Essays

Why Did Some Schools Reopen Faster During the Pandemic than Others?

I just looooove when non-educators argue with me about education policy. It’s amazing that somebody who watched a 5-minute editorial segment on cable TV thinks they know enough about education in a pandemic to lecture someone who has spent over 200 days teaching during a pandemic. Today’s argument: that schools that “closed” (stayed online) should not have received any federal government funding this year. Let’s break this down.

What the Funding Actually Does

First of all, in many cases it was federal government funding that allowed schools to reopen during the pandemic. Schools have been using those funds to upgrade HVAC systems, buy better air filters, replace drinking fountains with more sanitary water bottle fillers, buy more tech devices and musical instruments so that students didn’t have to share materials, etc. ESSER funds from the federal government have been getting that done.

Yes, some of those funds went directly to teachers. A financial incentive for highly skilled people to stay on board when the SHTF is an idea most economists could get behind.

Education and Pandemics

In the bigger picture, we need to seriously consider the impact that schools have on the spread of communicable diseases and consider how to change that.

Book cover: The Premonition, a Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis

In the wake (somewhat literally) of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush wanted to reevaluate how the federal government prepares for and responds to major disasters, both natural and man-made. One of the teams he put together focused on pandemics, and Michael Lewis covers their story in his amazing new book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

One of the tools the team used was the agent-based model (ABM), “a computational model for simulating the actions and interactions of autonomous agents (both individual or collective entities such as organizations or groups) in order to make predictions about the behavior of the system and understand what governs its outcomes.” According to Lewis, it was a teenager’s science fair project that thought of applying it to pandemics.

In applying this model, the scientists applied different factors that influenced the spread of an influenza-like illness (ILI). For example, how closely do people work together, and what happens when we get a certain percentage of people to telework?

What they found was that schools were the biggest culprit in spreading an ILI. The kids are packed in tightly and have a lot of physical contact with each other. The worst place is probably the school bus, where they cram 2-3 students onto each 40-inch seat. “There is nowhere, anywhere, as socially dense as school classrooms, school hallways, school buses,” one of the officials said (Lewis, p. 92).

The computer models showed that closing schools, effectively reducing children’s contact with each other by 60%, was the easiest way to stop a pandemic from spreading while scientists worked on developing treatments and vaccines.

Closing schools during the COVID-19 pandemic was a necessity; reopening them was a difficult, complicated issue; and it was more difficult for some schools than others. Some of these buildings are old, and their HVAC systems are archaic. Some have systems where every classroom is sharing air with the other classrooms. Many have systems that cannot support better air filters. Many have classrooms that are too small and class sizes that are too big.

Nuance versus Nuisance

So some schools could open more easily than others, and pundits pulled those examples out of context and used them to score points against their political opposition. The cable TV viewers accepted these bogus arguments and started pointing fingers. It WaS tHe LiBs! ThE uNiOns! Etc.

Everyone, please just stop watching cable TV news of any kind. It has zero informative value and leads people to make ridiculous arguments about things they know absolutely nothing about. It seems like the more time people spend getting their news from TV, the less capable they are of nuance. Read books, newspapers, and magazines instead (but stay out of the op-ed section).

Also, talk to the people who are on the front lines. Want to know what will make schools better? Talk to teachers. Want to know what will improve healthcare policy? Talk to doctors and nurses. There are not enough people in government or in society in general who are asking the right people the right questions.

Conclusion

Teachers have learned a lot from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government and the voters need to hear about it from those teachers. One of the big things we have learned is that there are ways we can socially distance students, but it is going to have to look a little different from one school to the next. People need to accept this and trust that most educators are trying to do what is best for the kids, and that what works in Florida may not work in New York, and what works in rural Shelby County, Indiana may not work in urban Marion County, Indiana.

As schools prepare to reopen for their 2021-2022 school year, many will be talking about what post-COVID education should look like. I really hope it looks a lot like pre-COVID education did, at least most of the time. But based on the models the federal government has used for pandemics, something that they should seriously consider is having a plan in place for reducing student contact by 60% when there is an outbreak of any serious respiratory disease.

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