It’s the Tradeoffs, Stupid

Six Thoughts on COVID-19 and Reopening Schools

Image Credit: Winslow Homer, American (1836-1910), “The Country School”

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating effects on many aspects of society, including education. Now that the 2020–2021 school year has begun in earnest, American public schools are implementing various reopening policies that seek to balance the need for effective schooling against the risk of spreading the virus. Ultimately, however, such efforts will not be successful unless they make a sincere attempt to weigh the tradeoffs inherent in online versus in-person education.

As an education researcher, a parent, and a former school board member, I’d like to share six observations about these reopening efforts:

1. It is difficult to make sensible policies in the face of fear, which (thanks to social media) can spread faster than a virus. This is true in all kinds of situations, not just in health-related crises. In my city, for instance, just three years ago fear of mass shooters led parents to pressure schools to limit access to visitors (including parents) and hire more school resource officers to protect against what are 1-in-10-million events.

This summer, fear of racist school resource officers and security guards ironically led our city to turn down federal funds for such personnel, who in our system have a good record of deterring fights and keeping order and who were defended by our African American school superintendent—all because woke white people (many of whom do not have kids in our schools) were influenced by dramatic visuals of school security personnel 1,000 miles away attacking students.

Such is the case with COVID-19. So far, the illness has killed nearly 1 in 1,500 Americans, the worst pandemic since the 1917–1920 flu, which likely took the lives of at least 1 in 150 Americans, according to CDC estimates. Although not nearly as fatal as its predecessor from a century ago, the current pandemic has caused the greatest economic depression since the 1930s and has closed or transformed institutions large and small, including schools. It has also caused a significant and, frankly, outsized level of fear. Indeed, surveys from a major consulting firm find that Americans think COVID-19 has killed 225 times more people than it actually has—a greater exaggeration than in most other countries.

2. Barring future mutations, we know that students and younger teachers face little risk from COVID-19. Unlike prior pandemics, this one harms very few students. The first 15,596 COVID-19 deaths in California included only three school-age children, fewer than in some flu seasons. Just 1.5% of California’s fatalities were under age 35, while 64% were age 70 or older. So far, national statistics tell the same story.

This does not necessarily mean that life should go on as normal, at least not for everyone. People differ in their vulnerability (and that of their family members) and, perhaps as importantly, in what risks they are willing to take for the rewards of in-person schooling. The risk statistics do suggest that we make greater efforts to protect the vulnerable rather than forgoing onsite schooling for all.

Many foreign governments and state departments of education in Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania urge schools to open and, at the same time, encourage vulnerable (mostly older) school staff to teach online from home. At this point, however, it is unclear how many school districts in these jurisdictions are actually following this advice.

3. Equity and academic achievement are taking a back seat. Two-thirds of the 120 largest local school districts have all their classes online, as David Marshall at Auburn University and my University of Arkansas colleague Martha Bradley-Dorsey show in a peer-reviewed Journal of School Choice article. This fact is concerning since students learn less in online settings than in classrooms. This gap is particularly severe for low-income children, who usually get less help from their parents and who may need additional encouragement in a live classroom setting rather than through screens they can turn off.

Yet, as my University of Arkansas colleague Andrew Camp points out, school districts in which a majority of students are minorities are about twice as likely to offer only online learning options. Traditional public schools’ reluctance to reopen their buildings to students contradicts educators’ constant talk about equity.

In the real world, as my daughter observes of her own high school, many of the students choosing online options for schooling are those who already have limited connection to the academic parts of schooling and are using the time away not to study, but to hang out with friends—behaviors more apt to spread the virus than attending class. Similarly, under COVID-19 my university offers most classes in person, with the option of attending online. The vast majority of undergraduates now attend either online or seldom. Yet our COVID-19 case count had reached well over 1,500 at this writing. It turns out that with little academic work and no credible consequences for not doing that work, many students are spending their time on other behaviors, behaviors apt to spread disease. Who knew?

4. European and Asian nations, with their traditions of valuing academic learning and deferring to government experts, may be managing the tradeoffs between safety and learning better than the United States. Indeed, in a forthcoming Journal of School Choice article, co-authored with Rodrigo Queiroz e Melo at Portuguese Catholic University in Lisbon and Charles Glenn at Boston University, I report data from 16 European and Asian nations, finding that all are holding onsite classes this fall, including some countries with high COVID-19 case counts such as Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Seven of these 16 nations reopened schools last spring, early in the pandemic, albeit with basic precautions such as masks, social distancing and keeping the windows open to circulate air. Facing difficult tradeoffs with limited information, they prioritized learning.

5. Even in a pandemic, football rules. Despite efforts from certain politicians, including the president, to polarize COVID-19, for the most part Marshall and Bradley-Dorsey found little evidence that partisanship affected state and local educational responses to the virus. Red states such as Arkansas and Florida and blue states such as Illinois and Massachusetts have urged local school districts to continue to teach students at schools, usually citing their better and more equitable academic results.

A notable exception is football, which for many education leaders is the dominant mission of high school. Remember that more than half of male principals in the United States are former athletic coaches. The 19 states that are allowing high school football seasons to continue as usual gave Donald Trump a mean of 54.73% of the vote in 2016, compared to 51.43% in the 14 states that are delaying the football season over COVID-19, and just 40.93% for those canceling fall football, a statistically significant difference. There are school districts that have turned academic learning upside down while keeping football and basketball seasons as usual, even though contact sports place students in closer and more intense proximity to one another than any other approved school activity.

6. This crisis also provides opportunities for innovation and reform. Finally, I take solace in the fact that many educators and parents are finding innovative ways to cope with COVID-19, to turn this educational lemon into lemonade. In reviewing the literature on “learning pods,” Johns Hopkins University researcher Angela Watson reports in a forthcoming Journal of School Choice article that parents across the country are banding together in small groups to form their own tiny schools. There are concerns that this option may initially exclude some students and their families.

Yet this risk is true of any innovation, and it seems insensitive to tell parents who want their children to learn that they have to wait, potentially until their children have children, or until their school systems somehow reform. (Having served on a school board for five years, I understand how difficult it is to change large organizations.) Savvy innovators are finding ways to expand learning-pod-type options, often in cooperation with local school districts, through leveraging existing organizations and underused community spaces. While the practice is too new for researchers to assess its effectiveness, evidence on related education practices, such as tutoring and home schooling, suggest positive outcomes.

In short, even an ill wind may blow some good that could last beyond the current storm.

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