The Morning Jolt


The Case for Reopening Schools

An employee cleans tables in an empty classroom in a closed primary school in Nice, France, April 22, 2020. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

On the menu today: My reader who is the head of research for a top-ten hospital weighs in on how to get kids back into classrooms safely this fall, a blathering Biden comment I missed that could have gotten his Twitter account suspended, and California’s state government tries to implement an ambitious testing-and-tracing system . . . and trips over its own shoelaces.

Kids Need to Go Back to School, with Precautions

If you think you’re having a tough time getting through this pandemic, think about how the world’s children are coping. In the U.S. in about mid-March, with little warning, school and all youth activities just stopped. Everyone muddled through with “distance learning” as best they could — a tool that in normal circumstances could be a useful addition to regular in-person classes but is a poor substitute overall. All sports ended; all movie theaters closed; every indoor hangout from shopping malls to gyms is either closed or risky; summer jobs are few and far between; most summer camps are closed. Some kids are managing to get along with socially distanced play dates and Zoom hangouts . . . diverting even more of their lives online, a phenomenon many parents weren’t thrilled about before the pandemic.

Unless you’re old enough to have survived the 1918 pandemic, our kids are going through something completely different from anything we ever experienced. Everyone who studies mental health in children is sounding the alarm; it’s not just the fear, stress, and anxiety, it’s the isolation. To the extent we can get kids safely interacting with each other again — making each other laugh again — we need to do that. We cannot allow our kids to pay the price for grownups’ ideological differences or fears of lawsuits. Yes, any reopening of schools will involve some element of risk. Our job as responsible grownups is to figure out how to mitigate those risks, not to throw up our hands and tell kids to turn into hikikomori shut-ins until there’s a vaccine.

My reader who is the head of research for a top-ten hospital in this country weighed in, noting that he’s “seeing way too much overreaction and panic about the fast-approaching school year.”

He writes in, “count me in the ‘schools need to reopen’ camp, and not this crazy two days in-three days out stuff either. The statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, declaring ‘all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,’ is right on target.”

“The general public isn’t very good at being able to juggle two or three ideas at the same time, like example opportunity costs in any economic analysis,” he notes. “The good thing about the AAP statement is that it makes the competing risks very clear.”

My medical-researcher reader observes that we now have research on the experiences of places where schools have reopened, and the evidence indicates that reopening did not trigger a second wave of infections. “Australia is a good place to study for several reasons,” this researcher writes. “It’s mid-winter there, so they’re in the middle of their school year, they have a very good public health and reporting infrastructure, and the schools and communities are comparable to what we have here. The catch is that their overall case prevalence is less than ours.” He also points to recent experiences of the Netherlands and United Kingdom.

This medical researcher notes that school during the pandemic will necessarily look and operate differently than before. “Rather than isolating individual kids from each other, the schools that have successfully reopened are isolating cohorts,” he observed. “Children stay together with the same class all day rather than mixing with other classes in their grade at lunchtime or recess. When they’re in the classroom, the guidelines from countries that have reopened are pretty consistent: space students’ desks as far apart as feasible without forcing some students to stay home — (which in practice means desks about 1 meter apart — and keep the teacher separated from the front row as far as feasible (because adults are at more risk than children). If one teacher teaches math and another teaches reading, have the teachers move instead of the children. Have music, art, and other activities in the regular classroom instead of sending classes from one room to another. Large group activities such as chorus and assemblies are going to have to be canceled or done online.”

Many things will be challenging, and we can’t have 100 percent isolation in the school setting. Plus, there will be individual children and adults who will need some kind of special accommodations because they are at unusual risk, not just worried about getting sick. The key is not to let the exceptions be the rule.

This researcher found more “best practices” after reviewing examples from other countries:

  • “Open the school year in phases. If your school is Kindergarten through fifth grade, start with just first and fifth grades the first week, add in second and third grades the second week, and then all grades attend school after that.”
  • “Stagger drop-off and pick-up times, maybe five or ten minutes apart, per grade. This will mean some inconvenience for parents and siblings, but it will reduce mixing of children by a lot.”
  • “Keep corridors in junior high and high schools one-way: That also greatly reduces the number of students coming into contact with each other. Passing times might also be staggered by grade to reduce the number in the halls at any one time.” I know many schools are trying to minimize the number of times middle and high schoolers change classes and are contemplating having the teachers move from classroom to classroom. Clearly, this won’t work in every situation; some classrooms might have particular equipment needed for instruction: science lab, shop class, home economics, gym, art, library, music, etc. If high schools do go with the one-way hallway options, this means teens will need more time between classes.
  • “Few countries are forcing elementary-age children to be masked: more are asking secondary school children to do so. Much as we’d like to be able to say otherwise, masks make only a small difference, but they do make a difference, mainly by reducing the potential for an asymptomatic person to spread an infection.”

