Everybody Gets an F
When I was a kid, the prevailing attitude in schools was that recess was a privilege to be earned. A reward granted for good behavior and easily revoked for bad. If the class talked too much during lessons, or was horsing around, the first line of class punishment was cutting recess. It was like, you know, not going to Disneyland or something. Nobody has a right to Disneyland. The new prevailing wisdom is that recess isn’t just something good to kids, but it is something good for kids (as well as the parents charged with supervising them). Find another way to punish the kids at a class-level if you need to, but let the kids go out there and expend some energy for everybody’s sake. A lot of people resist the notion that people who have not behaved should get good things, however, and it shows. Not just in recess policy.
School has started, is starting, will soon start, or won’t start across the country. It’s been that kind of year.
Since late July, the national conversation has revolved around whether and how to open schools this fall. As we have discussed lockdowns, voluntary distancing, policy and personal behavior, schools are where the rubber was always going to hit the road. Public schools would either open or they wouldn’t, and nobody but government could really make that call. If you open them, you are inviting some degree of viral spread or at least the risk of it. If you don’t open them, you’re in a form of shutdown no matter what else you leave open. In addition to the whole “learning” thing. We should have been having this conversation in April and May, but outside of political discussion zones we didn’t. A lot of people (including myself) believed schools were going to open Ready Or Not1. Others believed schools just couldn’t open and that’s unfortunate, but we’d just best accept that and move forward.
And here we are.
The short version of my views are as follows. I will be defending some of them below, while others I won’t because of length and mention only for context. Here we go:
- Asking whether we, as a country, should open schools and close schools is the wrong question entirely. The question should be which schools to open, for which kids, and where. The situation for grade schools in New York City right now are so fundamentally different from high schools in Texas that anyone taking the same view of both is in my view too committed to the belief that schools must or can’t open to see the situation clearly.
- While “school choice” is a buzzword and a debate in most context, it is especially important here. Decisions to open schools should work to have a remote option of some sort for those kids that have specific concerns. The more flexibility here the better. (Schools that have opened have done a surprisingly good job with this. Or, at least, striving for this.)
- It is especially important to open grade schools. It is least important to open high schools. Grade schools may need to stay closed for right now in some places, and we may be better off in some other places if we can open high schools. But in some places, it’s going to be opening lower grades and closing higher.
- Remote schooling is not “almost as good” as in-person schooling. Even in-person schooling with ongoing contagion concerns. At least, not for the kids we are most concerned about. The gap is smaller for high school than grade school, but it’s across the board and mostly not a function of prep time and system resources. The gap is generally large enough that start-stop-start-stop is better than committing to online even if it makes planning more difficult.
- We should have begun preparing considerable deviations from the norm at the start of summer or earlier. Everything, from closing high schools to spread out grade school kids to putting college students on leave in front of classes, should have been discussed. The summer should have been spent recruiting people we were going to need to reduce class sizes, fill in for people who can’t work, and perform any number of other tasks.
- We should have been encouraging every family that could keep their kids at home to do so. We should have been offering them resources (curriculum guides for homeschooling, dedicated online schools, and so on. The more kids that stay home, the safer it is for those who don’t.
- While I don’t believe it was the main sticking point, schools should have been given and should be given more resources to make that happen.
- This is outside the purview of the piece since it’s focused mainly on K-5 and to some extent K-12, but I think the government should worked harder to get college students to take classes remotely and keep colleges from making decisions based on fear of insolvency. More here.
With the exception of remote offerings for opening schools (good work, schools) almost none of the above has happened. Why?
For one thing, a lot of people had their minds made up about keeping closed in April. I will call them Team Close. This is defined as those arguing broadly and without much specificity that “we need to keep schools closed until it’s safe”2 This movement is being lead primarily by teachers and other on-site personnel, but also includes worried parents and leftwards more generally.
