Thoughts about school openings

by Harry on July 14, 2020

The first is thought is just this: Gina’s post about parents and teachers prompted me to notice that I never posted about the white paper that Jake Fay, Meira Levinson, Tatiana Geron, Allison Stevens and I wrote for the Safra Center for Ethics series on the pandemic. Here’s the abstract:

Along with the economy and health care system, schools are an essential third pillar in promoting community resilience and rebuilding communities’ physical, economic, emotional, social, and cultural health in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Schools serve as sites and sources of community resilience in five distinct ways: they distribute social welfare services, promote human development, care for children, provide stable employment, and strengthen democratic solidarity. Yet long-term physical school closures—along with impending budget cuts driven by cratering state and local economies and tax revenues—make it extremely difficult for schools to perform any of these roles. We recommend three steps for restoring schools’ capacities to support community resilience. First, state and district leaders should set metrics for achieving access and equity in each of the five roles that schools play, not just in academic achievement. Second, to establish these metrics, policymakers should develop or strengthen mechanisms to engage diverse community voices, as local community members often best understand the specific ways in which their own schools support or impede community resilience. Finally, Congress should allocate significant increases in federal funding to support public schools and districts for at least the next two years; these allocations should include strong supports for high-needs districts in particular.

The second thing is less a thought than a request for the economists.

In the numerous pieces I have read about the effects of the pandemic on schooling and the path to reopening schools there’s a lot of focus on safety (as there should be) and a lot of focus on the stress on parents of having children at home (and on children of being at home), but I haven’t seen estimates of the long term economic costs of having schools closed. If you close school for a day or two (snow days), or even for a week (one of my secondary schools basically went dead for a week during the local factory annual holiday which was, absurdly, in termtime, and families would just take their kids to Butlins or whatever) the learning loss is, presumably, relatively easy to make up if you really want to. But at some point in April it became clear that schools in the US (and around the world) would be closed for months. Authorities, schools, and individual teachers varied in how well they delivered online courses but…. while I understand that in principle online learning can happen, if someone tried to show that average learning loss for this period was less than 50% I would ask them what bridge they expected me to buy. In fact, I’d be surprised if students outside the top decile of the income distribution have learned as much as 25% of what we’d normally expect. If, as seems likely, this continues into the Fall (many districts in the US are talking about having students attend school at 50% of the time or less – I don’t know what is going on in other countries, and would be interested to hear), we looking at an entire generation of 4-18 year-olds having 4, 6, 8, 12 months or even more, of learning less than half what they usually would, with no real plans to make that up. The loss in terms of the pool of human capital seems very large. Can somebody estimate it?

A related thought is something I find unnerving about the rhetoric coming from district leaderships and other defenders of public schools in the US. If you are anxious about re-opening, it is rhetorically sensible, in the short term, not to talk about learning loss — you can pretend that costs of remaining closed are small, because that removes one of the weighty reasons for reopening them. In the long term, though, de-emphasizing learning loss strikes me as very risky. If you encourage the public to think that you think that kids don’t need to go to school to learn, that may well come back to bite you when you are insisting on how important public schools are, that they need more money, that class sizes should be small, that we need to invest in them, etc. Maybe the calculation is that all parents do, now, understand that teaching children is something that only specially skilled professionals can do (which, presumably, they do). But many taxpayers are not parents, and many parents are pissed at the schools for this pretence — it makes the leaders sound as if they really are clueless, and may undermine trust in their ability to manage well. [1]

Chatting to Gina about all this before she made her post, she asked whether, in the light of my somewhat panicky thoughts about learning loss, and how little it has been emphasized by the usual defenders of public schools, I thought she was being too soft on teachers.

So the final thought is just this: no, I don’t think she was being too soft on teachers. We don’t know what teachers and their representatives would be saying if they had any reason to believe that anyone (from the President down to the school board or even in some cases down to the building leadership) was interested in their wellbeing, and had a clue what they were doing. The contrast is with my own situation. My workplace is going to have in-person teaching on a moderate scale in the Fall. I’ve been involved in planning for this, and, while I realize, of course, that we might all be back online by the end of September, and while I also realize that the campus leaders of my institution might be making strategic and factual errors in the planning, and it might all go wrong, and that teaching in person is assuming some risk, I also have complete confidence that my campus leadership:

has an excellent track record of managing the institution.
is not guided by dogma or ideology.
is concerned with, and skilled at, balancing the interests of students, instructional staff, researchers, support staff, and service employees, and the public interest.
will not make decisions grounded in self-interest, and anyway their self-interest is entirely bound up in the success of the institution.
is highly literate when it comes to interpreting complex scientific and social scientific advice
will follow through: if my leaders announce that they will do something, they will do it. So, for example, whatever promises they make about hygiene, or testing, or the availability of masks, or whatever, will be kept.

I am lucky to have a campus leadership like that, and lucky to know that’s what they’re like (these are people I have worked with for a long time, some of them very closely). I would guess that only a very small proportion of teachers in the US know that they have leaders like that, partly because I would guess that quite a small proportion actually do have leaders like that. In order to have the level of trust that I do in my leadership, a teacher has to believe that their building leadership (principals) and their district leadership (the superintendent’s team) and the majority of their school board members are like that. In fact, looking at the district where my children have attended school, I can identify one out of the current seven school board members, nobody in the central office leadership, and maybe two of the 7 head principals my children’s schools have had as meeting most of those criteria. For many, probably most, teachers, they can’t possibly trust, for example, that basic hygiene will be taken care of, let alone that there will be reasonable supplies of masks, or that they will be backed up if they demand that children not wearing masks are excluded or…. well, anything else really.

[1] There’s some parallel here with elite colleges and universities, the promotional materials for which emphasize the importance and educational value of the residential experience and of student-teacher contact. The many such institutions that will have online-only teaching in the fall are going to have to really figure out how to make student-teacher contact online meaningful, which is a huge challenge (and will demand a lot of teacher time, much more than many are used to giving).



BruceJ 07.14.20 at 5:23 pm

If you encourage the public to think that you think that kids don’t need to go to school to learn, that may well come back to bite you when you are insisting on how important public schools are, that they need more money, that class sizes should be small, that we need to invest in them, etc.

Well given that this has largely been the policy of the current administration. this is precisely the aim.

Note, they’re not pushing schools to re-open because of the children it’s so the parents can go, or be forced to go back to work. For the Economy re-election chances of the President.

Undermining education, particularly public education, has long been a policy goal of the right wing in this country. Yes it is an incoherent stance, which will greatly undermine society and the country as a whole, but so are their economic policies, and their healthcare policies, and their military policies, and, and, and….

This is the end result of the capture of the conservative movement by the neoconfederate religious apocalyptic fanatics.


bianca steele 07.14.20 at 6:13 pm

I think this OP, while reasonably making points about the badness of many (not all!) school principals, is still somewhat abstract. Public school principals don’t have that much discretion. They’re subject to top-down measures. Even where decisions are made in concert with teachers, they are top down, decided on and rolled out in a planned way. There may be room for teacher creativity in some areas (less for principal led initiatives), but once pre-set guidance for minimum instructional hours, equity, and curricular materials were unusable, all plans presumably had to be redone from scratch, from the state Department of Education (in charge of curricular and other mandates) on down. Tasked with impossible guidelines, they can overtly or covertly choose which to give only lip service to, and I don’t see how they can do much else. They can say “we care about health” and not provide PPE. Or they can say “we care about education” and evaluate teachers on student test scores while not giving them the tools to teach remotely. What they can’t do, especially in the younger grades or in high needs communities, is say “let’s go forward as before while integrating a few new considerations.” I don’t envy them.


Donald A. Coffin 07.14.20 at 7:03 pm

If your (e.g., Betsy De Voss) view of (in particular) secondary education is that private schools are “typical,” they you will have an incredibly incoherent view of what is possible in terms of re-opening schools. For example, in Indianapolis, the largesst schools are public schools, with enrollments (grades 9-12) that look something like this (10 largest public schools):

And here are the 10 largest private schools:

(Based on observations, the private schools have a lot more space per student than do the publics. And…the private schools closest to where we live charge around $25,000 a year.)

The average class size in the largest public schools is around 30 (highs are near 40, lows–calculus, advanced chemistry–around 15-20). The average class size in the largest privates is less than half, with advanced math and science classes around 10–or less (I heard, anecdotally, that at one of the privates, the calc class was 8).

