The push to reopen schools is sheer madness — here are 4 key steps to doing it right

The push to reopen schools is sheer madness — here are 4 key steps to doing it right
A crowded hallway at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia. Photo: Hannah Watters/ Twitter

In the indelible 1983 cold war movie The Day After, the federal government convenes a group of farmers after a nuclear war to instruct them on how to start growing crops again. A hapless government official suggests that they simply “take off the top 4 or 5 inches” of contaminated dirt. An incredulous farmer responds that even if this were physically possible for the 150 to 200 acres each farmer owns, it would create a literal mountain of dirt. What hole do you toss that mountain into, he asks? How does that leave topsoil for growing anything?

In other words: how am I supposed to do that?

That is the classic question that that has sent countless bright ideas to the scrap heap, because it illustrates the chasm between a top-down policy prescription and the details of how to make it work. ‘How am I supposed to do that?’ is the key phrase that former lead hostage negotiator for the FBI Chris Voss uses to start breaking down a hostage-taker’s impossible demands.

It also gets at the massive disconnect underway in the current school re-opening “debate” — debate being in quotation marks because it’s been more like two sets of people yelling right past each other.

On one side are a mix of Trump administration officials, Republican elected leaders, and well-meaning but exhausted parents who are trying to jawbone, bribe, or blackmail schools into re-opening with simple-sounding policy prescriptions: Buy personal protective equipment (PPE), distance the desks, enforce mask-wearing, put kids in “pods,” install plexiglass, and clean more often. And their threats have teeth: the recent Senate Republican Covid relief bill proposed only giving money to schools that provide in-person instruction, and some states are assessing financial penalties on schools that do not. It’s re-open now, or else.

On the other side are a mix of teachers, public health officials, and well-meaning but exhausted parents who are basically asking: How are we supposed to do that? How do we remake the ventilation and build all of the physical barriers in spaces that need to be separated inside already-crumbling schools that for years have faced an annual $46 billion shortfall for school maintenance? If we don’t have enough physical space in the school for distancing and it’s too hot for outdoor classes, how do we secure alternative space (often in competition with parents looking for space for DIY alternatives to traditional schools)? How do we buy the needed equipment in a short period of time with uncertain sources of funding and rolling shortages across the country? How can we make the kids wear masks and stay apart given their still-developing frontal cortexes--and when one-third of the adult population refuses to do so consistently? How do we get all this done when staff and teachers are getting sick or don’t want to return to buildings?

The implausibility of pulling all of this off was devastatingly illustrated by Arizona School Superintendent Jeff Gregorich: “I’ve been in the building every day, sanitizing doors and measuring out space in classrooms. We still haven’t received our order of Plexiglas barriers, so we’re cutting up shower curtains and trying to make do with that…11 percent of my staff [has] gotten Covid, and we haven’t had a single student in our buildings since March. Part of our facility is closed down for decontamination, but we don’t have anyone left to decontaminate it unless I want to put on my hazmat suit and go in there… A bunch of our teachers have told me they will put in for retirement if we open up this month… More than a quarter of our students live with grandparents… There’s no way it can be safe…If you think anything else, I’m sorry, but it’s a fantasy.”

The re-opening and almost immediate re-closing of schools that The New York Times reported in Indiana, Mississippi, and Georgia just this week shows what a colossal dissonance remains between federal re-opening directives (including the proposed funding in the next round of Covid-19 relief that is supposed to support it, if it ever gets passed) and the practicality of life on the ground.

So how do we climb out of the chasm? How, at the end of the day, are we actually supposed to do this? There are four ways to bridge the disconnect.

Reset the timeframe

There are massive advantages to delaying physical re-opening until the spring. We currently find ourselves facing a version of “the cube problem” – a riddle that asks whether a group of people can lift a metal cube with their bare hands--say, one that’s a foot across and weighs 500 pounds. In theory the answer should be yes, because with ten people everyone only has to heave 50 pounds. But in practice the answer is no, because they simply can’t all squeeze around the cube at the same time.

