Home > Essays > Parent and Teacher Variances in Risk Tolerance = Variances in Willingness to “Fully Re-Open” School in Fall = Headaches for School Boards and Administrators

Parent and Teacher Variances in Risk Tolerance = Variances in Willingness to “Fully Re-Open” School in Fall = Headaches for School Boards and Administrators

May 18, 2021

What does it mean to “fully re-open” and what will schools do with teachers and parents who are risk averse? Those are two questions that school boards, school administrators, teachers and parents are wrestling with now and questions that are likely to continue for the next few months if not the next few years. They are also two questions that Eliza Shapiro’s NYTimes article sidesteps. In “What Would it Take for NYC Schools to Fully Reopen This Fall” Ms. Shapiro describes some of the logistical and political issues facing NYC schools in her article, rehashing the stumbling start-and-stop plans of 2020-21, the clunky hybrid models that schools followed, and the tug-of-war the Mayor had with the union and the ultimate problem schools and political faced: parents who were reluctant to place their children in harms way.

If a “fully reopened” school operates the same way as schools did in September 2019 children would be required to attend each and every day or be declared truant, teachers would be required to appear in class in person every day or face disciplinary action, and remote learning of all kinds would be available only through home-schooling guidelines. If THAT is the definition of “fully reopened” it is doubtful that politicians, school boards, and administrators will “fully reopen”. Why? Because there are a core group of parents and teachers who are risk averse when their personal health is involved despite the statistical reality that once herd immunity is reached (presumably this summer) the risk of getting COVID by attending school will be lower than the risk of having an accident on the way to school, having an accident participating in athletics, and FAR less than the risk of being subjected to a school shooting. So… what can be done to persuade parents and teachers that the risk level of returning to school is sufficiently low— especially when risk averse groups are especially suspicious of government in general and, therefore, skeptical of any information that comes from them?

At the end of the article Ms. Shapiro talks about risk… and in so doing implicitly acknowledges that it is a highly personal issue. She writes:

Dr. Uché Blackstock, a physician and the founder of Advancing Health Equity, an organization focused on bias in health care, said she understood that many families of color in particular are concerned about returning to classrooms, and felt the city needed to offer them more clarity.

“It’s almost like with vaccines: We want to make sure people have the information they need to make an informed decision,” she said. But Dr. Blackstock added that full-time school for her own young children has been “life-changing.”

She credits her school’s principal, who is also Black, for making parents like her feel comfortable. And she tries to remind her neighbors and patients of one simple fact: “I think it’s important for people to realize there’s not going to be a zero risk situation,” for classroom learning, she said. “Probably not ever.”

And questions that MIGHT help persuade parents to return to school:

  • Are the schools in 2021 cleaner and more sanitary than the schools in 2019 before the pandemic?
  • Is the risk of getting the seriously ill higher now than it was in 2019?
  • Are you or your child engaging in any activities outside of school that expose them to as much risk as they would encounter in the classroom?

In the end, though, risk is not mathematical or statistical. It is governed by that part of the brain that operates on fear… and as long as fear is promoted widely in the media we can expect fear to dominate the hearts and minds of those teachers and parents who are risk averse.

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