In which case do you think maintaining distancing in the classrooms is going to be easier?


Donald A. Coffin 07.14.20 at 7:08 pm

The “your” in my original comment is not directed at Harry. It’s a generalized “whoever is reading this or thinking about schools and closure” “your.”


Bob 07.14.20 at 8:56 pm

Schools and the education and childcare that they provide are extremely important. There’s a reason why we built 131,000 of them across the country. But it is insane that we are telling 3.7 million teachers to go back to teaching under these conditions. If my workplace told me that they were cancelling remote work and requiring me to go in and share a conference room with 30 other people, I would tell them that they can either have my remote work or my resignation. Schools are a dangerous work environment for teachers under these conditions, and it’s clear that the Trump Administration has zero interest in helping them create a safer work environment. Add to that, parents and many other adults around the country seem only half-heartedly interested in taking the mildest efforts to contain the spread. The U.S. infection rate is approximately 18 times higher than the infection rate in the EU.

If we had done our job and stopped the spread two months ago, there would have been a good argument for reopening schools as long as infections remained relatively low. That did not happen. The three most dangerous states right now are the three largest states in the country, approximately 1/4th of the nation’s population.

We are making a false choice. The choice is not whether we open schools or we don’t. The choice is whether we open schools safely or we temporarily open schools dangerously. The choice we are making is to open schools in a dangerous manner because we did not all do our part to control the spread, because we are not providing schools with the resources to open safely, and because we are not thinking creatively enough about how to reorganize schools to minimize the risk of infection. We are stumbling into another disaster here. Like the fools who rushed to open up bars and restaurants, the result is that schools are going to have to close anyway once there are outbreaks.


ph 07.14.20 at 11:53 pm

Many thanks, Harry. Excellent!

I attended an informal gathering of teachers recently and referenced opt-in/opt-out for teachers and students. I was promptly informed that doing so would ‘politicise’ the workplace (huh?). Anyway, the discussion deteriorated very quickly. I cited several studies questioning the risks for students, extremely low, and risks for teachers, much higher to very high, in some cases.

So, if we insert politics into the discussion we may miss opportunities to learn from others. Workplaces stagger start and finish times, and have employees work on site on alternating weeks. That this approach has not been broached broadly and publicly is puzzling, at best.

I’ve objected in the past to the practice of burdening children by asking them to become more perfect than their parents, engaging in exercises of self-criticism and examination rather than pride and affirmation. I very much fear that politics is being brought into the COVID debate and we are all paying the price. I’m quite happy to teach from home, but feel strongly that the social and emotional development of young people is FAR more important than any set of educational goals for a given year.

A year in the life of an eight-year old? That’s an enormous chunk of time. For a younger child five, six, or seven, 1/5, or so.

In what universe does depriving a developing young person from social and peer-interation seem sane, or the result of our best thinking?

We’re supposed to be teaching professionals, academics, and ‘problem-solvers’ – placing the needs of our charges first. Is either/or, all or nothing really the best we can do?

Encouraging younger teachers (under 45) to consider in-class teaching in classes cut in half by alternating weeks of attendance and in rooms regularly cleaned by the students and staff together seems to me an excellent exercise in team-building, shared sacrifice, and demonstrating to students that we can overcome challenges and difficulties if we are willing to focus, work with data, adapt, and accept that pretty good is a big improvement and infinitely preferable to nothing at all just cause we’d prefer to grind our political axes.

Waiting for leadership is probably a mistake. Great post, Harry!


ph 07.14.20 at 11:55 pm

Sorry about the penultimate paragraph. You get the point. Cheers.


LFC 07.15.20 at 1:27 am

The second half of the OP, the half that begins with “the second thing…”, talks about “learning loss” without trying to distinguish between grade levels or subject matter. But it seems to me that these distinctions matter. An elementary school student presumably is expected to learn specific skills, and ditto for middle school students in many cases, but when one gets to high school I would think that the efforts to specify exactly what is being missed in the way of learning become more difficult, at least in certain subjects, notwithstanding that the educational bureaucracy doubtless pretends that everything can be enumerated in terms of “skills” and “outcomes.” Of course, everything can’t be enumerated and specified in this way. In fact, in some subjects I’d venture to suggest that rather little can.

For example, an eleventh grader who doesn’t get to read Hamlet in a formal classroom setting, in-person or remotely, hasn’t missed any “learning”; he or she has just missed the chance to read Hamlet in a formal classroom setting. If sufficiently motivated, the student can read it on her own and perhaps even learn as much as she would have in a classroom, or perhaps even more, esp if she has access to some (virtual) libraries. That’s different from, e.g., a third or fourth grader learning fractions, an eighth grader learning algebra, or anyone trying to learn another language, all of which are more difficult to do on one’s own.

Because “learning loss” is thus probably difficult to measure, esp. after a certain grade level, it follow that “loss in terms of the pool of human capital” (to the extent this concept is coherent to begin with) will also be difficult to measure, even for those economists or others who specialize in these areas.


ph 07.15.20 at 2:14 am

And for university professors and administrators who deem their services and institutions as essential for all/most (see Tony Blair et al ‘everybody should go to university’)

Online education is the great equaliser – what IS the difference between various online institutions – brand name or quality?

Customers/clients (remember those buzz words?) are going to be making informed decisions about Pr. Huh? and his/her/their teams of social justice advocates for only how much?


LFC 07.15.20 at 2:17 am

To clarify, I’m not saying the hypothetical 11th grader in my example would not learn anything from her teacher or classmates, just that this learning is probably impossible to measure.


Alan White 07.15.20 at 4:56 am

Hi Harry–I did some research on the 1918 epidemic because of course they also had to consider school closings–without any alternative as online learning of course–and found this tidbit about Chicago’s situation:

What struck me about this is that, despite the availability of masks and their documented use in preventing spread of the disease even 100 years ago, there is no reference to their use in schools then. There is quite a bit of near-pseudo-science reference to clean air and preventing chills, but it was 1918 after all. But what was most stunning were the mortality rates given near the end of the article, which were alarming to me, but were cited then as justifying keeping schools open. Kids lives apparently mattered, but really not so much.

A more stunning find was this from 2009:

where the authors presciently anticipate many of the issues we face now based in part on the experiences of 1918. However, there is not a single mention of the role of masks–I suppose they couldn’t have thought of everything even 11 years ago.

Since we have resources that were unavailable 100 years ago, certainly they should play a very big role in determining public policy about education, and adjusted to regional situations in terms of outbreak, resources, wealth, etc etc. But honestly I see no shorter-term outcome that can salvage anything like ordinary efficiency of education, especially since one factor is different now than 100 years ago–most of the country then was united as part of the WWI alliance–now we are as deeply divided a country as we have every been.


CHETAN R MURTHY 07.15.20 at 5:13 am

Harry, isn’t all this wringing of hands about the poor little dears losing 4-18mos of schooling kind of misdirection? An entire generation will have this happen, simultaneously. That’s different from it happening to some and not to others. I remember when I was a kid, my parents lied about my birthday, so they could get me into school a year earlier. Because back then, that was judged to be “good for the child”. And I’ve read about parents “redshirting” their kid, so that by spending a year out of school, the kid will be a year older than their peers, and will have a competitive advantage in school sports. Maybe even in education (though I’d doubt it).

My point is that parents have been monkeying with the ages their kids are in school forever, and I don’t see anybody raising hell about it. And while sure/sure/sure a year in the life if an eight-year-old is a big deal, it isn’t a big deal in a lifetime — it’s almost irrelevant. And that’s what matters here: the effect on a lifetime.

The only downside that I can see is that kids will forget a lot during their extended break. So yeah sure, let’s do as much online as possible. But only to try to keep stuff from oozing out the little dears’ ears, not for any other reason. Then, when schools can reopen safely, start where we left off. For everybody.

The economic argument (that kids gotta go to school, so parents can go to work)? Sure. I buy it. Kids whose parents are essential workers, can go to school. All the rest? Forget about it. Sending children of non-essential workers who might infect their teachers and staff is just the same as the arguments anti-maskers make. The convenience of non-essential-worker parents who want their kids in school, isn’t worth the risk to the lives of teachers and staff.


