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Why We Need to Go Back to School
After the initial shock of COVID-19, Justin and I made the decision to avoid jumping into the coronavirus opinion minefield. We felt it best to just focus on our educational mission and leave that sort of thing to the experts. That may seem the obvious course, but I have a unique pipeline to insight on the coronavirus.
My father, Dr. Griffin Trotter, is an expert in mass casualty medicine, epidemics, ethics, and public health response. He literally wrote the graduate studies textbook on this subject: The Ethics of Coercion in Mass Casualty Medicine. So while most of us have been told what to think from Dr. Fauci and Good Morning America, I’ve had good old dad critically analyzing medical journals with his unique lens. And while most experts are weighed down by politics and naive interventionism, my father has an allergy to such nonsense.
Turn on the television and you’ll get tons of soundbites all across the spectrum. These mostly confuse while doing little to help people make sense of the pandemic. For example, I’ve not seen any mainstream expert clarify the difference between case mortality and infection mortality rate (and why the latter is far more instructive).
Still, Justin and I decided to steer clear of giving any opinions about the virus. It seemed a futile effort given my father's insistence that there are too many unknowns to make intelligent projections. As he said in an April 25, 2020 essay:
Mechanisms of change are more than just elusive; they are totally beyond our grasp. We don’t know how well the virus will hold up in hot weather. More importantly, we do not know if the virus will mutate substantially. If it does mutate, we do not know if it will mutate into a form that is more lethal, or perhaps a form that is less lethal but more infectious, or a form that attacks a different demographic. For that reason, we don’t know if by using lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus this spring we have saved lives in the future or caused even greater future mortality by limiting herd immunity and allowing the resurgence of a more lethal form of the virus next fall and beyond. If we had gone the other way and aimed for herd immunity (as most experts initially suggested), we do not know if herd immunity would have held up in the face of viral mutations.
With such uncertainty, decisions come down to values. But we’ve not been able to have that conversation. Which is why I’ve decided it’s time to weigh in. We’ve been made woefully ill-equipped to examine the question of returning to school at the level of complexity warranted by the moment.
A Broader View of Education
On Friday, Texas Governor, Greg Abbott announced that every time a student or school employee tests positive for COVID-19, that school will “close down for five days to clear out the school, to sanitize it, to make it clear and clean for students return." By this standard, every school within an hour of a metropolitan area will be shut down within the first week.
But such policies correspond with the naive line that all politicians, regardless of party, are falling back on. Our kids need school so we are going to open back up, safely. On the surface, there is nothing to disagree with (the essence of all political deception). They aim to please both those who want kids in school and those most fearful of coronavirus (who can also choose to stay away from school altogether by utilizing the new virtual option at their respective district). But politicians know these guidelines make school impossible. They pretend otherwise so they can say they tried without having to deal with the fallout of actually trying. And the deception hurts us all. By creating the illusion that these expectations are realistic, we remove any opportunity for in-person school to last.
To be clear, my view is that we need to go back to school, but with many caveats. If the goal is to have elementary kids locked in a classroom, strapped to a desk, and denied recess, P.E., or activities where they can move and explore, then we should stop talking right now. I’m appalled by how far education had slipped toward this insanity prior to COVID-19. If the plan is to move further in that direction parents should be notified so they can adapt accordingly.
Even at the high school level, kids need to run and play. They need the freedom to socialize and explore. Mask them up while inside and cancel contact sports if you want the low hanging fruit, but please dispense with the fiction that we can or should keep our students insulated in touchless six-foot bubbles all day. There are plenty of sacrifices worth making right now, but the future of our children is not one. They cannot develop well if we ignore their human needs and their age-specific developmental needs.
As with most choices, this is about weighing the costs and benefits. I place a high value on youth development. The most important consideration for any society is how it raises its children and this is especially the case today. Mental and physical health are at all time lows, powerful technologies manipulate us with startling effectiveness, and the current information overload leaves us more lost and confused than ever. Lockdown has only fueled this fire. We’ve taken a generation that was already obsessed with passive entertainment, that forgoes real experiences for the virtual, and that demonstrates a disturbing lost desire for independence, and we’ve locked them in their homes to depend upon the very tools that created this devolution. Public education has been negligent of any responsibility to combat screen-time and the related negative generational trends. But at least when kids go to school, they are together.
