Public Education in the Time of COVID

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on February 17, 2021

We're approaching the end of our first year living with the COVID-19 virus here in the United States. The report card for most of our elected officials and institutions is dismal—public education is among the worst.

I see a lot of this close-up. My wife is a high school English teacher; my sister, a high school history teacher. A phone call the other day informed me that my niece has come down with COVID; thankfully, it appears not to have spread to the rest of the family. Just over a week ago, I took my fourth COVID test of the year (negative once again).

Public education on the Central Coast

Public schools here in California shut down last March. I was substitute teaching that last day of in-person teaching and remember telling a bunch of special education students to take home the paper on which they'd copied down the instructions on how they would access the next book they'd be reading if the schools were shut down. The lead instructor emphasized that no one in San Luis Obispo County had the coronavirus; the nearest confirmed case was in Ventura County. "That's two counties away," she told the class. Later that afternoon, word went out that the schools would be closed.

Distance learning last year was largely a joke. While all the students had been assigned chromebooks, using them exclusively for their learning was often a steep curve—and that goes for many of the teachers too. You tried to do online learning, but broadband internet was not something that every family had. Low-income families were hard hit. Cable operators offered free internet installation and use short-term, and the schools tried to get wi-fi hotspots from cellular phone companies to students, but all of that still took a month or two, and it didn't solve every problem.

One of my wife's students had to resort to mailing in his work through the post office. His family lives in a rural part of the school district and he has three other sibilings. Four kids trying to do distance learning on a dial-up connection. (Their home didn't have much in the way of a cell signal either, so that wasn't a solution.) Four video streams of teachers simultaneously? Watch this YouTube video? Not going to happen.

And because this was a pandemic, the kind of "emergency" solutions that you would attempt if you didn't have internet access at your home weren't doable either. Public Libraries? Closed. Starbucks? Closed. How many families who can't afford high-speed internet at home can spare a car to sit in a parking lot outside some shuttered business that is kind enough to keep their wi-fi on and accessible? And how long is it before those businesses dump that bill when it can't help draw in paying customers and they're struggling to pay their employees and cover their overhead on takeout-only?

For the class of 2020,  the pandemic obviously was a huge buzzkill. No senior trip. No senior prom. Graduation was typically little more than a drive-thru or drive-in parade. Going to college? Maybe not. Many colleges continued with the distance learning, leaving the incoming freshman class "experiencing" college remotely. The Advanced Placement tests? An absolute joke. Though nearly every college said they would honor the truncated tests, it's questionable at the very least that cutting a test that normally takes about three hours to one that's just 40 minutes—and allowing it to be done at home without a proctor or any other method for ensuring that no cheating is allowed—is sufficient to demonstrate mastery of calculus, chemistry, physics or college level English.

Do the Teachers Unions want teachers teaching?

It seems to be a problem across the country, usually affecting the largest teachers unions who seem to be more interested in scaremongering than teaching our children, but not always.

One of the nation's largest teachers unions, representing teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District with an estimated K-12 enrollment for this school year of just over 550,000, issued a 17-page document in July that included a slew of non-health-related demands including:

  • The California State legislature passing, and the governor signing, a bill creating a "wealth tax" on unrealized capital gains.
  • The California State legislature passing, and the governor signing, a "millionaire tax" of 1% on income greater than $1 million and 3% for anything over $3 million.
  • Defund the police.
  • Require all businesses in LA County to provide an additional 10 sick days above whatever they may already provide.
  • A ban on charter schools.

The first two items are particularly foolish, because if this pandemic has taught California's millionaire class anything, it's that they can do their jobs remotely. A computer, webcam, and a fast internet connection are all you need to get the benefits of a high-income job in California, without ever actually having to be in California. (This question may be coming to the Supreme Court soon as New Hampshire is fighting back against Massachusetts' attempt to continue to tax workers who, before the pandemic, commuted to Massachusetts to work.)