John Quiggin 07.15.20 at 6:01 am

There’s a fair bit of literature looking at things like effects of birthdates on learning – under some circumstances a difference of a day can mean one year more or less of education. In general, the better conducted the study, the more likely it is to find a significant difference in outcomes associated with less schooling. This paper, on delaying starst to education, concludes ” missing 1 year of learning opportunities was associated with poorer average performance in standardized tests at 8 years of age.”

Economists generally love studies like this based on “natural experiments”. The pandemic provides us with plenty of natural experiments, but all horrible ones.


faustusnotes 07.15.20 at 6:52 am

Harry, I really don’t think at your age that you should be going back to in-class teaching while there is any hint of risk of transmission of this virus in your community.

I will also say that I don’t think the presence of good leadership and reasonable, non-dogmatic staff (as Harry says he is lucky to have) is going to protect you. You cannot protect yourself from this virus with personal measures and behavioral change, it simply doesn’t work. Masks don’t work, social distancing won’t work, and children are not capable of physical distancing. Any gathering of more than a few people in any space subject to the three C’s will be an infection risk regardless of the personal measures you take. This is even more so when there are specific instances – bathroom use, eating, and certain forms of activity such as music or sports – where these measures cannot be taken effectively. Good leadership won’t stop any of these problems, although perhaps it can avoid this kind of omnishambles.

Which brings me to a rare response to ph, who says this:

I attended an informal gathering of teachers recently

You went to a nomikai with a group of adults, some of whom live with high-risk people, during a pandemic? This is incredibly irresponsible, almost certainly against the guidance given to you by the National government, by your local government, and probably by your institution (if it has any sensible leadership). Coronavirus is spreading rapidly in Japan since it reopened precisely because of this behavior, and this is exactly why your suggestion of “opt-in/opt-out” is ridiculous. No one around you can choose to “opt-out” from your incredibly reckless individual actions.

It’s the behavior of people like ph which makes it impossible for more responsible people to protect themselves in this pandemic. If an adult with a postgraduate education cannot behave responsibly during a pandemic, how can we expect children to not endanger their teachers?

The educational consequences may be bad but we cannot take these risks while this virus is around. Schools have to remain shut and parents away from work. If schools are opened and parents have to go back to work then the children will become a viral pool who then infect their parents and spread it to the rest of the community. This virus is not forgiving, as Americans and Britons should have already learnt but apparently haven’t. No amount of good leadership will enable schools to be opened safely, and people have to stop thinking that there are individual actions we can take to protect ourselves. Only lockdown until eradication will work.


J-D 07.15.20 at 7:17 am

… associated with poorer average performance in standardized tests …

Average performance in standardised tests is, obviously, by definition, precisely quantifiable; but how much average performance in standardised tests has to do with learning is another question.


bad Jim 07.15.20 at 7:50 am

Reporting from Orange County, California: the Board of Education, advocates of private education and charter schools, relying upon the advice of 11 experts, only one of whom was a physician, advocated the opening of schools. The county Department of Education and the Supervisor of Schools united in dissent, preferring the advice of the state, and many, perhaps most, school districts are in accord.

(To be honest, I have no idea why there are three different bodies with claims to responsibility for public education in a county in which individual school districts have ultimate authority. Nor can I explain why the Board is so warped to the right, despite the tilt of the last election. Attention has not been paid.)

So long as the risk to children is unclear, and likewise their risk to the rest of us, and to the extent that the economic damage can be easily mitigated by lavish application of cash, it would seem prudent for those of us living where the rate of infection is rising to keep on keeping apart.


Sashas 07.15.20 at 8:07 am

Harry, you and I work at the same institution. I’m not entirely surprised to hear you express confidence in our campus leadership, but you should know that your confidence is not shared that far down the hierarchy. Most of my contacts are among graduate students and dedicated teaching staff, and this

For many, probably most, teachers, they can’t possibly trust, for example, that basic hygiene will be taken care of, let alone that there will be reasonable supplies of masks, or that they will be backed up if they demand that children not wearing masks are excluded or…. well, anything else really.

is something that I have heard quite a few times. I’ve said things pretty close to it myself.

The contrast between us suggests two things to me:

First, there may be a parallel to be found in other school settings. There may be some teachers in each school district with enough of the right kind of close contact with their principals, boards, etc to have the kind of trust you do. Maybe there’s something to build on there.

Second, I am currently in what I believe is the teacher-stereotypical camp of being strongly opposed to re-opening, and I can tell you directly what I would say if I had any reason to believe the top University administration cared about my well-being. I would tell them to show their work. I’ve been burned before, and I am not prepared to cooperate with death or permanent damage to my students or myself. If they truly have precautions that will prevent the otherwise entirely predictable superspreader events, they can publicize both what those precautions are and why they will work.

To reach skeptical ears like mine, the “why” is critical.


notGoodenough 07.15.20 at 9:59 am

Once again I have seen the idea of online universities raised in the comments, once again I will raise the point which (to my knowledge) is not yet addressed.

In some subjects (such as science, engineering, etc.) a key part of training is to become familiar with, and use, certain techniques which require instruments (which are large, expensive, and require constant maintenance and use by experts). I have yet to see a sound proposal for how online learning will be able to provide that training. I can think of some possibilities (such as mostly-online, but attending a facility for the relevant training – similar to some OU courses – but again, many ideas I have would also seem to have flaws too).

To be clear, I do not in principle object to online education (I got my GCSEs via distance learning thanks to the NEC), but having gone through it myself I am aware that there are some drawbacks too. It would be nice if those proposing to abolish universities would actually mull this over and offer a considered response (other than, you know, just insults and accusations).

I would also note that – to the best of my knowledge – universities in the UK used to be free, and many throughout the world are not particularly expensive to attend (many EU universities charge a relatively nominal fee to attend, in comparison to the US). This would suggest that if rising costs of education is your primary concern, it would not seem to be an inherent part of universities in and of themselves – but rather a facet of the way they are currently exploited (particularly in the US and UK).


notGoodenough 07.15.20 at 10:10 am

It is also worth considering that the main argument against reopening schools is not, in and of itself, political. It is essentially related to reducing R value which – given that the pandemic is still ongoing, and potentially even upticking in the US – might be an important consideration.

Certainly, one should be concerned about the impact of social isolation on a child´s development. On the other hand, one would imagine the impact of permanent harm or death on a child´s development would be even more significant. Moreover, one might be tempted to think that, in ideal cases, the children are still interacting with their family – which is hardly the same as being locked in a sensory deprivation chamber – even if a wider social exposure would be preferable.

But regardless, again it is not clear to me (and perhaps I miss the obvious) as to why reopening schools is the only possible way to address the social isolation faced by children. One could imagine smaller groups of a few children meeting, so that the possibility of infection is significantly decreased, with regular track and trace to reduce risk.


dbk 07.15.20 at 11:35 am

Excellent post as others above have noted.

Because so much of what needs to be accomplished to ensure schools are adequately safe when they reopen necessarily depends on receipt of massive federal aid to states (earmarked for schools), and no one seems to know whether the HEROES Act will include the est. $120 billion requested in the House version to provide such assurance, governors and individual districts have been left in the lurch while the clock keeps ticking.

Teachers + other employees, district leadership, and governors do not have the same relationship of trust in the federal government you describe as enjoying in your own university administration. They are therefore reluctant to commit to returning to schools without knowing whether there will be masks, sanitizer, social distancing, air ventilation, deep cleaning products (and staff), and a host of other such issues.

Teachers who can do so (who aren’t older than 60, who aren’t suffering from a chronic illness that makes them vulnerable – the estimates are 25%-30% by most districts) really want to return to school; they know better than anyone how much their students are losing – and it’s a lot. And the students most in need of the five types of support mentioned above are those who will lose out the most.

But the U.S. just cannot get its schools in shape for August/September after a generation of neglect (the K-12 infrastructure of the U.S. has been most recently awarded a grade of D+ by the association of school architects – like much of the country’s vital infrastructure, schools are not in good shape overall). NYC, for example, has 1800 facilities (1.1 million students), many of which are over a century old. They can’t be properly retrofitted in six or eight weeks – their ventilation systems don’t function properly, many schools’ windows don’t open, and space is incredibly tight, with many classes having 30-40 students in classrooms designed for half that number.

