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Terry H. Schwadron

July 25, 2020

The anger-inducing malaise over the handling over school questions in a time of coronavirus should be demanding a lot more creativity and sophistication than our federal leaders — maybe even our local leaders, too — are suggesting.

For Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the answer is simple: Open the schools fully, as if there is no virus; in fact, threaten those that do not.

When pressed, they produce incomplete studies from European cities where schools have re-opened — and where the contagion numbers have been brought down. They are ignoring the idea that the adults in school, even magically not the children, are ideal targets for contagion or transmission because it helps them put on a best face with reelection at hand.

A new Centers for Disease Control guidance offered to promote open schools says, “International studies that have assessed how readily COVID-19 spreads in schools also reveal low rates of transmission when community transmission is low.” The new report is much like the previous report, though it starts with a plea to return to school, and then lists all the same issues among some new social science about the need for education as it did before the White House jumped all over its failure to promote open schools.

For cities that find the problems of dealing with the physical problems of social distancing massive, the answer is equally simple: Keep schools closed, setting contagion as a risk much higher than that for continued job dislocation, and the dangers of knowledge slippage and uneven education through online classes. But it’s not clear how they are providing effective efforts to reach all students.

And then there are the districts like New York City, considering some hybrid, which guarantees lower class size, but neither continuity for parents nor relief for teachers, with a host of other transportation, food service, nursing and medical testing needs and unending logical problems.

Most districts are torn and waiting until virus data dictates a defensible direction.

Out of this is growing a parent-driven idea of organizing “pandemic pods,” or home-schooling pods, in which groups of three to 10 students learn together in homes under the tutelage of the children’s parents or a hired teacher. It feels safer and more consistent, but essentially amounts to private schooling, and will only serve the privileged and because they will organize around neighborhood will bolster racial segregation just at a time when we finally are having a national conversation about race.

Isn’t it time we prod our officials into taking a role in these pod formations to achieve racial and class mix as part of their logistical puzzle-solving?

Questions Without End

For openers, we shouldn’t be treating five-year-olds and tweens with the same organizational brush. They are not the same medically nor developmentally, nor from a position of assigning responsibilities, like mask-wearing.

We should be involving the classroom teachers and teacher unions in determining how best to organize student groups rather than leaving it to parents, who likely will look to families they know or live by, both for convenience and health concerns. But what of diversity? What of students from the bilingual elementary school or magnet that draw from all neighborhoods? What of the mission of providing education to all in equal measure?

But what are the physical, curricular and other requirements for home-schooling pods, and where is the organized guidance to ensure that even these approaches satisfy minimal needs for containing contagion? And are these privately hired teachers, unplugged from whatever curriculum is being followed, unprotected by health care and other aspects of union contracts?

Are we teaching as parent and grandparent volunteers? Are we making it up as we go? Is food involved? Outdoor recreation or indoor gym? Are there requirements for disabled children — or are they to be left out of this view of education altogether?

Rather than having this come from our officials, there are commercial services setting up to match families for a fee. Sounds odd. These aren’t dating relationships. One group in San Francisco already has 9,500 applicants.

As a society, we have never embraced child-care as a significant investment, quite apart from education goals. And separately, we have done significant damage through required educational testing programs to squash the important parts of learning. And through it all, what happens to the great mix of diversity that is public education?

Are Pods Safe?

At a minimum, rather than hear Betsy DeVos reference unproved medical theories, including an unpublished German study that she incorrectly cites as presenting children as “stopping” coronavirus contagion, I would like to see the Education Department filled with actual practical advice about curriculum, online learning, teacher experiences, teacher training and the requirements for successful home school alternatives.

Of course, that would mean DeVos would be paying attention to education rather than to politics. And it might even offer her a second thought about siphoning money for the public schools away to private and parochial education.

It is her job, after all.

Even as these education pods proliferate, the question both how (and what) to teach, and how to keep students who will not wear masks safe. When you add together the teacher and all of the family members of students, a small pod ends up including dozens of people, and the more people in it, the greater the risk for coronavirus exposure.

At least, we should have some guidance for how it all is supposed to work.

And we should be promoting the idea that school settings are where we learn social values, and insist on approaches that include a broader mix of students than a single neighborhood might provide.


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