Category Archives: school leaders

A Week in the Life of a Baltimore School Returning to In-Person Classes (Erica Green)

New York Times Journalist Erica Green spent a week in a Baltimore school where in-person instruction resumed. It is rare to get such a peek inside a big city district school during the pandemic–nearly all large urban districts are shuttered and rely upon remote instruction. This article appeared November 28, 2020

Zia Hellman prepared to welcome her kindergarten students back to Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School this month the way any teacher would on the first day of school: She fussed over her classroom.

Ms. Hellman, 26, dodged around the triangular desks, spaced six feet apart and taped off in blue boxes. She fretted about the blandness of the walls, fumbled with the plastic dividers covering name tags and arranged the individual yoga mats that replaced colorful carpets. Every window was open for extra ventilation, chilling the air.

“I wonder how they’re going to react to all of this,” she said, hands on her hips, scanning the room for the last time. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel, but it feels right.”

Ms. Hellman was among about two dozen teachers and staff members required to return to work on Nov. 16 for the first in-person instruction in Baltimore City Public Schools since March. The city was the first large school district in Maryland and the latest among urban districts in the country to tiptoe into one of the highest-stakes experiments in the history of the nation’s public education system: teaching face-to-face in a pandemic.

Returning to the classroom has not been easy; neither has remote learning.

Educators looking to get back in front of students have had to navigate conflicting guidance from politicians and public health officials. Some teachers’ unions have refused to return to buildings until the virus abates, ostracizing colleagues who dare break with them. On the other hand, the country’s most vulnerable children have sustained severe academic and social harm from the remote-learning experiment. Parents, navigating their own economic and work struggles, are increasingly desperate.

Ms. Hellman has yearned to be back in her school building in northeast Baltimore since September. She also understands the risks.

 “I feel like I’m a bit in ‘The Hunger Games,’” Ms. Hellman said. “I didn’t volunteer as tribute, I was chosen as tribute. But I want to be here for my students.”

Superintendents, meantime, have had to navigate a firestorm of political pressure, parental preference and the weight of a once-in-a lifetime public health crisis.

“Superintendents have always had to deal with conflicting interests, but it’s never been this kind of life-and-death balance,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large, urban public school systems across the country. “To have interests and decisions changing week to week, day to day, makes this situation unlike anything public education has ever faced.”

For Sonja Santelises, the chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools, the decision to reopen 27 schools on Nov. 16 to about 1,200 academically at-risk students — such as kindergartners, special education students and English-language learners — last week was not a choice but an obligation. She made the call on the advice of the city’s public health commissioner.

“If I were to cling to one-liners or seek to score political points like some people want, I would choose not to see those families who need options, who need translators, those refugee families who walked miles to get their children an education,” Ms. Santelises said. “I will not do that.”

Baltimore reduced the number of planned building reopenings to 27 from 44 as the virus surged in certain parts of the city. But the local teachers’ union is calling for buildings in Ms. Santelises’ district to stay closed until they are deemed absolutely safe or a vaccine is widely available. It has pressured individual teachers against volunteering to go back and encouraged parents to boycott.

Those tensions reverberate across the country, where schools are grappling with the pandemic in widely varying ways, with some closing this month after opening earlier this fall even as others like in Baltimore just now are trying to reopen.

“We’re not just being obstructionist; we’re obstructing the district from putting people’s lives at risk,” said Diamonté Brown, the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

More than 70,000 schoolchildren left Baltimore classrooms in March, when the coronavirus outbreak in the United States was declared a pandemic. Since then, school leaders have focused on temporary measures. They bought computers and internet-access devices, sent worksheets to students’ homes, staffed their cafeterias and buses to serve meals to their communities, and waited for direction from local and federal health officials that never really came.

But now, with the pandemic threatening to derail the education and prospects of a generation of children, district leaders are feeling pressure to move on their own.

In Washington, D.C., internal testing data shows steep declines in the number of kindergartners through second grade students meeting literacy benchmarks, The Washington Post reported. In Houston, huge numbers of middle and high school students are failing their first semester, according to The Houston Chronicle. Even affluent, high-performing districts like Fairfax County, Va., a Washington suburb, are reporting alarming rates of middle and high school students failing classes, particularly English-language learners and students with disabilities — two populations that a recent Government Accountability Office report found were poorly served by remote learning.

Among the most alarming statistics are the significant enrollment declines that districts across the country are experiencing, particularly among kindergartners. Public education is out of reach for some families without internet access or with home lives that are unconducive to remote leaning. Some families have simply given up.

Ms. Hellman, in her fourth year of teaching kindergarten, understood what returning to the classroom would mean. She would not be able to see her 92-year-old grandmother. She might be subject to “corona-shaming” by colleagues, family and friends who have stayed away from work. She was putting herself personally at risk.

But, she reasoned, “I’m young, I’m healthy.”

At 9:15 a.m., each of the six students whose families had opted for in-person learning in her classroom received temperature checks. Two minutes later, one student was excitedly holding his mask up to show her its design.

“I love your mask,” Ms. Hellman told him, “but I think it would be cuter on.”

At 9:30, all the students were allowed to remove their masks to snack on Cinnamon Toast Crunch and applesauce. “It’s only 10 minutes,” she told them and herself, “and the windows are open.”

By 10:30, things had settled down, and she was just a teacher. Students were practicing writing their letters. By 11, they were preparing for recess by singing to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”:

My mask is on my face.

My mask is on my face.

Masks keep you and me safe.

My mask is on my face.

“The purpose of the first day is to feed them, have fun and send them home,” Ms. Hellman said. “We need them to come back the next day.”

Not only did her six in-class students return that next day, but so did 19 of her students learning virtually. So did Brandon Pinkney, the school’s principal, who was showing her classroom to a parent who was considering sending her son back.

In the 24 hours since in-person classes resumed, Mr. Pinkney was fielding inquiries from parents intrigued by what they were seeing in the classroom through their children’s computer screens at home.

He canvassed the building, popping his head into different classrooms and mentally reconfiguring the spaces, just in case. He was hoping to reserve an extra desk for a student who told him bluntly that he was done with “that virtual stuff” but would return if the school reopened.

“I know he’s in the streets,” Mr. Pinkney said. “If I don’t see him this week, I’m going to get him.”

Many staff members in the school said they had only returned to the building because it was Mr. Pinkney’s voice on the line, telling them that they had been chosen.

He promised transparency and support, and that was enough for Rachael Charles. A special-education teacher with two teenagers at home, she wasn’t as easy to persuade as Ms. Hellman, who acknowledged that as a young, childless teacher, she did not face the same choice between her life and livelihood.

With the Black community disproportionately affected by the virus, Ms. Charles, who is African-American, had been working out over the summer, taking vitamins and alkaline water, just in case. But she still explored taking a leave of absence.

“I love my students dearly, but I’m coming back into the classroom to take care of children when no one is taking care of mine,” she said.

Safety risks aside, Ms. Charles wondered if she would be able to be the teacher that her students remembered. “I’m very hands-on, and it’s hard to have them right in my reach and not support them the way they need,” she said.

When a student with a slight physical disability struggled to pull his mask down to eat lunch, she initially stood outside his blue box, encouraging him. “Under your chin, you can do it.”

But before long, her hand was on his mouth, and she pulled it down herself.

