The Abrupt Shift to Remote Learning Stinks
In many cases, though, it was the right call.
Back in December I wrote that we should do everything possible to keep schools open for in-person learning. We didn’t, and now many schools are offering virtual-only learning. It stinks, and in many cases, it’s the right call.
In Philadelphia, for example, schools are only closing because of staffing shortages, not because we believe kids are at-risk of serious harm from COVID if they come to the physical school building.
This reflects a more comprehensive view of “health and safety” — and that’s an important distinction that’s often missed in the #keepschoolsopen debate that rages daily on Twitter.
If you follow that debate, you’ll see plenty of public health experts like Joseph Allen and Leana Wen say it’s safe for kids to be in school. And, because I believe in following the science, I think they’re right — to an extent.
As school administrators, we prioritize the safety of students and staff even when respiratory viruses are not wreaking havoc on society. We conduct fire drills, shelter-in-place drills, create monitoring schedules, practice lockdowns, promote positive student behavior, utilize hall passes, and monitor security cameras. All of those become impossible when we are short-staffed.
And last week and this week we were very short-staffed. Critically so, in fact. Nearly a third of staff were out, most for COVID-related reasons.
The analogy I often make here is flying. United Airlines is paring back its flight schedule with just 4% of its staff out sick with COVID. It’s true that public health experts say it’s safe to fly — but not if the cockpit is empty.
And that’s where the public health experts and their #keepschoolsopen tweets often fall short. The safe operation of a school building is more comprehensive than whether or not we can prevent the transmission of COVID — and we need healthy staff to do provide that. Heck, even the Flyers postponed tonight’s game because they were short on players. (who cares though — they stink)
Could we have done more to keep schools open for in-person learning? Probably. We could have mailed rapid tests to every in December, perhaps stemming the Omicron surge. We could have closed bars, restaurants, malls, and gyms with the hope of blunting the virus’s spread through society.
Writing in The New Yorker, Jessica Winter captured a snapshot of this in an excellent piece on the recent shifts to virtual learning. Later that day, Leana Wen, a former Planned Parenthood president and Baltimore health commissioner, who is now a professor of public health and a frequent pandemic-era television commentator, tweeted a video clip of her latest CNN spot, filmed from her living room. She wrote, “Would it be ideal if all schools had daily tests & great ventilation? Sure, but that’s not reality. . . . Schools must be open.” She also pointed out that bars, restaurants, and sporting arenas had not closed down. Among those who replied to her tweet was the comedian Judah Friedlander, who asked Wen why she did not use her public platform to urge the government to close down restaurants and other venues (and make payments for business owners’ lost revenue), as that would slow the spread of the virus and improve schools’ chances of operating safely. Wen answered, “Lack of political will and public backing. Public health policy needs to be practical. Don’t call for something that’s not going to happen.”
Moving forward, there’s still more we can do to ensure school can stay open. CHOP’s PolicyLab released new recommendations that include continued universal masking, ending asymptomatic testing, and a mask-to-stay policy. These, along with a reduced mandatory quarantine for those who test positive can help ensure we have enough staff to safely operate in-person learning.
Longer term, we need to better staff — over staff — schools. Many schools are chronically understaffed, and any staff absences exacerbate existing shortages, create unsafe conditions for kids and adults, and cause the burn out that leads to teachers fleeing the profession.
Perhaps the core issue is that we still view public education as a cost, an annoying expense for which money gets deducted from our paychecks and funneled to greedy educators just trying to close schools and skate through the year so they can party all summer. Public education is an investment, though, and if we viewed it that way, maybe we’d have the political will and public backing to do everything possible to keep schools open.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.