The School Debate

It is looking like many, if not most, schools are returning to “virtual” “learning” this Fall. Some schools are offering hybrid options, while a few others are at least now planning for a full, five-days per week return to in-class learning.

While there are certainly many parents who are quite happy to keep their kids home, most are disappointed (if not outright angry) that at least some in-person education is not being offered. Our experience as parents this Spring after schools were closed does not inspire us with confidence. The consensus experience was that virtual learning was a complete disaster, if not farce. Leaving aside the difficulty parents had in keeping track of their children’s different Zoom, Google classroom, or whatever other platform schedules, children just did not have the same quality of instruction as they did in-person.

Most troubling of all, continued school closures and distance learning will most adversely impact precisely those students most in need of the structured environment of schooling: special education students and the poor. It also is generally ineffective for elementary school children, and maybe barely tolerable for middle school and above.

And none of this even touches upon the lack of socialization. One of the misunderstood aspects of home-schooling is that under normal circumstances home-schooling families usually take part in cooperative ventures and other joint group efforts to enable children to interact. This virtual learning “home-school” experience lacks this element. Many children have lacked almost any interaction with friends or similar-aged children for months, and this will now continue for months more. Sure, there are ways parents might be able to help encourage playtime with certain other families, but that is not an option open to all families.

What is most frustrating to those of us who think schools should re-open is that there is this repeated mantra offered by public officials and school superintendents that they are just following “science” and “data” when it is apparent they are not, or at least are not adequately informing themselves of all the data. It’s true that there is much that we don’t know still about the virus, but it is now fairly clear that small children just are not susceptible to becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID. While COVID is 5-6 times more deadly than the flu for the general population, that’s not the case with chidren who are 10 and younger. Older kids have more risk, but it’s still fairly minimal compared to the general population.

As for transmittal, that’s a bit more uncertain. This study out of South Korea suggests small children do not tend to transmit the virus, but older children (10+) do at the same level as adults. The study’s sample is small, though, so it may not tell the whole story. From what we know of the virus and how it is transmitted, it makes intuitive sense that small children probably are not generally transmitters, but I of course understand that school boards don’t want to go by intuition alone. But if older kids do present a greater risk to their adult teachers, they are also much more likely to reliably wear masks and keep them on than, say, a kindergartner.

With that being said, I want to address a pair of common arguments presented by either side of the debate. On the one hand, there is a common thread that parents are willing to put teachers’ lives at risk just because we need babysitters. First of all, though the risk for teachers is admittedly higher than it is for the children, it’s still relatively small for teachers who have no other underlying conditions. One would hope we would be able to figure out ways to protect the more vulnerable teachers. As for the sneering dismissal that parents are just looking for babysitters, while it contains a hint of truth, it is ultimately unfair.

It is decidedly true that two-income parents are going to struggle if there is no school. Teachers are going to get paid either way, but lots of moms (and some dads) will not be able to work. Some families may have to develop very divergent schedules to enable both parents to work at different times, but this will obviously be a further strain. Furthermore, though the childcare aspect does concern many parents, almost every parent I know is primarily concerned about another four months, at least, of stalled education. Speaking personally, my two youngest are both deaf/hard of hearing (with cochlear implants), and go to a school for the deaf. My youngest child in particular needs a lot of attention, and distance learning is completely useless for her. Even my two older children struggled. This distance learning just does not work effectively, and we don’t want our children to fall further behind.

On the other side, I’ve heard a lot of sniping that teachers are just looking to be able to take more time off. This is unfair. Almost every teacher I know is as frustrated by the distance learning as are the parents, and that goes double for teachers who themselves have small children. It is no picnic for them, and it’s not like more distance learning means they get to sit back and take siestas all day. And while the ridiculous demands of the Los Angeles teachers union damage their reputation, I don’t believe they represent anything like a majority of teachers out there. I know that most teachers are trying their hardest, so let’s not scapegoat them. Well, all of them.

COVID

Over the past few years I have experienced an eternal headache as I have navigated the rough waters of writing about Donald Trump. In the morning I might be doing rhetorical battle on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere with a Trump supporter offended that I have deigned to criticize His Omnipotence, and in the evening I am dueling with some #Resistance fool upset that I do not share his belief that Donald Trump is a tyrant, and as such I have shown insufficient angst regarding Hitler Junior.

And so it has been with COVID. When the virus became a serious concern in March I broke with many people in supporting the lockdowns and in arguing that the virus was indeed a much more serious concern than the flu. Then, over time, the lockdown forever brigade began to fray my nerves.

