Trust & Resources

A School Post

I have been listening to Hamilton a lot when I run (on the off chance you ever see this, Lin Manuel, you’re amazing). In one early song, Aaron Burr offers the advice to “Talk less…Smile more.” I have been reflecting on this in the context of my own talking about schools, and the realization that there may be a point at which I should maybe talk less. Or maybe tweet less.

And I have been trying to take this advice to heart (seriously, this is actually me trying). But today I wanted to briefly revisit the school question, in part because conversations over the past few weeks have had me seeing the barriers slightly differently.

As a first point: many schools actually are open in-person. The debate at this point is centered, largely but not exclusively, in larger urban districts which have remained closed. And it is also worth noting that it may seem odd to be talking about reopening more schools in the middle of a surge. I think the discussion has come to a head for several reasons.

First, a number of policy-makers have come out suggesting that schools should be prioritized since the evidence suggests that they can operate safely in person with appropriate mitigation. This includes Dr. Fauci, the CDC, the WHO and others. Biden has listed opening schools as one of his top priorities. Their statements are not that schools should be open in all circumstances, but that this should be a high priority.

Second, this is the time to decide about the winter and, perhaps, the last shot for this school year. If places do not choose to open in January or February, I would venture they are unlikely to do so this academic year (I hope I’m wrong). At a minimum, this is an inflection point for decisions.

And, third, the evidence on the losses associated with remote learning are mounting (here is one tweet-thread round-up). It is important to be crystal clear here (more on this below) that this is not meant to imply that teachers are doing a bad job. In practice, my sense is that most teachers are working much harder, in much worse circumstances. Remote learning isn’t serving kids because for most kids this isn’t a productive way to learn no matter how wonderful their teacher is.

Recognizing these things, we are seeing a push to reopen in a lot of locations, despite the surge, or at least a push to decide to reopen in January or February. But it is not uncontroversial.

It cannot escape any of us that this discussion has taken on a nasty tone. Trust, especially among teachers, and between teachers and parents, has been eroded. There is a lot of blame to go around on this, but I will take my share. I think our data production is all for the good, but messaging is more complex. The fact is, I think the data is reassuring. Our data, others, on the ground experience: it shows that schools can be operated safely. Like some others, I was eager to put this out, to be positive, to help us see that we can give kids in-person schooling safety.

But what I think I failed to sufficiently recognize was the very real fear that remains, and which data (even if you believe it, let alone if you do not) cannot possibly ameliorate. A school leader friend put it well to me the other day saying, effectively, I know we aren’t seeing any spread in school, but it’s a lot to tell people that they should stay in their houses other than when they come out to school and interact with hundreds of people.

It’s clear that teaching this fall — either virtually or in person or both — has been impossibly hard. To work and work to make it possible for your students to learn, only to be told that remote learning sucks and is failing kids…. What I hear from teachers is they feel unsupported, they feel that they are not being listened to, that they are being blamed.

On the flip side are the frustrations of parents who see in-person schooling happening for some kids — sometimes even in the same district — and hear the data on safety and cannot see why their kids are not in school. This is made doubly hard by the fact that many kids, even those with resources, are really struggling. They’re depressed, anxious, unwilling to engage. Not all of them, but some.

All together, we have a cauldron of everyone being mad, sad, at their breaking point.

I think there may be a way forward, but it requires a rebuilding of trust. And it will require resources. It’s easy to say this, and alone it’s vague. But let me suggest a few concrete things, based on a lot of recent conversations. These all require resources, so the first step is clearly money.

More Effective and Transparent Contact Tracing in Schools

It has become clear that, in many schools which are in person, information about COVID cases are not being shared out effectively. This is problematic. Obviously we do not want to name people who have COVID, but it’s also clear we need a way to communicate to the community what is going on with cases. Some districts have done this well (here is an example), and when they do, that helps engender trust.

This better contact tracing is also a way to isolate when there is transmission in school and figure out, basically, what went wrong. We cannot hope to have no cases associated with school, since people will get COVID in the community. But we can aim to avoid transmission in school. Already, with masking and other mitigation, transmission appears to be extremely low.

Better contact tracing would be a way to try to confirm that — we need data on where transmission occurs. And in the cases where there is spread in schools, we need to figure out what happened. Was the problem lunch? After basketball game party? Staff room use? Poor mask compliance? Something else?

We need to be able to say to teachers and staff: when you come back to work and we promise you that you’ll know if there are cases in a transparent way, and we’ll work to figure out what went wrong if we see any in-school transmission.

Better COVID Case Response Planning

It’s closely related to the above, but a second piece here is better planning around case responses. By “better” I mean faster, clearer and more transparent. I saw a district reopening plan the other day which, basically, suggested that when there was a case in a school the principal should take appropriate mitigation measures. What on earth would this mean? How can we have confidence if we do not know what to expect? Some of the worst parts of this time are the uncertainty; much of that is inevitable, but not all of it. It is decidedly possible to be clear about how the school will respond to cases, when they will close, when they will stay open, how testing will be managed, and so on.

Asymptomatic Testing

Less expensive testing is increasingly (slowly) available. A lot of districts have access to this. The question is how to use it. The answer, I think, is to use it to to routine (weekly or biweekly) testing of all staff and to surveil a sample of students. There are two reasons for this. First, it will catch some infections and then those people will isolate and not infect others. Second, it will provide confidence and peace of mind.

Staff are the highest risk group, both for infection and for serious illness. They should be prioritized for testing (I include in this both teaching and non-teaching staff). Secondary to this would be high school students, the highest risk student group.

Colorado has been doing this with teachers. It’s a good model. There should be more.

Resources for Staffing

Many schools are closed because they cannot staff classes due to staff in quarantine (either due to illness or, more commonly, due to exposure). Sub pools are smaller than usual and over-used. A family member pointed out to me that she has had to sub at all levels in her district even though she is not a licensed teacher (she is wonderful and I suspect is a great teacher, but the point is there). As one administrator noted at some point we have to think kids would learn better from a licensed teacher online than someone with no training in the classroom.

It is less clear how to address these staffing issues. Shortened quarantine periods, as the CDC has suggested are safe (i.e. 7 days + a test, rather than 14 days) may help. We will also need to start thinking creatively about staffing solutions (student teachers? better incentives to grow the sub pool?). This is a case in which resources are really, really key.

Summing Up

These four ideas — targeted contact tracing, a well-articulated approach to cases, asymptomatic staff testing and better approaches to staffing — they will not solve everything. But they do reflect a lot of what I hear from school leaders and, I think, could provide a way forward to an atmosphere of more trust.

It is not a secret that I think more schools should open in person (Aaron Burr also says “Dont let them know what you’re against or what you’re for”, but the train has sailed on that for me). I believe, based on the data, that it can be done safely even in areas of high community spread.

But it’s also clear to me that, practically, just continuing to point to the data isn’t working to get to solutions. What is needed, now, is for teachers and school staff to feel that they are valued and protected. Kids need in-person school. We have all seen how valuable that is. Now is the time to work together to put resources behind that value.


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