Probably the best most districts will be able to manage is 2 days on, 2 days off, with half the school in person Tu-Thu/W-F (or similar). This would enable most classes to function with the social distancing recommended by the CDC (NYC may have to split classes into three groups attending one week on, two weeks off).

The literature on K-12 re-openings is now enormous, and I’ve only referred to a fraction of the issues teachers are discussing these days.

I occasionally wonder whether if the federal government had stipulated that no school was to resume in-person classes until the positivity rate in its district was below 2% (or alternatively, the R factor was below 1.0) for at least 2 consecutive weeks, more Americans might have gotten with the program of masks, social distancing, and frequent hand washing, and more governors would have decided that reopening bars, restaurants, spas, salons, and amusement parks too soon just wasn’t worth it if it cost them another school year.

But it’s too late now.


Trader Joe 07.15.20 at 11:45 am

A few comments, in no particular order

1) The pandemic and spring ‘School from home’ (SFH) pointed out to parents how little learning is actually happening in many cases already. While there are countless excellent educators, there are like wise quite a lot (especially in public schools) that totally mail it in and the SFH exposed how little effort they are putting in as they sleepwalk through a dated curriculum. My sense from a lot of parents is that, when forced under the circumstances to really engage in how many hours of actual learning was happening within the 6-7 hour school day, they were finding that it was a pretty low yield anyway (maybe 2 hours and then 2 hours of homework – max at the HS level, half that at middle school and half again at sub 6th grade).
2) In the context of only getting a couple hours a day of actual instruction anyway – the thought of going at 50% capacity of that is pretty much “why bother” and 100% reinforces Harry’s question about learning loss.
3) Questions had long been asked whether schools are really preparing kids properly for modern life – naturally this varies by district, school or even individual educator. Maybe its time to change the question from whether 11th grader is able to read Hamlet to – why the hell are we still teaching f-ing Shakespeare isn’t there 400 years worth of other literature that might be 1000% more relevant to a lower-middle income kid in a suburb or inner city? Maybe the pandemic is a chance to get a clue.

4) Lastly, some anec-data – Wife is head of a private liberal arts k-12, class sizes limited to 15 per section and as someone upstrand suggested – this means every classroom can be opened with students spaced 6ft. Applications are up 500% vs. last year and they will soon max out capacity….parents are given 3 days after acceptance to send in a deposit or the place is lost to the next applicant. For certain many of these are viewing the school as daycare and are willing to bear the cost – that said, many are finding that their public schools (as good as some are) are really no performing the task they thought they were and voting with their feet and wallet.

My prediction – we’ll look back on 2020/21 as a watershed moment for public education, one that will either transform it generally (hopefully) or even more firmly entrench a haves vs. have-nots divide.


SamChevre 07.15.20 at 2:13 pm

My idiosyncratic point of view is that learning loss is real, but can usually be made up quickly given the right conditions.

It doesn’t seem plausible that schools will be open “like usual” this fall. Some will be online-only, some will be alternating smaller classes, some will be open but with repeated partial closing for quarantines…. So students won’t get exactly the same learning they normally would. Given that, it seems like concentrating on the places where learning loss is hardest to make up (I’m guessing learning to read is the most critical here) in what time and attention is available seems important. I haven’t heard this being discussed, but “if we have only half the focused instructional time we usually do, what should we focus on?” seem like an important question.

Part of my view on learning loss is informed by my own idiosyncratic experience. I started college at 23, having been out of school since I was 13. I had never had any algebra instruction (literally, all I knew about algebra was that the same letter was the same value throughout the problem); the algebra class I placed into was among the most challenging classes I took in college. But by the end of freshman year, I was mostly caught up–I graduated on time with a math minor, and still work in a math-heavy field.

But this points me toward another item–we have done a bad job of enabling students to catch up for a long time. Maybe this COVID-driven disruption will change that–it will be badly needed.


Harry 07.15.20 at 2:25 pm

I don’t have much time now but wanted very quickly to respond to two comments:

First, sashas — thanks for that. Yes, I know that my confidence isn’t shared unanimously, and understand why. Winning the trust of the entire campus is difficult, maybe impossible, because when you’re managing a large institution you are daily making decisions that harm some people and not others, and you do so within a framework in which some have much more power than others. Administrators who piss off the faculty (the most privileged, most un-repentently self-interested, and most conservative force on campus) don’t last long. And the further you are from the decision-making, the harder it is to see the work, and a lot of the work can’t be shown. But — you don’t need to be convinced that its reasonable for teachers to be anxious about opening!

Cheetan Murthy — I’m not sure you understood my point (and if you didn’t I’m sure its my fault) which was not about the effects on individual kids of them not learning, but the effects on the overall pool of human capital (broadly construed) of all of them not learning. Do you really think that latter effect is negligible? (That’s sort of an aggresssive sounding way of posing the question, but I don’t really mean it to be — maybe it is negligible, but what reasons are there to think it is, given the reasons to think it isn’t?).


Orange Watch 07.15.20 at 2:52 pm

Online education is the great equaliser – what IS the difference between various online institutions – brand name or quality?

Online education is not the great equalizer. Back when I was still in academia, the research my group primarily focused on was distance learning – specifically how to compensate for its serious, significant shortcomings vis à vis in-person education. This is a hard problem, and while tools can compensate for some issues, it’s harder for someone who has been trained primarily in in-person pedagogy to use technological crutches to provide the same functionality. Further, the students need to buy into the tools as well. The quality of tools available as well as the training of both instructors and students in how to use them will vary, and as a result the quality of outcomes will also vary.

I should point out that a major (but not sole) funder of the research I was involved in was the DoD; that is to say, we were 100% focused on quality of outcomes rather than prestige, as the DoD has long utilized distance learning and is sold on its value. The students weren’t going to get a degree or certificate from their training; they’d get a line-item in their records and skills (primarily advanced maths and physics) that would help them do their jobs.

Distance learning is harder to do well than in-person learning. That’s not to say that bad online education may be no worse than bad in-person education. However, that’s not the kind of equality anyone should be striving for; that’s right-wing-caricature of socialism. But an insistence that online education is just as good as in-person education is doing precisely what you claim to want to avoid: politicizing this discussion. The idea that “cheaper = more efficient” is an extremely political idea, and it’s not elitist snobbery to observe that doing things well can take more effort and resources than going through the motions and declaring a less-expensive, easier alternative “good enough” for the public at large.


bianca steele 07.15.20 at 3:50 pm

Interesting that Trader Joe limited his claim of “anecdata” to his point 4. I have heard no parent state a belief that the badness of remote learning reflects in any way the badness of in school learning. As to instructional time alone, my experience was nearly the opposite, that absent the clock to ensure assignments had to be reasonable or left incomplete, several subjects had many times the work assigned as would usually be the case. I’m dubious of claims that public schools are terrible from someone whose personal experience is a vested interest in the superiority of non public schools. I’ll wait for some sign that he has any idea what elementary school is like.


Tm 07.15.20 at 3:59 pm

In Germany, there has been a lot of discussion about the unequal effect of the school closings on children of different social backgrounds. Children with parents who have the time and capacity to homeschool, and with computer equipment and fast internet access, have actually been doing a lot of learning while schools were closed. The others, not so much.

E. g.


jdf 07.15.20 at 6:09 pm

I would like to second Orange Watch at 24 that moving online is not a great equalizer. In fact, I suspect that it exacerbates differences in education which track funding.

I give (1) large lectures (~200-300) to first year undergraduates, (2) graduate seminars (~8-20), and (3) small tutorials to undergraduates and small supervisions to graduate (1-3 students). My sense is that, moving from in person to online, my performance as a coordinator is significantly worse for (1) given the loss of feedback and feel for the room, a bit worse for (2) with difficulty increasing as the numbers increased, and not at all worse for (3).* Since I teach at a wealthy, august institution, most of the undergraduate education takes place in tutorials and so will not be negatively impacted by any distancing mechanisms in place. If my experience is anything like representative, institutions which cannot afford that type of instruction, which are most of them, are likely to experience a bigger relative drop in quality than those which can simply because of the way distance education is much harder to do well as numbers increase.

*In fact, my tutorials were probably overall better online than in person because, normally, my students think of tutorials as the annoying break in the joys and freedom of college life whereas this past term they were a reprieve against the repetitive tedium of living at home with their parents.


ph 07.15.20 at 10:53 pm

At 14 and at 20 sadly confirm how poorly people approach the contributions of others. The meeting I attended with a number of teachers who are ‘no-contact’ absolutists was: surprise – online. The only risks I exposed others to were studies which examined risk according to age. I would expect a more careful reading from @2ø, but no.