Similarly, we are finding that in theory, schools might be able to get the needed materials, make physical changes, find alternative spaces and so forth in time to re-open this fall. But in practice they simply can’t wrap their hands around solving all the problems they face at once. They need more time.

Equally as important, resetting the timeframe would help us be a lot smarter about what to focus on. Nine months into the discovery of this coronavirus, we are still learning a lot in each passing week about how it works and how best to mitigate its risks.

For example, the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on school re-opening lists stringent cleaning and disinfection practices among necessary safety protocols. This has a real impact. It means that schools need enough healthy janitorial staff (with teachers and administrators likely pitching in) to do daily cleaning, and would probably have to reduce school hours to get it done.

But emerging science suggests that a lot of this cleaning amounts to what The Atlantic calls “hygiene theater” – helpful for making people feel safer, but less important than other measures for actually preventing viral spread. The Democratic Senate school safety proposal specifically calls out “cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting educational facilities” as one of the key uses of the $175 billion that it provides for K-12 schools. But the hard science on whether all of this is actually worthwhile (and if so, which parts of it) is still being done.

At the same time, there is also growing evidence that addressing ventilation is a more important area of focus. This is a major challenge in the school context. Half of our 120,000 school buildings have indoor air quality problems. The Government Accountability Office estimates that 36,000 schools need to update or replace air systems, and overall, 90 percent of schools are under-ventilated. Relatively inexpensive portable HEPA filters in classrooms could be one alternative to time-consuming and expensive whole-building air system upgrades, but determining where they are needed, whether they are actually effective in those spaces, and then buying enough of them is not going to get done by Labor Day.

And of course, an additional advantage to a delay is that different areas of the country can time their physical opening to hit more of the sweet spot for weather and maximize outdoor classes.

The objection to pushing back the re-opening timeline has been that we need to support parents now. That downside remains very real and very challenging. However, I previously addressed the fact that most current re-opening plans actually won’t help most parents, and suggested measures to support working families directly through the fall and early winter. Others have provided similar tangible proposals for how to help parents prior to re-opening schools. So, a reset is difficult but possible, and certainly preferable to a rushed and risky re-opening.

Treat the underlying cause

We are not trying to solve a school problem; we are trying to manage a public health crisis. Closed schools are only a symptom. Re-opening schools has been pushed as a way to get things back to normal. That is backwards. We have to get things back to normal so that we can re-open schools.

Much has been made of the fact that other countries have re-opened schools safely. But that only underscores the need to put the horse before the cart by getting this Covid outbreak under control first. Not only are those countries that have re-opened schools a distinct minority in the world (143 countries have not), but they also differ from us in many important ways, the most significant of which is baseline infection rate. The US is about 10 times worse off than the European Union in confirmed infections per million residents, and in terms of the mismatch between infection rates and the tools to control them, the US is possibly in the worst shape in the developed world. Low testing capacity and lag times on results have rendered attempts at contact tracing almost worthless, meaning that two of the top weapons that public health officials wield in other countries have mostly evaporated across much of the US.

Writing in The New York Times, top experts Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Saskia Popescu, and James Phillips said that “schools should open only in places that have fewer than 75 confirmed cases per 100,000 people cumulatively over the previous seven days, and that have a test positivity rate below 5 percent.” Only one-quarter of states have even reached that threshold to attempt in-person schooling.

The authors of this and other re-opening frameworks suggest these kinds of detailed rule sets to judge whether schools can operate safely. But there’s an even more fundamental question that underlies them all: Is the government of your state or city taking the pandemic seriously enough to start in-person schooling?

Here’s a rule of thumb: if your governor or mayor is allowing bars to open while schools are closed, the answer is no. If local political leaders take the necessary and painful steps to get infection rates under control, then you can start to talk about schools.

