How to stop magical thinking in school reopening plans

Yet, the author of this post writes, there is magical things in some of the plans being offered — recommendations made by “experts” for measures that he says aren’t really possible. Can classes really be held outdoors or in empty spaces re-purposed for school? Can students really stay six feet away from each other? Are teachers being asked to do — and risk — too much?

Here’s the post, written by New Jersey educator Mark Weber, a full-time music teacher in Warren Township, N.J., and a part-time lecturer at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. He is also special analyst for education policy at New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive nonprofit that pushes policy change to advance economic justice and prosperity for all through evidence-based, independent research, analysis and advocacy.

He last wrote a post about some inconvenient truths about how schools operate that should be considered before reopening. This appeared on his blog, Jersey Jazzman, and he gave me permission to publish it.

By Mark Weber

In the past few weeks, a new literary genre has emerged in America’s media outlets: the school reopening op-ed. Almost always written by someone who has little to no experience in actually working in a school, these op-eds tend to follow the same form:

  • Why it’s so important to reopen schools.
  • Evidence in support of the idea that covid-19 prevalence is low in children, as is transmission attributable to children.
  • Grudging admission that adults work in schools and this may be a problem.
  • Finger-wagging at said adults, telling them that life is full of risk and they shouldn’t indulge in fearmongering.
  • A set of ideas to reopen schools. Many times, the tone of the presentation suggests the author believes no one who leads or works in schools actually could have thought of any of their plans before they did.
  • An optimistic call for “creativity” in school reopening plans.

It’s always interesting to look at the comments section following these pieces, or to see them debated on Twitter. Skeptics — often actual educators, but also parents, students, and other stakeholders — will point out many factors that the authors did not address in their op-ed that make it difficult, if not impossible, to implement their ideas.

Given the severity of this pandemic and the importance of reopening schools, it is not at all appropriate to dismiss these objections out of hand. If some of the most prominent spaces in the media are being reserved for “experts” to offer their ideas for school reopening, the least they should have to endure is a thorough critique of their ideas from the people who will be the most affected by them.

A serious assessment of school reopening plans isn’t simply negative thinking; it’s a brake on magical thinking. It’s an acknowledgment that yes, we do have to get schools reopened as quickly as possible, but we must do so in a way that respects the safety of students and educators. Setting policies for school reopening isn’t an intellectual exercise; it’s serious business that literally puts people’s lives at risk. We must think carefully about the proposals that are being floated before we decide to use them and go back to school.

To that end, I offer here a framework for assessing the viability of school reopening policies. If you really believe you have figured out how to get schools up and running again, you shouldn’t mind having to answer these questions:

One popular idea out now is to re-purpose spaces that are currently empty and reuse them for instruction; that way, we can reduce class sizes and/or spread students out so they can maintain distancing guidelines. On the surface, it seems like a good idea, until you begin to ask questions like …

Are these spaces secure? Can teachers monitor students in them? Do they have adequate bathroom facilities? Are they accessible to disabled children and staff? Will the property owners be liable for student/staff injuries? If not, how will they be protected? How will we transport students to these spaces? What supplies and equipment are needed so instruction can be delivered? Will those be transported from schools? Will we have to get more? Will they be secure after hours? What emergency response plans are needed in the new facility? Will the facilitates be used after school hours? If so, what precautions will be taken to clean them?

Questions like these aren’t negative thinking, and they aren’t nitpicking. They are the everyday work of educators; they are the same questions school leaders and teachers ask constantly when working within their own buildings. People who propose re-purposing buildings, or any other school reopening policy, should not be allowed dismiss them.

Can your plan be brought to scale?

Another popular idea is moving classes outside, as it’s generally believed the virus does not fare well in the open air. To shelter students and staff, proponents suggest we set up tents, which would offer some protection from the elements.

Again, we have to ask whether, and to what extent, this is practical: who’s setting up the tents? Do schools have enough level, accessible space to set them up? How are we moving and securing furniture and supplies? What happens when it gets really cold/hot? And so on …

But even if we could address all of these concerns, what would it take to set up an adequate number of outdoor spaces with shelters across the US? There are nearly 100,000 K-12 public schools in America, enrolling more than 50 million students. Let’s be extremely conservative and say we need one large tent for every 25 students; that’s about 2 million tents.