Downstairs, Mr. Pinkney was in a hallway with a group of clinicians debating whether to do virtual or in-person special education assessments.

“It doesn’t make sense to do them virtually when we have assessment rooms here,” he said. “They’re cleaned every hour on the hour.”

“Every hour?” a skeptical voice could be heard asking over a speakerphone.

“On the hour,” a voice chimed in from nearby.

That voice belonged to Donice Willis, the school custodian. A 66-year-old grandmother of 11, she had never stopped working during the pandemic, and she could not wait for children to return to the building.

She said she knew that she was among the highest risk groups for the coronavirus. She hopes to retire at 70, but she said she had relinquished control of that goal to the same higher power she hopes is protecting her from Covid-19.

“You’re going to go one day from something,” Ms. Willis said. “If God gives me 70, I’ll take it.”

When a maskless student walked out of a classroom she was preparing to clean, she barely flinched: “Put your mask on, pookie,” she said.

‘Hold the Line’: A Superintendent Stands Firm

Around dismissal time on Nov. 18, a Wednesday afternoon, news broke that New York City had reached a coronavirus positivity threshold of 3 percent, which would result in another shutdown of in-person instruction. The city’s schools had been open for less than two months. Within the hour, Washington city officials announced that talks between district and union officials had fallen apart.

Teachers in Baltimore wondered how their city leaders would react. Maryland’s positivity rate was above 6 percent.

Ms. Santelises stood her ground. The science was strong that transmission rates in schools remained low, she said. A teacher had emailed, “hold the line.”Ms. Hellman focused on how well her new normal was going. She was wearing two masks now, and she did not have to remind her students to keep theirs on as much. She gushed over how her in-person students waved at her remote pupils. Her only concern was that her remote learners were missing the banter and nonverbal cues her students were getting in the classroom.

“Today was better,” she said. “It just feels like this is how it is, and it’s only been three days.”

Then came the reality check. Shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, Mr. Pinkney emailed the staff to say someone had reported Covid-like symptoms, and two classes had been sent home to quarantine.

“Oh my God,” Ms. Hellman said. “It’s here.”

Mr. Pinkney followed protocols, alerted classmates and staff members, and submitted the case to the district.

Ms. Hellman felt defeated.

“Covid doesn’t care what day it is,” she said. “It doesn’t care that you have a shield in front of your face, it doesn’t care if you have a mask on most of the day, but not 10 minutes while you’re eating.”

Baltimore announced that same day that schools that had begun offering in-person instruction would not resume it after Thanksgiving until Dec. 7, amid warnings about holiday gatherings and travel. Some of the private schools in the area had done the same.

The actions of Baltimore’s private schools during the pandemic have weighed heavily on Ms. Santelises. Those students have clearly had an educational advantage, and one of them is her daughter. Two of her other children attend public charter schools that are closed.

“As a mom, I’m living the difference, and the inequity is astounding” Ms. Santelises said. “I’m saying goodbye to one every morning at the bus stop, and I’m watching the difference it makes. I see my daughters’ faces looking at me at home, like: ‘You all aren’t even going to try?’”

The announcement of the new delay spurred members of the teachers’ union to protest, and members marched to different buildings calling for the district to shut down the buildings for the rest of the semester. By the end of the week, at least 15 staff members had tested positive for the virus, the union said.

Ms. Brown, the union leader, said the district was insulting teachers who had been working around the clock to deliver quality instruction to their students at home.

“There’s more to education than teachers standing in front of students teaching a lesson,” she said.

On Friday, Ms. Hellman was still standing in front of students. As the day drew to a close, she helped a student draw what he was thankful for. A week in, she was crossing into her students’ blue boxes without much thought.

Outside, as the students played together while awaiting their parents, the directions were even more relaxed: “You can take your mask off, but don’t get too close,” Ms. Hellman said.

Sharrea Brown embraced her 5-year-old daughter, Paige Myers. Over the course of the week, Ms. Brown had watched Paige’s mood improve. At home, the frustrated child would yell “You’re not my teacher!” when she tried to help.

Paige said she was nervous about the “bad germ,” so she has a message for other children who want to go back to school: “Keep your mask on.”

Ms. Brown was hopeful that with school open, she could also resume some normalcy. She took a leave of absence from her job in March, and her unemployment was stretching only so far.

“Christmas ain’t looking too good,” Ms. Brown said. “But she’s good,” she said of her daughter. “She’s almost back to feeling like herself again.”

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The Personal Side of Being a Superintendent

In The Managerial Imperative: The Practice of Leadership in Schools (1988), I wrote of my experiences as a superintendent, husband, and father and how the job intersected with my life during and after the workday.  Because the family side of being a superintendent is often unwritten much less talked about–especially during the Covid pandemic, I have updated this earlier version of my experiences for the current book I am writing. All of what follows occurred between 1974-1981 in Arlington County (VA).

The superintendency was both exhilarating and exhausting. As a line from a song put it “Some days were diamonds; some days were stones.” What values I prized about serving the public and educating others were enacted daily; what skills I had were tapped frequently, but even more important, the job jolted me into learning new skills and dipping into hidden reserves of energy. In short, being superintendent stretched me in ways I keenly felt were worthwhile albeit demanding. I enjoyed the job immensely. [i]

But (there invariably is a “but”) there were a number of job-related issues that arose over the years, softening my rosy assessment, forcing me to face the inevitable trade-offs that accompany the top executive post in a school district. Especially with my family.

What initially turned our lives topsy-turvy was the time I had to spend on the job after two years as a graduate student and, before that as a teacher. Prior to the superintendency I simply had more time at home.

In Arlington, my family and I usually began the day at 6:30 when I would get up with Barbara joining me in the kitchen around 7. Sondra and Janice would come down for breakfast shortly after that. If I had an early morning meeting, I would leave and Barbara would get the girls off to elementary and intermediate schools. I would get into the office most of time around 8:00 A.M. with the day often ending after 6PM except for evening meetings with community groups and Board budget meetings and then I would get home after 10PM two to three nights a week.

On those long days, I would race home for dinner at 5:00 P.M. and leave two hours later for a board meeting, work session, or some other community event. During the week, I saw my family for a few minutes in the morning and at dinner. Fatigue tracked me relentlessly the first few years; I’d fall asleep watching the evening news and take long afternoon naps on weekends.  

While we had not given too much thought to the issue of privacy, Barbara and I had made a few decisions about our family’s time together. We had agreed that Friday evening dinners to celebrate the Sabbath were high priority. I had asked the School Board to be excused from obligations on Friday evenings, and they honored my request for seven years.

A listed telephone number proved to be less of an issue than we had anticipated. I rarely received more than a half-dozen calls a week at home from parents, students, or citizens, except during snowstorms or when I made a controversial recommendation to the Board. Surprisingly, we received few crank or obscene phone calls.

Buffering the family from the demanding job was tough enough. Deciding what to do about those social invitations, where much business was transacted informally, without reducing time spent with my family troubled me.

The first week on the job, for example, a principal who headed the administrators union invited me to join a Friday night poker game with a number of principals and district office administrators that met twice a month. My predecessor, he said, had been a regular player for the three years. Moreover, it would offer me a splendid chance to meet some of the veteran staff away from the office in relaxed surroundings. Aware of the advantage in playing poker twice monthly and the costs to my family in missing Sabbath dinners, I thanked the principal for the generous invitation but said no.