The rest of the list is just all kinds of ultra-left wing virtue-signaling that has nothing to do with teachers actually teaching in a pandemic.

The one demand the LA teachers union did make that was healthcare-related was a demand on the federal government to implement "Medicare for All."  Of course, paying for all of this (and there's more, much more) was not a major concern other than "eat the rich."

These were not serious requests. These weren't requests that their district administrators or principals at individual schools could meet. These demands reeked of former Obama adviser and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's famous, cynical dictum: "Don't let a crisis go to waste."

In Fairfax County, Va., local health officials helped put teachers near the front of the line for vaccine distribution, as a case was made that vaccinating teachers was necessary for them to return to in-person learning. After all, the purpose of the vaccine is to prevent you from getting COVID, and teachers are certainly a diverse enough group that some of them would fall into the categories more likely to be in mortal danger from catching the virus. At the middle- and high-school levels, teachers interact with maybe 150 students a day based upon how the typical school day is structured.

But once they'd jumped the vaccine line with promises to return to in-person learning, the teacher's union in Fairfax County said: Wait, all students need the vaccine too. They also contend that they're unlikely to return to the classrooms until Fall 2021—next school year. Of course, the vaccines that are currently going into people's arms haven't been approved for children younger than 14, so who knows when they're really interested in returning to school.

Last month, at a school board hearing in Pasco, Wash., the local teacher's union president, Scott Wilson, told his school board that wanting to reopen schools is "white supremacy."

One friend of mine on Facebook who teaches elementary school in Oregon, posted a panicked cri de cœur as fall approached that returning to in-person learning was an almost certain death sentence (this person is in her mid- to late-40s and suffers from none of the pre-existing conditions that would increase her risk) and that when she decided to make teaching her career, she didn't picture this as a job that might cost her her life. She stated that she would gladly take a bullet for her students (though likely wouldn't arm herself to make a potential killer threatening her students take a bullet, but that's an argument for another site), but returning to campus while this deadly disease was running rampant wasn't what she signed up for.

I resisted replying: "OK. Now do grocery store workers."

Preparing for Fall: Remote Education Technology

As the two weeks to "flatten the curve" so as to not overwhelm our hospital capacity morphed into something that seemed a lot like "stay home so you can stay alive!" it became clear schools wouldn't be re-opening in the fall. Schools struggled to create a system for online learning relying on technology from Zoom, Google, and Microsoft. Google likely had the largest share as its "classroom" software and low-priced chromebooks are nearly ubiquitous. Things didn't go smoothly.

Despite training teachers (and substitutes!) on the software, students and their families were too often left to their own devices. Not that that is all the school districts' fault, but there was an assumption of a basic level of technical proficiency required just to access the online instructions for the more complicated stuff. It's not like you can hold a public information or training session in person a few nights a week in the middle of a pandemic. Further complicating this is the disparate software systems that most schools use. In Paso Robles, students see and get most of their work in Google Classroom, but when it comes to sending home report cards, those grades have to be moved into software created by Aeries which manages all student data. There are plugins which allow you to take attendance in Google Classroom, but again, Aeries is where that data has to eventually find its way. This need to bridge different systems, though the systems themselves may vary, is not uncommon at schools nationwide.

And when fall started, Google Meet for education didn't have some of the features that teachers really need to encourage student participation. There was no way within a Google Meet to have students raise a virtual hand to ask a question. They'd have to put something in the chat and hope the teacher noticed a little pop-up in the corner of the screen or had the chat window open. There wasn't a polling function—the equivalent of asking students to raise their hands if they agree with A or B. Google Meets also didn't have breakout rooms, so you couldn't do the equivalent of having students work in small groups for a time. (Breakout rooms are still a bit of a mess because the user-interface can make it very difficult to assign students to rooms if you have a lot of students and a lot of rooms.)

With distance learning, attendance is also a more fluid concept. Instead of present, tardy, absent, there's synchronous learning and asynchronous learning. The student shows up to class when class is "in session," or the student shows up to class sometime later. So now, teachers aren't just taking roll at the beginning of class and then they're done with it. Now, they've got to re-visit every class from the previous day to see if some or all of those students who weren't present during the actual class time, showed up sometime later during that day to do the work.

