Check out the website:   Len’s Letter #24 031620 The Lily in the Pond, Len’s Letter #26 050420 Who Stinketh the Most

080420  Len’s Letter #27 Opening School

The President, desperate to get the economy moving, has demanded that school open in September.  In making that call, he turned the opening of school into a political issue.  He turned the opening of school into a political issue about himself.

Presidents who are better political leaders understand the centrality of addressing public issues for the sake of what those issues imply for people and the country.  They don’t lose sight of what the issue means politically.  The don’t let people think they are interested primarily in what an issue means for them politically.

Opening school during this pandemic has become a national political issue.  It is properly a national political issue, but not one about Donald Trump.  It is a national political issue about children.

School is essential for children.  Children learn to read and write in school.  The older they get, the more they learn to read and write with sophistication.  About literature, About history, About the sciences. In languages other than English.  They learn how to do math and how to experiment in the sciences.

In classrooms and outside of classrooms, children learn how to manage in formal settings and in informal settings – with other children, with adults, and with the institutions that the adults represent.  As children gain the learning school is intended for plus that additional informal learning, they become the human beings that they will be as adults.

Families are more important, of course.  Other institutions such as churches or youth organizations are powerful.  But schools, operating the way they ordinarily do, have children for between six and ten (think extracurricular activities) hours per day.  That is a lot of time for exercising influence.

School is important to families and essential for some of them.  Schools take care of children.  The younger the child and the poorer the family, the more important schools’ role as children’s caretaker.

Let me quote a Massachusetts superintendent: “There is no such thing as being too optimistic [about opening school] because it drives us to come up with realistic and creative ways to make things work. Without optimism, we focus on all of the reasons why things can’t work. If everyone would follow the protocols and be safe this thing can be controlled…If people want kids in schools where they need to be they have to take the precautions.”

Ahish Jha, incoming Dean of Brown’s School of Public Health said recently the choice about opening school, especially in marginal and problematic areas, is between keeping bars and gyms open (which increases the spread of the disease) versus keeping schools open.

A decision to close schools to face to face instruction is momentous.  Online instruction is inferior for most students (even when done imaginatively and effectively).  Online schooling offers no opportunity for the informal and formal learning that comes from interactions among children and between children and adults.  That is a lot to give up.

We are faced with a disease that kills.  Increasingly, we understand the disease has long term or permanent effects for some.  The disease is at its most contagious indoors with people at close quarters.  Opening school to in person instruction is foolhardy in states or cities or regions where contagion high, even if we are confident that the likelihood of contagion for young children is less than for adults.  Three public health figures wrote on July 30 in the NY Times that schools should open only in places where there are fewer than 75 cases per 100,000 people and where the test positivity rate is below 5 percent.  These authors say there are about a dozen states now in a position to open school.

This country is having a traumatic experience.  Badly led, the United States has a terrible record of dealing with Covid – 19.  Even in states where the disease is under reasonable control, the danger from the disease is etched into our consciousness.  When we open school in the places where the disease is under reasonable control, we need the support of families.  We should open school slowly enough so that most parents and most people accept the decision to open as wise.

It may be wisest to open gradually.  Begin the year with online instruction.  Over the course of three or four, six or eight weeks, bring each class to school for an hour or two, for a half day, for a day – whatever length of time makes sense.  The gradual start would remind people of what is normal and would introduce children and families to the schooling they can expect.  The half-day at school would be a good time for Covid-19 testing.

When schools open, they need to respect the way the disease spreads. Ahish Jha set out what he saw as the highest priorities for protection in school opening:

  • Ventilation (Whatever your ventilation is, improve it, he seemed to be saying).
  • Mask wearing (Indoors all adults and all children wear masks. Outdoors, it is possible to do without masks).
  • Testing (Cheap, mediocre tests with quick turnarounds, he said, are better than tests that take a long time to provide results. His implication:  Retest kids and adults who test positive with the better tests).

Ahis Jha identified some lower priorities:

  • Deep cleaning. (Implying that contaminated surfaces are unlikely to be a source of the disease, though handwashing should continue.).
  • Social distancing (Don’t bring children together in the auditorium shoulder to shoulder, but don’t expect children or youths to remain far apart. Do enforce the mask requirement religiously.)

Some additional thoughts:

  • Outdoor sports, not indoor sports.
  • Small classes. (Beg, borrow, steal space for classrooms.  Repurpose gymnasiums and lunchrooms for classrooms. Ensure that there is 60 square feet for every child.  That would be 15 kids in a typical 900 square foot classroom.  With that much space per child, a classroom teacher can maintain reasonable social distancing among children.
  • Keep children in cohorts.
    • Keep traditional one teacher classrooms in elementary schools.
    • In middle schools and high schools, have teachers teach the same group for two subjects – math and science, English and history.
    • Eat lunch in class.
    • No large groups of kids traveling to and from classrooms, to and from school entrances and exits.
    • Stagger schedules so kids don’t arrive and leave at the same time. Ensure that school buses are underfilled so that kids can and will keep reasonable social distancing in this enclosed box.
    • Keep bus routes short.
    • Keep the on-bus videos so officials can check to be sure that kids stay as far apart as they should

Ensure that parents are confident their children are being taken care of by actually taking care of their children.

Do not expect teachers to keep kids permanently in rows facing the teacher.  That’s not how kids learn.  Even with all children wearing masks, four or five kids on a project working face to face may be unwise.  Pairs of kids for some projects would be better.  Use computers for larger groups’ communication when working together.   Computers can be as important in class as they are for online instruction.

Outdoor sports, but no contact sports.  Cross country in the fall, track and field in the spring.   Tennis could work.  Maybe even strictly controlled baseball and softball.

Once schools have moved to in person instruction, keep an option for parents and kids to select online instruction.  Don’t place the burden for online instruction on the local districts except, perhaps, the very largest districts.  State Departments of Education can organize and run online instruction.  Online instruction doesn’t require that children be from the same school district, school or neighborhood.

Many people think the families that choose online instruction and the teachers who have conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the disease are a match.  They may be.  School districts should be prepared to grant leaves to teachers to work for the State Departments of Education.  Those Departments of Education will need to have high expectations.

If the match does not work, teachers who cannot return to classrooms should be eligible for leaves in anticipation of returning the next year, for sabbaticals if their contracts provide for that and they are eligible, for non-instructional assignments if appropriate, or for Disability Retirement.

Let me quote that superintendent again:  “There is no such thing as being too optimistic [about opening school] because it drives us to come up with realistic and creative ways to make things work .”