Covid-schooling in 2021: an open letter to school leaders

It’s up to us to put the welfare of students, teachers, and staff first.

Dear superintendents, principals, vice principals, and other school administrators,

2020 was an extraordinarily challenging year for you, your teachers, and your students. You were forced to close in the spring, and roll out a virtual schooling curriculum and platform in a matter of weeks. You were forced to sort through the emerging science of Covid-19, and make decisions that took into account conflicting demands from politicians, government agencies, businesses, teachers unions, and parents. With uncertainty about finances and your ability to use school facilities, you were expected to come up with fall reopening plans that would somehow brings students, teachers, and staff together without putting them at risk of catching and spreading the disease.

It made sense to go entirely remote in March 2020. We had no idea how bad the pandemic would get, and we needed to do whatever we could to stop the spread of the disease. Not only for the health of our students, teachers, and staff; but also their family members and housemates; and everyone else in our local communities. It made sense to plan for ways in which we could be together this coming year. But the ways in which schools stepped into the academic year did not serve the needs of students, school employees, or the broader community.

And now, with the pandemic at its worst, in an attempt to keep schools open, you are being pressured into ignoring the science and loosening protocols that were meant to take care of your community. The nation has failed to rally around educators during this pandemic. The nation has failed to come together to engage in meaningful action to stop the spread of the disease that has killed over 300,000 people. And the nation is demanding that schools reopen at any cost. It is up to us to put the welfare of students, teachers, and staff first.

What has not worked:

  • Ignoring the factors that contribute to the transmission of Covid-19. The virus that causes Covid-19 is spread primarily through respiratory droplets or aerosols. The conditions that maximize the potential for spread include (1) being indoors, (2) around many others, (3) who are speaking, shouting, singing, or exerting themselves, (4) for extended periods of time, (5) without masks. Most schools meet four of the conditions, some meet all five.
  • Ignoring the role of superspreaders and clusters. The dispersion factor (k) of the disease is low, meaning that a minority of those infected lead to a majority of new infections, that infections tend to happen in clusters, and that superspreading events are a key driver of the propagation of the disease. Because of the large numbers of people brought together indoors, schools provide ripe environments for superspreading events and clusters.
  • Waiting on the government to issue lock down orders. The federal, state, and local governments have repeatedly demonstrated that they prefer to err on the side of keeping businesses open instead of reducing the spread of the disease. Schools that wait on lock down orders or recommendations from the government will be reacting too late to slow the spread of the disease.

What will work:

  • Close the doors of the schools. We know that schools are sites of infection. Bringing students, teachers, and staff together indoors puts all of them at risk, to include the people they go home to, and it is a public health risk because the disease spreads into the broader community. There is no benefit of schooling to any student that justifies the harm of putting students, teachers, and staff at risk of infection, or of contributing to the growth of the pandemic.
  • Go outdoors, in small, physically separated groups. The students are stressed. The teachers are stressed. Yet they need each other, and they need human connection. Staying indoors is too dangerous. Going remote takes away connection. Taking the classroom outdoors is a much safer way for students and teachers to be together. But it is only safe if the groups are kept intentionally small (10 or less), and they are physically separated so they do not mix (not outdoors, not before or after school, and not on busses). And everyone needs to wear masks when near each other. Yes, all of this will pose a logistical challenge, but your school can rise to the challenge.
  • Go remote during periods of uncontrolled community spread. Virtual schooling is not the best, but it is vastly superior to bringing people together when the spread of the disease is out of control. Whenever the risk stage in the local area is at its worst (in Austin it is stage level 5) schools needs to tell everyone to stay at home because the likelihood of a sick person being in the group is too high.

Other considerations:

  • Students are suffering. They need compassion, support, and space to process everything that is happening to them and to society. The struggles they are going through do not need to be compounded by homework, testing, grading, and ranking. Schools across the country dispensed with all of that last spring, and they can do so again this winter and coming spring.
  • Teachers and staff are suffering. Their health and welfare should not be put in jeopardy just because people are demanding that schools reopen. By allowing them to go outdoors the likelihood of infection plummets. And those who are at high risk of serious illness should be afforded the opportunity to work entirely remotely, serving the students who need remote support.
  • Vaccines are not going to get us out of this mess. While high rates of vaccinations coupled with large numbers of people who recover from the disease will slowly move us toward herd immunity (this summer at the earliest), we cannot fall into the trap of believing that when teachers and staff get vaccinated that it will be safe to bring everyone back into the schools. First, there is not yet a guarantee that a vaccinated person cannot spread the disease. Second, the vaccines are not 100% effective, meaning that about 1 in 20 people can get vaccinated and still become infected. Third, children can still contract the disease and spread it. We need to continue to go outdoors, in small, physically distanced groups for the remainder of this academic year. And yes, we must wear masks when near each other.

Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the fall this winter and spring. Let’s no longer allow special interests demand that schools put students, teachers, and staff at risk. Let’s no longer ignore the science and put broader society at risk. Let’s take everything outdoors in 2021.

Antonio Buehler, Abrome

Anti-oppression. Liberation through education: @AbromeEd. End police abuse: @PeacefulStreets.

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