Reopening Schools in US MIGHT be a Good Idea… IF!

October 25, 2020 Leave a comment

Over the past several days I’ve read many articles with headlines insinuating that scientific evidence indicates schools in our country SHOULD be opening… BUT… a closer reading of those articles indicates that scientific evidence indicates schools in our country SHOULD be opening IF and ONLY IF they follow the same protocols as regions in our country and nations in the world are following regarding mask wearing, social distancing, and monitoring.

“Are the Risks of Reopening Schools Exaggerated?”, a recent NPR report by Anya Kamenetz is a case in point. In the article Ms. Kamenetz cites the positive experiences in Spain as evidence that our schools should open… BUT… compare this report on Spain to what is transpiring in too many school districts in our nation. Enric Álvarez at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya reported on the findings of his study of the impact on reopening schools in Spain:

“We are not sure that the environments of the schools may not have a small and systematic effect,” said Álvarez, “But it’s pretty clear that they don’t have very major epidemic-changing effects, at least in Spain, with the measures that are being taken in Spain.”

These safety measures include mask-wearing for all children older than 6, ventilation, keeping students in small groups or “bubbles,” and social distancing of 1.5 meters — slightly less than the recommended 6 feet in the United States. When a case is detected, the entire “bubble” is sent home for quarantine.

Those conditions sound eminently reasonable…. but not for the libertarians in our country who view mask wearing as limiting their rights and the COVID truthers who believe the whole thing is a hoax made up to undercut the leadership of Donald Trump.

The ultimate conclusion on the efficacy of reopening schools is that no one knows and, at least in our country, we may never have the data we need to make a rational decision:

Few states are reporting school-related data…(and) that’s a shame, said Buntin at Vanderbilt. “One might argue that we’re running really a massive national experiment right now in schools,” Buntin said, “and we’re not collecting uniform data.”

The largest centralized effort at such data collection in the United States — the unofficial, crowdsourced COVID-19 School Response Dashboard — has gotten a lot of publicity. But it is self-reported, not a representative sample of schools.

Buntin and other experts said it’s likely that the dashboard is biased toward schools that are doing an exemplary job of following safety precautions and are organized enough to share their results. Also, the dashboard doesn’t yet offer the ability to compare coronavirus cases reported at schools with local case rates.

And when data is not systematically collected, decisions based on anecdote can take hold… and some of the anecdotes are not happy:

In the absence of data, there are scary and tragic anecdotes of teachers around the country dying of COVID-19. But it’s hard to extrapolate from these incidents. It’s not immediately clear whether the educators contracted the virus at school, whether they are part of school-based clusters, or what safety precautions were or were not followed by the schools in question.

And so we muddle through…. unsure of whether measures taken or not taken are impacting the spread of coronavirus and, in effect, making life and death decisions based on nothing. Here’s hoping that no matter what happens on November 3 we get our heads screwed on right in terms of measuring the spread and impact of this disease.

Burlington WI Incident Shows the Uphill Fight to Achieve Racial Equity, the Difference Between Non-Racist and Anti-Racist Leadership

October 24, 2020 Leave a comment

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This NBC news account about an idealistic teacher in Burlington WI illustrates the daunting task educators face in trying to teach about institutional racism. Based on the information in the news report, 4th grade teacher Melissa Statz offered her 4th grade students a lesson on that topic that involved a children’s book, an educational video, and a worksheet. None of the materials nor the lesson itself were advocating anything other than equal treatment under the law for students of color and only one parent in the class objected and Ms. Statz addressed that parent’s concerns. But once the rumor mill began cranking, Ms. Statz found herself in the middle of a storm and the evidence of latent racism in the community came to the forefront.

Initially the School Board and Superintendent tried to downplay the conflict that was emerging in the community by taking a neutral stance on the question of racism, characterizing the lesson as “unauthorized”, and handling the whole incident as “a personnel matter” that would be taken care of. Neither the latent racists nor the parents of children of color and their supporters were happy with that. When the incidents in the community and school district became increasingly racist the Superintendent produced an open letter that included this:

“I see how my perspective was offensive and understand that there is no neutrality when pursuing equity,” Superintendent Plank said in the letter. “The fact that we even need to specifically say that Black Lives Matter to affirm the importance of human beings is to say that we as a nation have not done a good job of regarding Black and brown people as valuable members of our society historically or currently.”

He acknowledged the district received “a wave of polarized feedback, some of it espousing racist, hateful, and threatening sentiments” and said that the attacks against school staff and community members must stop.

After trying to deal with racism by being “non-racist”, by declaring that racism is unacceptable, the Superintendent acknowledged that the district needed to support equity even if the cost of such a pursuit meant that some in the community would be upset.

And here’s the problem facing Burlington WI and every town and city in America: only those who are threatened by discussions on race can solve the problem of racism. The teachers, only 18% of whom are willing to teach about the issue, are not nearly as big a problem as the similar sized core of parents who do not want their children to learn about the issue. The only way the latent racism will ever be addressed is for those in the middle ground, those who are non-racist, to declare themselves as anti-racist… to declare their full support for equity and justice. For the percentage of THAT group far outnumbers the group of outright racists who are unyielding in their belief of white supremacy.

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Upbeat Article on Virtual Learning Overlooks Several Obstacles that MUST Be Addressed for it to Work Universally

October 23, 2020 Leave a comment

Freelance writer Amanda Woytus’ JSTOR upbeat post, “Does Virtual Learning Work for Every Student?“, overlooks several elements of virtual learning that are very problematic. That’s too bad because many of the ideas she presents could be applied universally if the gaping holes in her analysis were addressed. But by overlooking them, she ends up with an article that reads like it was written by a shill for technology corporations.

Roughly half of Ms. Woytus’ generally favorable analysis focuses on the benefits of the flipped classroom, whose efficacy is generally supported by research but whose applications are largely at the secondary or post-secondary level. Ms. Woytus also bases some of her analysis on the Calvert School, a 231 student private secondary school in Baltimore, MD. Finally, much of Ms. Woytus’ analysis is based on mathematics, a course that lends itself to the hierarchical scaffolding that virtual learning does best. By basing her analysis on these three elements, Ms. Woytus misses four of virtual learning’s gaping holes: teaching primary students; teaching subjects that are not hierarchical but rely primarily on interactions with other students; reaching children who are unfamiliar with technology; and reaching children who are unable to get technology.

I am learning from the experience of tutoring my 8-year old grandson in mathematics that it is imperative that the teacher be able to look over the shoulder at the work of children as they develop their basic skills. There are ways this could be accomplished, but the software being used by the schools needs to bake this kind of instruction in.

Mathematics, science, grammar, and other hierarchical content is easy to convert to virtual learning… but the facilitated discussions that result from a master teacher’s analysis of a poem, a piece of music, or a thoughtful video or movie cannot be easily replicated on line, especially if “efficiency” is the ultimate goal and, as Ms. Woytus suggests, standardized test scores are the ultimate metric. Without the opportunity to engage in discussion the learning opportunities are greatly diminished.

The inability of students to use technology easily is related to the students’ access to technology, and several posts on this blog and several articles in multiple national publications decry the lack of access to technology among rural students and poor urban students. This issue of inequity is completely by-passed in this article. I believe it should be mentioned in ANY assessment of the universal use of technology since it is an obstacle that CAN be surmounted IF funding for broadband access and computer hardware and software was a national priority.

As noted above and in some posts on this blog, the flipped classroom has promise and hierarchical content can be delivered very effectively online. Their promise of remote learning as universal means of instruction, though, can only be realized if the inherent obstacles mentioned above are addressed.