LIVING VS SURVIVING

“People could put up with being bitten by a wolf but what properly riled them was a bite from a sheep.”
James Joyce, Ulysses

“You can’t choose where you belong, and where you don’t. But what if the place you don’t belong is the only place you have left?”
Stuart Neville, The Ghosts of Belfast

 

It’s about 6 AM on a rainy morning on the first day of July, the official mid-point of a truly awful year. A perfect time for some reflection and rumination.

Schools are slated to open in a month and yet, a clear picture of what that looks like has yet to emerge. Teachers burn up text streams trying to piece together morsels of information in order to formulate some sort of strategy. Principals are flooding central office with calls begging district administrators to provide even a skeleton of a plan while trying not to let their teacher slip into deeper despair. Parents peruse newly created Facebook groups in hopes that someone can offer some perspective and clarity. Throughout all, speculation runs rampant.

Regular readers are familiar with my belief in the concept that it’s not enough to win the war, you have to also implement strategies that ensure you win the peace. In this case, it’s not going to be enough to just survive, going forth we are going to also have to find a way to live. At this juncture we remain entirely too focused on survival, paying scant attention to what living will translate to.

The first half of 2020 will forever serve as a marker for a societal shift. How we perceive the world and how we interact with each other is undergoing a deep transition. Some of which is currently perceptible and some of which, won’t be revealed for decades. Some of the transition may prove beneficial – many people are experiencing a simplifying of life with more focus on interpersonal relationships, a good thing. But if we are not careful and deliberate in our actions, we run the risk of creating an even more divisive, subservient, and isolated society.

Some may provide safety today while posing future challenges. An example here would be a necessity for all to wear masks. Wearing a mask today will prevent the risk of infection. But how will wide-scale adoption affect the way we interact in the future? In communicating with each other, such much is derived through facial expression, now we are cutting the reception of potential information in half. How will that impact our levels of trust and our overall mental state? I don’t think anybody has the answer to that.

Many people report increased feelings of anxiety and paranoia while wearing a mask, instead of outright dismissing those claims, we should be considering the future implications. My dismissing these concerns, we’ve allowed masks to become a political symbol that works to further divide us. At some point we all have to work together again, anything that serves to further polarize us makes that effort more difficult.

Codifying the use of masks opens the door to future such legislation. This time it is clearly for society’s benefits. What’s the guarentee that it’ll always be such and who gets to make that decision are important considerations. People that raise concerns about the erosion of civil liberties, while not always the best at expressing their concerns, aren’t completely wrong either. We always expect the bad guys to show up with t-shirt that read “ill Intentions”. Unfortunately, they are not always the ones to fear, sometimes, it’s really good people with really good intentions that failed to properly consider the unintended consequences.

Once codified, seldom are actions uncodified. How often have you seen things written into law during a crisis, unwritten once the crisis has passed? Look at the security actions enacted in the wake of 911. It’s generally accepted that we conceded some civil liberties to feel safer. Was it good trade-off, that’s debatable.

Please don’t mistake this as an argument against wearing a mask. Wearing a mask is an essential action at this juncture. But please don’t portray it as action without the potential for abuse and potential adverse action. Something is ever as simple as it seems. We can’t ignore future implications, policy judgments have to be as much about living as they are surviving.

One of my favorite education writers, former music teacher Nancy Flanagan, has a piece out this week entitled, Rule Followers Unite! And Stay Alive. It’s a piece that raises several interesting arguments on the value of the individual sacrificing and ultimately conforming for the benefit of the community. She examines the roles schools play in the development of this trait and delves into several strategies, and their effectiveness, employed by schools in an attempt to create “better” community members.

I need to offer a little disclaimer here, I’m a proud product of public school education, albeit the back row model. It should come as no surprise that I was one of “those kids”. The ones who frequented the back of the classroom and consistently tried to thwart and push the boundaries – often populating the detention hall and teetering on the edge of suspension. Myself, and my peers, chafed under the thumb of authority and felt disdain towards those students described by Flanagan in her piece,

In my classroom, rule-followers were kids who retrieved the percussion mallets or folders, after class. Students who showed the person next to them the correct fingering—and said ‘good job’ to their stand mate, when they mastered the Ab scale.

I’m not proud of all of my behavior in those formative years, and luckily I was blessed with teachers that were understanding of my tendencies and helped shape them in a more community-oriented manner. They corrected where necessary, and tolerated when appropriate. It’s because of these teachers and their approach that I’ve been able to survive in a world that didn’t always function as prescribed. At times I’ve suffered dire consequences by going left when everybody else was going right, and sometimes breaking from the herd has opened the door to tremendous opportunities. After 50 some years, I’ve discovered that a blend of the two tendencies works best.

My point here is that I think the world functions at it’s best when it is populated bydenizens from both the front of class and back row people. My wife is a front of the room gal. Both societal and business history is littered with the ill-effects of a culture that engages in adherence to over-compliance, just as not being able to agree on a common strategy has doomed other efforts.

