Bad institutional design failed America's kids
As a 3rd grade teacher in a completely open elementary school, It has frustrating to me that school reopening surveys do not look at age of the students. In my district, we are completely open for young children, but high schoolers are still mostly hybrid. There is a very different risk calculation for 8-year-olds and for 18-year-olds. I want very much to see a survey that asks about people's opinions about opening elementary schools but keeping high schools closed.
Just wanted to point out that in large swaths of the country, the schools opened in fall 2020 and have remained open the entire 2020-21 school year. Interpreting the polling, you have to take that into account! The resistance to schools being open is probably highest in places where the schools haven't been open for months?
I believe a significant part of the reluctance to open schools has to do with negative partisanship, specifically related to Trump. Trump started making a big deal about reopening schools which I think made Democratic partisans opposed to it as a knee-jerk reaction.
This Politico Article discusses how California parents felt reluctant to lobby and push for opening schools when it was deemed "pro-Trump"
>Gone is the fear of being politically incorrect by siding with Donald Trump or facing criticism for not caring about teachers. Instead, parents in the nation’s biggest state are emboldened and organizing as President Joe Biden pledges to reopen schools and top national disease experts say it is safe to do so with the right precautions.
Over here in the Netherlands everything is closed *except* schools.‡ We have *triple* the per capita (seven day average) rate of (new) infection compared to the US and I might be eligible for vaccinated by November.
I fully agree that closing schools is nuts and that closing schools while opening restaurants is so completely at odds with reality as to make one wonder if we should just throw in the towel and give anarchy a try. But looking around at my neighbors (Belgium, Germany, France and the UK) you have to squint really hard to see any policies that make a difference beyond the general condition that ICUs don't get overrun when everything is closed. (And that hoarding vaccines is good domestic policy.)
By the way, the Netherlands actually comes very close to Matt's recommendations. I'm not 100% sure about who gets hazard pay, but that is somewhat offset by universal healthcare. Schools are open, masks are required everywhere (except churches), indoor anything is banned and government covers payroll for (most) businesses impacted by the closures. Also KLM Air France was bailed out and the government blocked foreign entities from buying out some beleaguered Dutch companies.
‡And grocery stores and, technically, some businesses will soon be open by appointment, but its the Netherlands so sex workers are organizing protests to be able to reopen so that might happen soon too.
The decision in Providence RI, where I live, was so straightforward I don’t understand why other districts didn’t do it.
Every family could choose between in-person class in their regular school and a district-wide “virtual academy.” At-risk teachers transferred to the virtual school. About half the families chose virtual, so it wasn’t hard to separate desks. Most parents and teachers were satisfied. My daughter in second grade has had a good school year. There has been little or no spread in school, I believe.
Interesting article Matt. But I'm surprised you didn't mention private schools. I think a big reason that there hasn't been more parental pressure to reopen schools is that the most influential (typically the wealthiest) parents just sent their kids to private schools and sat this fight out.
Also, the profit motive shouldn't be ignored: indoor dining restaurants make more money than takeout-only restaurants, but in-person classes don't make a public school any more money than remote teaching. So there's no financial incentive to reopen schools. Say what you want about capitalism, money does at least sharpen decision-making. "Think of the children!" only goes so far.
I think the article basically hits the nail on the head. Another underrated factor seems to be the social class of teachers. Teachers generally see themselves as white collar professionals. They have college degrees and often advanced degrees and so do their friends, spouses and neighbors. For the average teacher, their social peers have mostly been working from home during the pandemic, so asking them to go teach in person feels like an extraordinary ask that has generally not been required of other people they think are similar.
I am at a private school, not a union, but I wonder how much of the unions that oppose reopening has to do with the fact that few teachers in the country have any clue how to teach hybrid and maintain social distancing? It's not that teaching and learning in a pandemic is harder than in normal times, it's that schools as institutions are not set up to be agile for a shift like this.