The biggest problem here is that it became abundantly clear a long time ago that opening schools was never their plan, which was always going to make trying to open schools extremely difficult. Many will say that “We want schools open as much as anyone (we just want them opened safely)” but it isn’t true in any relevant sense here. Sure, they wish there wasn’t a pandemic and that schools could operate as normal3, but with that off the table they are willing to keep schools closed for a lot more reasons. We are in a situation where risk tolerance is the question at hand. The people who want school opened most are willing to accept more risk. The people who won’t accept risk are more willing to tolerate schools staying closed4. Those are the tradeoffs. Where you sit is where you stand.
There are three arguments that Team Close makes that indicate to me that they are far too willing to accept school closings and have more or less decided it’s the only option for the foreseeable future.
First, many of the people most vocally advocating closure now were talking about schools being closed in the fall even when our outlook for the summer was better. We all hoped, and most of us thought, the summer would bring us some seasonal relief. For much of the country, that didn’t happen. It’s tempting to say that we have to keep schools closed because that didn’t happen (and I think in some places that is actually true), but that doesn’t detract from the fact that even if it had happened it was going to be a battle because of “second wave” concerns. The fear that once the weather turned cooler again we would need to keep schools closed to prevent spread. I was arguing with people about this in April and May. Also, notably when arguing against reopening more generally (bars, restaurants, beaches, etc.), it was rarely argued that we should do so in order for schools to open in the fall. I believe this is because as far as they were concerned, opening schools was never the plan.
Second, by and large they do not support opening schools even where things have gone well. There are places that did what needed to be done. Andrew Cuomo just gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention talking about what an awesome job he and his people did. He’s writing a book about everything he and New York did right. And yet, most people who argue that the country as a whole cannot open up schools don’t believe New York is an exception. And even those who believe New York might be an exception seem relatively content to watch New York keep their schools closed in an abundance of caution if that’s what the decisionmakers choose to do. As of right now, New York does plan to open schools, but the same debate is transferable to a lot of places below the threshold of positive tests5. If you’re ambivalent to opening schools where it might be safe to do so, I am inclined to believe that you don’t consider opening schools to be all that important.
Third – and this pertains to the teacher’s unions most specifically – the things they were asking for didn’t leave much room for the schools to open. Definitions of “safe” have rarely been defined. They seemed to be spending most of their energy arguing that schools should remain closed instead of how we could take care of teachers and open them. Many of the ideas I was tossing around in June never really came up. We should have been working on things like hazard pay for those who go in, virtual teaching jobs or medical disability and/or right-to-return for those who couldn’t or for whatever reason didn’t want to. That wasn’t where teacher unions seemed to be using their influence6. When Chuck Schumer gave a speech about how we need to be able to fund the schools so that they can open, he was met mostly with disapproval for the suggestion that schools should be open at all. Again, opening schools was never the plan.
The most prominent argument for keeping them closed is that even if children are not vulnerable, adults are. Both teachers and student families. There is a further argument that schools need to stay closed for the broader community (the same reasons music concerts shouldn’t happen). I agree with these to varying degrees. If as part of a broader second shutdown to get us to a point where it’s more manageable, I am very much on board with closing schools across the board for as limited a time as we are closing everything else. Past that, though, schools are a central part of the community. It isn’t their job to take one for the team. If we’re accepting risks of spread anywhere, schools are very high on the list of things worth taking a risk on. But closure of schools must be coupled with closure of less critical risks, like indoor dining7.
Underlying all of this, however, is an implicit or explicit argument that virtual schooling just won’t be that bad. Or, setting the table for later excuses if it does go badly, wouldn’t have been bad if we had just committed to it early. I’m not sure the extent to which people realize they are making the not-that-bad argument, but they are by comparing them unfavorably to things that aren’t actually as bad. When I was throwing around ideas in June, much of the response was that various ideas wouldn’t work.
“You can’t just have college students substitute teaching the whole semester!”
But, for the lower grades at least, that’s almost certainly preferable to remote instruction for the median student (and definitely preferable for more at-risk students).
