The Strange Binary Thinking On COVID In US Public Schools

The Strange Binary Thinking Around COVID-19 In Public Schools In The United States

by Terry Heick

I read this article last week based on issued recommendations from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

In general, they recommend schools open so students don’t continue to fall ‘further behind’–echoing the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations (which I wrote some about in Teachers Are Becoming The Frontline In The Fight Against COVID-19).

Public Education’s Coronavirus Response: New Problem, Same Broken Thinking

Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, has been more blunt in his push to re-open schools (as if teachers have ever stopped working):

“America’s going through a rough patch right now. Some people seem to be enjoying it. Maybe they just hate America.

What–they hate America?

Kennedy continues, “Maybe they just enjoy watching the world burn. I think some are liking the chaos because they think it gives them a political advantage. Part of that chaos is caused by schools closing. For our kids, we need to open them,” Kennedy said. “There are some people who want to keep our schools closed because they think it gives them a political advantage. They are using our kids as political pawns. To them I say, unashamedly, that they can kiss my a**,” he said.”

Oh boy. So there’s a lot to unpack here but one overarching issue? That we continue to view schools not as centers of learning and human improvement but rather industrially-fashioned civic infrastructure. Something whose condition is binary–something to ‘open’ or ‘close.’

And if they’re ‘open’ kids are being socialized and learning and growing and if they’re ‘closed’ students can’t learn and they’re withering.

Among other detrimental effects, this leads us to think not of children and learning and knowledge demands and understanding but rather ‘grade levels’ and ‘learning loss’ and ‘falling behind.’ We do this every year when we talk about summer ‘learning loss’ and it’s just, at best, very strange.

On American Students ‘Falling Behind’

So in this case, what exactly are students falling behind? Is there some ideal and standard we’re not meeting that we otherwise would be–students who live in a country relative unaffected by the virus, I guess? Are they falling ‘behind’ some criterion-based reference point? The school district’s pacing guide?

Learning is never done in a vacuum but for some reason, schooling can be? You can’t begin to effectively solve a problem until you’ve identified the problem–and the problem here isn’t ‘kids are out of school’ because the purpose of school can’t be for students to be in them. The problem is that children aren’t growing–and that is a much easier problem to solve than masking up millions of teachers and students and hoping for the best.

To know what to do, we have to know what we’re supposed to be doing. The purpose of school–while subjective and largely arguable–has to at least be somewhat based on transfer of understanding from placing of learning (schools) to places of knowing (communities). And at the center of this effort is the utility of that knowledge. Put another way, students ‘in school’ to ‘avoid learning loss’ is both a cause and an effect–and a tidy metaphor for our broken thinking about how and why and what children should learn.

Another excerpt from the NY Times articles:

Online learning is ineffective for most elementary-school children and special-needs children, the panel of scientists and educators concluded.

Okay–ineffective compared to what? Did we shoe-horn teacher-led curriculum into Zoom and Google Classroom ‘distribution’ and expect that to be ‘effective’? Are we trying to get 8-year-olds to sit still and watch a slideshow identify living and non-living things through a teacher-led, synchronous lesson?

Have we considered thinking backward from the platforms we’re using? Instead of thinking, ‘How can we use technology to teach students a given curriculum?’, have we instead considered, ‘What is the overlap between the (human/academic/intellectual/knowledge-based) needs of students and the features of our existing technological tools?

Put another way, ‘How can we use what we have to help them learn what they need?’

That eLearning ‘didn’t work’ when it wasn’t funded properly and teachers had little training and experience shouldn’t be surprising. Of course, that’s going to be ineffective. It’s ‘ineffective’ with 17-year-old’s too–they’re just either mature enough and sufficiently externally-motivated enough to learn the content in lieu of the challenge. Younger children aren’t motivated by the same things and their brain development and attention span and curiosities demand altogether different approaches to learning.

COVID-19 has made a spectacular mess of almost everything in the United States in 2020. Dr. Jha and other experts noted that the committee did not address the level of community transmission at which opening schools might become unsafe because too much virus may be circulating. “They punted the most critical question,” he said.

Here’s another excerpt:

And the report said that evidence for how easily children become infected or spread the virus to others, including teachers and parents, is “insufficient” to draw firm conclusions.