Then there's dealing with substitute teachers like me. Substitute teachers have far fewer opportunities for work with teachers able to run classes from home even when they're under the weather. Teachers aren't being sent to attend training, or accompany sports teams, or any of the other typical reasons why a sub may be needed in a pinch. In Paso Robles, when we do work, we need to be provided with access to both Google Classroom and Aeries, while we're informed of the job itself via a third software provider: Frontline Education.

And these things don't always go smoothly. It's happened to me several times where the teacher's absence (or at least the administration becoming aware of the absence) is a last-minute thing. So last minute, that I was not added as a teacher in Google Classroom and students aren't able to get into the Google Meet to get their assignments and for me to take attendance until 10 or 15 minutes after class has started.

And school districts generally want their teachers actually teaching from the campuses, regardless of whether students are physically present or not, so they can keep better track of them. While the vast majority of teachers are doing their best to provide quality remote instruction, there have been some bad apples who've used the pandemic and remote work as an excuse to do whatever the teaching profession's equivalent is of the old military acronym ROAD—Retired On Active Duty. I'm reminded of my eighth grade history teacher whose class each day consisted of coming in, sitting down, looking at the blackboard which contained the pages we were to read in our textbook and the questions we were to answer at the end of the section. All the while he sat at the back of a darkened room, wearing his sunglasses, saying nothing.

School districts want teachers on campus, but one problem they encountered was an internet bandwidth issue. Most cable-provided high-speed data connections nowadays are 100Mbps downstream, but only 10Mbps upstream. The downstream would ideally allow you to have four 4k video streams simultaneously, but the upstream is designed only to really handle the small data requests necessary for web browsing along with a handful of multiplayer games or similar bandwidth. School districts obviously have much larger bandwidth than typical homes, but the fact that it is often structured similarly, with downstream bandwidth many multiples of the upstream created a problem. Many school districts found that their networks, which were designed to handle intranet activity within the school site, student access to Google Docs, and teachers streaming (hopefully) educational videos on occasion, were woefully constricted when it came to pushing video streams of the nearly 100 teachers up to the Internet so students could see them—in addition to all that other stuff.

So, at least at Paso Robles High School for the better part of the fall semester, administrators were limited to having only half the teachers on campus on any particular day, because that's all the infrastructure could handle. Even then, quite a few teachers got frustrated because they felt the on-campus Internet was not nearly as good as what they could get at home.

Public education: Elected officials behaving badly

While parents have been largely concerned with getting kids back in school and most school administrators have been doing what they can to make distance learning work while simultaneously preparing for a return to campus, some school boards have behaved badly. The poster-child for a school board that is far more concerned with being woke than anything having to do with the actual education of students is the San Francisco Unified School District Board.

The board has spent a lot of time recently removing the names of problematic historical figures from its schoolhouses, rather than preparing for a return of students to their school campuses. This Atlantic article does a good job of providing a rundown of the board's follies, even if it does include a pot shot at Fox News in the subhed. Isn't the school board's mass renaming of schools odious irrespective of how Fox News would report on it?

On January 26, the San Francisco school board announced that dozens of public schools must be renamed. The figures that do not meet the board’s standards include Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Revere, and Dianne Feinstein. A panel had determined that the 44 schools—more than one-third of the city’s total—were named after figures guilty of being, variously, colonizers; slave owners; exploiters of workers; oppressors of women, children, or queer and transgender people; people connected to human rights or environmental abuses; and espousers of racist beliefs.

It's not just that this effort is part of one by our current elites to apply current societal standards to historical figures, but that the school board's research into these historical figures was so shoddy as to earn them a failing grade in an elementary school-level research assignment. Paul Revere's name will be removed from an elementary school because the school board believed that the Penobscot Expedition of 1779, which he participated in, was an effort to colonize the Penobscot Indians. It was in fact an attack on a British Fort in Maine during the Revolutionary War. Notified of the error, the board declined to reconsider or rescind its decision. The board also voted to remove the name of  San Francisco businessman James Lick because of an installation funded by his foundation two decades after his death.

