacher to simultaneously prepare and teach both sorts of classes. There just isn’t time. So, any model that involves “18 students will take the in-person version of the class, and 14 more will take the online version” is not plausible without additional faculty.
- Educational Experience: Again, in-person is almost always better than online, all other things being equal. But if students have to wear masks, and if they can’t have recess time, and they have to eat lunch in shifts, and their teacher has to step out for a month due to illness to be replaced by whatever substitute the district can find, and so on and so forth, they are going to have a lousy educational experience and aren’t going to learn a whole lot. Further, even the most optimistic folks aren’t trying to say that no students will get sick. What happens if a student is incapacitated for a month, or six weeks, or longer? Can they plausibly catch up? Probably not, especially with teachers stretched too thin to give them one-on-one help. And if that’s the case, then what? Do they just go through the motions and repeat a year, lagging their cohort for the rest of their educational career? Do they take a long vacation and try again in Fall 2021?
- Legalities: Nobody’s talking about this, as far as we can find. However, there are some significant legal issues that are likely to come into play here if schools proceed injudiciously. One of the biggies is that most faculty are protected by unions, and the unions can be expected to hold the line on safety, particularly for high-risk faculty. Imagine that a school district orders a 56-year-old asthmatic 8th grade teacher with hypertension back to work, and that teacher refuses for (justifiable) health reasons. Then what? If the school tries to fire the teacher (and probably even if they try to withhold pay for a year), they’ll be hit with a grievance, which takes even more time and money to fight, and still leaves the classroom unstaffed. Another big issue here is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which gives substantial protections to both faculty and students for a broad range of conditions, including underlying chronic health problems. If the parents of a fifth grader with a history of circulatory issues insists that their child simply cannot be exposed to COVID-19, and demands that they be accommodated, the school district would probably be compelled to offer them an alternate (online) mode of instruction. And then we’re back to the problem above, that one faculty member can’t plausibly create two versions of their course at the same time.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it does cover some of the major challenges that school districts are looking at right now, with roughly six weeks left until school resumes. No wonder Los Angeles and San Diego have already put their feet down. Anyone who knows anything about education (i.e., not Trump and DeVos) would recognize that these things cannot be dismissed with the wave of a hand, and that the best you can hope for is that districts work through them as best as is possible, adopting different (and flexible) solutions as dictated by local circumstances….