Another piece of the “no” decision was the simple fact that I would be making personnel changes and a certain amount of social distance from people I supervised might be best. Over the seven years I moved or replaced at least two-thirds of the principals.

Dinner invitations also proved troublesome for Barbara and me. Invariably at these affairs, conversations would center on school matters and juicy political gossip. These evenings became work for me and difficult for Barbara who was then immersed in completing her undergraduate degree. The last thing both of us wanted to hear on a Saturday night out was more about the Arlington schools. Except for socializing with the few long-time in D.C. and new ones in the county whom we could relax with, we turned down many invitations after our second year in town.

We remained, however, part of the ceremonial life in Arlington. I ate chicken at Boy Scout dinners, sampled appetizers at chamber of commerce affairs (until I dropped out from the organization because of its persistent attacks upon our school budgets), spoke at church suppers; and represented the school board at civic meetings.

I could see now, in ways that I could not have then that entering the community as an outsider and remaining separate from existing social networks, that we paid a price in preventing the superintendency from completely swallowing our lives. But, of course, the shadow of my job, with all of its pluses and minuses, still fell over the family.

For example, our daughters (ages ten and thirteen in 1974) were not only singled out, both positively and negatively by teachers, they also had to deal with all of the complications of being teenagers, losing old friends, gaining new ones, and coping with schoolwork and family issues. The desire to be accepted as newcomers to their schools put a constant strain on both girls; from early on they were seen as being different because of their father’s position and their religion.

Active and smart, Sondra and Janice both enjoyed and hated the attention. While some teachers were especially sensitive to the awkward position the girls were in, others were callous. Principals of the schools they attended were very understanding and tried to help, but little could be done with the occasionally insensitive teacher in a classroom lesson.

When salary negotiations with the teachers union heated up, for example, two of their teachers made caustic, remarks to each girl about her father’s lack of concern for teachers’ economic welfare. The pressures were such that our eldest daughter wanted to try another school. It proved to be the hardest decision that Barbara and I made while I was superintendent. For us, her welfare was more important than concerns over what others might think of a superintendent pulling his daughter out of the public schools. We transferred her to a private school in Washington, D.C., where she began to thrive academically and socially. Of course, the local newspaper carried an article about it. Our other daughter went to a private school for one year but wanted very much to return to the Arlington schools and did so for her high school years.

Barbara was clear on what she wanted. She did not wish to be “the superintendent’s wife,” She wanted to complete her undergraduate degree and enter a profession. In seven years, she finished her degree at George Washington University, earned a masters in social work from Catholic University, and completed internships for a career in clinical social work. Between caring for a family, doing coursework, research papers, tests, and coping with a tired husband, Barbara had little time or concern for meeting others expectations of how a superintendent’s wife should act.

Yet, try as we might, it was difficult to insulate ourselves from the fact that I was the district superintendent. My efforts, for example, to keep my family and my job separate when serious decisions had to be made often did not work. Firing a teacher, determining the size of a pay raise, recommending which schools to close, and dozens of other decisions had to be made. After listening to many individuals and groups, receiving advice from my staff, and hearing all the pros and cons from my closest advisers, I still had to make the decision.

At these times, I might discuss the situation with Barbara. Often, however, there were family concerns that required our attention instead. Nonetheless, I would still come home with the arguments ricocheting in my mind about a recommendation I had to make to the Board or a personnel decision; I would carry on an internal dialogue while I was eating dinner, raking leaves, playing with the girls, or on a weekend trip with the family. I was home, but not there. Over the years, with Barbara’s help, I became more skilled at telling my family that something from the job was bothering me and that if I seemed distracted it had nothing to do with them. But I never fully acquired the knack of leaving serious Issues on the doorstep when I came home.

Sometimes, escaping the job was impossible. Newspaper articles or the television news on the schools entered our home whether we liked it or not. What did stun me, however, were the lengths that some people would go for political advantage, including destroying someone’s reputation. Elected officials, accustomed to political infighting might find such rumor-mongering trivial; however. It jolted my family and me. I’ll give one example.

Shortly before the school board reappointed me for another four years, a board member called to ask if I had ever been arrested in Washington, D.C. on a drug charge. No, I hadn’t, I told her. She said that there was a story that would appear in the next day’s newspaper stating that I had been arrested and put in jail for possession of heroin. Within the next hour, I received a dozen calls from county officials, parents, friends of school board members, and the head of the teachers’ union asking me if the newspaper story was true and if she could help. Finally a newspaper reporter called to say that they were printing the story and did I have any comments to make. I told the reporter that there was no basis for the allegation and that before printing such a lie they would do well to get a record of the alleged arrest and other documentation. The newspaper did not print the story. What shocked me most was the fragility of a professional reputation, the willingness of people to believe the worst (this occurred a few years after Watergate and well before Donald Trump served as President), and the lengths some people would go to destroy a political enemy.

The seven years as superintendent taught me a great deal about the mixing of public and private lives for officials like myself. More prosaic than senators who party or congressmen who resign or presidents who tweet daily, our experiences still map an unfamiliar terrain for a superintendent and family who tried to maintain privacy.


[i] A John Denver song the lyrics of which can be found at: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johndenver/somedaysarediamonds.html

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Labeling Students Then and Now (Part 2)

Two decades ago, Sarah Deschenes, David Tyack and I wrote an article published in the Teachers College Record called: “Mismatch: Historical Perspectives on Schools and Students Who Don’t Fit Them.”

Part 1 described the labels educators used in the 19th and 20th century for children who didn’t keep pace with the majority of other students in the age-graded school. This post includes the arguments we used to explain why these labels were used then and, perhaps, even now.

We first look at four ways educators and reformers have assigned blame for failure. We then propose a different historical explanation that locates this problem in a mismatch between students and the structure of schools and in schools’ resistance to adapting to the changing needs of their student populations. We also consider how the current standards movement might reinforce existing age-graded institutional structures.

A. Students who do poorly in school have character defects or are responsible for their own performance. [L]ocating responsibility in the individual—a response with deep roots in American ways of thinking—has been the dominant way of framing the problem. In the educational system of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this manifested itself in a focus first on character deficiencies, which reformers believed children could overcome, and later on students’ low IQs, which students were thought to have no control over. Labels like ne’er-do-well, sleepy-minded, and limited exemplify this way of thinking about students….

In the twentieth century, when the “science” of education informed professional decision making, educators leaned heavily on psychological interpretations for school failure, primarily low I.Q. and inadequate motivation. This science of individual differences led to new responses: using intelligence tests to segregate pupils into different tracks or curricula presumably adapted to their talents; altering expectations for performance and seeking to find different motivations and incentives for different kinds of pupils; and, when all else failed,eliminating misfits from the mainstream by assigning them to special classes or letting them drop out at the earliest opportunity. The belief that the school system was basically sound and the individual was defective in character, genes, or motivation has persisted….

B. Families from certain cultural backgrounds prepare children poorly for school and give them little support for achievement as they pass through the elementary and secondary grades. Some of the moral complaints against children in the nineteenth century spilled over to their parents: Parents were intemperate, ignorant, undisciplined, and unfamiliar with American values and customs. In the twentieth century, with the rise of social science, finger pointing became less moralistic. But still families were the culprit in theories that stressed the culture of poverty or the supposed cultural deficits in parents who produced seemingly unteachable children.