“If we open schools, we’ll just have to close them again!”
Okay, but depending on when and for how long that is probably preferable for the lower grades. If we can get six weeks of education in before they have to close for twelve, I think the average student up to about grade 5 learns more the first six than in the last twelve. There is surely a tradeoff point where it becomes so disruptive that full remote would be better, but we don’t have enough data for it to be a safe assumption it will be that bad everywhere (or most places), which is what we need to justify closing it everywhere (or most places).Then there are inequality arguments. I will address the working family’s part of that equation later, but just in terms of education remote learning stands to be a complete disaster. I was non-committal on how I personally felt about the issue (at least as it related to other families) until I saw some of the results from the Spring semester and thought through the educational development ramifications. If everybody in high school has to repeat the 10th grade, that is bad but that can be done. If kids don’t learn anything in the second grade, that’s some serious brain development time lost that they are never going to get back. You know all of those things about how important “early intervention” is? Except for those with the personal resources, this is going to be the opposite of that.
Most of the things that seem like they would be worse than full remote underestimate how bad full-remote might be. It only really works if you think of in-person school as something nice but not critical. Disneyland Recess. In-person school is good, but if you don’t earn it you don’t get it and that’s just the way it is. Not something we should be bending over backwards to make happen. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s Important Recess. This will, I believe, become obvious in time. I look forward to when the data comes in and the schools that failed at distance learning try to use that as an excuse for states to crack down on voluntary distance and home-school learning more generally. In the meantime I expect a lot of the blame to be directed at those who wanted to open, as though needing an online curriculum wasn’t obviously going to be needed even in the event of schools opening. And as though with more prep time they can engineer their way around an under-supervised nine year old’s attention span and coule have managed a paradigm shift past conscripted parents’ ability to multitask their job and teaching.At the very least, it’s preferable if parents can navigate these tradeoffs in cases where we are uncertain. Different families have different situations and priorities. Here in the Truman House, remote education is a very difficult path for us due to our child-specific concerns over social development8. With others it’s important for childcare reasons. Then some can and want to remote entirely, and we should have been encouraging that from the start. Instead, Denver Public Schools and Fairfax County Public schools, both districts that have decided to close in an abundance of caution9, sent out letters dressed in the robes of social justice lambasting parents who found solutions outside the system. And Arkansas got criticism for expanding its online charter school capacity so that more parents could go that route. Districts that are closing are at once denying families options and criticizing the decisions that they do make. They’re even imposing attendance requirements and dress codes for those stuck in remote learning, with threats of CPS calls, stripping virtual of a few of the benefits it might have.
So for all of the rhetoric of Trump and Team Open “forcing” kids to go to school and/or forcing parents to send their kids to school, most school districts that are opening are offering parents a choice to varying degrees. Most schools that are opening have a remote option while most of those that are closed are only offering that (except to families who can pay)10. While Denver and Fairfax are criticizing parents who go their own way, West Virginia went out of its way to say that young kids homeschooled during the pandemic will have an easy path to re-integration into the class room last year.
When people argue that teachers shouldn’t have to decide between safety and keeping their job, I wonder what they think is going to happen with kids home all day? Absent some arrangement that negates most of the health benefits of closing schools, parents are going to have to leave their jobs. If you have advocated for shutdowns, as I have, you’ve put a lot of people at economic risk for what you consider a greater cause. Unfortunately, risks of job loss are built into the pandemic and those risks need to be handled independently (write your congressman now!). I’m not indifferent to teacher concerns. I don’t at all blame teachers who can’t or won’t do in-person this year. I’d like to see them protected to the greatest extent possible (reassignment to virtual, unemployment/disability pay, right-to-return, etc.). But the system can’t stop on account of the most health-vulnerable of the teachers. There are tough decisions to be made for everybody.
And much of this discussion is built around sparing teachers specifically, either of health risks or tough decisions. It’s often framed around being safe and responsible, but many solutions involve more families taking more risks.
