Schools: What's it Going to Take?

If you put me in charge...

TL/DR:

  1. Opening schools is going to be hard but it’s really, really important. More important than bars.

  2. Big Picture Considerations: Commit to doing it, be flexible, be realistic (there will be some virus), focus on staff risk.

  3. Practical Details: track cases, use creative staffing, have a contingency plan, do not treat all age groups the same, introduce realistic prevention measures.

  4. Someone is going to need to show up with money.

Schools: What will it take?

There has been a lot of discussion of school in the fall. School districts have started to announce their plans, at least in some form. Fairfax, VA said it’s all online or two days in person. Rhode Island, where I live, said in person starts August 31.

For the most part, these plans are tremendously non-specific. And (perhaps in part for that reason) they have generated controversy. To parents, two days a week may seem like far, far too little. What happens the other three? To teachers or other staff, it may seem like too much: is it dangerous to go back to school at all?

And yet, the return to school is crucial. Michelle Goldberg makes a strong case in the New York Times. I have written before about learning losses and inequality. Remote school will hurt kids, especially poor students and student of color. It will make it harder for economies to open. In person school enhances learning, but it is also the primary child care most parents rely on. Figuring this out is an emergency.

With all this as background, I have been thinking a lot about the practical. I’ve been doing this with my parenting person hat on, but also as part of my real job. Universities need to reopen, too, and I sit on one of the committees thinking about this at Brown. So I’m steeped in it, at least enough to organize some of my thoughts.

Let’s start by assuming we all have two main goals.

Goal #1: protecting safety of kids and staff (teachers, sure, but also cafeteria workers, janitorial staff, coaches and everyone else) and the broader public.

Goal #2: if at all possible having kids in classrooms in some way more or less full time.

The question then, is: What’s it going to take to do that? I have some thoughts, starting with the big picture and moving to the details.

Big Picture

My four big picture needs: commitment, flexibility, realism and a focus on staff.

Commitment….

This will never happen if policymakers do not commit to doing it now. The RI Governor, Gina Raimondo, has come under a lot of criticism for saying schools will open August 31 without providing a lot of details about how that will happen. I see this perspective, but the fact is that if you start by saying “Let’s explore this” it will not happen. The logistics of opening schools are daunting to the point of breaking even the best of us. If it feels like there is a choice, it will be too easy to decide not to.

When someone comes out and says “We are opening” it puts the pressure on to find a way. It encourages people to think about creative solutions. It encourages people to push past the problems. The only way this is even a passing hope is if we commit to making it so.

…and Flexibility

We will need to be flexible. Some of this relates to my points below on being creative, but I mean something more general here. We should commit to opening schools, but also understand we may have to backtrack. We may find that, come August, the pandemic situation is such that it is unsafe to open despite having done our best to be as safe as possible.

The same way that we are backtracking on indoor dining, we may need to backtrack on schools. I really, really hope not. But we must be ready to do so.

Realism

When we reopen schools, some people at schools — kids, staff — will get COVID-19. Some of these infections would happen anyway, outside of school. Many of them will not be driven by school contacts. But there will be in some in school transmission, no matter how careful we are. This is the unfortunately reality. Some of these people may get very sick. If we are not willing to accept this, we cannot open schools. We also, in that case, should not open anything else.

The fact is that we do accept some risks of this nature in normal times — allowing people to drive cars, have swimming pools, avoid the flu shot, etc. We may want to accept this particular risk, given the benefits, or we may not. But if we do accept it, we need to be realistic about what is going to happen. If we open school and then panic and shut them when there is one case of COVID-19, this will have been a waste. We know there will be one case. There will be more.

We need to set some limits in advance in terms of how to react to cases and we need to plan. But we cannot plan to panic.

Focus on Staff

Kids are at low risk for COVID-19 and do not tend to get very sick. Yes, they can get very ill but it is rare. This is not true of teachers, who are not children. It’s not true of coaches, cafeteria workers, janitorial staff and others. When we talk about opening schools and protecting people, these conversations should have a heavy focus on staff. We need staff to feel safe and cared for.

At the same time, we need to recognize we are in this together. I know teachers care about their students and they want what is best for them. We need to balance risk with the reality that we cannot fail our children.

(In a practical vein, if you do not do this you will not get teachers to return, and opening schools with no teachers is not going to work.)

The Details

Opening schools is a logistical nightmare. This is true even absent COVID-19! We can do this, but it’s going to take a lot. Here are the central things I hope schools and school districts have in mind. (There are many I have missed like…buses…school lunch program…etc. These are the big picture).