The most important lessons do not come from specific instruction but happen naturally when people are in the right environment - when they are free to explore and interact, and have few options for passive entertainment. Our youth NEED social interaction to develop well. This is why the AAP strongly advocates that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” While the traditional school environment has not been perfect, it is far superior to the isolated home.
Furthermore, if we learned anything from this past spring it is that virtual public school is ineffective. Students don’t learn so much as participate in the ritualized illusion of learning. Teachers send home simple assignments covering the measurable items and lose all those essential immeasurables - class discussions that spark lifelong interests, the courage it takes to stand and give a speech, the ability to manage personalities in group work, learning to de-escalate conflict, discovering the social consequences of narcissism, the empathy born of witnessing varied life experiences, the connections and passions that come from lunchtime conversations, the development of autonomy, personal responsibility, and independence, and many other vital “soft” skills. Teachers finagle the desired passing rates without subjecting students to the inconvenience of learning and without exploring enough to develop curiosities. In short, online classrooms deliver all that is wrong with public school without all that is right.
Weighing the Costs
Still, there are scenarios where the costs of going back to school would be too high. The Black Death swept through 14th century Europe killing over half the population in many cities. If you got the bubonic plague, your chance of dying within eight days was over 80%. Death was extremely painful, there was no treatment, and the plague killed children as frequently as older people. But COVID-19 is nothing like this.
Many have compared COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919. The worst case scenario all along has been that, like the Spanish Flu, this virus could mutate to become much more deadly in its second and third waves. If this coronavirus begins killing people of all ages like the Spanish Flu did, then we would cease physical school without hesitation. But again, that isn’t where we are right now and there are other major differences between the Spanish Flu and COVID-19.
Coronavirus deaths in young people are extremely rare. COVID-19 kills 0.00032% of those who contract it under the age of 20. They are more likely to be struck by lightning and more likely to die of the flu or pneumonia than to die of COVID-19. College students, who will be stuck learning online from their childhood bedroom, would be far more likely to die driving back to college than from resuming their college lifestyle. In fact, if you are under 50, you are more likely to die on your way to and from work each day than from the latest coronavirus. This is the major story, to date. COVID-19 is shockingly harmless to young people and disproportionately affects the frail. Which is why the 0.6% of the population living in nursing homes account for 42% of U.S. deaths and over 80% of Canada’s deaths. By contrast, the Spanish Flu was deadliest in the very young and the 20-40 age range. A 25-year-old was more likely to die than a 74-year-old.
Coronavirus hardly affects those of robust health. As it currently stands, the vast majority of people are at very little personal risk. This isn’t to suggest that they shouldn’t be weary of infecting others and it isn’t to diminish the lives of the elderly. But it is relevant, particularly as older populations do not need to work (if only our 74 and 78-year-old presidential candidates realized this) and can quarantine with the least collateral damage. More on that later.
When Texas and other states began opening in early May, I was sure the death rate would rise. But it didn’t. In the U.S., deaths have gone down every week for the past nine weeks. We are now seeing less than 10% of the deaths we saw in mid-April. All while businesses reopen and people are interacting far more than in April.
As I tracked this, I assumed everyone would be thrilled. We were going back into the world and for some reason (I’ve not seen a definitive explanation) fewer people were dying. But, to my surprise, all I’ve heard about since mid-June is the rising number of cases. Of course the number of cases are going up! We aren’t locking ourselves in our houses anymore!
The majority of new cases are not deadly. The majority of new cases come from a younger demographic that has gone back to work and play. Often they are asymptomatic. They are finding out that a friend or co-worker tested positive and then quarantining and getting tested. And to make matters even better, the CDC confirmed what antibody tests have indicated for a while: about ten times more people have had COVID-19 as have tested positive. This puts the total number of infected people over 20 million and the infection fatality rate at below 1% when combining all ages, and below 0.14% for all people under 50.
Even concerns about hospital overcrowding (which seem legitimate) are mostly a self-inflicted consequence of Hurricane Katrina-level bureaucratic incompetence. According to my father, many steps should have been taken long ago to avoid this problem. For example, expedited training programs, creating mobile clinics to travel to the potentially sick who need testing, forming secondary assessment centers (SACs) to assess and treat those with persistent symptoms, and establishing field hospitals, separate from the current hospital structure, for those who needed around the clock care. Having been an emergency physician in the Air Force and later at Fort Campbell Army Base, he’s seen these field hospitals assembled basically overnight.