All of the options involved us spending considerable $ and having to hustle. In every case, our daughter will contact more people than she would with regular school. I am not happy about it, but we can probably stagger through to the new year at least.
— Central NJ Yimby🇺🇸🚲🏙 (@YIMBY_Princeton) August 17, 2020
School districts aren’t just passively shrugging this off as not their problem, but in ways are actively embracing risk. School districts are turning around and selling families back access to the schools that they closed, dangers included. Various school districts in California, Maryland, North Carolina, Washington, and other places (those are only the ones I know about) schools are opening up learning centers under various names. The basic model is that kids will all go into a centralized location – usually a school building that is not being used – and there they will have supervised and assisted remote instruction by somebody on-site. They will also have physical activities, and crafts. Just don’t call it a school, because sending kids to school is reckless.
To be fair, there are at least potentially some safety benefits to this. Most of those benefits, however, are the product of student load reduction. Which is itself a product of charging families for access to school. Districts doing this include Montgomery County, which tried to close down private schools in addition to public, and Fairfax County, which condemned parents who pulled their kids out of public school. In other words, they actively seek to dissuade people from pursuing alternatives that would have lightened the student load. The rest of the health benefits could have been achieved in schools. The big difference is that with this model, the risk is assumed by daycare workers instead of teachers.
I would love to be able to call it a day, blame it on the people I think are (mostly) wrong, but sadly I can’t. Team Open also blew it on just about every level.
While it is true that many or most of them would be arguing in favor of closure even regardless of how the summer shook out, and regardless of the bad arguments they’re using to justify closure everywhere or almost everywhere, if not for the failings of those who advocate that schools open they would have lost the debate. In most of the country, anyway. They were, in fact, at one point losing. Newspaper op-ed and opinion websites started running pieces on how it was, in fact, important to open schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics sent out a release underscoring the importance of opening schools, even with imperfect adherence to safety protocols. Not that it would be nice or a reward for good behavior, but that it is crucial. Important Recess, not Disneyland Recess. Schools were starting to announce that hybrid plans that – short of a case explosion – in due course probably would have expanded to full-time as people realized that hybrid carries most of the risks of in-person and a fraction of the benefits.
But then the tide shifted. The aggressive re-open policies of a number of states started to catch up statistically and the national numbers started to look worse and worse. Then Trump spoke up, demanding that schools open come-what-may. For reasons questionable and understandable, it resulted in teachers appearing to unite around closure11. It made opening and closing schools a pro/anti involving a president that is unpopular generally and that is very unpopular in the nations biggest school districts, which one after another started announcing closure. School districts like Fairfax and Frederick were switching to closure even as local numbers were stable or had significantly improved since their initial announcement for partial in-person instruction.
I would say that it “backfired” but it ultimately didn’t, because it’s not clear that Trump ever really cared about opening the schools. If opening schools was never the plan for one side, for the other side opening schools was never the point. They just wanted an issue. In fact, it may even be better for them if schools don’t open. They get to keep the issue. If we try to open schools and it fails, then they will carry most of the blame. For the trying, perhaps, but mostly for the failing.
If the politicians and other advocates for opening schools had been serious, they would have acted like it. But they didn’t. The #1 thing Trump could have done to open schools is take the virus more seriously than he did rather than shrug off responsibility to the states. The argument for opening schools would be much stronger with testing capacity and a useful turnaround time, a better tracing program, lower numbers, and a lack of outbreak explosions in the South. Even apart from policy, even simple things like masks and distancing might have helped, but until recently a lot of Team Open was against both (many even opposed or were critical of voluntary mask-wearing and other steps of caution). All of those ideas I had in June about hazard pay, medical leave, right-to-return, all could have been pursued. There is an argument in sales that “Whoever gets to the objection first wins.” They could have sought to address the arguments, but they didn’t. And this wasn’t just a failure of the imagination. It doesn’t take that much imagination to offer schools money to do what they need to do in order to open (pay for protective gear, pay the teachers that can’t work, hire new ones, whatever. If you believe it’s important for schools to open, you pay for it. Otherwise, I am forced to conclude that you just want an issue and that reopening schools was never the point.
