Being Open About Being Open

New York City’s recent decision to close schools, followed by this week’s more recent call to open them again, is thrusting the ‘should schools be open?’ question into the spotlight again.

Bellwether is kind of like an iceberg. You see our public work, publications, blogs, and webinars, toolkits, and so forth, but that’s a small fraction of what we do overall. Most of our work is behind the scenes, research, strategic consulting, ghostwritten work, evaluations, and academic advising. The kind of support that doesn’t end up in the public domain.

What do these two things have to do with one another? Well, I get asked about my take on reopening, from colleagues and friends on school boards, in school leadership, and from clients in various roles. It’s a complicated question that doesn’t lend itself to the fever swamp of social media or partisan politics. When I participated in a national reopening guide project this spring it was framed, appropriately I thought, as issues to consider and questions to ask, not exactly what to do because there is no set menu here.

So what’s below is a modest exercise in transparency around the question of the day. It’s what I’ve basically shared with folks when I’m asked for my advice. It’s a lot of verbatim, I just culled emails for the most part for notes. It’s my view alone, and shouldn’t be ascribed to my colleagues, some of whom will certainly see the situation differently and we don’t have ideological conformity at Bellwether. But here’s my take (it’s a few weeks old at this point but the same questions still persist although live instruction seemed a better bet late summer and early fall in many places than now, the approach of close first and open later seemed backwards in some cases). Nothing revelatory, but how I see it:

– Opening, closing, hybrid decisions are very situational based on local circumstances and case rate – nationalizing it has not helped at all obviously and there are clearly some politics in play, too. There is no one right answer for all communities and case rates vary pretty widely and have throughout this.

– The media coverage has often been unhelpful. Anyone who gets Covid is unfortunate, and every loss of a life a tragedy, but unless you know where and how someone contracted it ascribing it to schools or even linking it because a person happens to be associated with a school just confuses the issue. And a lot of places opened early this fall without a big song and dance, pretty classic if it bleeds it leads kind of approach here. Twitter is just a goat rodeo and other platforms a mess, too.

– Seniors seem most at risk, kids the least, but beware the ecological fallacies in all this. And beware the different ways parents perceive risk when their kids are involved.

– Community spread is the issue. The evidence seems to indicate that schools reflect it but don’t cause it. It’s not just bars, if you want schools open you can’t have house parties and the buffet. Small group transmission a problem, too. Control spread, we can have school. Fail to do that, you’re setting schools up to fail – and setting up to fail to control the spread. Everyone has to do their part.

So that seems to point to:

– Live instruction must be flexible, so smaller classes, using schools differently – eg having everyone K-6 in and using middle and high schools as well to space them out. Outdoor where that’s an option. Leaders with fixed mindsets, eg ‘this is our middle school so only middle school students can go here,’ will struggle. Agility, creativity, and urgency are the watch words. Make sure students can access teachers some way when they need extra help – too much suffering in silence in the spring. Look at the places having success, districts and charter networks, some lessons out there. Happy to share some of the best we’re seeing. Basic proactive steps around contact tracing and seating plans and so forth go a long way.

– If full opening is not a good option, and it’s not everywhere, then the priority has to be on at-risk kids and in general a triage approach based on need. Everyone should obviously have a choice based on family health considerations or just personal choice. Student transitions and reentry are an area to think about. 

– Schools have to figure out which teachers shouldn’t be around kids at all during this (comorbidities, immune issues, or age for instance) and find ways to use their skills to serve the mission – and there are a lot of ways given this situation. Students need tutoring, which can be delivered remotely, everyone needs curriculum that works in an online setting. Hybrid raises all kinds of issues that need managing. But this stereotype that every teacher is in their 60s and at enormous risk is ridiculous, median age is low 40s.

– Online is not the same stuff just over the “web,” as the oldsters call it. Teachers need support to deliver online effectively. The course I teach went online this year because of its size and I’m glad the university provided some support on how to make the pivot. It was a learning experience. That’s playing out millions of times around the country often absent good support.

– If you are open for live instruction you need a plan to shut down again on short notice without the circus of last spring and with continuity of instruction, because if historic patterns hold cases will rise appreciably in the winter and in any event any outbreak will mean spot closures and cluster containment.

– Adequate PPE for teachers is obviously essential but that’s defense. Challenge the community to step up – you can’t have the salad bar or no masks, gatherings, and school. If school is the priority then the community has to come together and be responsible to support that. The lack of leadership on this is shocking, The lack of telling people we’re all in this together and so forth, Rationing and victory gardens this is not. Thankfully this is not the war, we’d be writing in German right now.

– Track students. Way too many students falling through the cracks here. It’s an avoidable catastrophe.