Even a somewhat sympathetic piece in The New Yorker magazine can't completely polish this turd. Writer Isaac Choitner interviewed Board President Gabriela López, 30, an accredited schoolteacher who should probably not be let anywhere near schoolchildren.

The reason I bring this up is that some of the historical reasoning behind these decisions has been contested—not so much how we should view the fact that George Washington was a founder of the country and a slave holder but, rather, factual things like Paul Revere’s name being removed for the Penobscot Expedition, which was not actually about the colonization of Native American lands. And so there were questions about whether historians should have been involved to check these things.

I see what you’re saying. So, for me, I guess it’s just the criteria was created to show if there were ties to these specific themes, right? White supremacy, racism, colonization, ties to slavery, the killing of indigenous people, or any symbols that embodied that. And the committee shared that these are the names that have these ties. And so, for me, at this moment, I have the understanding we have to do the teaching, but also I do agree that we shouldn’t have these ties, and this is a way of showing it.

I guess part of the problem is that the ties may not be what the committee said they were. That’s why I brought it up.

So then you go into discrediting the work that they’re doing, and the process that they put together in order to create this list. So when we begin to have these conversations, and we’re pointing to that, and we’re given the reasoning and they’re sharing why they made this choice and why they’re putting it out there, I don’t want to get into a process where we then discredit the work that this group has done.

Informed that the committee botched the history, the "educator" responds with the equivalent of "how dare you question their truth."

While Revere, Lick, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, along with forty others are on their way out, Malcolm X Academy will keep its name, despite the fact that he worked as a pimp in his younger years.

The changing of signage, sports uniforms, gym floors, letterheads, websites, etc., for the new names is expected to be at least $1 million—and likely much more—and is already facing a $75 million budget shortfall for the coming school year.

Among the other recent insanities that are not about children's education that SFUSD has been doing in recent weeks:

  • District administrators are using their valuable time to determine that acronyms are racist, and will change the district's Visual and Performing Arts Department (VAPA) to SFUSD Arts Department. As Fox News snarked: "It was not clear whether SFUSD was also considered a racist acronym."
  • The board stripped prestigious Lowell High School of its merit-based admissions system, because merit is racist. San Francisco Chronicle columnist  Heather Knight noted in another column that the school board apparently violated California's Brown Act, which dictates how public meetings are conducted, when it restricted opponents of the move to 30 minutes, while allowing supporters far more time.
  • The board also spent two hours debating whether a gay father of a mixed race fourth-grader be allowed to volunteer on a parent advisory group that's half-staffed because he might not be diverse enough. In San Francisco.

Read the column. The man sat there on Zoom for two hours as the school board talked about him, but not one of those elected officials ever considered actually talking to him. This guy had it right, just based on principle: "[W]hen someone this qualified shows up of their own free will, to work for nothing on a volunteer board that's half vacant, a good rule of thumb is to say 'when can you start[?]' "

Public education remotely: Is our children learning?

I don't mean to slam former President George W. Bush, but his ungrammatically formed question seems apt.

While highly motivated students can learn in this environment—sites like Kahn Academy and LinkedIn Learning (formerly are evidence that there's a market for learning at your own pace—highly motivated students may only be 10-20% of the student population. Another 20-30% may be able to be coaxed, harangued and threatened into doing enough work to pass by their parent(s) or guardians. But that leaves probably half of students who are going to fail at least one class, and potentially all of their classes, this year. Make no mistake about the academic rigor of this sort of distance learning; it's not what you get from in-person instruction.