To recap, more people are getting COVID-19 than when everyone was locking themselves in their house. But, far fewer people are dying. There are less than 10% as many deaths per week as just nine weeks ago. Unfortunately, we only hear about tragic individual narratives and the rising number of cases. Each new decision seems to be made without much explanation of the downstream effects people should expect. In fact, many of the same people who were so adamant about reopening the economy are now clamoring for another shutdown. It is this short-sighted thinking that we have to overcome.
What will happen when we put thousands of students back in a single school building? You can’t realistically create a sophisticated enough plan to keep kids socially distanced (and, again, that sort of plan would be so harmful as to make going back not worth it). Politicians will insinuate that we can return to school and keep everyone insulated from the virus, but that is impossible. Regardless of the measures we take, the virus will spread faster than ever. The chain of exposure will be larger than anyone can possibly track. All the other typical infections will surface as well. After all, no educator makes it through a year without four or five bouts of cough, congestion, and sniffles. Even after a negative test, current recommendations are to operate as if this is a false negative. How can schools function if each negative test requires teachers and students to quarantine for two-weeks? And how will we react when death rates inevitably rise?
Even if COVID-19 does not become any deadlier than it currently is, going back to school will lead to more deaths. Kids will spread the virus to their parents and everyone else. There will be teachers who die. There are already teachers who die of the flu or pneumonia every year. In a country of 400 million people, we will even see those vanishingly rare examples, where a healthy 35-year-old teacher dies. There might even be the rare example of an apparently healthy 11-year-old who dies. Of course, about 19 children die per year in school bus accidents alone. But no one will help us to put this in context. The media will seize every tragedy and people will be terrified.
If we plan on going back to school, we have to know all this going in and determine that it is worth seeing through anyway. Our state governments will have to stop pretending that we can both have in-person school and shut down schools for five days any time there is a positive case. For schools to operate this year, we’ll need to begin being honest about what that entails so people can make informed decisions.
What Do You Stand For?
Hard decisions require an examination of values - the preference hierarchies that determine our choices. Americans tend to prefer (to value) individual freedom more than those who grow up in China, where people are more likely to see themselves in terms of the collective. But values aren’t always a simple preference. For example, we’d all prefer to be healthy than unhealthy. But most don’t prefer being healthy to eating whatever they like, exercising consistently, and learning how to master their habits. The lower ranking of health comparable to the activities required to be healthy leads most to sub-optimal health. Likewise, we’d all prefer to be smarter, but most don’t prefer it enough to read books rather than scroll social media. Preferences matter most whenever a desired result requires sacrifice.
Throughout history, there have been many moments when we determined that some collective sacrifice was worth it. In World War II, we rationed gas, food, and many other items because we valued the war effort more than personal convenience. In World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam (yeah, I know, Vietnam wasn’t our best moment), we saw causes so worthwhile that we were willing to risk the lives of 18-year-olds. We determined that a goal was significant enough to warrant thousands of inevitable deaths of young men who had decades of productive potential ahead of them. Today, we seem unwilling to risk the lives of (mostly) elderly people for the sake of our children’s development.
This isn’t a perfect comparison. Our children, though more likely to grow isolated and unhealthy, are not facing an imminent threat to their lives. Later in life they will have ample opportunity to overcome the exacerbated effects of screen addiction, obesity, depression, and anxiety. There is no way to quantify the long term damage that continued lockdown will have on our kids - no way to know how many transformative life experiences they will miss. Furthermore, if school does not resume, many amazing people can and will rally to meet the needs of some children. In other words, some children will be affected far less than others. But, we know that the overwhelming majority will simply slip further into the destructive patterns that should have caused us to collectively stop and re-evaluate our childhood norms long ago.
The reality that we have to face is that regardless of what decisions are made, we are making a trade. Life demands a constant set of tradeoffs. The way you manage those tradeoffs determines who you are and what you value.
Still, these arguments indicate my own values and are not meant to condemn anyone else’s. My father makes this point in the essay mentioned above:
An important reason for my disinclination to agree with the social distancing strategies is that when liberty and safety conflict, I usually choose liberty. This tendency is offset to some degree by the fact that I like social distance. These are personal idiosyncrasies, not expressions of rational deduction. Reason does not tell me (or anyone else) how to balance safety concerns with liberty concerns. If I call someone an idiot because he or she values safety where I value liberty, it is I who am being the idiot. And vice versa. I am confusing nonrational personal inclinations with irrational thinking, which is itself irrational. As a general rule, those who condemn the moral-cultural-political preferences of those who disagree with them as “irrational” are the biggest idiots. Don’t be an idiot.