Further, just as Team Close never bothered to make distinctions between young and old, neither did Team Open for the most part. A lot of places might have looked at opening grade schools and committing to high school remotely, but few seemed to really consider it. In places that needlessly closed that’s on those that closed them, but Georgia has done more for closure argument than any other state. Opening at all right now was unwise, in my view, but opening high schools in particular was especially questionable. High schools, being as large as they are, have thousands of entrance vectors. While there is much to suggest that young children don’t spread as much, the evidence is more mixed among older kids12. Further, Georgia was very lax about mask and did not appear to take much of any distancing steps13 All of that increases the likelihood of spread, terrible headlines, and schools closing in panic. If you want schools you open, you insist that they take at least the easiest of safety measures. If you’re not doing that, then I believe opening schools (and keeping them open) were never the point.
If we had really wanted to open schools, I firmly believe we could have opened them. But we didn’t because we didn’t care enough to. Some were very quick to resign to schools staying closed. Some believed that avoiding risk is pointless because you can’t or because you shouldn’t bother.
Team Close believes, very confidently, that even schools that open are going to end up closing in pretty short order. While I think they may be right in some places (part of why I think some schools should hold back a bit), I doubt they are right nationwide. But the only way to find out where they are right is to try (or at least try in enough places to get the data we need). If they are right, we will know soon enough. Maybe that is what we will need to take it seriously.
I’ve been on board with most of the steps taken to contain the virus and was skeptical of the reopen. There have always been limits to this, but throwing caution to the wind as not been my approach on this thing. Caution, however, has a cost. For the younger grades, at least, the costs of the caution keeping schools closed everywhere out of fear of what might happen (as opposed, to say, specific concerns such as a high baseline number or runaway spread) is unpersuasive.
With some places, the best way to start school probably is to wait a month or two as numbers come down. Or longer, if it persists, but with some achievable target in mind (or looking closely at data from elsewhere on what an appropriate target is, if any). Other places are already at the sort of numbers I want to see14. As time passes, we will need to revise the metrics up or down as we get more national data (and yeah, that may result in a number high enough that zero places qualify). We can only get that national data, though, by allowing (some) schools to open. The American Academy of Pediatrics started its guidelines by saying that all policies should start with the goal of kids in school. Every deviation from that should circle back to what can we do to get as many of the kids back in school as soon as possible. If we can’t do it, we need to know that we can’t and then take the next level of steps so that we can. To get there, I think a lot of people need to see it happen to believe it. Otherwise, it just becomes about the people that wouldn’t let school open.
This isn’t Disneyland Recess. It’s not a mere bummer that school isn’t going to be starting (in some places, or perhaps not going for very long in any). It’s a disaster that needs to be treated as one. It’s not something you can say “It’s crap but blame them” and clap the dust off your hands. It’s bigger than blame because it’s going to haunt us for some time to come and the less schooling we can do the more it is going to haunt us. Even if things go reasonably well, we’re going to need to figure out exactly how to accommodate for the fact that a lot of kids learned as much as or more than the expected material while other kids learned nothing or even regressed over the year.
The good news, I guess, is that we do have enough variety to get an idea of what we should do. If things in Jefferson County or Hoboken go badly and things are comparatively good in Frederick and Highland Park, then we’ll have an idea of how much schools matter and unfortunately everywhere is going to need to close until we figure out what the next step is. If things go okay in Jefferson County and Hoboken, though, Frederick and Highland Park can join them in opening. Either way, we will have a lot more of the information we need. If we want to use it.
Ultimately, we’re going to have to see how things go. I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not we will be able to keep schools open in most of the country. or anywhere. One way or the other, though, I believe we have to try our best. Where we fail, we are going to need to try again.