Do we have the capacity to procure these shelters, set them up, maintain them in all kinds of weather, secure them when not being used, and store them when needed?

Yes, it’s conceivable that we wouldn’t need so many. But unless you can tell me how many we need, you’re making my point: you haven’t thought this all the way through. Any viable reopening plan must consider the scale on which it operates.

It’s generally agreed that adequate air exchange is necessary to stop the spread of covid-19. Some op-ed writers have suggested that we need to invest in air purifiers and heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) upgrades to make classrooms more safe. You’ll certainly get no argument from me … but where are we going to get the money?

Even before the pandemic — and this is just an estimate, the problem could be much worse — around 40 percent of U.S. school districts needed to upgrade or replace the HVAC systems on at least half of their schools. Which means simply buying better air filters and installing them in current systems isn’t going to solve the problem.

In the op-ed above, the authors suggests getting portable air purifiers for every classroom. They badly lowball the estimate of how many we’d need — but even their estimated number is, they admit, greater than the entire annual production of purifiers for the United States. But let’s say their conservative estimate of $1 billion is correct; again, where is the money going to come from?

This country has been living penny-wise and pound-foolish for years when it comes to its school facilities. Upgrading them to acceptable standards in a pandemic is going to cost a lot of money. If you propose a school reopening plan, you have an obligation to explain how you’re going to fund it.

Is your plan developmentally appropriate for children?

I taught primary schoolchildren for decades, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that they cannot and will not wear masks for seven or more hours a day, even with breaks. I can also tell you they will not adhere to social distancing guidelines without constant intervention. That is just the way it is.

I’ve also taught adolescents. Many of them (like many adults in the United States) believe in their own invincibility and will downplay the risks of transmitting the virus to others. Yet some of the best evidence we have on covid-19 suggests teenagers transmit the virus just as well as adults.

We can’t assume that children — even older children —- will follow all the protocols we expect from adults to stop viral transmission. Because they’re children.

Does your plan make unreasonable demands on educators?

Some have begun floating the idea of reopening elementary schools, but keeping secondary schools closed. I think there’s merit in this (and I say this as an elementary schoolteacher). But asking some teachers to take a risk with their lives while others do not without making big changes in work conditions is unreasonable.

Take personal protective equipment (PPE). If a school district is going to demand an elementary teacher show up to work, but not provide adequate PPE, that’s simply unfair. And the PPE should be protective of the teachers, not just the students. Cloth masks may keep teachers from spreading the virus, but N95s and surgical masks are better at keeping them from getting it. Where, then, is the plan to provide these better masks to teachers who are forced to come to school?

It’s also unreasonable to ask a teacher to develop two sets of instructional plans: one for students whose families opt to go fully online, and another for students who come to school in person. These are not the same modes of instruction; delivering them both requires considerably more preparation. How will schools deal with this?

And will teachers who contract covid-19 at school have to drain their sick day banks during their recovery? How is that fair to a teacher who was forced to show up at school while a colleague under the same collective bargaining agreement was not?

Again, I’m not dismissing the idea of opening only elementary schools out of hand. But the teachers who are subject to working with students in person deserve much more than facile assurances that they will be protected, and their workload will remain manageable.

Are the examples you use to support your plan relevant?

Pundits who support reopening schools often cite other countries’ experiences as evidence that we can reopen schools safely. At this point, I will dismiss anyone’s argument outright if they talk about Scandinavian countries but neglect to mention South Korea, Israel, or others places that have had problems with reopening schools.

In addition: any comparison to the United States must account for differences in how schooling is delivered in different countries. There is evidence, for example, that elementary students in the United States spend more time in school than in other countries (admittedly, it’s difficult to make these comparisons). Certainly, the case rates outside of school are vastly different in countries that have reopened school “successfully.”

Education varies widely across different countries, as does the scope of the pandemic; therefore, the lessons learned from them are, at best, limited when applied to the United States. If you’re going to tell us your school reopening plan will work because another nation did the same thing, you have an obligation to acknowledge the differences between that country and ours.