I thought it was bad before when you had geometry students pulling out calculators when asked things like: What's 6 x 7? Or students in an Algebra 1 class who looked down on their desks and fiddled when asked what are all the factors of 12? Now when students take a test, it's not really a test. There's no proctor. There's no outside accountability. Yes, honest students and those highly motivated ones may not consult outside sources or run their math problems through Wolfram|Alpha, and their grade may truly represent their acquired knowledge. But for the other 70-80%? If we don't get back to in-person instruction pretty quick, this will be a lost academic year.

When it comes to students even turning in work, it's often a hard row to hoe when it comes to getting students to do it. It's not uncommon when I go through recent assignments in a Google classroom to get a feeling for where in the subject the students are and what questions I might be asked as a substitute that I see that less than half of students have turned in an assignment on time—or at all.

Some students have learned to game the system when it comes to showing their parents that they're caught up on their classwork by turning in blank assignments. My wife has found that it's not uncommon for students to "turn-in" an empty document so they can show their parents that all their assignments are completed and be allowed to play video games or do whatever else they're allowed to do with the COVID restrictions in place.

Students enrolled in job-training classes, welding, woodworking, automotive repair, have been coming onto campus in small groups for some of their learning, but even then it's a shadow of what they get in a normal school environment.

Who's looking out for underage workers now?

It's not uncommon for a student to notify me, via the chat window, that they have to leave class a few minutes early to go to work. Or have students login to the class' Google Meet on their cell phone, from their job, to ask me to mark them as having attended class, even though they're going to log off momentarily and continue work. On the positive side, some working students are able to arrive at their work location early and attend class using the business's public wi-fi connection since fast-food dining rooms are closed.

California hasn't suspended its child labor laws. Students are supposed to be in school, even if it is just virtually.

I'm not out for a mindless crackdown on teenagers working. Too much of the restrictions on businesses due to COVID are draconian, inflexible and often devoid of commonsense.

I have no doubt that some of these students who are working instead of showing up to class are doing this to support their families. COVID has hit our economy hard, and if a 16- or 17-year-old needs to work mornings at McDonalds because her mom is only working part-time as a hotel maid now that people aren't traveling as much, then you gotta do what you gotta do, and we should be understanding of that.

But that's certainly not the case in all of the situations I've encountered. When I was 17 years old working at the Alpha Beta in La Mesa, Calif., I was once scheduled to work a six-hour shift on a school night. Someone different had done the schedule that week and they weren't aware that those under 18 years old were limited to just four hours on a school night. I alerted management to this and the store's assistant manager asked me "if this was a problem?" I informed him that for me it wasn't, but don't blame me if state inspectors chose to audit their books and spotted this violation. So it's certainly not out of the realm of probability that all these years later some less-than-scrupulous employers may see this as an opportunity for more cheap labor, believing they aren't learning much via distance learning anyway.

Public education remotely: The human fallout

Human beings are social animals. There's a reason why solitary confinement is punishment for prisoners. The stereotypical hermit in movies and literature is often portrayed as someone with at least a hint of insanity.

Spending most of your days isolated is not good for your mental health. There have been no fall sports. Winter and Spring sports may only be allowed for those that can be played in a socially distanced fashion, like cross country and golf. Students are spending much of their time sitting at home—at a desk in their own bedroom if they're lucky, at a dining room table with siblings if they aren't—trying to learn while watching a single teacher via their computer. And that's for the ones that are really trying to learn.

Teachers, on the other hand, at least at the high school level, typically spend their day talking to a virtual wall. The Google Meet shows the teacher's own webcam image, and a sea of colored dots, each with a single letter in the middle. Students may respond via the chat window. They might turn on their microphones briefly to answer a question. But a teacher can easily go the better part of a school day with minimal interaction with other people.

Students at the high school level are not required to turn on their webcams, so many don't. The reasoning is that a look at what's behind them may attach to them some social stigma due to their living conditions.

It's not uncommon for me to substitute "teach" ninety students in a day, actually see not a single one of them, and hear the voices of no more than five.