I am in no way claiming online and in-person are equal. Quite the opposite. I’m claiming it’s much easier to wave magic smoke and employ neo-greco facades to convey substance where some might be lacking when we situate students physically amid ‘all that tradition’ or the ‘gleaming newness’ of a physical campus.

The online experience is the great equaliser between institutions, not between in-person and online, as someone as normally bright and observant would normally easily discern.

“what IS the difference between various online institutions – brand name or quality?”

I don’t feel I need to highlight – ‘between various online institutions’ not between online and in-person.

I’ve done both and can attest that done the right way new online delivery systems can deliver outcomes which are in some cases superior. As the better comments confirm, however, not all systems are equal. Not all children/schools are equipped to do effective online learning. Not all kids have smart phones.

If we are going to find positive outcomes in this crisis we are going to need our best thinking. The need to score ‘political points’ demonstrated in this thread is representative of a big part of the problem even in determining risk. K-12 opened in Japan using distancing in class sizes. Japanese offices are famously crowded, so employers accepted the loss in productivity and had employees attend in alternating weeks.

Students, teachers, and staff can clean their own work spaces. Public behavior is a thing, as is respect for public and private property, as is working together.

The entire COVID experience is a vast exercise in adaptability and a test of our willingness to listen and to learn. We can expect a certain amount of venality and point-scoring, but the crisis is real for the students, and it is far from clear what the actual risks to children actually are.

I am explicitly calling for opt-in/opt-out programs which allow students, parents, teachers, and administrators the flexibility to meet the needs and concerns of all stake-holders.

Finally, if we are talking about online as the great equaliser – which I believe it is – I’d say the students are far more willing to be creative and adapt than virtually all of the teachers I engage with. For profit delivery systems such as the Khan academy do deliver a quality product for a certain level of learner. I know because I’ve compared videos produced by Khan with those produced by more august institutions and individuals and was forced, very much against my own prejudices, to accept that the Khan videos were much better, and much more carefully designed and crafted to meet the needs of the online learner.

The economy of language in the (few) Khan videos I watched, (Harry, with respect, check the word to content ratio of your own universities online mission statement linked in your recent), the pace and clarity was far superior to the ramblings and meanderings of a lot of university online lectures we can find. So, for topic specific discussions we used Khan.

One of the best teachers I know, (who I’ve referred to before) has his students present on Zoom using Youtube BBS’s and a host of other platforms to submit work and share with others. How many teachers/professors have invested the energy and time to learn how to do that? That’s the point and that’s the test – the great equaliser. This teacher is both admired, praised, and roundly ignored. According to him, during our last zoom, not one teacher has adopted or explored the practices he’s discussed and presented. Or if they are, they’re doing so in secret.

Get the kids in the school in small numbers as often as possible if for no other reason than to give them a sense that their world counts, that their social, psychological, and emotional development is part and parcel of their educational experience, and that this social experience is far more important than any specific set of educational goals.

Hope this is clear.


ph 07.15.20 at 11:20 pm

To put a point on it: unless institutions and teachers adapt to consumer need, more and more parents are going to question the real superiority of a brand university in the US compared with a polished, professional certification ‘work ready’ certificate program from India, or Indonesia.

We’re not there yet, but enterprising capitalists in the global economy very much regard the moribund failure of 1st-world institutions to respond to market need as a tremendous business opportunity. Brand still matters, but for how long? The best semi-online distance-learning programs were pioneered in places with, you guessed it, great distances: Australia, Africa, and Canada.

We are entering a new changing COVID world, my students understand that better than some here. There is no ‘going back.’ There’s only going forward, and placing the mental, emotional, and physical health needs of our children first has to be our highest priority.


LFC 07.16.20 at 1:11 am

Trader Joe @21
w.r.t. this comment of yours

Questions had long been asked whether schools are really preparing kids properly for modern life – naturally this varies by district, school or even individual educator. Maybe its time to change the question from whether 11th grader is able to read Hamlet to – why the hell are we still teaching f-ing Shakespeare isn’t there 400 years worth of other literature that might be 1000% more relevant to a lower-middle income kid in a suburb or inner city? Maybe the pandemic is a chance to get a clue.

Since I graduated from high school in the mid-1970s, I have really no idea whether or to what extent Shakespeare is still being taught in high school.

I think “relevance,” however, should be only one consideration here. A “lower middle income kid in a suburb or inner city” should be given the chance to connect w a whole range of authors, I would think, from the contemporary to the old, and including diversity in gender/ethnic/socioeconomic perspectives. My guess would be that an 11th grader in a large public U.S. h.s., urban or suburban, today is probably more likely to have been assigned Toni Morrison, say, than Hamlet. Which in itself is not necessarily bad at all, but why force a choice? The idea that a contemporary kid should only read twentieth-century or twenty-first century authors strikes me as absurdly narrow, narrowing, and somewhat condescending.

I tend to believe in the cliché that great art — which, as Iris Murdoch once sensibly pointed out, there is not all that much of — is timeless. So any great work of literature is just as relevant to someone living in the 21st cent as it was to its contemporaries. The language itself might in some cases be a barrier, but that’s a different issue.

Now, people are interested in different things and have different strengths and that’s all fine. There’s probably no point in forcing a young person who is totally absorbed by chemistry or physics or the technical/scientific aspects of computers or etc, to the exclusion of almost everything else, to read Romantic poetry or Victorian novels, though in fact not everyone knows what they are interested in until they are given a chance to find out.

And as this is veering well off-topic, it will likely be my last comment on this thread.


CHETAN R MURTHY 07.16.20 at 1:34 am

Harry @ 23: “the effects on the overall pool of human capital (broadly construed) of all of them not learning. Do you really think that latter effect is negligible?”

I feel like we need to clarify and concretize the question. Is causing an entire cohort of students to spend a year not learning, but in the end learning just as much, sufficiently awful, that can’t afford to let it happen, and need to open schools now? That’s the question, right? It’s neither of:
1. what is the cost of students losing a year of school? [they’re not going to lose a year — just finish a year older]
2. what is the cost of some students losing a year of school, when many others are not losing it? [again, most students will be losing that year, and sure/sure there are rich parents who will arrange for their kids to get sufficient tutoring that it won’t matter to them — but this is about a maxim for all, not about special cases]
And given that we know of many cases where parents either bring forward or delay their children’s education for private reasons without damage, I don’t see how this is such a big concern.

I feel like it’s important to reiterate: we’re not talking about children losing a year of schooling. Only about an entire cohort -delaying- their schooling by a year.


CHETAN R MURTHY 07.16.20 at 1:40 am

Harry @ 23: “the effects on the overall pool of human capital (broadly construed)”

OK, I didn’t address this, I see. So we’re talking about reduction in the pool of human capital as these children are delayed in graduating. And it’s quantifiable, right? But they’re going to eventually graduate, so this is a transient phenomenon. And we need to weigh it against both the reduction in human capital from people (teachers!) dying, and from people being crippled to where they can no longer be as productive as they were before. And this is a big, big deal.

I mean, we know that in Italy, the numbers are that something like 20% of infected end up needing hospital support, and only 12% of those have no long-term after-effects (at 60 days) while 44% of those report measurable reduction in quality-of-life. I mean, right there we’re talking about 8% of infected people reporting measurable reduction in quality-of-life.

I guess I don’t see how this is even a -question-. Sure, we need to operate public schools as day care for essential workers. But how can we even contemplate more than that until we have the epidemic suppressed?