Will your plan work given the current state of American politics?

We have to face a few uncomfortable truths in the United States: there isn’t going to be a lot of additional money available for school reopening, schools are going to take a huge fiscal hit regardless, covid-19 prevention has become hopelessly politicized, and many Americans have been duped into thinking the pandemic is a hoax.

It’s clear we need more resources to operate schools safely in a pandemic. It’s clear people should be wearing masks and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. But what happens to all these carefully laid plans for school reopening when politicians refuse to fund them, and some parents and students refuse to follow them? Are the authors of these plans prepared to abandon them if it becomes clear they cannot be implemented in the current political environment?

Does your plan address class and race inequities?

This pandemic has exposed — or rather, further exposed — some hard realities about inequity in America. Some people have jobs that allow them to work from home; some don’t. Some parents can get paid time off to care for their sick child; some can’t. Some communities can raise enough local funds to retrofit their HVAC systems or expand transportation so students can socially distance; some can’t.

It makes sense to declare that symptomatic children shouldn’t be admitted to school during a pandemic. But what do we say to a parent who works a job with no paid leave for time off to care for an ill child?

If you propose a school reopening idea, you should have to acknowledge how that idea may be subject to limits because of systemic inequities. And you should demand those inequities be addressed.

Can your plan be implemented in time to reopen school?

Many agree that having more personnel in schools would help; we could potentially cut down class sizes, have more personnel available in case staff fall ill, excuse staff who are medically at risk, etc. Some say we should be tapping retirees or recent graduates to work in schools. I think, given the pay for current teachers and substitutes, and the risk now involved, that the availability of suitable workers is highly overstated.

But let’s suppose it’s not; what then? School starts in a few weeks. Can we really recruit, conduct background checks on, train, and deploy these folks by then? Will we have the necessary administration in place to properly oversee an influx of new staff? Will we have enough PPE to protect them? Will they be subject to current bargaining agreements? Will they receive health insurance? And, as always: where’s the money?

It would be nice to believe that somehow we could snap our fingers and reopening plans — even ones that are feasible — will be implemented at warp speed. But that’s not how actual life works. This stuff takes time — and we are woefully short on it. If your school reopening plan doesn’t come with a reasonable timetable, it’s not useful.

Have you clearly defined the alternative to your plan, and is it actually worse than what you propose?

Many students don’t like online learning. But who is going to like in-person schooling under a pandemic? I’ve seen enough first days of kindergarten to know school can already be intimidating to a young child, let alone an awkward teen. Now let’s add masks, and social distancing, and limited activities, and potential classes in the freezing cold or blazing heat. Let’s take away choir and sports and lunchrooms with friends. Let’s include a higher risk of beloved teachers and staff succumbing to covid-19.

Let’s also take a moment to acknowledge that schools were building the plane as they were flying it this past spring. Online learning will never be as good as in-person learning without a pandemic — but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t improve it greatly, and in a relatively short time. Personally, I can honestly say I got much better at teaching remotely the more I did it.

The question before us now is not whether in-person schooling before the pandemic is better than remote learning was this spring: that answer is obvious. The question is whether in-person schooling this fall — not an idealized version, but what it will actually be — is better than what remote learning will be. And if it is better, will it be by much? And is that worth the risk?

I can only speak for myself: I am not yet ready to abandon the idea that we can go back to school safely this year. I think it’s going to take a lot of work and more resources than we’re currently talking about at the national level. I also think we are going to be very hard pressed to make this work by Labor Day. But if we can get the virus under control outside of school, get together the necessary resources, and make an honest assessment of the risks and rewards … okay.

But we’re not going to get that honest assessment unless and until we stop thinking that magical plans will allow us to reopen schools in a few weeks. I know this will come as a shock to many pundits, but people who actually work in schools have almost certainly already thought of your “creative” solution to the problem. The likely reason they aren’t implementing it is because they don’t have the luxury of not questioning the very real issues you didn’t address in your op-ed.

If that sounds harsh, I’m sorry — but lives are literally at stake.

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