It’s to our discredit that we haven’t been doing so all along.
- I was, in fact, more certain that schools would open than I was that I would personally want them to. I thought there was a non-trivial chance schools would open but that we would keep our kid at home.
- Not “keep them closed where it isn’t safe”, but “until it’s safe”, indicating that early on there were not benchmarks we could meet for them to be safe, that right now there are places it might be safe, and without regard to specific criteria for what “safety” even means.
- Some conservatives have suggested that teachers just don’t want to do their jobs. But that’s really not true. While there are some curious goings-on, by and large I do not believe that to be true. Remote schooling requires far more work on their part. They just don’t believe they should need to incur the added risk.
- Opening presents more risks to teachers than to parents, so this can easily and not-inaccurately be framed as parents are willing to accept teachers taking risks. At least arguably – and I personally believe generally – closing schools represents more risks and downsides to students and their families. There are genuinely conflicting interests here, which is part of what makes it difficult.
- The CDC originally said school was okay if positive test rates were below 2.5%, and later revised that upwards to 5%. Locally, Maryland as a whole is at 3.2%, with Washington County at 2.7%, Frederick County at 2%, and Montgomery County which tried to close private schools too at 2.7%. West Virginia is sitting at 2.2%, with Jefferson County at about 1.3% and Berkeley County at 3.5%. For reference, Texas is at about 13%, Georgia 12%, Arizona 9.2%, California 7.1%, New York .8%, and New Jersey 1.5%
- While their influence can often be overstated, teacher unions appear to be one of the major factors of schools closing and opening. It’s a relationship that seems to exist apart from partisan lean: Very red Washington County, Maryland, closed its schools before they even red the parent surveys. Purple-red Jefferson County, West Virginia, committed to opening if possible early on. That said, they can only advocate and threaten. Politicians don’t have to go along willingly.
- I’m looking at you, Washington, DC, with your closed schools and opened restaurants.
- For all of my passion on the subject, we are actually in a pretty good place. The school Lain attends is determined to open if at all possible and they are being incredibly flexible in offering families remote, hybrid, or in-person schooling. The advantages of private school. The only thing they couldn’t do was offer aftercare, which is hard for some families but not us. Our local public schools are also opening and offering in-person or remote. None of this post is a backdoor complaint about our own situation. We are lucky. If in-person education is possible at all, we’re going to be able to do it.
- Denver’s numbers are pretty good and indicate to me that they should try to open. Fairfax’s numbers are not so good, and I wouldn’t blame them for holding off a bit, but Fairfax’s numbers actually looked better (and were moving in the right direction) when they switched from hybrid to remote. And, as I will mention below, they are actually opening schools anyway. They’re just charging families for it.
- Credit where credit is due on this. This made all of their jobs much more difficult and for the most part they did it anyway. It makes things better for both those that do attend in-person and those who don’t want to. With a little more forward thinking I think they probably should have developed the online program at state levels rather than burdening each district and school with it, but the individual districts and schools really stepped up with the effort here.
- Teachers in Fairfax County were 52/48% in favor of online, previously. Worsening numbers accounted for some of this, but the situation hadn’t changed that much.
- The cases that suggest high spreadability among kids are a study from South Korea, a super spread in Georgia, and the experience the Israelis had. The South Korea study had some issues but even then, mostly expressed concern over older kids. The Georgia case may have been overstated. Israel is bad and indicates what can happen if you let your guard down. The school news out of Europe was good, but it’s easier to have good news if you’re starting with a low infection number.
- It’s worse than that, really. A lot of the people actively don’t want the kids wearing masks, don’t want them spacing, don’t want anything but regular school. They show pictures of spaced kids and call it dystopia. No, that’s just how schools are going to have to be for a while.
- I’m not entirely interested in litigating individual case states since there are only a few that I am watching closely. If your response is “But our area in particular shouldn’t open!” I might even agree. Or I might consider it a close call.