And just as we shouldn’t expect others to adopt the same values, we shouldn’t be dismissive of differences in situation. What about those many teachers at far higher risk than I am. I can’t fault breast cancer survivor, Ms. Doe, for not wanting to go back to school or her 15-year-old son, Johnny, for worrying about bringing the virus home. This sort of scenario is more common than many would think. Thus, I fully support the districts creating online-only options for teachers and students who are willing to sacrifice all the benefits of in-person education in favor of greater security. Choice is a beautiful thing, provided we aren’t so entitled as to demand limitless, individualized options and that we understand the problems that come from having too many choices.
But, right now, the problem isn’t choices so much as confusion. For the average person, it is impossible to come to any understanding about the current risks of COVID-19, much less the best way forward. Most teachers still have no idea what school will look like in the fall. How can anyone make a plan?
Rather than saying this is where we are, these are the current options, and these are the preparations we’ve made to adapt as things change, politicians are ignoring reality. They want to pretend we can get all the benefits of traditional school online or that we can return to in-person school without risking more infections. Both are impossible. Thus, confused school districts have understandably remained silent.
The Need For Mature Conversation
“Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all others.”
- Winston Churchill
Many of our largest issues stem from mass denial of harsh realities - a cultural immaturity that renders us ill-equipped to collectively overcome the large challenges of our time. At the core of this immaturity is the most obvious and universal harsh reality. Death. It is undefeated. On average 7,500 Americans die per day. As with COVID-19, the majority of these deaths come from the elderly and ill. You can’t lead in a situation like this if you aren’t comfortable thinking about death.
It is rare for an 18-year-old today, a “young-adult,” to have spent time meditating on the inevitability of their death. Death is among the many essential topics (like values, relationships, and questioning beliefs) that high-schools are not allowed to touch. This is the exact opposite of historical cultures, where the contemplation of death was put at the center of one’s worldview, education, and rites of passage.
Each day that passes is a form of death. Time passed is life that is dead. Thus, the very act of living is the act of trading our life for whatever we choose to do.
Such a powerful reality is very instructive about the pursuits that matter, the value of your time, and how you weigh complex issues. As Steve Jobs said, “... death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” I don’t wish to speed up this process for anyone, yet I don’t wish for anyone to live forever, either.
But, this is all very easy for a healthy 31-year-old to say. It’s easy for me to dismiss the desires of elderly people to extend their lives as long as possible. I understand this, but it doesn’t change my opinion. As long as the infection fatality rate remains as it is now, our nation needs to accept the unfortunate costs (more deaths) that will come with returning to school.
Still, it isn’t this simple. There has to be a minimum standard of what constitutes acceptable in-school practices. To bring students to school and not let them play, exercise, and get out of their seats is not an acceptable option. If that is your plan, cancel school now so parents can adapt and public energy is funnelled to where it can do the most good.
The best route is to keep two options. One that resembles normal school but takes advantage of some low-hanging fruit: more bike racks for kids to transport themselves to school, more hand-sanitizer stations, masks worn inside, limitations on extracurriculars, the cancellation of ceremonial events, etc. The second option is online school for teachers and students who fear returning in the manner of the first option. Of course, for people to make such a decision it will require districts to clearly define their primary option as soon as possible.
But even if we could agree on this much, we are not done. We have to talk through the specifics of what going back to school for any reasonable period of time will require. The week of April 18th (the highest death week), 16,394 people died of COVID-19. How much higher would that be if schools were in session at the time? No one knows what will happen with this virus, so we should prepare for the infection fatality rate to rise. If the virus becomes more deadly, we need to determine the point where it is necessary to suspend physical class. And this means, prior to such a point, we need to have been preparing our children so they can live and learn from home more effectively than last spring.
Quite a puzzle. There are no easy answers. Just plenty of evidence that our culture has not placed enough emphasis on teaching people to think critically or to discuss and analyze values. I’m afraid our inability to have such hard conversations will seal the fate of schools this year. Case rates will rise, outrage will erupt, and if they open at all schools will shift to virtual-only options well before Thanksgiving (the benchmark many are shooting for).
As the latest pandemic reminds us, life is chaotic. We cannot protect everyone from everything. Thus, the best approach is to help our children become more healthy, independent, and better equipped to create a fulfilling life in an increasingly complex world. But, of course, these are just my values.