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What the Hell Are We Doing About Schools?

Five ways to think about re-opening schools in the pandemic.
July 6, 2020
What the Hell Are We Doing About Schools?

1. A Weird Year

Right on schedule, the national school panic is here. Not just from parents and teachers, but from Our Great President:

It’s hard to know what to do with this tweet. Is it an exhortation? An aspirational proclamation? A policy proposal? Most of the country is supposed to go back to school in September. Parts of the country go earlier. And despite what Trump is saying here, nobody has any idea what they’re doing or what’s actually going to happen.

Let’s lay out some guide rails for how to think about schooling in the pandemic, because there are some universal truths worth keeping in mind:

  • No one is going to be happy with the plans that are eventually implemented because there are no “good” answers. Only less bad ones.
  • Everyone is going to take a hit. Parents are going to keep shouldering heavy loads. Kids won’t get the best education. School workers are going to get shortchanged one way or another.
  • There are so many variables and so many blind spots that we cannot assume that a solution which works in one place will necessarily work in another. Or a solution that works at one time will be the best option all the time.

Here are some basic facts that make figuring out school protocols extremely hard:

For starters, even talking about “school” as a singular entity is a mistake.

As an epidemiological matter, there is a world of difference between large schools and small schools, between small children and high schoolers. It makes no sense—none—to assume that the same best-practice for a room that houses a dozen 5-year-olds in daycare will be the same for a high school with 3,000 students.

By the same token, we don’t know enough about the coronavirus yet to understand the differences in likelihood of, say a 5-year-old catching and spreading it compared with an 18-year-old catching and spreading it. The data we do have on these differences is wildly conflicting.

And there are going to be large-scale geographic differences, too. On July 4, Vermont had 2 new cases diagnosed and Florida had 11,458 new cases. Why should we think that best practices for these two states would be the same?

Also there will be temporal differences: The true state of the infection in July may not be the case in September, which may not be the case in December.

You can see what I’m trying to get at here: There is no one “right” way to do school in this environment.

2. Risks and Needs

The one thing the data does suggest is that the risks of death from coronavirus for individuals under the age of 20 are lower than they are for people over 20. (And the risks of death for kids under 10 is lower than kids aged 10 to 19.)

That’s obviously a good thing. But the health of the kids in school is only one part of the equation. The other is the spread of the virus. There are workers in and around schools, who may be more at risk. And there are families. Because a kid who picks up the infection and brings it home is going to put others at risk, even if her own chances of dying are quite small.

If a family has someone over the age of 50 in the house, that’s a problem. If someone in the family is immunocompromised, that’s also a problem.

So different families will have different levels of risk.

And by the same token, different families have different needs. Just off the top of my head, here are three scenarios in which what a family needs to get out of schooling are radically different:

(1) A two-parent family in which one parent stays home and the other parent can telework has a very high level of flexibility. Maybe they can manage remote-learning with a high degree of success and a relatively small economic burden.

(2) A single mother who cannot telework and has to report to a workplace for 40 hours a week. How is she supposed to manage if her kids aren’t physically at school for 8 hours a day?

(3) A family with a special-needs child for whom school isn’t about working towards college admissions but about early intervention to help them manage their challenges. For them, remote learning may be impossible and what the child misses from school is the critical help from a team of people who are experts in special ed.

Now overlay the different risks that families have with their different needs and you start to see, again, how it will be nearly impossible to have a one-size-fits-all protocol for opening schools.

And here I cannot stress this enough: Anyone who says either “You must open all the schools like normal” or “You cannot open any schools at all” is either foolish, or hysterical, or trying to create part two of The Great Mask Culture War of 2020.

3. Five Ideas

Mind you, I don’t have the answers either. But I do have some general thoughts as to what answers will look like. Here are five broad precepts—concessions to circumstances, really—that ought to guide our thinking.

(1) Flexibility

This is the most important precept.

Every school needs to have at least three plans at the ready. One for something that looks like full opening, one for partial opening, and one for fully remote classes. If I had my druthers, I’d also want options broken out separately for elementary, middle, and high schools. And I’d want a totally separate array of options for non-mainstreamed special education.

School systems should also build in the flexibility to switch between options as circumstances warrant. If you’re in Vermont, maybe full-open works well for your district. But if your town has a spike of cases, then you have to move to another mode.

By the same token, if you’re in a Florida town where the virus is out of control in September, maybe you have to start out with full-remote schooling. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay in that mode for the entire year.

(2) Individuality

An acceptable risk for one family might be too much for another, so school systems should expend a lot of effort accommodating families. So for instance, if a school is running at partial-open and a family wants to do full-remote, there ought to be ways to make that work.

(3) An Acceptance of “Good Enough”

Let’s just all agree, at the start, that this will be a weird school year. No one is going to get through their normal curriculum. There will be subjects that get left out or only partially covered.

And when the 2020-2021 school year comes to a close and Jimmy and Susie aren’t as far along as they should be, guess what?

The world isn’t going to end.

At the elementary level, the truth is that kids need very little other than reading and math. Middle school is largely just table-setting for high school, so if everyone is short-changed by the same amount, then the kids will be fine. And as you get into high school—particularly the higher AP levels—the kids will be more equipped to learn through textbooks and lectures. Which is what college will be like for them anyway.

(4) Pass/Fail

Once you get to the high school level, a lot of institutional energy is spent trying to sift and separate kids in the 70th percentile from the kids in the 90th percentile. And even more energy is spent trying to separate the kids in the 98th from the kids in the 99th.

We could have a whole debate on whether or not this is a good thing (I vote “no”) but for the purposes of the 2020-2021 school year, we ought to just press pause on the whole thing by having everyone go to pass/fail. Grades are going to be meaningless in this environment anyway; they would all require an asterisk. Schools ought to recognize that explicitly.

“Education” isn’t a monolith. It’s purposes are part childcare, part credentialing, and part genuine learning. And a lot of times that last part is the junior partner in the arrangement. By going to pass/fail, schools can put more emphasis on the learning portion this year, in whatever configuration the school year looks like.

(5) Patience

This is not going to be easy on anyone. School systems need to be patient with parents and kids. Families need to be patient with the schools. Employers need to be patient with the parents who work for them.

And we all need to be patient with each other.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.