This is What Failure Looks Like

By Ziad Munson on Jul 21, 2020 08:52 am

There have been a lot of great questions and concerns about East Penn’s health and safety plan for district schools this fall.  But the school district doesn’t operate in a vacuum.  The viability of the health and safety plan will be determined more by the larger social and political context in the country than it will by any of the specific details of the plan itself.  To evaluate whether the plan will work therefore requires we take a step back and look at this larger social and political context.

The situation we find ourselves in today was NOT inevitable. Different countries have responded to the pandemic in different ways, which has in turn largely determined the fate of education and the schools.  This is an important enough point that it’s worth an example or two.

Contrasting Choices

New Zealand is a country of 4.9 million people that took COVID-19 seriously from the start, closing schools, shuttering businesses, and requiring people to stay home on March 25th, at a time when they had fewer than 200 cases nationwide (and no deaths).  They immediately expanded their testing and contact tracing capacity to the levels scientific and public health experts said was necessary.  The result?  The country completely eradicated the virus in less than two months.   On June 8th– after 17 straight days of zero new cases– New Zealand lifted all pandemic restrictions. Only their border remains closed, to protect what they’ve accomplished.  All told, they had 1,154 cases and 22 deaths from COVID-19.

By comparison, the U.S. state that comes closest in population to New Zealand is Alabama (also with 4.9 million people). COVID-19 appeared in Alabama for the first time about the same time as it did in New Zealand, and governor Kay Ivey ordered all non-essential businesses in the state closed on March 27th– just two days after a similar order in New Zealand.   Unlike New Zealand, however, Alabama never enforced the order to close, and in any case most of the order was  lifted less than a month later.  Rather than telling people to stay at home, the state instead created a “Safer At Home” campaign that “encouraged” doing so.  Alabama also did not ramp up its testing or contact tracing capacity to the levels needed to combat the spread of the virus. The result?  Alabama has recorded 68,891 cases through July 20th, with 1,291 deaths. The state has recorded more new cases every single day since July 10th than the entire total of New Zealand’s cases over more than four months. I’ll ask the obvious at this point: Which of these results do you think is more conducive to returning to school?

This isn’t an isolated example.  In Europe, Slovakia has more people than Alabama– at 5.4 million– in an area less than a third the size of the state, and was well connected to initial pandemic hotspots in places like Italy and Spain.  Yet to date they have had only 1,980 cases and 28 deaths due to COVID-19.  How did they do it?  Slovakia used the best public health expertise to confront the virus; they acted decisively in shutting down schools and non-essential businesses when the virus first appeared; and they led the world in requiring universal use of masks in public places.

The lesson here is clear.  The spread of COVID-19 presented a challenge, not an unstoppable catastrophe, to leaders around the world.  Those that chose to confront the virus with aggressive action and the best available scientific and public health advice met the challenge. Those that downplayed the threat, ignored best practices, and delayed tough choices for containing the virus now face greater danger, economic losses, and social disruption. 

The Choice Today

All of this is now history. The choice today is whether we will learn from the successes and failures of the (recent) past and change course? Or will we continue ignoring both evidence and expertise, choosing short term convenience over long term recovery until COVID-19 has consumed us entirely?

It is on this crucial choice that the future of our schools depends in the coming months. Here in Lehigh County, the number of new COVID-19 cases has stayed low for almost two months now. This offers us a real opportunity to give the education of our kids the attention, resources, and support it deserves.  But this can happen only if the social and political context allows us to keep these numbers low– something that the district’s health and safety plan simply cannot guarantee. The fact is that the four basic ingredients needed to safely reopen schools have been known for months now:

  • We need to be testing many more people for the virus. There are minor disagreements about the exact standard to properly judge the number of needed tests, but current testing levels in Pennsylvania don’t meet any of these standards.
  • We need to have labs returning test results quickly enough that those who test positive can isolate themselves and minimize the spread of the virus.
  • We need to have robust contact tracing that can quickly and reliably identify those who might have contracted the virus from others.  
  • We need social distancing measures that are widely practiced and enforced. The most proven of these measures is the use of masks, but also include physical distancing and a continued suspension of “super spreader” events that gather crowds in the hundreds and thousands.

Can East Penn Safely Reopen?

The answer lies not in the details of East Penn’s health and safety plan, but in the willingness of the community to do what is required to stop the spread of COVID-19.  And it lies in the hands of the choices America’s state and national leaders make in the weeks and months ahead.