Tracking

It will be necessary to track infections at schools. One way to do this would be to do routine, random or universal testing of the school population. If you test everyone, even those without symptoms, you could pick up infections before they spread. Many large Universities will plan some version of this if they open.

I do not think this is is realistic for school systems due to cost and logistics. If the technology improves a lot, we may get to some exciting new world where every kid in a class spits in a bucket in the morning and we do pooled saliva antigen testing every day. But we are not there now and we should not plan around that.

There are two types of tracking I think are realistic.

First: schools should be reporting, each week, confirmed COVID-19 cases in students and staff. They should also report counts of students and staff in school. (Together, these give us a case rate). This reporting could be accomplished through some school-district level reporting or, even better, coordinated at the state or federal level.

Second: I believe there should be some routine testing of teachers and staff. Asking teachers to be tested each week, even without symptoms, is a big lift but it would help with both tracking and prevention. And it’s a smaller lift than students.

Recognition of Age Group Differences

High school students are not the same as elementary school students, either in their disease risk (higher) or in their ability to learn online (better). There is a reason that most of Europe opened elementary schools first.

Because school districts serve all students, there is a temptation to think about everyone the same. I think that’s a mistake. As we work through these plans, the solutions we think about should be allowed to differ by age group.

Realistic Prevention Measures

The recent AAP guidance for schools says it may be unrealistic to have little kids wear masks. Some pediatricians I talk to have noted that it might make things worse, since kids tend to touch their faces a lot when they have masks on. It also may be unrealistic to ask four year olds to physically distance. Even nine-year-olds. Related to the above, masks may be more feasible for middle and high school students (although keeping them from touching each other is another thing).

We can and should take precautions, but we want to focus on the ones that are feasible. Hand washing is something we can all do.

In my view, among the most important prevention measures is keeping sick kids home. And this will require both parental cooperation and plans in school. If your kid is sick, they need to stay home. Period. I know some of us have sent our kid to school with a fever of 100.1 (below the threshold!). We cannot do this anymore.

Then, we need an in-school plan when a kid gets sick. They need to be isolated until they can go home.

When people ask me: What are you looking for your kid’s school to do to keep them safe, this is my number one thing. Keep sick kids home.

Contingency Plans

We have learned in the last weeks that the virus is unpredictable. There will be waves, outbreaks and continued cases until we have a vaccine. Even in the absence of a large wave, cases will arise in classrooms (see comments on realism above). Schools need a very concrete set of contingency plan.

Example: When there is a student case in a class do you: (a) close the classroom for a day and deep clean; (b) encourage testing of all kids; (c) bar that class from school for two weeks ; (d) all of the above; (e) none of the above.

Example: If a student has a fever, how long do they have to stay out of school? Does it matter if they have been tested?

Example: If you do need kids to learn from home for some time, due to illness for themselves or others, what is the distance learning plan? It may seem insane, but schools are going to need to figure out how “hybrid” learning will work.

School districts cannot think through all contingencies, but they can try to think through as many as possible. Schools need a playbook. They cannot just be told: “Be safe!” That’s not enough.

Creative Staffing

(I talked about this idea with Michelle Goldberg and I really like it; I give credit to Elena Tuerk for thinking this through. Districts, ask her about it!)

A basic issue is that schools need more staff.

One reason is some high risk teachers will not be able to return. A second is that if we want classrooms to de-densify, we need more classrooms and more supervision.

The most obvious solution is to have kids in school less time. Hence the “two days on, two off” or “morning or afternoon” plans. However: these types of plans pose tremendous challenges for parents. What will kids do when they are out of school? And if we expect that during their days off kids will be learning via distance learning, well, that poses all the internet access and supervision problems we’ve had this year.

I think we need to think about this creatively.

Here is a proposal. There are many students on college gap years (turns out, many students do not want to start college or return to college online. Athletes whose seasons are cancelled may wait a year to preserve eligibility). These people are not teachers, obviously. But they are low risk for the virus, and with some training I think they could help.

Imagine your kid goes to school with their normal teacher and half their class in the morning. They do school. Then, after lunch, they go to another location — a curtained off space in the gym? A trailer? — with two gap year kids. They do a little online math or reading. They color. They have recess.

It’s not perfect, but I’m guessing kids would get a lot more online Zearn badges if they were supervised in school rather than being asked to do it at home. Plus, they are out of the house so parents can work.

Maybe there are better solutions than this (I’m sure there are!) The point is not that we must do this particular thing, but that we need to think outside the box.

Show Me The Money

These plans — especially the last one — are expensive. Some ideas people have, like randomized or universal testing, are I think out of the realm of possibility given cost. But this is important. State governments should devote resources. The federal government should. If they will not step up, foundations should.

Gates Foundation, I’m looking at you.


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