P.S. I completely get that it’s different in Europe. They have the bug suppressed, and adequate test/trace/quarantine. We have none of that in America. And meanwhile the epidemic is raging, burning thru the population. I just don’t understand how anybody could be even pretending to contemplate reopening schools except for children of essential workers, and that as basically daycare.


faustusnotes 07.16.20 at 5:59 am

I’ve actually found many positives to online education. For starters it’s much safer, since some of my students work directly with patients with coronavirus, and having them come into class increases everyone’s infection risk. It’s much better for shy students, since they can ask questions in chat rather than in voice, or can speak without showing their face. People are liberated from commuting which benefits busy students and working students. It has helped us deal with a bunch of mobility and personal disability issues, not limited to the ability to see easily the screen. Students can add closed captions and because we record lectures they can review things they don’t understand – one of my students has been going over and over certain sections of our scripting class to pick up certain skills and solve problems. It avoids me charging around the room in the scripting class helping every student, and it also makes it much easier to show everyone a student’s problem – since they can share their program directly for all to see. It also makes the lectures more comfortable since the students can choose where and how to take them, can eat or drink, can attend in sloppy clothes or without make up, and can go to sleep if they want without anyone seeing. Some of our lectures finish late and not having to go home late is good (especially if you live in an unsafe country; I don’t). Also I can dig through computer files and figure out examples and solutions on the spot, and we can use the internet directly to access examples and get answers to questions and everyone can see it.

Many of my students seem to prefer online learning. We have overseas students who were unable to come to Japan due to border closures who are doing their degree remotely while we wait for the border to open. We also have students outside of Tokyo who can participate without travel. It’s really helpful for our student body (busy older professionals). I think these benefits should be considered when thinking about how to manage this pandemic.


John Quiggin 07.16.20 at 6:26 am


Administrators who piss off the faculty (the most privileged, most un-repentently self-interested, and most conservative force on campus) don’t last long.

That’s certainly not the case in Australia or AFAICT in the UK – you could just about swap “administrators” and “faculty” in the quote above. Looking at the consequences of university reform, there’s a lot to be said for conservatism, in my view.


Peeter 07.16.20 at 6:44 am

The Norwegian official statistics bureau, Statistics Norway (SSB), has a report from April that estimates the cost for the closing of schools:

Our estimates sum to a total of NOK 2.2 billion for higher delayed progression for a small share of students assuming higher education institutions remain closed. The value of lost lifetime income due to reduced human capital and reduced parental labor supply is estimated to NOK 1.7 billion each day schools remain closed. A total of NOK 77.7 billion will be lost if schools and kindergartens remain closed for the remainder of the school year.
1.7 billion NOK is about 180 million USD, and 77.7 billion NOK is about 8.23 billion USD. Also the school year in Norway is measured from August to June and is not equivalent to a calendar year.


Trader Joe 07.16.20 at 11:27 am

@25 Bianca

The point I was trying to make was not about the ‘badness’ (to use your word) but rather the actual volume of educational content. In my area a normal day is 8 am to 3pm so 7 hours. When this translated into virtual – kids typically had 3 or 4, 45 minute zoom calls (or equivalent). No attendance taken, no grades given.

Homework at the k-5 level was about 1 hour, same as it was prior. Middle school about 2 hours, high school usually 2 hours but sometimes more due to papers and such. This didn’t differ much from pre-Covid, except that none of it was mandatory and as noted above, there were no grades.

My data is drawn from my own experience, work colleagues and neighborhood colleagues that span both my immediate district and several others in the metro area – because schools are governed by the counties who all made similar choices, there was little variation in experience.

My niece is a 3rd grader and her day corresponded to above. She spent more time daily on zoom calls with her friends than she did on classroom calls. Her mother (my sister in law) is a high school educator. She assigned her daughter an additional 2 hours a day of “homework” which she actually graded to, in her words “keep her on track”

Is that enough anecdata for you? As noted on strand, public schools are a massively local experience. If your schools work for you – that’s great, I’m glad for you. The district I live in is routinely one of the top 5 in the state and I wasn’t that impressed with their transition to virtual. Clearly they are pretty good at in-person.

My comment was meant to point out the degree to which there is learning loss, which I believe is pretty substantial. Its my view that whatever schools do in September will probably carry throughout the 2020-2021 school year. I see little chance of a mid-year reversal – so we are legitimately looking at the potential for a lost year for an entire cohort of kids (as Harry described).

I think bickering about whether some schools are good or bad and why that might be isnt the point….nor is the bickering about safety….all of that is just cover for the real problem that a lot of schools haven’t figured out how to deliver the goods on-line for their kids and don’t seem to know how to change that and at this point don’t seem all that concerned with the consequence.


tamarac rehab 07.16.20 at 1:44 pm

Schools should be opened, I think that it is worth opening all the institutions since even during quarantine the number of infected was large. And not the fact that all these figures are actually real. No one can calculate the real number of infected people, and we keep the children locked up and afraid that they will catch the virus and bring it into the house. The virus is in our heads, now we are only thinking about it. It would be nice if everyone could escape from this.


bianca steele 07.16.20 at 3:53 pm

Tm @ 26

That was a choice by administrators to prefer helping some advance to making sure all had equal opportunities. It also masks the extent to which other factors than network access are at work. The reading curriculum (and much of the writing and science programs) at my child’s elementary school is pretty much entirely based on having a large library of books at different reading levels, in different genres and for different interests. Few parents can replicate that at home even when libraries are operating.


M Caswell 07.16.20 at 8:21 pm

“you could just about swap “administrators” and “faculty” in the quote above. Looking at the consequences of university reform, there’s a lot to be said for conservatism, in my view”



Michael Cain 07.16.20 at 8:37 pm

Because of my personal technology research history, I would be very interested in hearing what educators here think would make for meaningful online student-teacher contact that isn’t readily available. For example, when I was doing the research what I really missed was a good high-resolution device for shared drawing. But my background was math/technology and when I talked with a professor things often came down to being able to sketch something or scribble down an equation quickly and clearly. Other fields probably have other needs.


CHETAN R MURTHY 07.17.20 at 5:23 am

I’m not sure why comment #37 was allowed thru? This looks like obvious trolling? I’m not going to attempt a line-by-line fisking, b/c what’s the point? Bad faith is bad faith.


faustusnotes 07.17.20 at 6:12 am

Sure ph, it was online.

I missed 6 months of school the year I moved to Australia and it really didn’t kill me. I wonder if it will be so bad for all the kids in a country to miss 6 months or a year of school (obviously it can’t be done because the parents need to work). There are obvious problems if some kids miss school and some don’t, but is it really so bad if everyone just takes 6 months or a year off? Do the lost education options really offset the lost grandparents?


J-D 07.17.20 at 7:31 am

Schools should be opened, I think that it is worth opening all the institutions since even during quarantine the number of infected was large.

If bad things happen despite precautions being taken, it is not rational to conclude that precautions should therefore be abandoned.

And not the fact that all these figures are actually real. No one can calculate the real number of infected people,

It is practically certain that reported figures of infections are undercounts, because it is practically certain that there are cases of infection which have not been detected. That, too, is not a rational basis for abandoning precautions.

and we keep the children locked up and afraid that they will catch the virus and bring it into the house.

Some level of concern about the chance of contracting the virus and transmitting it to other people is rational and healthy.

The virus is in our heads, now we are only thinking about it.

Finding other subjects to think about is healthy. Deciding to act as if the virus doesn’t exist because you can’t bear thinking about it at all is not.

It would be nice if everyone could escape from this.

If we take reasonable precautions we will escape from it sooner and with less suffering than if we take none.


nastywoman 07.17.20 at 10:12 am

AND really sorry to say that:

But with the Virus currently ruling America WE (the US) currently can’t open any schools – but as schooling online doesn’t work very well as an alternative – it might teach more Americans to finally FOCUS on the Virus and what it takes to be able to open schools again –

One day…


Tm 07.17.20 at 11:35 am

[OT but of interest to some] JQ has released the last comments from moderation on his (now closed) thread, starting


ph 07.17.20 at 12:18 pm

Total US COVID death by age: All children aged 5-14 equals 28 (Mouse over to get the exact numbers)

Here’s the graph: in which the 0-24 category in light blue is barely visible.

(These numbers are so low I can’t quite believe I’m reading the CDC data correctly.)

Run for your lives.


bianca steele 07.17.20 at 3:32 pm

Trader Joe

Your data @36 is about hours on at-home schooling. Your comment @21 is about how much learning gets done in in-person school. Your point @21 is explicitly that re-opening schools would be pointless because no learning gets done there anyway, for which you’ve given no evidence. If you want to talk about how much learning got done at home in the spring, that’s totally different. If you just want to discourage responses, . . . well, too bad, I already wrote one.