Much of the debate around the proper strategies to employ in combatting the current COVID crisis use science as a trump card. As well they should, because science is essential in prescribing strategies to combat the challenges, but we can’t forget science is fluid and while science gives us steps to take in directly addressing an issue, it doesn’t always take into account the unintended consequences of those steps. Nor should it.

An example would be a recent statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, a group that represents 67k pediatricians,

The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy-time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often result in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been a substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families.

Not surprisingly the statement produced considerable push back. How could a group of pediatrics be so insensitive as to push for the re-opening of schools at a time when cases of infection were on the rise and specifically about the risk to adults who work in schools, they essentially say: not our problem. “We don’t want to tread in space where we don’t belong.” As they probably should because their focus is on the impact of closing schools on children. The rest falls in someone else purview.

I see their statement as recognition that survival is important, but equally so is living and closing schools in order to “survive” the pandemic will adversely affect the future quality of life for students.  A strategy is required that will give equal weight to the current findings of science. That strategy is best designed by those with that particular expertise.

Let’s examine the dangers of opening schools in August. Evidence continues to mount that children are at considerably less at risk for contracting COVID than adults,

  • In the United States, 2% of confirmed cases of COVID-19 were among persons aged <18 years.4
  • In China, 2.2% of confirmed cases of COVID-19 were among persons aged <19 years old.1
  • In Italy, 1.2% of COVID-19 cases were among children aged <18 years.2
  • In Spain, 0.8% of confirmed cases of COVID-19 were among persons aged < 18 years.5

Many of the children who tested positive never developed symptoms, and of those who did, the symptoms were much milder. Cases of children transmitting the virus to adults continue to be rare. A recent report by The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment(RIVM) looks at the results of schools opening in other countries,

Schools have now reopened in various other European countries. RIVM is in close contact with sister organisations in these countries to evaluate the impact of this policy on the spread of the novel coronavirus there. Denmark was the first country to reopen childcare and primary education, as of 15 April. They have not reported any negative effects after reopening the schools and are not seeing any increase in the reproduction number.  A study from Australia showed that there had been confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 9 children and 9 employees. 735 children and 128 employees had been in close contact with these patients. Two other children may possibly have been infected by one of these 18 patients. No other teacher or staff member contracted COVID-19. A study from Ireland looking at 3 children and 3 adults in schools, dating from before the school closure, showed that there were no infections by children in school. The study looked at 1155 contacts in total and identified two patients; these two were both adults that were related to two adult source patients, and the infection took place outside the school. There were 924 children and 101 adults who had had close contact with one of the source patients at school, and none of them had COVID-19.

Based on the data available, I would argue that with the proper safeguards put in place – provided we get the current growth in cases under control – children could return to school with limited risk. Though I would place a heightened focus on the adults in the individual buildings and how we mitigate the risk of adult to adult transmission. Furthermore, how do we do so in a manner that addresses teachers heightened anxiety, as well as the actual physical danger?

Unfortunately, I’ve seen very little that addresses these concerns. The overall intent remains squarely focused on children’s needs. That has to change if there is any hope of opening schools. I would argue that discussions around limiting the number of adult visitors to schools, mask-wearing by teachers, and perhaps requiring all meetings of more than 3 adults be conducted remotely, be submitted for consideration.

Some kind of qualified immunity in relation to COVID has to be put in place for teachers as well. The concept has generated some push back out of a fear that teachers won’t be able to sue the district if they are put at risk and contract COVID. That’s is a legitimate fear, but it’s basically arguing for the right to sue yourself. Let’s face it, if 100 teachers sue MNPS…well it’s game over anyway isn’t it?

These are the kinds of conversations that are essential. But,  in order for those conversations to take place, we are going to need a couple of rule-breakers to step out and push the boundaries of the conversation.  Somebody is going to have to push the envelope if we have any hope of climbing out of this foxhole.

(UPDATE: Israel is reportedly experiencing an outbreak of coronavirus infections among students and their teachers.. Per NPR, “Schools first began to reopen in early May, with classes staggered in smaller groups or “capsules” of students to prevent a wide outbreak. By May 17, limitations on class size were lifted.”

Apparently infections originated with middle school age children spreading the virus. Government officials are still investigating. Obviously, if this proves more than an outlier, it changes the script)

MEMPHIS PRESENTS AN IDEA

Metro Nashville Public Education stakeholders searching for clues about local schools reopening, might want to cast their attention westward. Last night Shelby County School Superintendent Joris Ray presented a re-opening plan to the school board during a business meeting that bore similarities to the plan hinted at by MNPS. Per ChalkbeatTN,

The Memphis district plans for teachers to simultaneously teach students in the building and stream the lesson online through a classroom laptop while all students interact online whether they are in the classroom or at home.