Some of the labels used for students in these periods have some implications for families as well; if a child was wayward or was a laggard, why didn’t the parents do anything to address these problems?

If families were to blame for the academic inadequacies of their children—and this was a popular theory—it was not entirely clear how schools could improve parents. One solution was to create in the school a counterculture that would overcome the defective socialization children received at home….

C. The structure of the school system is insufficiently differentiated to fit the range of intellectual abilities and different destinies in life of its heterogeneous student body. In the Progressive era, many reformers argued that high rates of failure stemmed from the rigidity of the standardized curriculum and rigidity of age grading and promotion in schools. They did not frontally attack the graded school per se, for it had served their purposes well for the majority of students. Rather, they argued that a single, lockstep course of studies produced failures because not all students were capable of studying the same subjects at the same rate of progress. Schools would have to adjust to accommodate the low-division pupils, sub-z group, and occupational students.

This interpretation of failure obviously was closely related to the first—the explanation of failure in terms of individual deficits. It focused, however, on institutional changes that would leave intact the basic system of age-graded schools while finding places where the“laggards” could proceed at a slower pace and often in a different direction from the “normal” students. The remedy, then, was a differentiation of curriculum, grouping, and methods of teaching. This search for organizational causes and solutions led to ability grouping in elementary schools and to specialized curricular tracks in high schools, coupled with an apparatus of testing and counseling….

D.Children often fail academically because the culture of the school is sodifferent from the cultural backgrounds of the communities they serve. This interpretation places the responsibility for school failure not on culturally different families and individuals but rather on the schools themselves, arguing that it is the schools, not the clients, that should adapt to social diversity and the forgotten children, culturally different, and pushouts….

The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s heightened aware-ness of the multicultural character of American society and the culturally monochromatic environment of most schools. In this view, the standardized age-graded school was insensitive to low-income ethnic and racial minorities and largely unconsciously embodied the dominant ethos of middle-class, White, Anglo-Saxon values, attitudes, and behavior. Intent on imposing~through teachers, curriculum, and daily routines–mainstream culture on the children, such schools displayed little respect for differences in language, beliefs, and customs. In this view, teachers were often unconscious of the ways in which they served as agents of a rigid cultural system geared to standardizing their pupils. Constantly correcting non-mainstream children’s speech, as if to say that there was only one acceptable way to speak in any situation, is one example of this rigidity. The teachers unwittingly became active agents in creating student failure. As a result classrooms became cultural battlegrounds in which teachers communicated lower expectations, failed to connect with their culturally different students, and thus contributed to low academic performance and high dropout rates. The analysis of cultural bias and rigidity led to solutions that focused largely on making the curriculum more multicultural, increasing the cultural sensitivity and knowledge of teachers, and building school programs around values that reflected those o fsurrounding ethnic communities….

The standards movement departs from these previous explanations in the way it frames students and performance, but not in the solutions it offers students who do not fit its structures. Note that almost all of these previous problem definitions and the solutions they generated left the core structure and assumptions of the institution—in particular the age-graded school as the chief building block—basically untouched…

The pedagogical assumptions and practices embedded in the urban age-graded school—the scheduling of time, the segmentation of the curriculum, grouping according to notions of “ability,” annual promotions, elaborate bureaucratic structures of control, and views of learning, teaching, and knowledge—remained largely unquestioned throughout the century. There were consequently not many options for solutions outside this structure. We see a continuation of this today with standards-based reforms focused on requiring low-performing students to do more during the school year and during the summer or repeat a year of school rather than questioning why these students are failing and what structures in their schooling lead to failure. The standards movement, admirable in its goal of raising the bar for the entire educational system, must ask how it can ensure that this mismatch does not continue to let success elude large groups of students, many of whom live in impoverished urban and rural districts. The focus must be on what happens to the students who do not fit the mainstream academic mold and how school structures can change to meet their needs.

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Labeling Students Then and Now (Part 1)

Twenty years ago, Sarah Deschenes, David Tyack and I wrote an article published in the Teachers College Record called: “Mismatch: Historical Perspectives on Schools and Students Who Don’t Fit Them.” 

Because of the pervasiveness of the age-graded school since the middle of the 19th century, “normal” students were those who satisfactorily acquired the slice of curriculum 1st, 5th, or 8th grade teachers distributed through lessons in their self-contained classrooms Those students who met their teachers expectations for grade-level academic achievement, behavior during lessons, and the school’s requirements for attendance and performance were “normal.” And “normal” students were the majority.

But a sizable fraction of students, for many reasons deviated from the “normal.” They didn’t fit. Since the mid-19th century until the present, these students have been given labels. They were (and are) “educational misfits.”

Examining the changes in the language of labels attached to students who strayed from the definition of “normal” required in age-graded schools offers reformers pause in considering the power of these labels over time. Especially now as the U.S. schools enter the fourth decade of the standards, testing, and accountability reform movement, surely an added template for judging “normal” performance.

Between the “normality” structured within the age-graded school and the state and federally driven standards movement since the mid-1980s, spotlighting the vocabulary educators used in the past to describe “misfits” may get all of us thinking about labels often used now.

I have chosen excerpts from the article to give readers a flavor of the both the labels used and the argument we put forth in the article. Part 2 will be the analysis of these labels over time and what they mean for the current standards-based reform movement.

In his illuminating study of “educational misfits,” Stanley J. Zehm has compiled a list of the varied names given to children who failed to do well in school….In the first half of the nineteenth century, when the common school was in its formative stage, writers spoke of the poor performer as dunce, shirker, loafer, idle, vicious, reprobate, depraved, wayward, wrong-doer, sluggish, scapegrace, stupid, and incorrigible. Although terms like dunce and stupid suggest that educators sometimes saw low achievement as the result of lack of brains, far more common was the belief that the child who did not do well in school was deficient in character….

How did educators of the latter half of the nineteenth century describe those students who did not keep up with the factory-like pace of the elementary grades and the meritocratic competition of secondary schooling? 

Zehm finds these epithets emerging in this period: born-late, sleepy-minded, wandering, overgrown, stubborn, immature, slow, dull. The religious language of condemnation used in the early nineteenth century was diminishing, but the notion that academic failure came from defects of character or disposition continued. If pupils did not learn, it was largely their own fault….

The labels educators used during the period from 1900 to 1950 indicate this shift in the way they conceptualized the “misfits” in the educational system: pupils of low I.Q., low division pupils, ne’er-do-wells, sub-z group, limited, slow learner, laggards, overage, backward, occupational student, mental deviates, backward, occupational student, mental deviates, and bluntly inferior. The message of the labels was clear: There were students who simply did not have smarts, and the pedagogical answer was to teach them different things in a different way in a different place. Older views about poor performers persisted, however, even in an era when the language of science provided a rationale for discriminating on supposedly objective grounds….

Some of the new names reformers gave to children who were not per-forming well in school began to reflect new ways of seeing. Such terms as these, emerging in the period from 1950–1980, suggested that the blame lay more with the school than with the students: the rejected, educationally handicapped, forgotten children, educationally deprived, culturally different, and pushouts. But the older habits of thought remained embedded in labels like these: socially maladjusted, terminal students, marginal children, immature learners, educationally difficult, unwilling learners, and dullards. Such language still located the cause of the trouble largely with the student, though protest groups made educators generally more euphemistic, as in names like bluebirds and less fortunate….