For regular teachers, used to forming relationships with their students over the course of a year, this new paradigm comes as a shock. It's likely they wouldn't recognize the vast majority of their students if they passed them in a grocery store (masks notwithstanding).

For many students this is having a serious effect on their mental well-being.

In that same San Francisco school district that is busy renaming schools based on faulty googling and declining to allow gay fathers of mixed race children to volunteer, a new report shows the district's most vulnerable students are the ones suffering the most from distance learning.

“There are so many kids in this pandemic who just haven’t been heard from at all,” said Dr. Jeanne Noble, UCSF director of COVID response, adding that reopening schools is critical and can be done safely. “Every place you look — signs of social phobia and isolation all the way up to suicide attempts — screams crisis.”

That same article quotes school board president López responding to this news in a fashion that should generate sufficient outrage that she is forced to leave town, change her name and live in cave as penitence.

School board President Gabriela López did not specifically address the problem of learning loss, but she said that parents are doing an amazing job helping their students and that learning has not stopped during the pandemic — rather, it is just different.

“They are learning more about their families and their cultures, spending more time with each other,” López said. “They’re just having different learning experiences than the ones we currently measure, and the loss is a comparison to a time when we were in a different space.”

Cal State Dominquez Hills, López's alma mater, might want to consider revoking her degree.

The City of San Francisco has had enough and announced that it is suing the school district to force them to open the schools.'

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital has seen a 66 percent increase in the number of suicidal children in the emergency room and a 75 percent increase in youth who required hospitalization for mental health services, the lawsuit said, quoting pediatricians, child psychiatrists and emergency room doctors.

Clark County, Nev., home to Las Vegas, is opening its schools in response to a doubling of student suicides.

Even in normal circumstances, suicides are impulsive, unpredictable and difficult to ascribe to specific causes. The pandemic has created conditions unlike anything mental health professionals have seen before, making causation that much more difficult to determine.

But Greta Massetti, who studies the effects of violence and trauma on children at the C.D.C., said there was “definitely reason to be concerned because it makes conceptual sense.” Millions of children had relied on schools for mental health services that have now been restricted, she noted.

In Clark County, 18 suicides over nine months of closure is double the nine the district had the entire previous year, Dr. Jara said. Six students died by suicide between March 16 and June 30; 12 students died by suicide between July 1 and Dec. 31, the district said.

One student left a note saying he had nothing to look forward to. The youngest student Dr. Jara has lost to suicide was 9.

“I feel responsible,” [Clark County schools Superintendent] Dr. [Jesus] Jara said. “They’re all my kids.”

Nine year olds committing suicide is not normal, even by the abnormality inherent in youth suicide. In Wisconsin, last summer, they had a 10-year-old girl whose death as ruled a suicide.

And it's happening across the country, regardless of race, creed, color, socio-economic background.

A report published by the Centers for Disease Control back in November 2020, noted that children showing up at hospital emergency rooms for mental health-related problems had increased 24% for kids aged 5-11 and 31% for kids 12-17 years old. And much of this was at a time when public health officials were urging the public to put off  elective surgeries and do doctors visits via telemedicine so as to not overburden our hospital capacity. Despite those urgings, parents still felt strongly enough that they took their kids in for help immediately.

This video on Hayden Hunstable who killed himself just days short of his 13th birthday is playing out again and again across the country.

In Maryland, a 14-year-old boy killed himself, and his parents describe how he "gave up," when school didn't reopen in the fall.

In Lodi, Calif., an 11-year-old somehow managed to get ahold of a gun and committed suicide in the middle of a Zoom class.

In Brunswick, Maine, one day a week of in-person learning and flag-football wasn't enough for a 16-year-old high school sophomore who also killed himself. (Parents' understanding of the insufficiency of one-day-a-week learning and the obviously limited social-interaction that that would allow is probably one of the reasons why there was so much blowback after White House spokeswoman Jen "Circle Back" Psaki stated that schools would be considered "open" according to Biden's campaign promise to have a majority of schools "open" in his first 100 days.)

