Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

What are we going to do about school?

Happier times, when our role in our daughter’s education consisted mostly of taking her to inspect dinosaur bones. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Hello! Sorry for the radio silence. We have been hanging in there, and I hope you are too.

Like many of you, my energy lately has been focused on figuring out how to manage my daughter’s education during the 2020-2021 school year. I have learned the hard way that while I am happy to supplement my daughter’s education in various ways, I am not particularly suited to assuming full-time responsibility for it. I much prefer my daughter to be taught by trained teachers, so I have been following the recent debate around schools pretty intensely.

I’ve read countless communications issued by our governor, our town, school district superintendent, our county’s public health department, and my daughter’s school. I’ve listened to multiple interviews of public health experts, education officials, and politicians about what it will take to reopen our schools. I’ve taken every opportunity I can to talk with teachers, parents, caregivers, and kids to get a better sense of how they are thinking through the issue and what the school districts in their area are planning so far. And of course, I’ve been monitoring the news, the school-based angst playing out on Twitter, and participating in discussions in various parenting groups on Facebook.

In the process, I came across several helpful resources. I thought I’d share some of them with you today, in case you were also trying to figure out how your family will navigate the 2020-21 school year.

Note: This post is link-heavy, so instead of providing all the links in one clump at the end of the post like I normally do, I’m going to provide the links for each section at the end of that section.

But first, I’d like to acknowledge how much about this year feels like it’s simply out of our hands

There are as many opinions on when and how to reopen schools as there are people in the discussion. Frankly, that’s hardly surprising, as personal risk assessments are just that — personal. Every family is subject to a unique set of financial, emotional, educational, and social pressures, all of which play into that family’s requirements when it comes to getting the best possible education for their child.

Unfortunately, much about this school year feels like it’s simply out of our hands.

For example, here in California, Governor Newsom recently announced that no public or private schools in any of the counties on the state watch list would be allowed to open for in-person education until they had been off the watch list for at least two weeks. Our county is currently on the watch list, which is why our school district announced this week that all of its schools would only offer remote learning through mid-October. There’s nothing our family can do about that, except to do everything in our power to get local transmission rates down (wear our masks; stay home as much as possible, but especially when we’re sick; wash our hands obsessively; yada yada yada).

Other school districts across the nation are starting the year with at least some in-person classes, but it’s extremely possible that those schools (or segments of those schools) could be forced to close on short notice as COVID-19 cases pop up. At the very least, students in affected classes and cohorts may be required go into quarantine at very short notice.

We’re already seeing this in places like Cherokee County, Georgia, where a local elementary school was able to stay open for all of one day before a second grader tested positive for coronavirus. The second grader, their teacher, and classmates are all in quarantine now. My heart goes out to all of those parents who were counting on sending their kids to school, but now have a child at home whom they are anxiously monitoring for symptoms.

Another school in Hancock County, Indiana had to send part of their student body (and at least one teacher) into quarantine after parents sent a child to school who was later found to have tested positive for COVID-19. This case worries me a bit more. After all, although the child had been given a COVID-19 test, the parents sent that child to school before the test results came back. This is both anxiety-provoking and unsurprising, because our country uses school as a proxy for daytime childcare and because wait times for COVID-19 test results are unpredictable and can be quite long — anywhere from same-day to a couple of weeks.

Those parents may have needed their child back in school because they had no other reliable child care options. If that’s your situation, your child isn’t showing symptoms, you don’t know how long it will take to get the test results back, and you don’t know if your child was ever actually exposed to COVID-19, then it could easily seem like a reasonable choice to send your apparently healthy child back to school while you wait on the test results.

My point is, these parents won’t be the only parents in the U.S. to do the math about their situation and come up with that answer. In the context of widespread community illness, this sort of thing is both absolutely predictable and probably unpreventable without systemic societal changes.

After all, as Nancy Gibbs points out in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post on July 28, pulling kids out of school is simply not an option for many parents.