In each era, educators have used these labels in part to explain away failure. There has always been a reason for failure that, for the most part, has been rooted in individual or cultural deficit. The institution of schooling has won out in each of these eras. Labels have created categories of individual failure and have left school structures largely intact. These labels create a powerful argument for what might happen to the standards movement: Which students will be labeled and how?

With the standards, testing, and accountability reform movement in its fourth decade, what labels do educators use in 2020 to describe children and youth who do not meet the state and district standards set for each grade and do poorly on state and district tests?

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We Got the School Reopening Story Wrong (Nat Malkus)

Nat Malkus is a resident scholar and deputy director for Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The article appeared in The Hill October 20, 2020.

“It’s the politics, stupid” may be the aphorism for our times. In the age of Trump, the seductive narrative that uber-polarized identity politics can explain everything, including reopening plans for schools, appears obvious. After all, the president repeatedly proclaimed that schools must reopen, and for monthspolls have shown pronounced partisan divides on whether students should return in-person or not. While we still don’t have a full accounting, early analyses indicate that schools in Trump country are more likely to be back in-person this fall, often despite high COVID rates.

Partisan politics is a familiar and intuitive, but ultimately inadequate explanation for school reopening patterns.

close examination of emergency remote learning in spring 2020 reveals large differences between Red, Blue, and Purple states, with Red states often coming up short. Those gaps are due in part to challenges which still exist this fall. National political theater undoubtedly affects local reopening decisions, but it is a poor explanation for why more Red states’ schools are returning in-person — not only because it ignores the differences in remote learning Red states provided last spring, but also because it cannot explain them.

After spring closures, about a third of schools in Red states offered students synchronous learning platforms, like Zoom, compared to about half in Purple and Blue states. Assistance with devices and internet access were also much lower in Red states. Thus our common mental picture of remote schooling — students connecting to teachers through online video instruction — was less common in Red states, and their students undoubtedly suffered. Gaps extended beyond technology, because fewer schools in Red states expected one-on-one contact between students and teachers, posted explicit expectations for student participation, or took attendance after buildings were closed (which turned out to be a quarter of the school year).

There are plausible explanations for these differences. Broadband access — the vital infrastructure for online learning — was far lower in Red states. The digital divide is even more pronounced in rural areas, which are more common in Red states. Of course, many districts laid out substantial sums to bridge that divide, but building that bridge was not only more expensive and time consuming in Red states, the payoff would be lower because their school years end earlier. These are not just excuses: They are structural reasons why well-intentioned district leaders, not partisan ideologues, made rational decisions that lead to different outcomes.

Remote learning was rough everywhere last spring, but it was rougher in Red state districts. Against that backdrop, their tendency towards in-person reopening this fall looks more pragmatic than political. Summer polling showing that Republican-leaning respondents were more concerned about students falling behind pushed in the same direction, but school leaders did not need polls or survey evidence to see the damage done to their students last spring. With no quick fix for broadband access this fall, it is understandable that they disproportionately saw providing the option to return to in-person learning as the best way forward.

You may find this logic wholly unconvincing when politics is a simpler, more familiar alternative. It is possible to look at this evidence and still believe politics influenced Red states inhabitants’ expectations about the length or threat of the virus, which caused remote learning differences last spring and still drive reopening decisions this fall. However, if political polarization explains schools’ pandemic responses in the fall, it should also explain the actual differences evident in Red states in the spring.

Politics alone is a weak explanation for those differences. All school districts in Red, Blue, and Purple states shut down in the spring, and all districts retooled their schools to provide remote learning platforms. Red, Blue, and Purple states diverged in the kinds of platforms schools offered, and there is nothing inherently political about providing lessons on Zoom or using alternatives like Google Classroom or instructional packets.

Structural factors, like broadband access, shorter school years, and more rural students, are more directly connected to the forms of learning offered in the spring. Those non-political factors combined to produce less effective remote learning in Red states in the spring, created yet another compelling reason for pragmatic school leaders to prioritize in-person reopening so that students could make up lost ground.

If “It’s the politics, stupid” cannot explain the differences seen in remote learning last spring, we should doubt its power to explain reopening this fall.

In this age of polarization, nearly every aspect of our lives is colored by politics, and questions about reopening schools are no exception. But rank politics is better for selling papers and enflaming indignity than adequately explaining professional decisions.

The future may show that returning in-person this fall proved foolish, or that returning remote was excessive caution that cost students dearly. Until then, we should remember that most school leaders are making difficult decisions in good faith while considering a host of factors ahead of politics, like they did last spring.

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Wanting Approval from Those Who You Must Judge: A Dilemma of Leadership:

In the second week of my superintendency in the mid-1970s–I came from outside the district, had no entourage, and knew no one in Arlington (VA) save the school board members who had unanimously appointed me–the head of the principals group (there were 35 schools in the district), met me in the stairwell of the Administration building and we chatted a few moments about the weather and the beginning of the school year. He leaned toward me and in a near whisper asked if I would like to join a Friday night poker game with a small group of veteran principals. He added that my predecessor and key district office administrators had played weekly for years. I paused and said: “let me think about it.”

After dinner when the kids had gone upstairs to do their homework, I told Barbara about the invitation and we discussed it thoroughly. My wife pointed out that the invitation was a very important gesture on the part of veteran administrators who had been clearly unenthusiastic when the School Board appointed me. I was an outsider and first-time superintendent who had worked across the river in the largely Black D.C. schools for nearly a decade as a high school teacher and district administrator. She pointed out that it was a splendid opportunity for me to satisfy a strong personal need that we had discussed prior to taking the post. That is, I wanted to secure the respect and approval–and eventually trust–of those who report to me. We had talked about the tension between seeking approval of subordinates who I depended upon while at the same time being in a position where I would have to judge their performance annually. She and I chewed on that dilemma for a long time.

Then Barbara reminded me that Friday nights were supposed to be set aside for the family’s Sabbath meal. In offering me the job, I had asked the Board to keep Fridays clear of any meetings or assignments. They had agreed. So after further discussion, my wife and I decided that I would the forego Friday night poker games. I called the head of the principals’ group, thanked him for the invitation and told him I would not be able to join the group.

In the seven years that I served the district, 30 of those 35 principals retired, transferred to other posts, left the district, or I fired. I never regretted that decision about the Friday night poker group.

The tension I felt, however, between wanting the approval (affection and respect as well) of those I supervised while, at the same time, being responsible for judging their performance is not peculiar to the superintendency. New principals and teachers also feel those tensions with teachers and students.

Consider the principal of an elementary school overseeing 30 teachers. That principal is the instructional leader, manager, and politician for not only those teachers but also 20 other staff members, 500 students, and 800 parents. District administrators expect the principal to raise test scores, insure that students are ready for middle school, etc. Our principal knows that she is utterly dependent upon the teachers to achieve those numbers and other goals that she and the staff have set for themselves beyond test scores.

At a time when social media are ubiquitous, if the new principal does not know herself very well and seeks the staff’s personal approval, even affection, then the principal may lean over backwards to satisfy teacher requests even when those requests challenge her judgments about what should be done for students. Teacher accounts at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram light up. In such situations, the principal evaluating teacher classroom and school performance becomes doubly hard. Were she to succumb to that need for approval from particular teachers social media will rev up. Ultimately neither affection nor respect for her work would emerge.