For those who are worried about school district employees monitoring the use of school-issued electronics, there's this bit of good news: A 12-year-old boy's suicide attempt was thwarted after district officials discovered a web search for "how to make a noose."

Stories like this one are far too numerous:

Colleen Neely, a counselor at Shadow Ridge High School, recalled how a young man she had advised since ninth grade used to stand outside her office every day after fourth period.

He had overcome so much by the 2019-2020 school year in his determination to graduate: When he was junior, he was homeless and the school connected him to a shelter; for a week, he lived in a park near the school, and staff gave him food and other resources; his schedule was shortened so he could work at McDonald’s.

In the spring of 2020, Ms. Neely sent the young man an email telling him how proud she was of him, that he was so close to getting what he wanted. Two weeks before graduation, she got the call that he had shot himself.

“Part of me will always wonder if he’d had access to his teachers, and his peers, and me, if it would’ve changed the outcome,” Ms. Neely said through tears. “I will never know. These suicides, they don’t impact one person and one family. They impact me to this day.”

It has to stop. Our schools need to be re-opened now.

Public education: Reopen schools now

Nationwide, especially in our most populous states the numbers don't look good.

And all of this has been going on amid a backdrop that schools are not a major transmission vector for the COVID virus.

There continue to be various barriers to getting students into the classroom, for many districts in California, the post-Thanksgiving virus spike had the effect of putting off many of those plans as state government officials largely declined to "follow the science," instead stoking fears and flexing their emergency powers. While hospitalizations grew in the most populous areas of California, semi-rural counties like Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo were grouped with San Diego and Los Angeles when it came to opening schools.

In many school districts, the plan was to reopen schools with the start of the Spring semester. In Paso Robles, the winter break was even extended a week in the hope that would allow a change of tier and enable in-person learning.

It didn't happen.

With the spike and new CDC guidelines that appear to ignore the science of COVID in the interest of providing excuses to some recalcitrant teachers unions, in some major metropolitan areas you may be looking at in-person education starting up in Fall 2021—maybe.

The new report on schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should be a wake-up call to parents everywhere: If they’re not back already, your kids are not going back to school full-time this year.

The report adds new and unnecessary demands that will ultimately keep millions of kids out of school. In particular, there are two items that will act as barriers: the use of community-spread metrics to determine whether schools should open, and the requirement of routine screening testing.

The CDC defines four color-coded levels of the spread of covid-19 in a school’s surrounding community: blue (low), yellow (moderate), orange (substantial) and red (high). If community spread is red and if schools don’t have routine screening testing in place, two conditions that exist in more than 90 percent of the country right now, the CDC recommends closing middle and high schools, unless all mitigation strategies can be strictly adhered to, and hybrid models for young learners. If it is orange, middle schools and high schools join elementary schools in being able to go hybrid. In yellow or blue communities, all K-12 schools can be open for in-person instruction.

But community-spread metrics pose major problems. We’re part of a group of faculty and researchers at Harvard, Boston University and Brown University that released a report in July using such metrics as indicators for when to open schools. We changed our position on this in light of overwhelming scientific evidence that transmission within schools can be kept low regardless of community spread, so long as good mitigation measures are in place. It’s also clear that community spread is not an indicator of within-school transmission. The CDC itself released a study showing this. It also recently wrote that there is “little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to community transmission.” So why tie reopening schools to community spread?

There’s another problem with the two community-spread metrics selected — cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days, and the percentage of covid-19 tests that are positive. The first metric is entirely dependent on how much a community is testing; the second is flawed because it cannot be interpreted without understanding who is being targeted for testing.

The thresholds for these metrics are also very low. Communities only get into the blue zone if they report about one daily case per 100,000. Good luck to any districts hoping to get to that level before most people are vaccinated. And when a district eventually does move into the blue or yellow zone, the CDC wrote that this should be “documented continuously for several weeks” before transitioning to full in-person teaching, further adding delay to any potential reopening.