Our district stated that they would assign (after the first hope that it was temporary) 3 hours work a week for elementary school students. That seemed low to me, but on the other hand it amounts to 4 45-minute periods a day, which doesn’t seem unreasonable. Given that the work assigned might amount to a small fraction of what goes on in the classroom – handing out work, listening to the teacher, going around the room and reading answers aloud, watching examples being done – it seems possible that all the work normally done might amount to 3 hours of worksheets or the online equivalent. Going the other way, out of a little over six hours a day, 45 minutes are in lunch and recess, 45-90 in specials depending on the day, some amount of time is spent walking across the school to the gym and back, putting things away and getting them out again, listening to a teacher read while doing coloring pages in the earlier grades, etc., 3-4 hours seems about right. Our schools go to late June so this was for three months.

Not all schools went that way. Some had Zoom calls throughout the day with teachers giving instruction. Some handed out packets of worksheets – my niece’s experience (in middle school) was similar to yours. In my state, the call was made explicitly to limit the introduction of new material fairly severely. In my district, where the shutdown was especially chaotic, teachers had their grade books locked in the building along with all other learning materials (and personal belongings, students’ musical instruments and medications, and everything else) until the last couple of weeks of school. A few smaller schools managed a little better. I expect at-home learning in the fall to be at least a bit more planned and ambitious than that.

I get the feeling that people without kids and who don’t know a lot of kids imagine that all the moms are home doing exactly the in-school lesson plan, except a few poor kids who would be falling behind anyway, and the only problem is that the mothers are selfish and don’t want to put in the hours to take care of the kids they CHOSE to have. That and people who think there’s nothing taught in grade school that’s worth worrying about anyhow.

I totally believe that your sister and other family members aren’t happy with what they were given for remote schooling. (Calling it “home schooling” is annoying – it’s nothing like home schooling. I tried to set up something resembling home schooling in the first two weeks, when teachers were focused on wellness checks and finding out who didn’t have enough food and who would need a laptop or wifi hotspot. I had to abandon most of it when the school gave us a curriculum instead.)

My daughter was in fifth grade and could handle most of it herself. What we found was: There were 2 video calls a week (plus more for additional subjects), on which days the normal work was still assigned: usually one to check in and discuss expectations for the week, and one to do fun things like scavenger hunts or trivia quizzes. Teachers also had optional office hours. The work was a combination of: a continuation, essentially, of homework, about an hour a day for fifth graders (20 minutes of reading, a short response, and a very short math assignment); things they might do in “Circle,” transferred to a social-media type site where they wrote posts and responses; questionnaires and brief questions related to time use and wellness); assignments that could be done individually (though often compressed so a project that normally, I knew, took a few weeks, was expected to be done in 5 days). In subjects where videos and programmed websites could be made or found, these were sometimes assigned (the websites were always voice- rather than text-led), things that take time and can’t be done any faster. Every “special” and enrichment class had an assignment every day, again, sometimes compressing a project that would normally take several weeks into one. Some of those classes had weekly or more occasional video meetups. There were also other recommended websites for programmed reading comprehension, etc., and a news aggregator with post-reading assignments I liked but rarely had time for. So there was plenty to keep a kid busy if they had a device and nothing else to do.

What there wasn’t (besides grading, and besides extra help for kids who needed accommodations) was regular reading and math instruction with the kind and quantity of assignments they’d have in the classroom, differentiation, real pen-and-paper work, engagement with non-fiction texts for learning, anything that required instruction from the teacher or discussion with other students or more than rote engagement from the student (except in writing, which diminished in quantity as time went on, possibly because too few kids completed the assignments). There were no hands-on worksheets with, say, color-by-numbers or puzzles, to keep younger or less skilled kids engaged (there was no assumption made that families had access to a printer). There also wasn’t, by design, introduction of any material that hadn’t been addressed by March. I understand (in part from acquaintances who are teachers) that teachers were having additional video meetups with kids who needed help with retention or with catching up. I have no idea how reading could be taught in anything like the way it was when my kid was in the early grades, which even in first grade involved a lot of pairwise breaking off into groups, and depended entirely on being able to give each kid, every month, a box of books at their level and of their own choice.

I asked my child to work for 90 minutes in the morning, take a snack and exercise break, then work another 90 minutes until lunch. A normal 11yo lunch cannot be consumed in less than an hour. If I asked her to work another 90 minutes, that took us until 3 PM, and after that I asked her to do some kind of activity again. That’s essentially a full day, though 4.5 hours instruction time. On some days, that time included my asking her to do some handwriting practice (because she was using nothing but a computer for her regular work), or some more challenging math, or some other work I asked her to do, or finishing a project for an after-school class that had gone online). On some days, there was no time for that. On some days, 4.5 hours of work meant telling her to ignore some of the assignments. On some days, there was no really time-consuming work assigned, and she finished almost everything the school asked her to do before 10:30.

Again, this was obviously in part because of lack of time for planning, and I expect even remote schooling to be different next year. But there’s nothing in what I said that should lead parents to believe it’s reflective of what goes on in schools, no more than it would lead them to believe that they are as good teachers as their kids’ actual teachers are.


Sashas 07.17.20 at 5:31 pm

Harry @23
Thank you for your response! Perhaps an easier sell to administrators would be that they should be confident enough in their plan to share the analysis that underpins it. That won’t satisfy everyone, to be sure, but right now we’re left guessing at what their analysis is, and our best guesses do not make things look good for the “Smart Restart” plan.

Trader Joe @36

the real problem that a lot of schools haven’t figured out how to deliver the goods on-line for their kids and don’t seem to know how to change that and at this point don’t seem all that concerned with the consequence.

Any sentence that includes “the real problem” should make you hesitate. All of these things are problems.

I want to think about the part I highlighted a little more. Everyone I’ve talked to (students, parents, teachers, administrators, even politicians) is concerned about the consequences, both those of teaching in person and those of teaching online. Most of them are working with very limited information and very limited resources and feel trapped. They know the options are all bad, and fixate on one part or another that’s “the worst” in their view and try to avoid it. Case in point, my own advocacy against in-person university classes: Do I think online instruction will be good for my students? No. I don’t. Not as things stand now. But they won’t die from it, and I’m fixated on that as something to be avoided at all cost. It’s hard for me to justify talking about learning loss in this context, not because I don’t think it’s real, and not because I don’t care about it, but because I have two imperatives that appear to stand in conflict with one another.

I know one way out of this trap. (There may be others.) There may be approaches which satisfy both imperatives at the same time. Finding them and implementing them will require effort and resources. I make no excuses for any schools as institutions. They’re supposed to be doing this, and precious few of them are.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for bearing with my ramble. I think I’m making a subtle point, with a very similar conclusion that I think critical groups don’t seem concerned with the consequences of their inaction.

tamarac rehab @37
I’m not sure how you get to “schools should be reopened” from the factual claims you made.

You note that we don’t know how many people have really been infected. I agree! But we do know some stuff about the number of people infected. We have a “floor” on the number, for one thing, in the form of positive tests. Epidemiologists know a lot more about this stuff than you or I do, but I think I can safely say that as we test more people, that “floor” I mentioned gets closer to the true number. And that’s just one variable.

You also note that, even during quarantine, the infected number was high. I think it depends on when you measure that number, but I’ll tentatively agree. This is all relative though. I know in my city, the infected rate spiked when we reopened bars. If it was high before, it got much higher when we officially turned off the quarantine. (We’re back on again.)


ph 07.19.20 at 1:12 am

The data supports school openings according to five leading paediatricians selected and interviewed by MSNBC – unanimous and emphatic – ‘Open the schools this fall.’

The nice thing about this sample is that MSNBC seems to have stumbled on non-partisan experts who simply looked at the data.

Older teachers and staff have every reason to be concerned, however. Provisions for their safety have to be factored into how classes are organized and scheduled.

A simple video camera set up in an empty classroom for the teacher to work from with a feed to any kind of monitor should suffice. Not perfect, but if the schools reach out, or start a go-fund me page to get the simple equipment to get kids and teachers back to school safely, my guess is that the local parents and businesses will rally around the project.

Quelle horreur – community based solutions and localism actually working!


ph 07.19.20 at 1:19 am

That teacher working from the empty classroom/work space speaks live into the camera – the video and audio output goes into a cable leading to a monitor set up in an adjacent classroom. Or in the auditorium, or the school gym. Some schools, I know, have very limited resources. The point is to, you know….try to adapt and continue to work on finding better solutions. Get some sort of system in place that meets the concerns of all concerned and then – surprise! try to improve the efficacy of all parts.