Get flexible  

This is a simple one. Senate Republicans’ punitive proposal extorts schools into re-opening and that sets up a bizarre Catch-22, 2020-style: You can’t get funds for safety if you don’t re-open, but you can’t re-open unless you get funds for safety. It conditions two-thirds of funding on schools submitting – and then sticking to – a detailed in-person schooling timeline. But even the states that are planning to hold physical school classes in the coming months are planning for interruptions, rapid shutdowns, and an adaptable hybrid remote learning plan. Schools that have started in-person instruction have already had to shut down again due to infection, and every day brings news of schools “scrambling” to stretch their re-opening schedules or shift their plans entirely as the local situation evolves.

It is easy to make school re-opening a partisan issue, and that serves no one. But this is a case where one party’s approach is simply more practical. The Senate Democratic position better matches reality by supporting a mix of in-person, remote, and hybrid learning, without pre-judging what that mix needs to be, either today or in the years to come. With an uncertain future and given the benefits of leveraging learning technology in a smart way, hybrid schooling with robust online options are here to stay. We need to embrace a more flexible approach.

Play the movie

When I was a graduate student in public policy, one of my professors took our class through an exercise. He asked us whether we would have advised President Clinton to send US troops to stop the Rwandan genocide. We all answered, “absolutely.” Ok, he said, I’m a movie guy, so play me the movie of how that would work. And then he peppered us with questions. Rwanda is the size of Maryland, so how do you cover all the areas where violence is happening? What does that look like? Are you sending in troops to all the rural villages? How are troops stopping violence? Are they knocking on doors, confiscating potential weapons like sharp metal objects? Machetes? A lot of those tools are used for farming…so are you taking those away?

His point was not to oppose intervention. His point was that in order to make any high-level policy successful, you have to think about how it will play out on the ground. You have to do the hard work. And that’s what we need to do on schools.

The starting point is to remember (especially given Republican – and some Democratic –opposition to federal leadership on education) that this is not a schools problem, it is a health problem…as well as a logistics problem, an information technology problem, and a construction problem. The federal government has expertise and resources to help across those domains.

Instead of forcing schools to submit a detailed re-opening timeline, we should flip the equation on its head. Don’t make them tell the federal government what they have. Allow them, to tell the federal government what they need. And then, if we were serious about this, we would appoint a school re-opening czar with broad interagency powers to get it for them.

School districts, and even states, are not in a position to navigate the byzantine federal agency system. But buried within that labyrinth are lots of resources that can make things work. Need outdoor teaching space? Deploy the National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers to set up partially-open tent schools and to assist with in-school physical construction. Want to buy HEPA filters but can’t under CDC guidance? Direct the CDC to fast-track a guidance update. Need PPE? Use the Defense Production Act and arrange a pipeline from federal stockpiles direct to school districts. Need teachers to supplement the ones who can’t come to school or to create smaller class pods? Create matchmaking with Teach for America programs. Need cleaning, classroom prep, meal preparation and distribution, laptop distribution, etc.? Deploy Americorps volunteers. Lacking broadband or computers for under-served students? Coordinate with corporations for donations and incentivize rapid system upgrades in targeted areas.

Could this become a bit of a shopping list exercise? Yes, absolutely. But do we really have a problem with that? The backlog of school maintenance is a national disgrace, and addressing it in the course of supporting school re-opening is an investment that has been shown to have lasting benefits for student achievement.  Besides, if are spending hundreds of billions of dollars, we should want strong federal involvement to make sure they are being spent effectively

All of which leads to a final, related point: this is not a time to let a thousand flowers bloom. Every school may have a unique set of needs. That does not mean that every school should develop a totally unique set of solutions. The 13,000 school districts in this country rarely collaborate on best practices, and that needs to change in the face of a pandemic: the federal government has a role to play in disseminating emerging best practices quickly and putting them in place efficiently. Especially as we develop new approaches on portable air filtering, UV lighting, Covid-sniffing dogs, or more effective remote teaching methods, we should not simply outsource the spread of good ideas to superintendents armed with Google.

Is all of this harder than simply taking a fire and forget it approach? Yes. But it is worth it. Getting this done requires taking the patience, effort and attention to detail to get it right. We have to take the time. We have to do the work.

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