“But pulling kids out is a luxury many people, especially single parents, don’t have. And even those who have the margin to manage remote learning still have their nightmares. Let your kid fall even further behind in math … or risk losing some lung capacity. Dip into the depleted college fund to hire a private tutor? Whom should you trust in your parent pod, if you share supervision so that at least some of you can work on some days, praying the other families are as stringent about safety as you are? Do you include any families of essential workers, who need the support most? This is advanced math, layered with fear and shot through with questions of fairness.”

Nancy Gibbs, “Why parents now face an impossible choice“, Washington Post Opinion Page, July 28, 2020

For parents of college-age kids, all of this must feel even harder. After all, the decision about whether or not to go back to school in the fall may not even be theirs to make, as Melody Warnick points out in a recent essay published in the Washington Post. If the student in question is over 18 and the school being evaluated is an undergraduate or graduate institution, their kids may very well take the decision right out of their hands — if the university hasn’t done so first. Having a strong opinion about the most appropriate action but having to sit back while your child makes a different choice is one of the most excruciating aspects of parenting for me, even in non-pandemic times.

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Wait, what is a parent pod?

In our area, and perhaps in yours, cohorts of parents dissatisfied with the quality of distance learning they experienced last spring are pooling resources to open pod schools. A typical pod, whether overseen by an independent educational institution or an ad-hoc collection of parents, consists of 3 to 10 children, usually in the same grade, who meet for several hours a day in-person to be taught by a hired teacher. The hope is that these pods will provide the benefits of in-person education, while reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission and mitigating the emotional effects of social isolation. Done right, these pods could well be amazing, but they can also be expensive. A K-4 pod overseen by a teacher from the Hudson Lab School in Hastings, New York will cost $125,000 per year or $68,750 for a five-month commitment. For a five-child pod, that’s $13,750 – $25,000 per child.

In my school district at least, there is clearly concern that the formation of these pods will contribute to community spread. Although my local school district doesn’t have an official position on pods, in his latest parent town hall, our district superintendent pleaded with parents to ensure that their pods followed all of the same COVID-19 precautions that the schools themselves would have to upon reopening. Otherwise, he said, “You’ll just keep all of us out of school that much longer.”

“Advanced math, layered with fear and shot through with questions of fairness,” indeed.

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So what can we as parents do?

As smarter people have pointed out, we face an impossible choice. But I refuse to believe that we are helpless. At some point, my school is going to start offering in-person education. As a parent, I’m going to want to be able to evaluate their current plans based on available data about how the pandemic is doing in our area, guidelines for re-opening from trusted experts, and my own family situation. And if I don’t think my local school is doing enough to protect kids and their teachers, then I want to have some data to back that assertion up — not just fear.

In this section, I’ll tell you about some resources that can help you do exactly that.

1) How can parents tell how the pandemic is doing in their area?

In the interest of bringing some data into the discussions around school re-openings, Harvard Global Health Institute released this COVID-19 dashboard, which tracks daily COVID risk levels for the U.S. at state and county levels, so you can see exactly how your county and/or state is currently doing. Here’s a screenshot of what that map looked like on August 9, 2020.

Harvard Global Health Institute online dashboard for August 9, 2020. As of August 9, 2020, there are more than 5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and more than 161,000 deaths. (Source: Harvard Global Health Institute)

Now, there are lots of dashboards you could use to monitor the pandemic, including the COVID-19 map maintained by Johns Hopkins.

As far as I know, however, Harvard’s site is the only one that has linked the color-coded risk levels in its dashboard to a specific set of reopening guidelines in its publication, “The Path to Zero and Schools: Achieving Pandemic Resilient Teaching and Learning Spaces.” There’s even a handy chart to show administrators and parents how the public health experts at Harvard would prioritize various services in higher risk areas. All of which will come in handy for parents trying to assess whether their local school is doing enough to try to protect students as schools reopen, given the conditions in their area.

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2) How can parents use the Harvard dashboard to tell whether their local school’s plans for reopening are potentially adequate?

