Schools and covid
I normally do not write posts this close together, but this week I have been thinking a lot about COVID lockdowns and schools. I know in the US, there is a lot of debate on keeping school buildings open, or closing them down. Notice, I am not saying keeping SCHOOL open or closing SCHOOL. World wide, I think teachers are doing amazing things and are working their hardest to give the best education possible to their students. It doesn’t matter if they are face to face, 100% remote, or some version in between the two; teachers everywhere are putting their heart and soul into doing their very best for the students, and the community.
Here, in Switzerland, the Government is following the lead of the US. Saying that it is a local decision on whether or not the schools should be open. JUST like the US, the Federal Government has state their preference is to keep the buildings open.
I look at this as a cost/benefit situation. Unfortunately, it is not like a business decision that can be made with real numbers. Here the costs have no numerical value. The cost of closing the buildings results in lost educational opportunities. The cost of keeping the buildings open might result in more death, and more spread of the virus. Neither of these, are desirable outcomes.
Cost of closing the building
In many of the articles I have read, the main reason given for keeping school in person is that last spring the vast majority of students really did not learn anything. That is possibly true in regards to academics, but I think last spring everyone learned a lot about themselves, their family, their community, and their country. They learned about panic. They learned about economics. To me, the vast majority of students learned an awful lot about life, and being human. Most probably learned a lot more than they would have being in school. The question, to me, is how important is this lost year in the big scheme of things? In three years, will we be able to look back and say, “WOW, young people are an awful lot more dumb than they were 4 years ago.” Will a year 12 language arts teacher look at her students and be able to quantify what they missed during 2020 and 2021? What about the year 6 math teacher? I think the answer to these questions are probably yes. In the short term, because of the way we educate students, these teachers will see a noticeable difference in the students.
Will the professor in Medical School look at the students and complain that his students are not able to be a doctor because they had a lost year of undergrad? I do not think so, the expectation for these students are different. The students will learn what they need to learn as they go, or they will not graduate medical school.
There are other costs to closing the building as well. For many students, the school building is the safest place they have. There is warmth in the winter, a roof over their head in the rain, and at least one good meal in their stomach. Many districts are trying to overcome these problems, by keeping the meals flowing to needy families and extending other social safety nets. This is a good thing, but probably not as effective as keeping the building open.
All countries have income disparities. This is one thing the Swiss Government has been very keen on addressing by keeping schools open. The Government acknowledges that closing the building has a much greater impact on lower income students. The families that cannot afford high speed internet access, or cannot afford multiple computers in their households are impacted much more drastically than families where income is not a concern. Germany seems to be addressing this to a degree. They have some different resources available for students to receive services at school with parent registration. Germany has also made the decision to make it easier for a parent to stay home through emergency leave plans, and has ensured that care is in place for students if both parents are considered essential workers, and cannot take advantage of the leave plans.
So in my mind, it seems that in closing the buildings the biggest cost of closing the buildings revolves around the lost educational opportunities for the students. At least in most articles I have seen this is the cost that is brought up most often. The secondary costs seem to center around income disparities. The fact that if students are home, especially young students, someone has to be in the home to care for them. At this point decisions have to be made in regards to finding available child care and being able to pay for it, or does one parent give up their job and the associated income. This puts even greater stress on families that are already less financially secure.
Costs of keeping the buildings open
These costs all revolve around health and safety. Can schools operate safely? Are young people affected? Do young people spread the virus? These are just a few of the myriad questions that do not have answers, yet.
I was reading an article last week that praised Switzerland for their reaction to the virus last spring. The article stated that one of the reason Switzerland controlled the first wave so quickly and successfully, was they shut down schools very early in the process. Just a few weeks ago, in the neighboring town of Kilchberg an entire school was closed down because 1 student was confirmed to have the UK variant of COVID. Outside of that school, all the schools in the Zürich area have remained open (to the best of my knowledge). The schools did close a little early for Christmas Holiday, but classes resumed immediately after the New Year. Heck even my wife’s company closed their offices for a week and a half after New Year. They wanted to make sure their employees did not bring the virus into the office after the celebrations.