Similarly, new teachers who yearn for the approval and trust of their students, especially those who are super-active in using social media, wrestle with this dilemma. Teachers, like principals, and superintendents are totally dependent upon those they supervise–that is, their students–for their effectiveness as professionals. For novice teachers, particularly recent college graduates, age differences appear small in high schools and friendships beckon.

And that is where it gets sticky even for teachers of young children when it comes to getting to know each student’s personal strengths and limitations, their family backgrounds, and dreams for the future. Forging classroom relationship as a basis for learning does not erase boundaries nor distinctions between adults and students. Smudging the fundamental distinction between being the teacher and being a student insofar as authority, knowledge, skills, and professional responsibilities has earned many young teachers hard knocks when grades had to be assigned.

Knowing one’s self well enough to sort out personal needs for approval and friendship from professional responsibilities as a teacher, principal, and superintendent–especially in these Covid-19 times–is an essential lesson that novices have to learn but too often goes unmentioned and untaught. Yet leadership in classrooms, schools, and districts depend upon learning that lesson well.

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Dilemmas Facing Policymakers in Re-opening Schools

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….

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The President Has Weaponized the Opening of Schools

On Tuesday, July 7th, President Donald Trump said:

We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open,” Mr. Trump said at a forum at the White House. “It’s very important. It’s very important for our country. It’s very important for the well-being of the student and the parents. So we’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on: Open your schools in the fall.

For all those single Moms and working parents who have been home schooling their children, managing summer activities, and wanting their sons and daughters to attend school in person in August, Donald J. Trump is behind them 100 percent. In pressing governors and local school boards for face-to-face instruction every school day, however, President Trump has weaponized tax-supported public schooling like no other President before him.

The President demanding schools across the country to re-open with children attending five days a week to get parents back to work and re-starting the economy, has, I apologize dear readers for the next word, trumped children’s and parents’ safety during a time when there is no treatment, no vaccine for the continuously and mysteriously mutating virus causing the disease of Covid-19.

Worse yet, with cuts in state and local budgets, schools will receive less money to hire more teachers, reduce class size, do health screenings, provide personal protection equipment to both teachers and students, and disinfect classrooms constantly. The President offers barely a drop in the bucket in federal funds to help schools provide the safety measures that parents (and grand-parents) must have before sending their children to school full-time.

Donald Trump’s call for schools to re-open again brings into clear view how his predecessors going back to Ronald Reagan and A Nation at Risk report in 1983 have hitched schools to strengthening the economy. Then and now, the primary reason for schooling is not to develop thinking, problem-solving, humane adults who prize their community and serve it–or even a safe place to be–but an institution that provides child care, releases parents to work at their paid jobs, provide human capital in the form of graduates entering the workplace, and thereby bolstering the economy.

As the President’s Secretary of Labor bluntly put it:

One study has suggested that if we closed all of our schools and day care for just a month–the impact on U.S. productivity would be in the order of $50 billion.

Harnessing schools to the economy, of course, is a tradition in American schooling. A century ago corporate and political leaders wanted schools to be more than academic institutions solely geared to college preparation. What these Progressive reformers wanted in the decades between 1890-1930 were schools that prepared children and youth for jobs.

Beginning in the early 1900s, academic high schools began offering elective vocational courses for industrial jobs in manufacturing and transportation, commercial occupations such as clerks, typists, and stenographers in business offices, and other posts opening up in an expanding economy. In 1917, the federal government provided funds for certain high school vocational courses through the Smith-Hughes Act. Local school boards built separate vocational high schools solely devoted to preparing students for a worker-hungry economy in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and scores of other cities (see here and here).

By the 1930s, the newly established and innovative Comprehensive High Schools gave students a choice of at least three curricula in high school. Newly hired guidance counselors helped students chose the college preparatory track, a vocational course of study or another curriculum, often called “general” that combined the two (see here).

After the end of World War II and into the 1960s, critics began attacking these multi-track high schools and separate vocational schools for being less intellectual and turning into dumping grounds for students who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do well academically. Critics in these decades pointed out that public schools had lost their way, ignoring civic and moral goals of tax-supported schools such as being engaged in the community and, after the Brown decision (1954), breaking apart the caste system that whites and minorities had been following since the Civil War ended slavery.

In these years, separate vocational schools closed. Elective courses in high schools multiplied. Students choosing curricula tracks became unpopular. Alternative and magnet schools flourished (see here and here).

Between the late-1950s and late-1970s, public schools had moved away from the dominant vocational goal that had seized Progressives nearly a century earlier. By the early 1980s, however, global competition with Germany and Japan revealed anew structural weaknesses in the U.S. economy.

Manufacturing companies closed in face of foreign competitors. Corporate CEOS cut costs by locating their work in countries where wages were lower than what they paid American workers. Economic recessions (older readers will recall the oil boycott and long lines at gas stations) with high unemployment and rising prices -called then “stagflation“) further eroded the U.S. economy. As had occurred before, business and political leaders saw education as a way of dealing with global competitors, “stagflation,” and a slowed down economy.

Public clamor over falling SAT test scores and the poor performance of U.S. students on international tests triggered a renewal of schools embracing the nearly forgotten vocational goal of public schools. Taking office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed the bipartisan National Commission on Excellence in Education. The Commission report, A Nation at Risk, stated:

The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people…. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.’

Any reader over the age 40 knows what happened next. Frantic calls for schools to improve. Condemnation of U.S. students scoring low on international tests. Business and civic leaders demanded that graduates have the content and skills to enter the workplace and help companies compete globally. States stepped up and raised graduation requirements, produced higher curriculum standards, and added more tests. By the 1990s, the pattern of Presidents from both political parties favoring the economic purpose of schooling (Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton) gathered strength culminating in the election of Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and his sending to Congress the first bill enacted in his administration, No Child Left Behind. Democrat Barack Obama endorsed NCLB and its embedded standards, tests, and accountability measures for his eight years in office.

Full circle. Within less than a century the primary purpose of tax-supported schooling had gone from vocational–preparing children and youth for the workplace–to where the nation is now in the aftermath of NCLB. Schooling remains a pillar of support of the economy.

And now President Donald J. Trump, facing a pandemic that has caused unemployment rates equaling those in the Great Depression of the 1930s and, of equal importance, a re-election campaign, calls for schools to fully re-open in the fall even though the level of risk to children and their teachers continues to be debated. Many parents across race, ethnicity, and social class remain unsure of whether to send their children to school for full-time face-to-face instruction.

There are two reasons why the President has turned to the issue of re-opening schools. The first is fear. The President relied–at least until March of this year–on a strong economy carrying him to another four-term term. That reliance has disappeared with the pandemic. Re-opening schools is a way, he believes, to get back to the pre-pandemic economy. Or as one White House adviser put it: “Parents can’t work if they are forced to stay home,”

So here again in 2020, public schools have been weaponized to serve the economy.

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Facing Uncertainty: Opening Schools during a Pandemic

As an ex-superintendent of schools (I served seven years in Arlington, Virginia) family and friends have asked me often what I would specifically recommend to a school board when to re-open schools and under what conditions. I have given the question a lot of thought but have been reluctant to answer simply because I no longer sit in the superintendent’s suite and in the time I served there were surely crises but nothing like this pandemic.