In an age of Google and instant internet access for all, it is not difficult to find statistics and other reports about the virus to gain a better insight into what is truly happening. Yes, even months on from the onset of COVID we still receive inconsistent and sometimes contradictory information, so I understand there may be a level of deserved mistrust in the reporting. But as time has gone on, certain facts seem indisputable.

Yes, COVID is deadlier than the flu by quite a lot. At no point in recent memory have 2,000+ people died of the flu in a single day, as happened during the peak. Even now as the curve has flattened (more on that in a moment), the 700-800 daily deaths are 2-3 times what one would see at the peak of flu season. I have seen some estimates that 80-90,000 people might die in a particularly bad flu season, but that figure is wildly exaggerated as the peak number of deaths in the past decade is closer to 60,000, and COVID deaths have doubled that in just over three months.

Conversely, it is true that COVID is significantly less lethal for people under about the age of 60 who have no other underlying health conditions. Nearly 80% of coronavirus-related deaths in the US have been in people aged 65 or older. It is still more lethal than the flu for just about every age group except the very youngest, though, so one should not casually dismiss the seriousness of COVID – especially when one factors potential long-term health impacts.

Most importantly, COVID is especially non-lethal for children under the age of about 12. There have been about two-dozen deaths in this age category, and I believe almost all involved children who had some type of underlying illness. As a father I cannot imagine losing a child, so no death should ever be diminished. But not only is COVID not very much of a threat to the health of young children, contrary to almost every illness in history (I exaggerate, but kids are called “germ factories” for a reason) kids do not seem to transmit the virus much if at all to adults. What’s more, many other countries have opened schools and there have been no reported outbreaks due to these openings. There was a concern that there was a relationship between an uptick in Kawasaki-disease (or a similar syndrome) related to COVID, but the number of cases remained small, and it doesn’t seem as though this ever became a significant concern (though I am open to correction if people have updated data).

It seems as though we have two conflicting goals. On the one hand, we need to better demonstrate the seriousness of the virus to a subset of the population who continues to dismiss its significance. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those who continue to live in abject fear would do well to better understand recent studies and data. If one purports to be a believer in science, it seems strange to be personally paranoid about a virus that has almost no chance (assuming you are in the low-risk age group) of killing you or even leaving you with long-term disabilities, and has practically zero chance of harming your child if you are a parent.

It’s an admittedly difficult dance. I may not personally have much concern about the virus as it relates to me or my family, but neither do I want to be responsible for passing the virus onto someone who is higher risk. I was very happy to return to Church last week for the first time in three months – a return that was way overdue. Every other pew is blocked off, and everyone wore masks. And yet I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous as two women, likely in their 80s, sat in the next available pew in front of me. I wondered if I could hold my breath for an hour.

And that’s why those who think they are making some sort of political statement by not wearing a mask infuriate me. Oh, you aren’t some sheep who just listens to what others, including the government, tell you to do? Do you stop at red lights? Do you wear a seatbelt? Do you pay your taxes? If you answered yes, then I guess you are just a “sheep.” Wearing a mask is not about protecting you: it is about protecting others from you in case you are pre-symptomatic (as opposed to asymptomatic, which is somehow a different thing). Yes, authorities likely lied about mask-wearing at the outset of the pandemic crisis, and they deserve blame for that. But that’s no excuse now when we know better.

Incidentally, the anti-mask stance is an odd one for libertarians. In an age of video surveillance and facial recognition, mask wearing would seem to be an anti-establishment, finger-poke in the eye type thing. In fact, it is much more likely for masks to be outlawed as facial recognition becomes more ubiquitous. Indeed, masks are precisely the type of subtle protest used in authoritarian countries where video surveillance and facial recognition are widespread. It will be ironic when in a few years libertarians protest the outlawing of masks.

Once again, the flipside is also silly. I don’t wear a mask walking around or when I’m running. I don’t begrudge anyone who decides to do so, though I can’t imagine it being particularly healthy to run in a mask during the summer months. It doesn’t seem as though there is much of a call for people to wear them outdoors except in cases where sustained distancing is not possible, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that started happening because again, nobody seems to be reading anything.

Admittedly this has been a somewhat rambling post as I am just basically venting off three months of frustration. If there is an overarching message, it’s that I wish people really would take data seriously and really think before jumping on this or that bandwagon. For example, when you see cases jump in certain states, don’t just assume it’s the end of the world. Look more closely at the data. For instance, see Avik Roy’s thread about Florida. He shows that most of the cases are in a much younger population, and that even if hospitalizations are increasing, these are cases where most people are discharged and recover. (Incidentally, the thread also gives lie to the idea that Florida is hiding its data or is being insufficiently transparent when it’s the complete opposite of the truth – Florida has been more transparent than just about any other state).

Maybe my message is simply: be safe, be careful, but also don’t feel you need to hide in your cave.