I say “potentially adequate” here, because all things considered, there’s a lot about this disease we still don’t know. This is our first full school year in a world with COVID-19, and we’re all bound to get some things wrong. Experiences with reopening schools in Europe and Israel have already made it clear how important things like PPE (masks and shields), physical distancing, limits on crowd sizes, easy access to hand sanitizer and hand washing stations, testing, contact tracing, and adequate ventilation are for reopening schools safely.

The Harvard Global Health Institute’s guidelines for reopening schools open with this stark reminder:

“The single best policy to support school re-opening prior to the development of a vaccine or treatment is suppression of COVID to near zero case incidence. This can be achieved via universal mask wearing, rigorous social distancing, reduction or elimination of indoor congregant settings, and Testing, Tracing and Supported Isolation (TTSI).”

– Harvard Global Health Institute, “The Path to Zero and Schools: Achieving Pandemic Resilient Teaching and Learning Spaces

However, because the public health experts at Harvard recognize that we must work with the pandemic we have, and not the one we wish we had, the guidelines also include a set of clear parameters to help local officials, parents, and students decide what to do about the schools in their area based on their community’s COVID risk level.

Covid Risk Levels by Case Incidence. Red means your community has more than 25 new cases daily per 100,000 people. Orange means your county is currently seeing 10-25 new cases daily per 100,000 people. Yellow communities have 1-10 new daily cases per 100,000; and green communities have fewer than 1 new daily case per 100,000 people.
Chart linking the color-coded risk levels in Harvard Global Health Institute’s school reopening guidelines to the COVID case count in local areas. (Source: Harvard Global Health Institute)

At the time the school district announced it was pursuing a remote-only option, my county, Santa Clara County in California, was listed as an orange zone, with 12.4 new daily cases per 100,000 people. Hearing that my daughter would be spending a good chunk of her 8th grade year at home made me sad, until I checked Harvard’s dashboard, read the reopening guidelines for schools in orange zones (basically keep everything closed unless you can provide pandemic resilient learning spaces at scale), realized they would be extremely hard to implement at my daughter’s middle school, and saw what happened in districts that didn’t follow Harvard’s guidelines.

Every time I see a headline about another school closing, I’ve started looking up that district on the Harvard Global Health Institute’s dashboard. That elementary school in Georgia that had to close after one day? It’s located in Cherokee County, which at the time I wrote this blog post, was listed on the Harvard Global Health Institute as an orange zone, with a 7-day average of 21.9 new cases per day per 100,000 people. In hindsight, opening without a mask mandate in that situation seems super optimistic. Hopefully, either the administrators in Cherokee County will rethink that, or enough parents in that area will make enough noise to force them to rethink that.

That school in Hancock, Indiana where the parents accidentally exposed an entire class to COVID-19 by sending their child to school before their test results were in? As of August 6, Hancock County was a yellow zone on the Harvard scale, with a 7-day moving average of 9 new cases per day per 100,000 people. Even in yellow zones, apparently, accidental exposures can happen.

On the other hand, smaller schools that do follow the guidelines might be fine, assuming they can convince parents to keep kids who have been exposed to COVID-19 or who feel sick at home. That’s the bet First Baptist Academy of Dallas is taking. With small class sizes (10-15 students), a spacious campus that allows for adequate physical distancing, plexiglass shields on students’ desks, a mask mandate, and temperature checks at the door, school administrators certainly seem to be doing almost everything the Harvard Global Health Institute’s reopening plan would recommend.

Honestly, I hope the First Baptist Academy model works, not only because I don’t want anyone else to get sick, but also because it would give the nation a template for resuming face-to-face instruction even in the absence of controlled community spread and an effective vaccine. (As of August 9, Dallas County, where First Baptist Academy is located, was listed on the Harvard site as an orange zone with a 7-day average of 20.9 new cases per 100,000 people.)

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3) A pros and cons list to help you evaluate your family’s situation

Because our school district has announced that it plans to resume in-person education once the county manages to get off and stay off the state watchlist, at some point, we will likely have to decide for ourselves whether the precautions our local school is taking are good enough.

How can my family decide whether it’s better to risk sending The Thirteen-Year-Old for in-person learning or to keep her at home for the rest of the year, even if <gasp> that means taking another stab at Mommyo Homeschool?