The district plans to ask parents from July 6 to 17 to choose an option for the first semester so the district can provide laptops or tablets next month, Superintendent Joris Ray told school board members during a meeting Tuesday evening. Parents may switch choices for the second semester.

While the SCS plan seems to indicate that teachers will be teaching remote and f2f students simultaneously, it’s worth noting that included in the presentation was information on the Florida Virtual School. The extent or manner of use is not yet clear, but it is clear that FVS figures into Shelby County’s future plans. Will MNPS follow suit?

DEVOS MAGIC

It’s beginning to dawn on just about everybody that in order for schools to reopen they are going to need an infusion of cash. Tennessee’s US Senator Lamar Alexander has gone so far as to call for a massive cash infusion for schools as they reopen. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Betsy Devos is still trying to take money out of public schools and give it to private entities.

Back in May, DeVos had advised states and districts that money they derived from the CARES Act would have to be distributed to private schools based on total student enrollment vs the number of Title 1 students served. This meant a considerable shift in funds to private schools away from public schools. Some states, like Indiana, balked at the advice and declined to follow her non-binding suggestion.

Last Friday, DeVos formalized that advice in a rule that requires districts to distribute shares to private schools based on the number of students, unless the district planned to use its share only on its Title 1 students. For smaller districts with less poverty, the choice is clear – follow the original advice. For a district like MNPS, the decision is not as clear and had they been given adequate time to weigh options, additional funds could have been secured.

The upside in Davidson County is that fewer private schools applied for money and so MNPS’s loss was not as great.

Worth noting is Devos’s argument on why money should flow to private schools,

The Education Department argues the new rule is necessary to help struggling private schools that have seen their revenue sources shrink during the pandemic. The agency claims that a boost in funding to private institutions will help them keep their doors open, preventing a potential flood of students to public schools if private ones are shuttered.

SCHOOL BOARD RACES

The arrival of July signifies the final lap in school board races. This year 5 seats are up for grabs, though only three are being contested. At this juncture, campaigns remain mild and low key in comparison to previous years. In the past, the race for the seats currently up for grabs generated ten’s of thousands of dollars in campaign donations and proved quite contentious. It was estimated that nearly a quarter-million dollars were invested in the election the last time these particular seats came available. Let’s hope everybody who wins this go around serves out their whole term.

NOAH has been conducting a series of forums to help constituents become more acquainted with candidates. Last night was District 3. NOAH will host another public meeting featuring incumbent school board members Christianne Buggs and Freda Player-Peters of Districts 5 and 7, who are running uncontested, online at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday.

Happening nearly simultaneously is a race to fill Anna Shepherd’s recently vacated seat on the board. This one will involve persuading council members to give their votes as opposed to community members. This race has several high-quality candidates in the running, though I do believe Stephanie Bradford’s qualifications push her over the top in a closely contested field.

In my opinion, it is essential that the board have members that have spent significant time in the classroom. Earlier this year, council was presented with the opportunity to appoint a professional educator and instead chose a political insider. This is a chance to give a seat to a veteran educator with a long history of serving all kids.

BUDGET SETTLED

Yesterday the MNPS School Board met in a specially called meeting to approve the 2020/2021 budget. It was a largely cermonial meeting due to the meeting taking place up against only hours before budget approval was required, leaving little time to make any desired modifications. In approving the budget, MNPS approved a minimum wage for all support staff of $15 an hour, a cause for celebration. Also approved was a step raise for teachers contingent on metro financial certifying that such a move doesn’t sink the district’s fund balance below the mandated 3%. As a result of this requirement, teachers will probably not see the increase until the second quarter and it will be retroactive to July 1.

While much has been said about this year’s budget being a flat budget, in reality, it’s an increase of $19,176,500. To put that number into context, in 2018 council approved a $7m imcrease and in 2019 the schools received an increase in funding of $28 million. All in all, not a bad budget season in the midst of a pandemic.

NEW MNPS INFO PORTAL

Metro Nashville Public Schools has launched the MNPS Open Data Portal. The platform is designed to demonstrate the school district’s continued commitment to transparency to families, the community, and key stakeholders.

The portal will be updated quarterly and does not represent all data publicly available from MNPS. However, it will serve as a hub for housing the most requested data, such as:

  • Enrollment/Demographics
  • Student Assessment data
  • Attendance data
  • Behavior data

Data is a little bare at present, but there is some great information available and this is a very promising step towards greater transparency.

 

The goal of the portal is to serve as a tool for the community to explore, visualize and analyze education data to build awareness and support informed decision-making and engagement in order to improve educational outcomes for all students.

That’s it for today if you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

 



Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. I think you hit on my personal worry about returning to the school building. It is not the students that worry me, it is my peers whom I see not exercising social distancing precautions and what they will bring into the building. I think if we open up I am about to become an extremely anti-social member of the faculty for the safety of myself and my wife.

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