Teaching in a pandemic is unlike anything I've ever done in my almost two decades at progressive schools. Right now I'm used to hybrid learning - juggling between the kids in front of me and the kids on the screen. And I no longer worry too much about the huge lack of collaborative discussions that results when kids have to be distanced, in fact I've found new ways to accomplish this. But in the fall I felt like a first year teacher again. It's hard to describe to someone not in the profession just how insanely different this year is. So much of teaching and learning requires an open feedback loop that is wildly different in a pandemic setting.
Great piece. Our work across CO has helped me understand that a significant amount of this has to do with size of school district. Smaller and medium size school districts have been able to be more nimble in their responsiveness to COVID and their reopening strategies. On top of that, small and medium size districts, even ones with boards (not always an inhibitor sometimes a dramatic accelerator) can learn the lessons of the pandemic to rethink education broadly. No lie bigger systems have bigger problems and bigger politics, including the teacher ones you mention.
Therefore I don't disagree we have an institutional design challenge (radical localism) but if you show up with a combo of tool and accountabilities, you can turn it into an incredible opportunity. In CO we had a Guv that creatively leveraged CARES dollars to create a competitive grant fund that prioritize districts and higher ed partnerships with business and community. Philanthropy and local leadership rallied to meet the challenge. The result has been a significant move forward in many districts on some exciting piece, in particular our largest system has struggled with the type of institutional challenges you mention. So I don't disagree that the learning and social emotional challenges of this past year has been (and continue to be) enormous...but as I often say on here: creative and partnership-drive local leadership can make a difference!
If you're interested in how Colorado has leaned into this new moment:
A big issue is that this position didn’t really have a clear political support group.
1) A significant (though minority) portion of left leaning people are in the “keep everything closed” camp, schools included
2) A large majority of right leaning people got into the “open everything” camp because of Trump
3) Some of the remaining people were in a “we should try to open everything in a modified way” camp - this is probably the best summary of what actually happened
4) The “we should prioritize opening schools and closing other things” camp is probably the smallest of all (though it was over represented among public health and blue check Twitter people)
5) A lot of normal people (include parents who are skeptical about going back to school now) just want someone in power to declare that schools are “safe” before going back. That couldn’t happen without extreme lockdowns or mass vaccinations regardless of policy
Flights, indoor dining, etc were all pretty popular when they were available, so at least a big portion of consumers wanted this stuff too. Given this opening them in a modified fashion was inevitable.
Vox ran an article two weeks back from an epidemiologist and father about how he's losing patience with teachers unions over reopening (https://www.vox.com/2021/2/15/22280763/kids-covid-vaccine-teachers-unions-schools-reopening-cdc). I thought it illustrated why schools find themselves in very weird binds when talking to parents, even expert parents. The author talks about how his district's union is fighting hard for 6ft of distancing:
"In the process, they [the union] have misinterpreted scientific guidance and transformed it into a series of litmus tests that keep our district in hybrid learning. These litmus tests are not based on science, they are grounded in anxiety, and they are a major component of the return-to-school quagmire in which we are stuck. ... One sticking point, for example, has been the union’s early and continued insistence that desks remain at least six feet apart at all times. This requirement mathematically determines whether there is enough space for learners in the building. Distancing is absolutely critical to Covid-19 mitigation, but there is no magical threshold that makes six feet the “safe” distance and five feet “dangerous.”
But if you look at the guidelines released that very same week by the CDC it says very clearly:
"2. Physical distancing (at least 6 feet) should be maximized to the greatest extent possible. To ensure physical distancing, schools should establish policies and implement structural interventions to promote physical distance of at least 6 feet between people. Cohorting or podding is recommended to minimize exposure across the school environment."
That's the second of two recommendations. It's masks and 6ft of distance.
Now, I'm not here to debate aerosols and the physics of 6ft vs 5 ft. Instead, what I think matters here is that this one epidemiologist says a particular measurement of public safety doesn't matter, following it strictly isn't scientifically supported, and efforts to keep capacity and distance low mean too few students can be in the schools. Meanwhile, the CDC says its review of the (presumably scientific) evidence indicates that 6ft is a minimum, distancing should be maximized, and schools should adopt approaches to cut down on the number of kids in school.