Here’s where the ‘recommendations’ start to feel ‘political’: They are suggesting that it’s ‘unclear’ how easily children spread the virus. While it’s true that how (and how easily) the Coronavirus spreads is ‘unclear,’ that doesn’t mean that there are compelling data that students won’t spread it to teachers and staff–not to mention bringing the virus home to the families who’ve been able to avoid the virus so far. Very few policies should be created on ‘unclear’ data but in this case, that’s what’s happening, which makes it feel like someone has something they want to see happen and they’re finding data to support that position.

This is not how reason and science and critical thinking work.

While studies from other countries are indeed mixed in this regard, few if any of those countries in those studies have anywhere close to the numbers that exist in the United States as of July 2020. It’s simply indisputable that the Coronavirus is an extremely contagious virus.

The Purpose Of School In The Age Of COVID-19

So what about the purpose of school?

While teenagers may be better able to learn online, they suffer the social and emotional consequences of being separated from their peers, Dr. Beers said. “Adolescence is a period of time in life when you are to be exploring your own sense of self and developing your identity,” he said. “It’s difficult to do that if you are at home with your parents all the time.”

This statement is full of faulty underlying assumptions, not the least of which the two options here are either re-opening school doors or children end up ‘home with parents all the time.’ It also assumes that it is the job of the school to develop student ‘identity’ and if the schools close, they’re somehow on the hook for not sufficiently developing said identity.

This is not what school is for–and even if this is indeed among the benefits of school, the argument to open or close schools can’t be made on that basis. That’s like arguing to open office buildings because closing them increases depression and anxiety in middle-age adults by 37%.

And then we have the folly of focusing on whether or not teachers are ‘scared’ rather than whether or not they’re safe.

In one survey, 62 percent of educators and administrators reported that they were somewhat or very concerned about returning to school while the coronavirus continues to be a threat, according to the report. “The school work force issue is really not discussed that much,” Dr. Bond said.

So 38% are ‘not at all’ concerned? And because they’re (seemingly) the majority, they must be right? If half of motorcycle riders aren’t ‘concerned’ about helmet safety, do we let them decide what’s safe for the other half?

Regular symptom checks should be conducted, the committee said, and not just temperature checks. In the long term, schools will need upgrades to ventilation and air-filtration systems, and federal and state governments must fund these efforts, the report said.

To clarify, all schools are getting not just ‘upgrades’ to HVAC systems but the precise type of system that will filter out the Coronavirus? For cash-strapped states, districts, and schools, this would be surprising–not to mention that money spent here could be invested in improving distance learning–or remote teaching or eLearning or whatever it is you’d like to call it.

And this is all being funded when? Installed when? Checked for efficiency when? Would teachers be safe? Isn’t providing safe working conditions for all school staff a very clear legal–and moral–issue?

“Staffing is likely to be a major challenge if and when schools reopen. A significant portion of school staff are in COVID-19 high-risk age groups, or are hesitant to return to work because of the health risks. The report says some COVID-19 mitigation strategies, such as maintaining smaller class sizes, will require additional teaching staff.”

This seems like a not-small detail–especially mere weeks before many districts are expected to open. A ‘significant portion’ are ‘high-risk’–so we give them smaller class sizes? This is a massive, spectacular failure of rational, critical thinking from top to bottom and is really discouraging to read and see argued on social media on a daily basis.

There is so much propaganda and misleading information being thrown around and it’s just very sad when, while incomplete, there is plenty of very clear data that says this:

Fact: While it’s not a ‘global killer’ many media platforms make it out to be, COVID-19 is a dangerous virus

Fact: In the United States, we’ve had over 4 million cases and 140,000+ cases in a matter of weeks/months

Opinion: As of July 2020 in the United States, the prevalence of the Coronavirus makes going back to school a disaster waiting to happen

Opinion: Arguing whether or not we should ‘open or close’ schools is emblematic of our broken way of seeing ‘school’–its purpose, its delivery mechanisms, its sociocultural outcomes, etc.

Opinion: We should use this opportunity to permanently innovate education and at the kernel of that innovation needs to be a very frank discussion not about funding air filters, but rather about the purpose of school.

If you’re interested, you can see a summary of the recommendations here.

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