Yes, We Must Re-Open (Most) Schools

Yes, We Must Re-Open (Most) Schools August 3, 2020; Felipe Esquivel Reed / CC BY-SA (

This has been bothering me for a while, and yet I’ve hesitated to write about it because to do so properly requires gathering a lot more data than I have, or have access to.  But I’ve concluded that perhaps I can shed a bit of my frustration if I put a few words down on (virtual) paper.

Here is the headline of a report in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, which consists of teachers’ comments about returning to classrooms:  “‘I’m scared.  I want to do my job, but I don’t want to die.'”  (Oddly, it was posted online nearly a week prior, on July 26.)

Here are some excerpts:

“I am sleepless because the justifications for full, half, or partial in-person learning do not, to me, counterbalance any modicum of risk of fatality or life-long health complications, however slight the chances and however few the affected.”  Jason Jaffe, social Studies department chair at Glenbard East High School in Lombard

“If one person gets sick, that’s it. Honestly, blood is on CPS’ hands if that happens.” Linda Perales, special education teacher at Corkery Elementary School.

“I hear many people express concern that students will be behind academically and behind in social emotional skills. Behind who? All of the other students who haven’t been able to have a normal school experience because of this virus? Behind the arbitrary benchmarks we have set for them? I have spoken with teachers who have had students miss as much as a year of school due to illness. These teachers have said these students recovered and became successful adults despite their missed time in school. These students who are missing school right now will move past this experience and may even benefit from experiencing this unusual time in history. The greatest education in the world will mean nothing to our students if they are dead.” Angela Grimmer, music and orchestra teacher at Carbondale Elementary School.

“No matter how much effort schools and teachers put into making schools safe, there’s still going to be loss of lives and exposure to a virus that, if it doesn’t kill you, can result in permanent damage to your organs. No amount of loss of learning or socialization is worth this.”  Rebecca Courtade first grade teacher at Stone Academy.

In other words, over and over again, teachers express the conviction that students will catch up eventually, and any learning loss that occurs is better than the risk of any deaths that might come to pass as a result of kids being inside a school building — but this standard, “even one death is unacceptable,” is one that, if we truly followed it, would oblige us to cancel school each year due to the seasonal flu.

Here are some other reports:

At the Washington Post, “Voices from the Pandemic, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s a fantasy’” — a school district superintendent in rural Arizona worries about covid in his schools.

More than a quarter of our students live with grandparents. These kids could very easily catch this virus, spread it and bring it back home. It’s not safe. There’s no way it can be safe.

If you think anything else, I’m sorry, but it’s a fantasy. Kids will get sick, or worse. Family members will die. Teachers will die.

Mrs. Byrd did everything right. She followed all the protocols. If there’s such a thing as a safe, controlled environment inside a classroom during a pandemic, that was it. We had three teachers sharing a room so they could teach a virtual summer school. They were so careful. This was back in June, when cases here were starting to spike. The kids were at home, but the teachers wanted to be together in the classroom so they could team up on the new technology. I thought that was a good idea. It’s a big room. They could watch and learn from each other. Mrs. Byrd was a master teacher. She’d been here since 1982, and she was always coming up with creative ideas. They delivered care packages to the elementary students so they could sprout beans for something hands-on at home, and then the teachers all took turns in front of the camera. All three of them wore masks. They checked their temperatures. They taught on their own devices and didn’t share anything, not even a pencil.

At first she thought it was a sinus infection. That’s what the doctor told her, but it kept getting worse. I got a call that she’d been rushed to the hospital. Her oxygen was low, and they put her on a ventilator pretty much right away. The other two teachers started feeling sick the same weekend, so they went to get tested. They both had it bad for the next month. Mrs. Byrd’s husband got it and was hospitalized. Her brother got it and passed away. Mrs. Byrd fought for a few weeks until she couldn’t anymore.

I’ve gone over it in my head a thousand times. What precautions did we miss? What more could I have done? I don’t have an answer. These were three responsible adults in an otherwise empty classroom, and they worked hard to protect each other. We still couldn’t control it. That’s what scares me.

But Mrs. Byrd did not do “everything right.”  The instruction that we’ve heard over and over again is that you can’t simply assume, if your ailment resembles covid but also something else, that it’s the “something else” that ails you.  You must get tested, and self-isolate until it’s ruled out.  If Mrs. Byrd didn’t know that, if her doctor advised her otherwise, if her supervisors shrugged off her illness — well, it’s not as if Mrs. Byrd failed in some moral sort of way, and it’s probably more correct to say that the people around her, failed her and failed the school.  But it remains the case that this is not “proof” that procedures instituted to keep students and teachers safe will fail.

Here’s another story, reported at CNN:  “260 employees in Georgia school district have tested positive for Covid-19 or been exposed.”  But this does not mean that the virus has spread throughout school buildings.  The report doesn’t actually state how many of these 260 were infected; a report at WSB – TV indicates that three teachers at one elementary school have tested positive, though it’s unclear if these are the only cases.  In any case, it appears that there is a robust contact tracing program in place, though whether these employees were considered “exposed” due to close contact with family members or more remote contacts such as a contact tracing program might capture (e.g., at a church service), isn’t clear.