Remarkably, even if schools implement screening testing — defined as testing teachers at least weekly and offering a few different student testing strategies — the CDC still recommends hybrid models for schools in red- and orange-level communities. So if such a school did take on screening testing, all that would get them is moving middle and high schools into a hybrid model. That’s a big lift for not much gain toward reopening.

Is Biden's CDC following the science? No, it is not. This is arguably as bad or worse than the haranguing and harassment that public health officials underwent during the Trump administration. The difference is we knew all about it then as cable news went all out with wall-to-wall coverage, and now...they don't. Yes, you can find articles like this one in Politico, or this one from Bloomberg, but the front page of looks like this:

And has nary a mention of schools reopening, COVID and the CDC guidelines or teachers unions responses to it.


At least MSNBC has this issue that's on the top of the mind of many parents actually on their homepage, with the top video being a Stephanie Ruhle interview with former Obama administration Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who apparently thinks Stephanie is named "Chris." But neither the homepage nor the interview mention the competing interests of some large teachers unions and "following the science." There's no mention that the CDC guidelines, as outlined by the public health scientists in the Washington Post opinion piece above, are contrary to the science and appear instead to be designed to ensure Biden's continued support from the unions.

Teachers unions still behaving badly

I want to emphasize again that I'm married to a public school teacher, and point out that in a good portion of the nation's vast flyover country, teachers unions have not acted as a barrier to a return to in-person learning and the majority of teachers do want to return to student-filled classrooms. Unfortunately, there are still some teachers and some of their local unions that seem to want life to be a risk-free endeavor.

For students and teachers without underlying conditions, and taking proper precautions, schools are safer than driving your car down the road.

These Chicago teachers should be fired, stripped naked, tarred, feathered and tossed in Lake Michigan:

That Pasco, Wash., teacher's union head that I mentioned earlier? In addition to his claim that reopening schools is "white supremacy," he also delivered the whopper that parents concerned about the mental health impact of continued isolation via remote learning is an example of "white privilege." Don't believe me?

You'd think for a man who lost one of his own children to suicide would have more empathy for others worried their children might suffer the same fate. You'd be wrong.

Public education: What it will look like

For Paso Robles High School students, the hybrid learning model would mean that students would come back to in-person classes four days a week, with half of the students showing up in the morning, half in the afternoon. Classrooms have been laid out allowing six feet between students and there are numerous markers on the ground that will direct student flow while hopefully accommodating the social distancing.

For teachers and staff with preexisting conditions, adjustments would be made, with teachers being broadcast into the live classroom, but with a substitute teacher physically present to assist. (I've already had one teacher reach out to me to do this for him when we come back to in-person learning.) Students with compromised immune systems would continue to participate from home.

There's still lots of questions.

Between the morning and afternoon classes, an army of custodians and other staff would fog the rooms. This requires teachers to leave their rooms for at least several minutes, but it is unclear where they would go during this time. Teacher break/work rooms have insufficient space to allow the necessary social distancing. And then there's potentially turning already stressed teachers (who now have to do their lessons twice as many times a day as they normally would) into mini-janitors as California law forbids allowing even high school students to use disinfecting wipes. (This is the same California nanny-statism that requires aloe vera extract to carry a cancer warning.) All of this is again anti-science anyway; there is not one documented case of COVID-19 transmission from surfaces.

How student bathrooms are going to be handled is going to be an issue. All bathrooms but one had been closed during class time because of student behavior issues (vaping, and others). Will that continue? What about during passing periods? How will the number of students in the bathroom simultaneously be enforced? And what about disinfection? (Since we're still behaving as though surface transmission is a thing.)

What is the parking lot going to look like during the mid-day switchover when you have half of the students leaving, and half arriving? What happens with afterschool activities?

I'm sure school administrators have a plan, but what happens when the plan meets reality is likely something different. This will all get worked out, but it's not going to be easy.

Does normalcy return in the 2021-22 school year? Or is it even later? One thing is for certain, it's not happening this school year.


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February 2021



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