A couple weeks ago, the Missouri School Board Association released some initial recommendations in regards to public school in the fall. I want to be fair to those involved. These recommendations are not requirements. They more closely resemble the type of brainstorming that often takes place in sterile conference rooms. It’s important to be charitable to those trying to make difficult decisions in these Unprecedented Times™. There is no playbook, and I want to believe that most of us are doing the best we can under the circumstances.
End of semester assessment
In education, you can’t really learn anything without conducting assessments. Now that this semester has ended, it is necessary to conduct an assessment on how it went. For the Ragsdales, it wasn’t great.* In no way am I criticizing our schools or our teachers. As I’ve said in a previous post, I couldn’t be happier and more proud to be a part of the Webb City school district. Our schools are full of great people who love our kids and who work hard on their behalf. Our schools were as much the victims of circumstance this semester as our students. But still, this semester was incredibly frustrating. My high school student kept up with his work on his own. It was barely enough to keep him busy for one day of the week. On those occasions where he did need help, we often ended up losing our temper. He would grow impatient with me. I would grow impatient with the realization that I had no freaking idea how to help a student figure out high school science or algebra. I was a really good high school student. Valedictorian. Loved science. And I was absolutely useless. My son has an IEP. His specialized instruction teacher, who is a friend, checked in on us several times. But IEPs weren’t designed with global pandemics in mind. My daughter also did okay academically, I guess. Although, like her brother, there was barely enough to keep her attention more than one day. More concerning by far was the fact that my daughter was showing all of the classic signs of depression. She was sleeping until noon. She wasn’t eating. She was incredibly down and resistant to any “cheering up” from her parents. My daughter always loved school. Now she loudly expressed how much she hated school along with most other things. It wasn’t until we allowed her to finally see her friends that her entire mood began to shift. Our youngest was finishing fourth grade this year. I could figure out her homework, but the problem was that she constantly required my help to keep her engaged and on schedule. I was spending between 2 and 6 hours most days on Zoom calls in between re-writing curriculum, grading papers, and tending to my now online students. My wife was working full time at the hospital. We were both busy and in almost constant crisis mode with our work. My daughter’s education paid the price. There were no cute home-school schedules in our house. There were no creative, grammable craft projects in our house. Honestly, I’m not ashamed to admit we were just trying to survive the semester. All three of my kids said at various times: “What is even the point of this?!”
I had a constant, nagging thought. My kids have two, loving parents with college educations. They have a house full of food and access to high-speed internet (which I had to spend around 600 dollars to upgrade just so we could finish the semester). Further, they go to school in a fantastic district. If my kids struggled so much this semester, what about all of those students who don’t have those privileges?
I know “privilege” is a dangerous word. Indeed, there are some who take conversations about privilege in toxic directions. But I have learned a bit about privilege in the last two months. To have two parents is privilege. To have two incomes is privilege. To have the ability to work from home is privilege. To have technology and good schools is privilege. When I use the word privilege, it doesn’t mean I should apologize or repent for these things – as if they were bad. But it may mean that I need to be mindful of those who don’t have those privileges. This leads me to the main point of this post.
What about next year?
I’m going to be as clear as possible. Any plan that involves not opening up public schools in the fall is a plan that turns its back on a generation. Any plan that involves not opening up public schools in the fall will be a catastrophe for those students who are most at risk. Any plan that involves not opening up public schools in the fall will be inherently unjust.
Any plan for the fall must acknowledge some difficult truths.
- Distance learning disproportionately benefits the wealthy. In Missouri, 21% of students (150,000!) do not have access to broadband internet and cannot afford the technology. Additionally, how is the state going to educate children who live in single-parent homes especially once those parents have to start going back to work? Does the state have a plan to deal with the widespread neglect that is sure to take place? This leads to a second difficult truth.
- We know there has been a spike in unreported child abuse cases once school was dismissed. In one Texas county, there have been 8000 fewer calls concerning child abuse and website referrals are down 56% since schools closed. Kids are still being abused, but now there is no one advocating for them.
- We also have evidence of an impending mental health crisis among our kids leading some pediatricians to sound the alarm.
- One friend who teaches high school told me that if schools go online or cancel extracurricular programs, there will be a huge spike in drop-outs. And the effects of dropping out of high school are generational including higher rates of single-motherhood, incarceration, and poverty.
But what about the science?
The push back, naturally, is that tough decisions have to be made because we are in a global pandemic. People’s lives are at stake. Well, yes. Ignoring the fact that people’s lives are also at stake if we keep the schools closed, let’s explore some data.
First, children do very well with this disease. It’s become fashionable for some to compare COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu. There are some critical differences between the two circumstances that these comparisons routinely ignore. One of the biggest differences is that 99% of the deaths from Spanish Flu were among people UNDER 65. Nearly half the deaths were among people ages 20-40. COVID-19 is almost the exact opposite. Stories have started to come out about a small number of infants who have died from a different, but related (?) disease. I’m sure we’ll see many more of these stories as we get closer to school starting from those who want us to remain addicted to fear and to clicks. But the rules have been established. We don’t set public policy based on anecdotes (remember chloroquine?). We set public policy based on data. And here is the data from the CDC:
It might be good, as long as we are panicking, to remember that in 2017-2018, close to 600 kids died of the seasonal flu. I don’t remember us closing schools nationwide in 2018.
Second, kids don’t even do very well at spreading the disease. Dr. Muge Cevik is a virologist in the UK. After studying mountains of tracking data from Europe she concludes:
The fear of children bringing the disease home with them, does not seem to fit with the data that we currently have available.
Finally, our policies should not be locked into old assumptions, but they should be agile enough to accommodate new information. We now have a better idea who gets sick from this disease and how it is transmitted. We are learning every day how to better treat the disease in patients. We are also learning that its actual mortality appears to be quite low.
An honest politician
I was called an alarmist recently. Maybe I am. Maybe some alarms need to be sounded. A lot of decisions about the fall semester will be made in the coming weeks and months. I’m not naive. I know these are hard decisions. No decision comes without risk.
There are a lot of plans on the table right now. Some, in my opinion, are much better than others. (Some are worse than distance learning to be honest.) I think it’s safe to accept that school will not look absolutely normal this fall. But if a state decides they will keep their schools closed in the fall in favor of distance learning, I would love to hear a politician state publicly:
“We know this decision will result in increased numbers of unreported child abuse. We know that this decision will result in more high school drop outs. We know that this decision is tilted strongly against students who come from single-parent homes. We know that marginalized communities will continue to fall further behind because of this decision. Good luck if your student has learning disabilities or lack of access to technology. Also, we know we haven’t adequately trained our teachers or given them the tools to be online instructors. But, we just feel like this is the best and safest decision for us to make at this time.”
Well, maybe I am a little naive after all.
*I got permission from my kids to share this information. I am really proud of my kids. They, along with their peers, have had to deal with a lot this semester. I’m confident there will be some positive fruit that comes from this season, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was really tough.