A Thought About School Opening Recommendations For COVID

Thoughts On School Opening Recommendations Re: COVID-19

Broadly speaking, our recommendations as an organization would parallel those of scientists, medical experts, and socio-cultural leaders in local communities.

As of July 2021, the CDC, for example, recommends the following (emphasis my own):

  1. Evidence suggests that many K-12 schools that have strictly implemented prevention strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open.
  2. CDC’s K-12 operational strategy presents a pathway for schools to provide in-person instruction safely through consistent use of prevention strategies, including universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing.
  3. All schools should implement and layer prevention strategies and should prioritize universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing.
  4. Testing to identify individuals with SARS-CoV-2 infection and vaccination for teachers and staff provide additional layers of COVID-19 protection in schools.

I mentioned ‘local’ because, except topics with national relevance, COVID is a ‘local’ virus with ‘local’ effects (not much different than learning itself, then). Not only should decisions about San Francisco, California not be based on what’s happening in Louisville, Kentucky but decisions about even Lexington, Kentucky should not be based on what’s happening in Louisville.

And so on.

Of course, this assumes that all areas have similarly functioning data access, testing, etc. The CDC seems to agree, saying that schools should offer, “Consideration of indicators of community transmission to reflect levels of community risk” and “Phased prevention strategies based on levels of community transmission.”

See also ‘Should Schools Open This Fall?’ Is The Wrong Question

I could also find what the American Pediatric Association says, as well as the World Health Organization, and the National Organization For The Promotion Of Oh You Get The Idea: everyone has an opinion and often have divergent agendas. Further, not all opinions are based on existing research and compelling evidence. In many countries in the world–including the United States–the virus itself was racialized, nationalized, and politicized before it was rationally and functionally analyzed.

That this is all irrational and not based on affection, reason, or neighborliness is clear enough. The premise here is that countless organizations and other ‘holders of the rope’ are all pulling in different directions. And because TeachThought isn’t a scientific or medical care-based organization, it would be irresponsible to make specific recommendations in a formal way.

But that doesn’t stop other similarly-uninformed groups from doing the same. Today, I received a press release from “Let Them Learn, a Louisville, Kentucky-based Jefferson County Public Schools “grassroots group of more than 1,900 families formed by concerned parents to protect the interests of their children.” The press release was very obviously biased, full of word salad, suffered from factual errors, and had a single purpose: to promote the ability of students to not wear a mask if they don’t want to.

A succinct non sequitur in the press release, for example: “The Commonwealth of Kentucky has equipped its residents with the tools to mitigate against COVID and protect themselves including vaccinating all teachers and faculty as a priority in January, therefore it is not the responsibility of the JCPS Board of Education, Superintendent, or representatives of the school district to utilize school resources to promote activities related to masking.”

Translation: Since the state vaccinated teachers, schools shouldn’t promote the use of further measures to mitigate virus spread.

Another zinger: “Let Them Learn in JCPS says that mask usage should be guided by choice – not by fear, uncertainty, or mandates without any nuanced appreciation for vaccination status, natural immunity, or other medical considerations.”

Mask usage by adults in a grocery store is (arguably) a ‘choice-based event,’ but 700 students mixing in a building daily as even more contagious variants surge is a different matter entirely. The idea that ‘Choice’ should not be driven by ‘fear’ or ‘uncertainty’ neuters the very nature of ‘choice’ which absolutely should incorporate elements like uncertainty and fear. It seems like they’re saying, “Families should get to decide what they want to do”–that is, potentially contribute to the spread of a deadly virus if they want to.

There’s so much more to this issue and I’m already both out of my element and–broadly speaking–nearing the edge of our mission at TeachThought (innovation in education through the growth of innovative teachers), so it doesn’t make sense to unpack much more. But here are a few key facts:

1. The ‘Delta’ strain of COVID is significantly more contagious than previous versions.

2. Though to this point children don’t seem to have significantly contributed to the spread of COVID, the fact is, without constant testing, we simply don’t have clear data about the risk level for students and teachers. And we’re even more data-starved when it comes to COVID variants like Delta, Delta+, Lambda, and the inevitable future mutations. We are trying to predict next year using data from last year–which is rational provided we do so through science and humility combined with patience and an ongoing willingness to adjust our views and behaviors and new data emerges.

3. Though it’s true that teachers either have been vaccinated or had the opportunity to be vaccinated, the vaccine works most effectively at a community level, where it slows spread–and thus the opportunity for further mutations, etc. Estimates put the Pfizer vaccine anywhere from ~90% effective against symptomatic infections to as low as 41% effective.

In Singapore, government officials reported that 75% of new cases occurred in vaccinated individuals, though none were severely ill. The article continues, “Israeli health officials have said 60% of current hospitalized COVID-19 cases are in vaccinated people. Most of them are age 60 or older and often have underlying health problems.”

But the risk for teachers–especially any teacher over 50 and/or with any underlying health problems–is significant.

And there’s where things begin to get fuzzy. The majority of vaccinated people under 60 have tended to ‘do well’ with COVID. Out of more than 35 million cases (a staggering number considering our efforts to mitigate spread), there have still been more than 626,000 deaths as of this article’s publishing. In Kentucky, there have been 474,444 probable cases and 7312 deaths, 9% of those deaths have been in individuals under the age of 60–and data is emerging that shows the Delta strain is spreading more actively in younger age groups than Alpha strains did.

At this point, we’re all deciding what level of risk is ‘acceptable,’ how many deaths we’re willing to ‘tolerate,’ and what the social-emotional effects of both going to school and not going to school this year might be.

This all highlights how unsustainable public education, in its current form, is–from its promises and funding to its scale and mission. Modern public education just isn’t built for pandemics that last for years.

Further, all of the arguments about socialization, learning loss, mental health, etc., emphasize the underlying assumption: that is the job of the school (and thus of the teachers) to make sure children are ‘well socialized,’ don’t ‘go backward’ academically when not in a physical building, and don’t suffer from mental health challenges.

This, of course, is absurd. While schools and teachers promote these concepts, it is not–and never can be–the responsibility of the government (and its institutions) to be entirely responsible for the mental, physical, and intellectual well-being of children in the same way that a city’s crime level cannot be the ‘responsibility’ of its police department or a community’s ‘fitness level’ the responsibility of local gyms, etc.

Change isn’t easy but staying the same is even more difficult. We should not be intimidated with implementation dips–education needs new thinking without looking back, and now–more than at any other time in public education’s brief history–is our best opportunity to realize that potential.

So our recommendation? Follow a diverse body of biological, medical, social, and epidemiological expertise and the full body of research and scientific data while using this challenging time to continue to develop and refine curriculum, assessment, instruction, technology, and learning models that can adapt to a rapidly-changing world.