So, it's not just that the teachers' union is picking out 6ft as a magic litmus test to create hurdles and slow down reopening, is it? Instead, it really seems like the expert who wrote this article is asking his local schools to go against the CDC guidelines. Maybe we should, but that's a very different situation from the one described by the author.
If the experts actually disagree about the best way to safely reopen schools, how are districts and unions and parents supposed to make informed decisions? I'd imagine one reason you're seeing so much politicization around the whole process is that nobody's effectively communicating a stable set of practices that schools can use to safe-ish-ly reopen.
"My view of teachers unions is close to my view of police unions."
100% yes. Teachers unions are exactly like police unions in that their interests are all about their members, not the public good. To be clear. That doesn't make teacher's unions bad perse; it just makes them unions. And their perspective should be treated accordingly.
To be clear, I believe that teachers' should be paid far more than they are today, but at the same the rules of their employment should be changed to reduce the role of seniority in driving pay increases and to make it far easier for principals to fire bad teachers (note: the same should go with principals as well) and to hire the ones that can best implement their vision of what their schools should be. In other words, principals should have the same ability to select, manage, and compensate their workforce that virtually every private sector boss of a professional workforce has.
I believe that the police, who historically have been more successful at negotiating favorable pay, should have more resources, but basically just to do the kinds of things that Matt outlined in his previous article:
But certainly teacher's unions should not be trusted to drive any element of education policy any more than police unions should be trusted to drive any element of our judicial system.
That may be true in the US, but the UK is extremely centralised with the government and yet we've ended up in the scenario where we subsidised indoor eating all summer, then big-banged open school and universities in September, saw a run up of cases which we met with an ineffectual month-long lockdown, and then reopened restaurants to indoor dining just before Christmas. Then things went haywire all over the end of December with a new semi-lockdown with everything more or less shutdown.
We then reopened schools - and I cannot believe I am writing this, because it is so dumb - for a single day on January 4th before closing everything down for a Wave One style lockdown which will last until early March when a slow multi-month reopening will happen. I think the US's disjointed government explains some of your errors....but I am not sure that joined up government would have helped you avoid them.
The very nature of teaching in person is different from other essential work. Particularly in the early grades, there is a lot of close contact required and not just for tautological tasks. Those runny noses aren't going to wipe themselves, not to mention getting shoes tied. Teachers did not go into the profession to be health care workers and are not being provided that level of disease prevention protocol even under the most careful reopening schemes.
While grocery store check out clerks see hundreds of customers a day the exposure periods are brief and usually involve physical barriers. Teachers on the other hand are literally stuck in a small enclosed space. Many classrooms are 750 to 800 square feet for 25 to 40 students making social distancing a mathematically impossible task. Anyone who has seen attempts to provide physical barriers between students have been duly and widely mocked.
We probably exaggerated the risk among young people put that is only in proportion to the general population. Exclusive of the wider contagion, this would still be a disastrous public health risk. And schools are not just teachers (many of whom are in high risk groups) and students but also custodians and food service workers and parent volunteers.
This pandemic has presented lots of false choices. Grocery stores versus schools versus restaurants. Education is largely in the public sector which creates lots of other incentives and disincentives. If all bars and restaurants were government run, what would be the counterfactual for elected officials directly putting lives at risk.
Matt you are a MACHINE 💪💪😤 Always cranking out thought provoking and interesting articles. Keep it up, I appreciate the work
The part about hazard pay I think is very interesting. Nurses had probably the worst job changes of any career in the pandemic, especially ICU nurses. Even in a year into it I don’t think people understand how traumatic COVID has been for healthcare workers or how much it has stressed hospitals - the horror stories I’ve heard anecdotally never make it out into the media.
But anyway most nurses didn’t quit because those who would have had a form of hazard pay through travel contracts. An ICU nurse working at a staffing agency pulled in $8000 a week to go to places that were hard hit.
If you want people to work pay them more money. It isn’t hard.