There has been some evidence that schools being opened have made the virus spread faster. The Canton of Basel have studies that show teachers are twice as likely to contract COVID versus any other working adult. That would suggest that schools assist the spread of the virus. However, other Canton’s have tried to look into teacher susceptibility, and have found that teachers are no more likely than any other adult to spread the virus. There was a study that tracked anti-bodies in Israel. This was before the vaccine was introduced; so the only way you had anti-bodies was if you had contracted the virus. The Israeli study showed that students (7%) were almost twice as likely as adults to have had the virus (4%). This would suggest that students spread the virus to each other, but not so much with adults. It also suggests that children are much more likely to be asymptomatic carriers than adults.
This was from a study done in the US: “When baseline hospitalization levels were lower, opening schools was, if anything, linked to fewer future hospitalizations. But when hospitalizations were already above that level, the researchers can’t say for sure whether opening schools made the situation worse. (Different ways of crunching the numbers lead to different conclusions.)” This study was talking about how schools impacted the spread of the virus in the general community.
The biggest argument I have seen for closing schools is in regards to mobility. One thing we do know is that the virus is spread through contact with other people. Well, mobility simply looks at how often people leave the house. :). There was a mobility study done in Switzerland that compared mobility in 2019 vs 2020. Here were three biggest impacts to mobility: cutting groups down to 4 people; this cut mobility by roughly 25 %, closing bars and restaurants; this cut mobility by about 23%, and finally closing school; this cut mobility by 20%. To me that number alone is the most glaring reason to close schools.
So the biggest problem with looking at this cost; is the data is inconclusive. I don’t know if we will ever be able to with all certainty say that keeping schools open made the situation worse. Even after the pandemic is over, I don’t know if we can answer the question about how keeping schools open impacted the virus. There is no way to set up an experiment to track people whose only contact with the outside world was through school.
This was not intended to be some scholarly study. I was simply trying to talk through what I see as the two arguments in regards to schools and COVID. I do not believe the educational loss is permanent. Sure there will be a short term cost, and it will make things difficult for teachers in the next few years, as they will have to go back and review more that should have been learned in prior years. However, we all continue to learn as we grow older. US History, and Algebra (believe it or not) are probably the two things I use most often from my early education. From college, it isn’t any one course or class that I use, but it is the simple fact that college taught me how to research, and how to think. College and High School taught me how to learn and how to teach myself. I use those skills almost everyday. So I am not that worried about the educational lapse that students will have. Over time, people will learn what they need to learn for their career and for living. The other costs of closing the buildings though carries a lot of weight for me.
My family has been fortunate that we had a primary breadwinner, and then me. I quit a job at Target, because the hours I spent at the job, made it impossible for us to care for our children. I quit, and went back to school. After I graduated, I made sure to look for a job that was flexible enough to allow for being a parent. It wasn’t until my children were older that I moved to a more demanding job. Most families are not that fortunate. I do not think of school as being a day care, but school does make it easier for families to have two working parents. I saw something about two weeks ago, that said in the US about 99% of the unemployment due to COVID is with women. Someday we will find out for sure, but I suspect a big percentage of that unemployment is because someone has to stay at home with the kids. My school experience also showed me that economically challenged students struggle a lot more with technology. They do not have high speed internet at home. and they might have to share one computer (if they even own one) between all the kids and the parents. This will lead to even greater disparities between the haves and have nots.
The health part concerns me for the simple fact that here we are a year into this pandemic, and we really do not know what impact keeping the buildings open has in regards to the spread of the virus. Common sense tells me that if you really want to slow down the spread you will close down the schools, but then I see the Swiss Government. Heck the Government says they want to slow down the spread, they have instituted lockdown phase 2 where all office people work from home, restaurants and bars are closed; YET, the schools remain open, and so do the ski resorts. Their own studies have shown that slowing down the spread of the virus is not as important as the costs of closing down the schools.
So what is the bottom line? For me, I guess it would be to keep schools open as much as possible. If the virus spread is so great in your area that you need to close down, then close down for three weeks to a month. Then CLOSE everything down; not just the schools. I would make sure that school employees are considered front line workers, just like police and first responders. Give the teachers, aides, custodians, administrators, bus drivers, AND their families early access to the vaccine. Make it as safe as possible for the adults, because then you can keep the schools functioning.
Thanks for reading.