Odds & Ends…Will Reopening Create Bad Incentives?

President George W. Bush spoke for many when he remarked following President Biden’s inauguration speech, “that was some normal shit.” Since the election it’s been refreshing to have a president-elect and now a president who doesn’t trigger anxiety every time he wanders near a podium. That’s not a partisan sentiment, many Republicans say the same thing behind the scenes.

But normal sh*t is also political sh*t, so understandable relief with the exit of President Trump shouldn’t suspend scrutiny. Which brings us to President Biden’s plan to open schools this school year.

There is ample evidence the reopening debate was clouded by politics – on all sides. That’s not entirely inappropriate – neither public health or public education decisions are made in a political vacuum nor should they be. “Just follow the science” makes a great bumper sticker but a lousy way to govern a society. As Biden’s goal has evolved from opening all schools this school year to its current “majority” of K-8 schools it has attracted more support along the way and is obviously buoyed by the fact that the president’s last name is no longer Trump. Still, a few questions:

– Will the attraction of concurrent as a way to achieve a reopening goal and dodge hard choices work against the larger goal of quality instruction? And related, how creative will districts be challenged to be on using teachers in a way that maximizes their safety but also maximizes benefit to students?

– Given the amount of money being proposed for rapid Covid testing for schools, would that money be better spent on interventions like tutoring or other immediate student supports? Jokes about the sector’s sudden appetite for testing are easy. But is it the best use of tens of billions right now?

– What information should the federal government collect and provide to help states and communities make the best decisions for them? There are plenty of things that are interesting to know, but perhaps better left to the media or other entities. At the same time there remains some key information school leaders and states are still struggling to distill.

– What’s the plan for Fall 2021? The Moderna vaccine is only authorized for people 18 or older, Pfizer for people 16 and older. Normalcy bias and pandemic fatigue may be blinding us to challenges that will accompany the 2021-22 school year and the variety of choices parents may continue making.

– And with all of this there is no way to get the health risk to zero, so there will always be room for objections. How should reasonable people decide what’s good enough? The debate does, quite literally, range from ‘if you’re not prepared to teach live you shouldn’t be teaching’ to ‘no live instruction until there are no Covid cases.’ I find both of those unsatisfying but where and how should lines be drawn?

Obviously to some extent with his political goals Biden is betting on the come and it’s a good bet. Despite problems with the rollout America is already sticking needles in nearly a million arms each day (though because it’s a two-shot regimen that’s less coverage than it appears at first glance). And 100 days from the inauguration is the end of April and trends indicate we’ll be in an upswing then anyway, at least as far as the virus goes.

But again, normal sh*t is political sh*t and political sh*t is about getting wins or the perception of wins. What American kids need – most especially those students most adversely affected by the pandemic closures (and the Biden executive order yesterday admirably included specific attention to these students) – is a real change in their educational circumstances. That’s about instruction, in whatever setting(s). Real attention to them would be, well, refreshingly abnormal.

Department of Ed:

Hires announced. A few to note, former Jill Biden COS as COS, former Ed Truster in the policy and programs role.

IES:

President Trump seems to have been unaware of IES during his time in office. That undoubtably seems like a good thing. But the agency quietly continued to do important work and here’s some news from the director. 

Elsewhere:

Unrelated, this article on the future of liberalism implicates education. Preliminary look at an important question: What’s the impact of the opioid crises on student learning? Are the demographics of the Democratic coalition changing in ways that will affect education? Riccards on civic education.

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