Open the Schools

By James C. Sherlock

I have written here multiple times about the terrible and disproportionate effects that school shutdowns are having on poor children in Virginia.

The public school is an enterprise that has no admission standards. We do it that way on purpose, to try to give every American child as much opportunity to learn and develop into a successful citizen as we can. Public schools represent a core value of the American way of life and provide foundational support to our republic.

Virginia Guidelines vs. CDC Guidelines

On June 9, 2020 Governor Ralph Northam announced guidance for a phased approach that allows Virginia schools to slowly resume in-person classes for the coming academic year. There were two sources for the Governor’s guidance, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). Both dropped the ball.

VDH summarized and truncated the published CDC school considerations to slow the spread of COVID-19 to the point that they are at best unhelpful. It is difficult to imagine why they did not just publish the CDC guidelines, but they did not.

That flawed guidance was absorbed into the VDOE reopening guidelines.

One of the core recommendations that originated in VDOE — remote learning for large classes of K-12 students— has been shown in every study to have been ineffective in April and May. An alternative schedule will prove in practice unexecutable.

Many in the school system took the guidelines as directives. They are not.

The VDOE guidance was neither an executive order nor a directive, because, as Clark Mercer, the Governor’s Chief of Staff clarified:

“Each district has flexibility to come up with its own plan that they will submit to the Department of Education. What the state has put out is guidance based on CDC guidelines,” said Mercer. “Some districts may want more distance learning, many will want less — we would expect many districts to be at regular capacity when the school year begins.”

I urge school systems in Virginia to use the CDC source documents cited below in their school reopening decision making.

They have been authored by some of the world’s leading epidemiologists.

Remote Learning

Every study has found that in the past few months K-12 schools have had very little success in teaching large groups of children remotely. Remote learning is much harder, inherently much less successful, and exacerbates the differences in outcomes between those with a lot of support at home and those with less.

Ignoring for a moment the daunting challenges at the teacher end, remote learning in K-12 generally works only for children whose families provide a stable and supportive learning environment, are motivated to learn, undistracted and have access to the tools necessary to do the work.

If school boards require remote learning, they will do so knowing it won’t be effective.

They will also know that remote learning requires new ways to ensure the social and emotional well being of students, new ways of identifying abuse and neglect, and new mental health supports for school staff.

Alternative Schedules

One of the VDOE alternatives for consideration, potential alternative schedules — mixing in-person instruction and remote learning — is a bridge too far.

The wild card uncontrollable by the superintendents is the home situation. Most children have families that make big efforts to support them. Many of the parents and some of the high school kids have to work to make ends meet. Many parents have children in more than one school.

Alternative schedules with partial in-school and partial at-home learning requirements for their children will challenge their daily lives in ways that are have varying impacts, all of which predictably unsettling.

New requirements

Before August, the schools have lots of other things to do.

They must arrange to make up lost work from 2019-20 school year and introduce the new material required for each current grade.

They must also introduce new health and safety procedures, make facility, schedule and transportation accommodations, pay for the new expenses, and develop and communicate all the new arrangements and rules to school principals, teachers, special staff (guidance counselors, nurses, school psychologist, etc.), other workers and to the parents.

They must provide for students with disabilities, vulnerable learners, mental health and psychological supports and school discipline under COVID-19 restrictions.

Then there are the bus schedules and the bus driver schedules.

Principals, teachers, special staff, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and the rest of the workers are proud professionals.

The stress they will be under this fall will be fierce and must be minimized and supported with counseling. Even then some of them will have negative emotional reactions and/or walk away.

School Boards and Superintendents

The only real choice is binary. Open the schools or leave them closed.

Ignore false options.

Alternative schedules and long-term large group remote learning will not work, and your schools will be pressured to pretend they did to maintain accreditation.

They will be forced to move children up to a grade for which they will be unprepared.

As the Governor’s Chief of Staff said,

“What the state has put out is guidance based on CDC guidelines.”

Open your schools following the actual CDC source documents. The guidelines are clearer, more complete and easier to achieve.

The CDC decision tree for reopening schools can be found here.

The CDC COVID-19 safety in schools guidelines can be found here.

Pay attention to “as feasible” and “if feasible” caveats from the nation’s leading epidemiologists at CDC.

And open the schools.