And we’ve got the report of kids at a summer camp who got infected — but in circumstances far different than what kids would experience at a school taking precautions.  We’ve got 36 kids at a high school sports camp in Lake Zurich in suburban Chicago who tested positive — a dramatic headline which is less dramatic when reading the reporting that

Despite the fact that many students were flagged as having symptoms at the camp, officials don’t believe that the camp itself was the culprit being the spread of the virus.

“There were several social gatherings leading up to the start of these camps where students were likely exposed, and we were just coming out of that Fourth of July weekend,” LCHD expert Hannah Goering said. “It’s kind of a recipe for a lot of people to potentially be infected.”

And, finally, here in Illinois, daycares have been open on a limited basis since late May, and more fully but with capacity restrictions, masking requirements, etc., since late June.  Last week I wrote about this separately; the state of Illinois doesn’t track any cases of covid transmission in daycares, and if there have been outbreaks despite these precautions, no one seems to care, which suggests that it’s more likely than not, that there haven’t been, that even young kids (ages 2 and up) are able to comply with the requirement to wear masks, and that parents’ eagerness to show up to work has not resulted in large numbers of children being dropped off despite symptoms, and infecting others.  Why no one seems interested in looking at the experience of daycares as suggestive of what will happen with schools, I don’t know, but I could not find anything.

What does this add up to?

Education is important.  Schooling, per se, is important and is not replaceable, for most kids, with at-home learning.  Schools are working out logistical challenges with “pods,” by rotating kids to have half-full classrooms, and, most importantly, by mandating masks.  (And, no, I don’t believe in the claims that “kids will inevitably use their masks as slingshots and blow snot in them, so they’re useless or, worse, germ-ridden.”  That’s just an excuse.  Yes, children can be childish; that’s in the nature of what it means to be a child.  But they are also capable of learning what they must take seriously, where the rules are zero-tolerance, and all the more so if teachers and staff make it very clear, to parents and children, that mask misbehavior is grounds for moving a child to remote education.  And if you claim that a child must be permitted to remain in the classroom despite mask-slingshotting — well, than that’s a different kind of brokenness in education.)  As long as case counts are reasonably under control, following established metrics around positivity, testing availability, R-naught, etc., students should continue to be educated.

(Tangent on positivity:  while, all other things being equal, a low rate of positives is better than a high rate, there are some ways in which that has never made too much sense as an absolute rule.  During a time when tests are hard to come by, you’d expect a high positivity rate as tests would be reserved for those with clear symptoms.  With tests widely available, you’d expect a lower rate; if people are sent off to be tested solely by virtue of having contact with someone, regardless of symptoms, even lower still.  On the other hand, during the summer, when few people have run-of-the-mill colds or flu that could be mistaken for covid, you’d expect a larger proportion of those with symptoms to be those with actual diagnoses, but to have a smaller number of people experiencing symptoms of any kind.)

And, finally, if you can’t have even partial in-person learning now — then when?  Are the “remoters” truly waiting for some insta-test that reveals infections the moment one has been infected, and which is so easily produced that everyone can test themselves on a near-daily basis?  The lack of such is not, near as I can tell, a matter of the failure of the Trump administration — so far as I know, no country in the world has such a test.

Or are they waiting for a vaccine?

Two such vaccines have entered the final stage of testing at the end of July.  As the Washington Post reports, “Pharmaceutical executives predicted to Congress in July that vaccines might be available as soon as October, or before the end of the year.”  (Ironically, at this stage in testing, it’s actually better for there to be higher covid prevalence, for test subjects to be exposed to the virus sufficiently for the pharmas to gather sufficient data on effectiveness.)  And one of the principles of the Operation Warp Speed has been for the government to purchase vaccines in advance of test results being in, so that the companies will begin manufacturing them even if they might otherwise turn out to be useless.

So, yes, if we knew that just a couple more months’ wait would be enough, then maybe that would be grounds for delaying in-person instruction.

But that’s incredibly optimistic.  It may take well into 2021 before a vaccine is available to the general public.  And even then, people will worry about possible unknown long-term side effects.  What’s more, Biden has raised the concern that Trump would play politics with vaccines — that is, inappropriately approving a vaccine in advance of the election — statements that the “Trump War Room” twitter account questioned as “spreading conspiracy theories and undermining the public’s confidence in a vaccine.”  Would Democrats reject a pre-November vaccine?  And if a vaccine is approved in early 2021, would other issues come into play — delays due to the insistence that distribution be done in a socially-just manner (and, yes, it’s reasonable to say that those most in need should have first dibs, but not that several months should be lost due to putting in place committees and mechanisms to ensure this happens).  So, taking all this into account, we simply cannot stay locked down for this length of time.


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