(“Masks make only a small difference, but they do make a difference.” Why do so many people have a hard time understanding this concept? Why does this have to turn into the Hatfields and McCoys, where either an establishment requiring a mask or a person not wearing a mask has to be treated as a provocation on par with assassinating Archduke Ferdinand?)

Passions are running high on this subject; on a local Facebook page, one parent contended that parents who send their kids to school this fall will need to answer for it to Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. I believe this is classified as an “Omega-level Helicopter Parent.” This researcher recommends, “if you’re a school-board member or school administrator, spend this week looking over all the guidelines and reports from places like Ireland, the U.K., Denmark, Australia, and the Netherlands so you are well-armed with facts when the concerned suburban empathy moms come trying to overrule you.”

“And darn it, Jim, make sure that mask covers your mouth and your nose!” I think he means you, Governor Newsom.

Biden: “Anybody Who Can Throw Coal into a Furnace Can Learn How to Program”

From my friend Kurt Schlichter’s new book, The 21 Biggest Lies about Donald Trump (and you!):

Joe Biden, in a burst of rare coherence, let the cat out of the bag on the campaign trail. During a debate, moderator Tim Alberta asked Biden whether he would “be willing to sacrifice some . . . growth, even knowing potentially that it could displace thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers in the interest of transitioning to that greener economy?”

Biden responded with a resounding yes. Blue collar Joe Biden would give up millions of working-class jobs to quell his liberal handlers’ apocalyptic nightmares. And what would Joe Biden have those out-of-work men and women do? Learn to code, of course. He said so himself at a later campaign event, telling the crowd that “anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program for God’s sake.”

Coal miners do not actually throw coal into furnaces, and telling a laid-off person on Twitter to “learn to code” can get your account suspended as the company has concluded it can be a form of targeted harassment. (Whether or not it’s intended as targeted harassment, kicking somebody when they’re down is just mean.)

The coal industry has been hit hard by this year’s economic slowdown, like most industries in the energy sector. In January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that about 51,000 Americans were employed in the coal mining industry, and the preliminary estimate for June is 43,800 Americans.

If you’re voting for Biden over Trump because you’re tired of having a president who’s a septuagenarian with an outdated frame of reference just blurting out whatever pops into his head, regardless of whether it has any connection to reality . . . I have some bad news for you.

California Learns Enacting Test-and-Trace Is a Lot Harder Than It Sounded

Point to a state that (a) is highly populated, (b) didn’t get clobbered in the number of cases and deaths in the spring, and (c) has a low infection rate right now. Generally, the number of cases in each state are proportional to the state’s population, and the states with the fewest cases have the smallest cities. Maybe you can argue Oregon is doing pretty well for a state its size, with a fairly small 2,885 cases per million. (Insert joke about how not even the coronavirus wants to get caught in a Portland Antifa protest here.)

You’re not hearing as much criticism of California’s state government these days, despite the state ranking second in total cases so far and fifth in deaths. The Golden State is in the middle of the pack for cases per capita at this point, but it is likely to climb in that ranking during the current spike in cases. Very few state governments have done an excellent job — suggesting this is not a problem of a particular governor or party, but a thorny problem with solutions that are difficult to implement.

This morning, the Los Angeles Times publishes an in-depth investigation of the state’s testing program — and finds it was unprepared, disorganized, under-supplied, slow-moving, and all of the other problems associated with state bureaucracy. When the testing capacity finally scaled up, the supply lines for tests hit snags. This is California, meaning there is no Republican governor or state legislative majority to blame here, and these are all state operations, not the federal government or the Trump administration. This pandemic is an unprecedented challenge, and every solution needs to be implemented by flawed human beings — but that basic truth does not fit the “my party is good and your party is bad” narrative that so many people cling to like a security blanket.

ADDENDUM: I found the “’Why I’m Leaving New York City’ Essay Generator” hilarious.


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