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29 responses to “Open the Schools

  1. If you find it worthwhile, your school superintendent name and email address can be found at http://www.va-doeapp.com/SuperintendentBySchoolDivisions.aspx?w=true

  2. Sent this to our superintendent of schools.

  3. Could you check the link for the safety in schools guidelines? I’m getting “page not found.”

  4. Well written – as usual.

    Are there ANY schools in Virginia that have actually written and released their opening plans and are implementing?

    I’m thinking some smaller schools in rural Virginia probably have.

  5. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Proposed Loudoun County Public Schools Plan. 2 days a week of in person instruction. 3 days a week of virtual. So if you are in 10th grade Geometry you will meet in person with the teacher as a class a grand total of 4 days in a month. Disaster! Final Vote on this will be on June 29th.

    https://www.loudountimes.com/news/parents-students-and-teachers-react-to-lcps-proposed-reopening-plan/article_458217d6-b558-11ea-bc39-bfe0d846e04c.html

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Loudoun County parents are frosted over blue about this. They have staged a protest at the school board office. Interestingly, Spacebook, Loudoun parents who want on time and in person instruction are having a war of words with the school teachers who favor the superintendent’s plan.
      https://www.loudountimes.com/news/parents-students-and-teachers-react-to-lcps-proposed-reopening-plan/article_458217d6-b558-11ea-bc39-bfe0d846e04c.html

      • It’s pretty clear what parents want – and I suspect this is the case across the state and it seems to matter not what the schools concerns are with respect to the virus … the parents don’t want to hear it.

        For all the talk in years past and now from folks like Bacon – about how the public schools are “terrible”, “leftist indoctrination”, “failures”, etc, etc. it sure as been a turn-about… now they’re demanding that they re-open or else – despite all those flaws and despite the virus!

        I’m still waiting to hear from the states rural schools where COVID19 is said not to be a concern…

  6. Thanks. Loudoun Schools system is the 2nd or 3rd largest system in Virginia and in the top 40 in the US.

    I was expecting some smaller rural districts and some private schools to propose a return to in-person instruction.

    Private schools, especially, this looks like a way for them to boost their enrollment while the public schools, and especially the larger ones, seem not ready to go back to 100% in-person instruction.

    The CDC guidance does seem to be fairly concise and clear but what they are recommending is not a return to in-person instruction either.

    There seems to be a fairly large gap between those who want the schools to re-open to 100% in person instruction and what schools are thinking – at least right now.

    Not sure what the drop-dead date is for making decisions but in the past some schools started back in late August.

    • Larry,
      “The CDC guidance does seem to be fairly concise and clear but what they are recommending is not a return to in-person instruction either.”

      Did you read “open and monitor” at the end of the decision tree?

      • yes… but does “open” mean 100% in-person instruction with no social distancing and masks…i.e. back to the way it was before?

        But again, how many schools in Virginia have produced their plans to re-open? Loudoun apparently has.

        • Read the actual CDC guideline source material for the answer to your first question. Read the quote from Northam’s Chief of Staff for further clarification on in-person instruction.

          Absolutely no one is advocating no face protection. I have asked the CDC to clarify their position on face shields vs. cloth masks. They were very helpful and said they will get back to me ASAP.

          Anyone who thinks children will maintain 6 foot separation all day has never been a child.

          I have no idea how many school systems have finalized their plans, but I sent the column this morning to every school superintendent in Virginia.

          • We know the advocates of re-opening the schools and we know the CDC guidelines.

            What I’m asking is what schools in Virginia have provided their re-opening plans and if any are planning to return to 100% in-person instruction ( with or without other measures, masks and social-distancing).

            The “open-up-now” folks are essentially blaming the state but it appears that schools themselves – are not forging ahead with plans that the state and the public can review.

            So, that’s what I’m asking. Are schools proposing opening plans?

            James has provided several. Loudoun, Fork Union and an Academy that I cannot remember the name of.

            There are a LOT of rural schools in Virginia that are said to have very little COVID-19 in their communities, so I would expect them to lead the way with a return to in-person instruction but so far… apparently not.

            If we actually did have some schools propose to re-open with regular schedules and 100% in-person instruction – would that open the floodgates for the others to also weigh in?