Hopefully, we’ll see some adult behavior before September. Thanks Harry.


Robespierre 07.19.20 at 10:42 am

All this sounds like idle chat. There is a plague. We must end the plague. Anything else cannot be done before we end the plague.


notGoodenough 07.19.20 at 4:00 pm

The keyword, I think, is “safely”.

Paediatricians and epidemiologists are in favour of reopening schools “safely”. Certainly, I would be in favour of reopening schools “safely”. Indeed, I don’t believe anyone on this thread has argued they’d be against reopening schools “safely” – the point of contention being is it actually possible to reopen schools in the US “safely” right now?

There are some reasons to be optimistic: as noted, the rates of mortality amongst children are relatively low, particularly in comparison to those in the above 60s categories. Of course, that is hardly the whole story, and a bit more deliberation is warrented.

Indeed, the next question would likely be: what about spreading the virus from the school to the local community? Here it is a bit more mixed – some studies suggest that in China [1] and Switzerland [2] children have only been responsible for <10% infection clusters (not ideal, by any means, but not a majority). However, a South Korean study [3] suggests that older children/teenagers (10-19 years) can spread the virus as well as adults. Now, to be clear, these studies are tentative – likely it will be a long time before the full picture is available – but it would seem that the risks depend a great deal depending on which children you are reopening schools for.

Another point of consideration may be that mortality rates are only one part of the puzzle – what about the long term health effects? Again, results are tentative, but there are some studies suggesting the disease may have neuroinvasive properties [4] and lead to neurological problems [5] including some degradation of cognitive functions, as well as irreversible scarring in the lungs, and a host of other issues (including kidney failure, blood clots, and liver abnormalities). These are not necessarily fatal in themselves, and some can ease to a certain extent over time, but certainly one would imagine it would be better to minimise these risks as much as possible – particularly given not only the long term health and quality of life impact, but also the potential long term financial costs of healthcare in the US.

It might be worth considering other nations which have already undertaken, or are planning in the future, reopening. My understanding is that the majority have the coronavirus largely under control (i.e. they have succeeded in flattening the curve) which will ease potential burdens and make it easier to detect outbreaks (and indeed, many already have fairly reliable methods of detection able to be rolled out). As far as I am aware, the US has not flattened the curve (infection rates are still increasing). Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has there been a convincing demonstration that reliable testing and mittigation techniques could be easily rolled out in schools (though if I am wrong about that, then please do point me to the evidence).

I would say a lot then comes down to your confidence in how well schools will be able to reopen safely in the US. Will there be adequate distancing available in the classrooms and PPE for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status? Will there be monitoring ofinfection rates? Will there be plans in case of spiking infection? What measures will be taken? How will this be carried out, by whom, and how will it be funded?

If you believe that your school can sufficiently provide adequate safety for all attendees, that there are well considered plans in place in case of uptick, that people will be cared for if they do become sick, etc. – well, you might have a good reason to be confident in reopening.

If, on the other hand, you do not have confidence that the school will be able to offer those things – that the budget and infrastructure isn’t there, that parents and staff won’t be able to absorb medical bills in case of illness, etc. – then I would say you have good reason to be sceptical.

Indeed, if you want a relatively thoughtful and unbiased piece, perhaps it is worth looking at this article [6] where the author is looking at reopening in fall and concludes it should be attempted, but notes the importance of having a plan, infrastructure, and budget in place to deal with the uncertainty and the potential impact of increasing R0. They also note that rapid response to new data will also be critical in safely operating reopened schools – and that it is by no means certain that that will in fact be likely. For myself, I think a not unreasonable way to determine if the US is able and willing to reopen schools “safely” is to look at how the epidemic has been generally handled. Now I am not an American, of course, but given the spiking infection rates, the hostility to expertise and basic safety precautions amongst certain sectors of the population, and the slow response leading to much higher rates than in Europe, Japan, Korea, etc., I would say there is cause for concern, and reason to be sceptical.

I would hope we are all in agreement we need to reopen schools as soon as possible and as safely as possible. But I would say until those proposing reopening also provide details for how they see it happening, how they imagine the necessary monitoring and testing will be undertaken, how any who fall sick will be provided for, how it will be ensured that everyone (regardless of socioeconomic status) will have the resources necessary to do the job safely, and how it is all going to be paid for, then they are not really doing anything to advance the goal they wish to achieve. Indeed, I feel saying “we need to reopen” is fine as a general goal, but hardly particularly helpful in the specifics. And, until these important point are resolved, I don’t see how it is reasonable to expect people to take the risks that would be asked of them. Indeed, if you are driven by a sense of urgency that schools must reopen as soon as possible, then why not direct your energies towards ensuring that itwill be done so “safely” and by pushing the relevant US authorities on how they will do so? If you can demonstrate it will be done safely, I doubt many on CT would oppose it (and certainly I would not). Otherwise, you are merely insisting that others take the risks, without providing any support of your own – and personally I find it a little repugnant when it is insisted “if people must suffer to achieve goals I support, then that is a price I am happy for others to pay on my behalf” (though that is a personal opinion, of course).

In short, until it can be shown how schools will be reopened “safely” – and it is demonstrated that sensible, data driven plans are in place to deal with whatever consequences there may be using sensible risk management and a good distribution of resources and infrastructure – then I think that considerable work remains, and would suggest that perhaps schools should remain closed until this is resolved.

[5] 10.1001/jamaneurol.2020.1127


CHETAN R MURTHY 07.20.20 at 12:21 am

It is a very good thing that I know that “ph” is a troll and always, always, always argues in bad faith. Otherwise, I might take him seriously and argue against him. A sterile task, that: he’ll always have some other bad-faith arguments to set up.

It’s also a good thing that parents and teachers aren’t influenced by moral black holes like “ph”. Thank goodness for that.

Everyone should disregard him.


Trader Joe 07.20.20 at 12:42 pm

@47 Bianca

Thank you for your detailed comments. It seems we’re in pretty high agreement about what level of instruction was provided during March-June and I would likewise agree with your assessment about the amount of parental input required to augment the limited curriculum that was provided. You were clearly very diligent in seeing to continued learning for your children, not all parents are.

Where we differ I suppose, is on the conclusions drawn. For the many reasons you suggest I think its important that a way is found to provide at least some classroom time going forward. I’m not sure where you stand.

I’ve seen little evidence in my area that educators used the summer to design better course delivery in the fall if it needs to be done on line. No doubt a bit of on-the-fly learning happened in the Spring that will benefit the new school year, but it seemed from when the doors closed in June, educators spent their summer “as normal.”

I’m not really critical of them enjoying their summer. But the active protests against returning this fall are not based on stunning new information, if they were afraid to go back for health reasons, that was true since Spring and school administrations should have more evidently made two track plans….maybe they did, but that’s not clear to me.

I guess my bottom line is I’m pretty doubtful that schools that start the year on-line will go back at all during the 20/21 calendar. Schools that start in-person (or partly) may ultimately need to retreat to on-line but I rather see that as a fall back than abandoning in-person from the start. I think the most talented kids will do fine, the average kids will lose about a half grade level and the weakest kids will effectively re-do this year (even if they advance them normally).


Former Child 07.20.20 at 5:44 pm

Thanks Harry,
You have made a key point which most discussions of reopening have ignored, that parents and teachers need to trust in the decision-making of administrators and government officials charged with educational decisions. I have been working long hours in recent week as a member of a labor-management committee (I am a senior teacher) attempting to get my district prepared for either remote, hybrid, or full-time in person instruction in the fall. We are in Massachusetts, where conditions are not obviously unsafe for reopening but not obviously safe either. The perceptions of both the risks and the benefits of returning to the classroom diverge greatly. The only way to bridge this gap is for the parties to trust the expertise, good faith, and decision-making skill of the eventual “deciders.” If a district has not developed this trust among stakeholders over time the stresses of the pandemic will make a successful reopening all but impossible.
On a related point not covered in your essay, it is hard to assess the true benefits of reopening since we will not be operating the same way in September 2020 as we did in September 2019. How effective will the new “normal” of in person instruction be: smaller class sizes, limited ability for collaborative work, masks at all times, social distancing, etc.? No one really knows, and anybody who claims to is just guessing.

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