Enter my favorite decision-making tool: The pros and cons list.

Jessica Lahey, veteran educator, and her husband Tim Lahey, an infectious disease doctor, recently published an article in the Washington Post summarizing the various issues churning through educators and parents’ mind as they weigh how to continue their children’s education this fall. After surveying the complex web of social, emotional, financial, and educational roles school plays in American society, the Laheys offer a checklist to help parents balance those factors against the reality of the pandemic in their area. As Tim Lahey pointed out in his Twitter thread summarizing the article, there is no one size fits all answer for families.

“Every family is different. We need to respect each other’s decisions.”

Tim Lahey, @TimLaheyMD, Twitter, 6:48 a.m. August 5, 2020

Their hope is that families will be able to use their pros and cons checklist in conjunction with local public health guidance in order to make the best possible decision for their unique situation. They also urge parents to pressure their local school boards and administrators to follow the science and implement measures proven to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission in in-person education settings.

The Laheys' back-to-school checklist helps parents think through the pros and cons of sending their kids to in-person school. Pros include things like a low and stable local case count, no risk factors in the family for severe COVID-19, and better for child to return to school for social, emotional, or educational reasons. On the cons list are things like high local case counts, risk factors in the home, and/or a family able to take on the burden of supporting the child's education at home.
Back-to-school checklist from Jessica and Tim Lahey. Find the original on Twitter here.

In our case, if we aren’t happy with the school’s plans, we may well decide to keep our daughter at home. The Thirteen-Year-Old is responding well to remote learning so far and we are able to support her continued education from home. Keeping our daughter home would be an inconvenience for us and have real consequences for my personal productivity, but it would also make in-person education that much safer for my neighbors who really don’t have any other option.

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Other resources for thinking through this

This post is already pretty long, so I’ll just quickly tell you about two more resources that helped shape my thinking about this.

Podcast: In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt

Cartoon image shows Andy Slavitt on the phone and his son Zach working the computer as they record their podcast from within a glass bubble. Behind them are lots of other bubbles representing other families in America  doing their best to weather this pandemic.

Andy Slavitt, who served as Acting Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from 2015 to January 2017, has launched a podcast with his son Zach to cover various aspects of living in a pandemic. Each week on their In the Bubble podcast, Andy and his son interview scientists, cultural icons, and political leaders in an effort to get critical information about this pandemic out to the public in real-time.

Their June 10 episode, “Back to School“, was fairly typical. In it, Slavitt interviews former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan; Sonal Gerten, a parent of two public school kids; and his own son, Zach, who will be a freshman in college this fall. Other episodes have assessed what we know about treatment options, progress on a vaccine, whether Americans can still trust the CDC, and the role of tech companies in a pandemic.

Enlightening, fact-filled, and ultimately hopeful, this podcast has been a lifeline for me these past few weeks.

YouTube interview: Sal Khan interviews Dr. Anthony Fauci

On Friday, July 24, Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci about the prospects for a vaccine and reopening schools this fall as part of his ongoing HomeRoom with Sal YouTube series. Part of the vaccine conversation directly addresses the question of whether we can trust the science behind a vaccine developed relatively quickly under such stressful conditions. It’s worth a listen, in my opinion, for that discussion alone.

Note: Although the conversation is free to watch for the public, since Khan Academy is a non-profit education company whose resources have been taxed by overwhelming demand during this time of worldwide school closures, there is a very brief fundraising pitch at the beginning of the interview.

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How about you?

Have you found any real-time, trustworthy sources for information about navigating this pandemic? Leave a comment and let me know.

Until we chat again, be well, wash your hands, practice physical distancing, and wear a mask whenever you are out and about or with people who aren’t part of your own household. And if you live in a yellow, orange, or red zone, do your fellow parents a solid, and stay home as much as you can so that we can fully reopen our schools (and local economies) as quickly and as safely as possible.


3 Responses to “What are we going to do about school?”

  1. Shilpi

    Thanks for writing a comprehensive article on this topic Shala. Informative as well as therapeutic



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