        • Some school districts will avoid taking responsibility for any possibility of being accused of being responsible for any child or employee getting sick at school.
          Of course, some will get sick when they are not in school.
          As I said, the pressure to pretend children are getting educated will trump the fact that they are not.
          We risk the futures of an entire generation of children if we don’t teach them. Certainly some will get sick at school. Pick one.

          • I think I’d be as concerned or more so as to what happens if several teachers get the virus. What then?

  7. I agree with you. When I first heard of the staggered approach to school openings and rotating between distance learning and classroom learning, I thought it was pretty idiotic. Either open them or close them. The other approach will be confusing, hard on parents, and hard on teachers.

    Probably the primary reason for the failure of distance learning last spring was none of the schools or teachers being prepared for it. Nevertheless, for many of the reasons you stated, I don’t think distance learning is a good idea for K-12.

    I wonder if it would be feasible to test students for coronavirus frequently. If that could be done, with isolation of those students testing positive, that would go a long way to reassuring everyone.

  8. It would be an appropriate response under CDC guidelines to check electronically the temperatures of kids as they entered the schools each day. There would need to be a lot of school personnel at the doors to do the testing that would need PPE, but that may be feasible in some schools. The mega schools, maybe not.
    I don’t think the testing idea would scale, but it is not a bad idea.

  9. Visiting here in western Pa. there is much less COVID than I am used to from NoVA. Some of the schools here are planning the similar approach Loudoun Co. Some of the parents are upset because they got no input, and want a more full time school. There is probably some dis-connect between what school admins/teachers want (workplace safety from COVID) and what some parents want (move towards more normalcy). Presumably this issue transcends schools to many workplace situations.

  10. James
    You have not commented on any legal liability which the schools and districts might face and how such may impact their decision process.

    • Following CDC guidelines is perhaps the highest claim to doing the right thing that schools can offer as evidence for the defense, but of course not a protection from a lawsuit. They will likely get sued whatever they do.

      • One might think (perhaps wrongly) that if they followed government guidelines, they’d have some measure of protection.

        • If they use the VDH guidelines to defend against a lawsuit, they are in trouble.

          One of the problems with the VDH version of the safety guidelines is that it was an attempt at a “Cliffs Notes” version of the actual CDC guidance, so truncated as to be at best useless. It would be easy to do the wrong thing following the VDH version.

          As far as the 134 page VDOE document, it repeated the flawed VDH guidelines. It then went on to bloviate forever and produced a pedantic manifesto, repeating every nonsense theory any of the 200+ participants, most with doctorates in education, had ever learned in America’s graduate schools of education. Actual teachers were few and far between in that august gathering.

          That is why I this morning sent the links to the two applicable CDC products (school opening decision tree and school safety guidelines) to every school superintendent in Virginia this morning.

          Even if they don’t take my suggestions, at least they will have the proper source documents.

          • I gave up on the VDOE stuff… it was a mess…. I agree

            I found the CDC stuff to be simple and straight-forward but the caveats are how to implement. Can it be done in a cost-effective and practical way and so far there is a dearth of schools – even rural ones with small enrollments submitting proposals.

            I’m suspecting they’re all waiting for each other to go first.

  11. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    On time school start and in person instruction should be planned for and implemented. It can be done. Here is the Randolph Macon Academy plan for August. I think it is very good and carefully considered.
    http://bbk12e1-cdn.myschoolcdn.com/ftpimages/1095/push/415109/files/Task%20Force%20Draft%2017%20Jun%2020.pdf

  12. You’ve posted this before and it does indeed look fairly straight-forward and simple actually. Has it presented this to the state? Are people signing up to attend?

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      The Randolph Macon Plan is under review before the Virginia Council for Private Education which reports to the VDOE. I have high hopes that the plan will be adopted.

  13. I would expect that the lawsuits would center on the “as feasible” phrases. The question would be why, if other school districts in the area or the Commonwealth would able to do, did your district determine it to not be feasible? This might prove to be a difficult question to answer.

  14. I’m curious what the private schools are proposing. One would think they would have a different perspective and possible a more practical and cost-effective approaches than public school systems.

    I don’t think there is a “right” or “wrong” approach at this point. Everything is in flux but I doubt seriously we’re going to see all-school, in-person instruction at many if any schools, public or private.

    We still have this dichotomy where the virus is here and very real – and people are so frustrated with it – they just want to fully re-open no matter the consequences.

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