So much remains unknown about the virus itself–its transmission, mutations and resurgence after the “curve has been flattened.” How long one has immunity if they have had Covid-19 also is a mystery.

Sure, there are ways to protect one’s self from getting the coronavirus through physical distancing, wearing masks, and avoiding gatherings of family and friends. There is no treatment other than self-quarantine and if one has to be hospitalized concerns about using ventilators and the disease’s after effects fuel anxieties. Finally, no vaccine is yet available.

And then there is its unusual pattern of spreading across the country with relatively safe areas and hot spots scattered across the nation. Map below show green counties (lowest incidence of infections to red counties (highest incidence)

Incidence of infections by county

In short, each person, each family, each business has to make risky decisions of what to do daily–from going to re-opened bars and restaurants to getting a haircut to swimming in a nearby pool to having family and friends over. Even going to school (both K-12 and higher education). When such decisions were once automatic, medical experts now rate such familiar activities, low, moderate, and high risk (see here).

And what exactly do these medical experts, people that CEOs and school boards rely on for direction even given all of the unknowns about the virus and its disease? Their advice to families is, well, divided.

Pressure to re-open reveals the familiar clash of values that have characterized this crisis since it first appeared in the U.S. in January 2020 and has spread exponentially since. Fear for the health and safety of the young getting infected and spreading it to parents and grand-parents vs. increasing political pressure to get the economy moving again since parents–both single moms and spouses working at home provide child care–as numbers of unemployed unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s scrabble to live as unemployment benefits disappear.

Moreover, economic inequalities have become so blatant that only the myopic cannot see the enormous gaps in income, health insurance, and assets between American poor and working class families, especially Blacks and Latinos, and the upper five percent, nearly all white, who control most of the wealth of the nation.

Then there are the closed schools. With children at home, working parents and single moms have to provide both child care and schooling. Remote learning for young children is a bust. High school and college students have to rely upon distance learning until schools reopen with face-to-face instruction.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC ) issued guidelines throughout the spring to help administrators plan for re-opening schools and containing infections when they occur. Guidelines for opening schools range from low-risk (remote instruction) to high-risk (“full sized, in-person classes, activities, and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities.”). For school boards and administrators opting for “moderate-risk” the CDC defined that level of risk in this way:

Small, in-person classes, activities, and events. Groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout/across school days and groups do not mix. Students remain at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects (e.g., hybrid virtual and in-person class structures, or staggered/rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes).

Now turn to what medical experts say about sending their own children to camp this summer, day care and K-12 schools? Over 300 epidemiologists were surveyed. Twenty percent said they would send their children to school this summer; 40 percent said the fall. Over 30 percent said they would wait until winter or up to a year before packing lunches for their kids.

Then there are the guidelines (e.g., spacing, masks, health advice given age of children) of the American Academy of Pediatricians that recently recommended K-12 schools re-open with all children physically present in the fall. The guidelines offer advice for behavior in classrooms, hallways, busing students, lunchtime, and on playgrounds. Like nearly all health experts point out about the low incidence of Covid-19 in children of different ages, the risk of getting infected can not be eliminated. But it can be reduced.

No surprise, then, that school districts across the nation have a patchwork of plans. Denver (CO) public schools will re-open in August for personal instruction except for those parents who want their sons and daughters to do remote learning at home. Superintendent Susanna Cordova assured parents in her letter home that all health guidelines will be followed.

Denver is the exception. Most districts will open in the fall with hybrid patterns of some children and teenagers attending twice a week and the rest of their instruction will be distance learning. Parents will have choices of which kind of contact they want for their children. Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools serving over 180,000 students, Seattle (WA) with 54,000, and San Diego City Unified Schools with 135,000–all have variations of hybrid re-openings that combine personal instruction with remote learning. Including Arlington (VA), the district where I served.

What is clear to me as an ex-superintendent whose primary obligation when I served was the health and safety of students (still true for all sitting superintendents and school boards) is that the continuing mystery of the coronavirus, resurgence of infections in many states, and mounting economic pressure to have schools in session to release single moms and working spouses to return to their jobs, have produced these various plans to re-open schools. Hybrids, of course, will still leave many parents scrambling for child-care when students stay at home to do distance learning.

No school plan for re-opening will eliminate risk of infection. Reducing the risk is what these plans attempt to do in the face of a disease that is, so far, incompletely parsed by infectious disease experts, unrelenting, and, dangerous.

Oh, if only there were a manual that district leaders could consult to do what has to be done. Sadly, no superintendent, past or present, has had such book of rules to follow during a pandemic. It has yet to be written.

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It’s Ridiculous to Treat Schools Like Covid Hot Zones (David Zweig)*

This article appeared in Wired Magazine June 24, 2020.

David Zweig writes about technology and culture for a number of publications, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic. He is also the author of the book Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace.”

On May 18, education ministers from the EU gathered on a conference call to discuss the reopening of schools. Children had been back to class for several weeks in 22 European countries, and there were no signs yet of a significant increase in Covid-19 infections. It was early still, but this was good news. More than a month later, the overall mortality rate in Europe has continued to decline. Now, as we look to the fall, the US belatedly appears keen to follow Europe’s lead.

The question of how US schools should be reopened—on what sort of schedule, with what degree of caution—has yet to be determined. But recent guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released May 16, conjures up a grim tableau of safety measures: children wearing masks throughout the day; students kept apart in class, their desks surrounded by 6-foot moats of empty space; shuttered cafeterias and decommissioned jungle gyms; canceled field trips; and attendance scattered into every other day or every other week. Reports suggest that certain US schools may even tag their kids with homing beacons, to help keep track of anyone who breaks the rules and gets too close to someone else. It seems that every measure, no matter how extreme, will be taken in an effort to keep the students and the staffers safe.

This could be a grave mistake. As children return to school this fall, we must take a careful, balanced view of all the safety measures that have been proposed and consider which are really prudent—and which might instead be punitive.

It’s certainly true that reopening our schools, however carefully, could increase transmission of the virus. Some countries that have done so—Israel and France, for instance—did see clusters of infections among students and staff. But these outbreaks were both small and expected, officials in both countries told the press; and the evidence suggests that the risks, overall, are very low.

Let’s review some facts: Children are, by and large, spared the effects of the virus. According to the latest data from the CDC, infants, little kids, and teenagers together have accounted for roughly 5 percent of all confirmed cases, and 0.06 percent of all reported deaths. The Covid-linked child inflammatory syndrome that received fervent media attention last month, while scary, has even more infinitesimal numbers. “Many serious childhood diseases are worse, both in possible outcomes and prevalence,” said Charles Schleien, chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health in New York. Russell Viner, president of the UK’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, noted that the syndrome was not “relevant” to any discussion related to schools.