Here in East Penn, I have the utmost confidence in the leadership of superintendent Kristen Campbell as well as the dedication and wisdom of every one of my colleagues on the East Penn School Board. I am sure that our district’s teachers will step up to the unprecedented challenge we now face.  And our children are more resilient and adaptable than we give them credit for.  

I don’t know if all this will be enough.  We have been watching the tragedy of America’s response to the pandemic for months now.  This is what failure looks like.  But it doesn’t have to continue this way.  We can change course and fix this.  There is nothing inevitable or unstoppable about COVID-19.  But reopening East Penn schools will require more than a well formulated health and safety plan; it will also require a change in will, competence, courage, and perseverance at the national level. 

This is the second part of a weeklong series of posts on reopening the East Penn schools.  The first was The Least Bad Option?   Tomorrow, I’ll address some things those who insist we keep the schools closed are forgetting; Thursday I’ll tackle some things those who insist we open normally are forgetting; and Friday I’ll conclude with a short list of resources I’ve found particularly useful for understanding this complex problem. Throughout this series, I encourage your questions, your concerns, and your perspective.  Please share them in the comment area available at the bottom of every one of my posts.

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The Least Bad Option?

By Ziad Munson on Jul 20, 2020 10:30 am

Education in East Penn will be dramatically different this fall than the past. Let’s get that point out of the way right from the start. The continued failure to control the pandemic in the United States has shattered the hopes of reopening public schools with any semblance of normalcy.

The Current Plan

In Pennsylvania, schools are required to develop a health and safety plan that will govern the operation of the school district in the coming school year. Here are the broad outlines of the plan East Penn is currently developing:

  • Parents will get to choose between 100% online instruction or instruction that is in-person several times a week. For those that choose in-person instruction, students will attend several days a week (probably two, but this is still being worked out), and complete instruction online on the other days.
  • School buildings and classrooms are being modified to safely accommodate in-person instruction. Furniture is being removed to free up space for social distancing, group tables are being replaced with individual desks, large areas likes gyms, cafeterias, auditoriums are being repurposed for classroom use, and schools are being equipped for more frequent and thorough disinfecting. Student desks will be kept six feet apart whenever possible. All students, teachers, and staff will be required to wear masks at all times except when they are stationary and at least six feet from any other person. To minimize the spread of germs, student movement through the school and the sharing of school supplies will be minimized. Water fountains will be disabled and lunches will be pre-packaged and served in classrooms.
  • Online instruction will be done by regular East Penn teachers. It will include regular grading (and deadlines), the full curriculum, and a new online teaching and learning system– called Schoology— that is more powerful and has more features than the Google Classroom used in the spring.

There are many more details in the current draft of the plan, which you can read for yourself here. Many other details continue to be worked out. But I think this broad sketch provides a good overall sense of what we can all expect this fall.

7/26 edit: I’ve modified the description above since first writing this post to reflect ongoing revisions being made by the district in response to teacher and parent feedback as well as changing public health recommendations.

What Should We Do?

Is this a good plan? As tempting as it is to ask, I think this is the wrong question. Given where we’ve been put in the current pandemic, ALL the choices available to East Penn and other school districts are– quite frankly– awful choices. There are no good solutions. So it isn’t a question of whether or not this is a good plan. The question is whether this is the least bad option that we can pursue right now?

There are no easy answers. I worry about the out sized confidence of both many who advocate for a complete reopening of the public schools, as well as many who insist the schools should remain completely shut down. Both these positions are fueled by the social media platforms that continue to promote simplistic, black-and-white solutions to complex issues. Neither of these positions is well supported by the available evidence or the weight of expert opinion.

In order to help both myself and others think through the many issues at stake here, this is just the first of a weeklong series of posts on reopening the schools. Tomorrow I will discuss the larger context in which East Penn Schools (and any reopening plan) needs to operate; Wednesday I’ll address some things those who insist we keep the schools closed are forgetting; Thursday I’ll tackle some things those who insist we open normally are forgetting; and Friday I’ll conclude with a short list of resources I’ve found particularly useful for understanding this complex problem. Throughout this series, I encourage your questions, your concerns, and your perspective. Please share them in the comment area available at the bottom of every one of my posts.

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Thanks for keeping informed about our schools.  I volunteer as a school board member- and write this newsletter- because I believe the schools are part of the bedrock of our community.  I try my best to bring common sense, transparency, and maybe even a little humor to the process.
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