There is also a wealth of evidence that children do not transmit the virus at the same rate as adults. While experts note that the precise transmission dynamics between children, or between children and adults, are “not well understood”—and indeed, some argue that the best evidence on this question is that “we do not have enough evidence”—many tend to think that the risk of contagion is diminished. Jonas F. Ludvigsson, a pediatrician and a professor of clinical epidemiology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, reviewed the relevant research literature as of May 11 and concluded that, while it’s “highly likely” children can transmit the virus causing Covid-19, they “seldom cause outbreaks.” The World Health Organization’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, suggested last month that “it does seem from what we know now that children are less capable of spreading” the disease, and Kristine Macartney, director of Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, noted a lack of evidence that school-aged children are superspreaders in her country. A study in Ireland found “no evidence of secondary transmission of Covid-19 from children attending school.” And Kári Stefánsson, a leading researcher in Iceland, told The New Yorker that out of some 56,000 residents who have been tested, “there are only two examples where a child infected a parent. But there are lots of examples where parents infected children.” Similar conclusions were drawn in a study of families in the Netherlands.

None of this implies that Covid-19 couldn’t still spread efficiently among a school’s adults—the teachers and staff. Under any reopening plan, those who are most vulnerable to the disease should be allowed to opt out of working onsite until there is a vaccine or effective treatment. And adults who are present, when around each other, should wear masks and maintain proper social distancing. Distancing among adults may be easier to implement in schools, where teachers tend to spend their days divvied up in different rooms, than it would be in some work environments that have already reopened, such as offices, factories, and stores.

A month ago, as schools were reopening in Europe, I made the case in WIRED that the US should consider doing the same. Asking when we should reopen, though, was somewhat easier than asking how. Lots of other countries are already in agreement on the first question, but it turns out there’s no consensus whatsoever on the second. Schools’ specific safety measures vary not only from one nation to another, but also, commonly, within each nation. In Taiwan and South Korea, among other countries, plastic barriers have been placed on students’ desks, creating Lilliputian cubicles. In France, some districts have children wearing both masks and plastic face shields; while others just use masks. In Germany, masks are suggested for common areas only. In Denmark and Sweden, masks for students are not required at all. Some countries are encouraging classes to be held outdoors. (Outdoor classwork is not mentioned in the CDC guidelines, though preliminary plans for some states and counties do list this as an option.)

Which of these measures are effective and appropriate? No one knows for sure. Still, it’s possible to flag the ones that seem least necessary. For instance, the French schools that employ the belt-and-suspenders approach of having students wear both face shields and masks, are doing so in direct contrast to a letter signed by the heads of 20 of the country’s pediatric associations, which states that wearing even just a mask—never mind the face shield—“is neither necessary, nor desirable, nor reasonable” in schools for children. Meanwhile, lower schools have been open in Sweden, without masks, for the entirety of the pandemic, and there has been little evidence of major outbreaks coming out of them.

Ludvigsson told me that the widespread use of masks in schools “cannot be motivated by a need to protect children, because there is really no such need.” He’s similarly unimpressed by efforts to implement plastic barriers, playground closures, or any other measure beyond common-sense distancing and hygiene. Such precautions to prevent the spread of the infection from children to adults make no sense, he said, “since children are very unlikely to drive the pandemic.” Another Karolinska Institute epidemiologist, Carina King, said there is currently “weak evidence on children transmitting to each other or adults within school settings,” and suggested the most appropriate safety measures for schools might include testing and contact tracing, improved ventilation, and keeping students with a single group of peers throughout each day.

A report released last week by a panel of experts affiliated with the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children in partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Education, recommends against masks in class, noting that it is “not practical for a child to wear a mask properly for the duration of the school day.” The report also advises that “strict physical distancing is not practical and could cause significant psychological harm,” since playing and socializing are “central to child development.” Instead, the report recommends the adoption of smaller class sizes, so long as this does not disrupt a school’s daily schedule.

Strangely, American policy officials have not said much about the potential infeasibility and associated costs of the most extreme measures on the table. It’s not a big deal for an adult to wear a mask in a store for 15 minutes. But it’s entirely different to ask a child to wear a cloth face covering, as the CDC recommends for US schools, over many hours every day. The guidelines helpfully suggest that children “should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering.” Have these people ever been around a bunch of 7-year-olds?

One of the more ostensibly benign, but actually most consequential, measures is the spacing of desks 6 feet apart. As a practical matter, few US schools have the room to accommodate all their students being so spread out. This means many institutions will be all but required to operate at reduced capacity, with students spending up to half their time at home.

The alternating-days approach is euphemistically referred to as “blended learning.” Considering the dismal failure that “distance learning” has proven to be in much of the country this spring, it implies that students will be educated for only half the year. Kids affected by the spring’s school closures are already showing knowledge deficits—what’s being termed “the Covid-19 slide”—and the learning gaps are disproportionately wider for lower-income students. Worse, perhaps, than being off for a block of time, is the intermittence that blended learning will oblige. Students need continuity in attendance to prosper, socio-emotionally and educationally. (This problem will only be exacerbated by inevitable closures as new cases are found. None of the experts I spoke with could give clear benchmarks for what prevalence of infection should trigger a closure.)

There also has been little acknowledgement or plan for how working parents are supposed to earn a living when their children are home for half of every school day, or every other school day, or every other week. “No credible scientist, learning expert, teacher, or parent believes that children aged 5 to 10 years can meaningfully engage in online learning without considerable parental involvement,” stated an editorial in JAMA Pediatrics. Nevertheless, the prospect of having children sit alone and stare at a computer screen instead of engaging with their teachers and peers is not only a certainty for many students in the US, it’s one that some officials—such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo—have characterized as educational progress. Last month, Cuomo wondered aloud at a press briefing why, with the power of technology, the “old model” of physical classrooms still persists at all.

Blended learning appears to have become accepted as a foregone conclusion for US schools, with little acknowledgement of how radical it is.

When students are actually in the schools, the overarching theme will be one of isolation: desks spaced apart and turned to face the same direction; closure of communal areas such as dining halls; staggered arrival and departure times to avoid any socializing before and after school; limited extracurricular activities; low-occupancy buses with one child per bench, seated in every other row. This deprivation of touch and physical proximity to others is unhealthy in the short term. Over a span of many months (and perhaps more than a year), one must imagine an existential toll on children when their physical experience with each other is that of repelling magnets.

In theory, many US schools could choose to avoid the most oppressive measures. The CDC itself presents a graded set of safety rules—some for “distancing,” others for “enhanced distancing”—that are meant to correspond to different levels of disease risk in the community. The phrases if possible and if feasible are peppered throughout the document, which also notes that “all decisions about following these recommendations should be made in collaboration with local health officials and other state and local authorities.”

But veering from the CDC’s or states’ advice would require a renegade spirit not likely to be found among those who’ve risen in such bureaucracies. While hedged language empowers localities to make choices on their own, an official guideline that suggests doing something “if possible” is like a mafioso asking a shopkeeper to do him “a favor.” I live in New York state, where guidelines for reopening have not yet been issued by the governor’s office. Yet the superintendent of my district’s schools has already sent an email to parents suggesting that we procure face shields for our children for the fall.

When much of the world reopened their schools this past spring, America neglected to follow. Now, the US seems eager to copy the most excessive measures implemented elsewhere, despite the evidence of minimal pediatric risk and infectiousness, and against the advice of many epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, and pediatricians, and with a seeming obliviousness to their costs.

For years, many schools have had their drama and arts departments budgets reduced. It would be a sour irony if mandatory masks, half-vacant school buses, and shuttered jungle gyms ended up as our schools’ most grand theatrical production.

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*Thanks to Sondra Cuban for sending me this article.

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