The path to sustainable in-person schooling runs through slow, careful build up — not a Big Bang

Part 1 of this is linked here and below: “The Townsend Position: Start with e-learning; and use the first quarter to carefully, slowly provide in-person services to the neediest kids”

This is a follow-up, aimed largely at parents who want in-person schooling to be a realistic option this year, as I do.


The surest way to kill the possibilities of meaningful in-person schooling for anybody in the coming 2020-21 school year is to try a mass re-opening on August 24 — or any set date. If you think this through at all, that reality becomes obvious. A very careful, 9-week start period is much more reasonable, if still difficult.

The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Inc. put the issue very succinctly in its recent letter to Gov. DeSantis warning him of the dangers of physical reopening. In addition to the human danger, mass opening amid mass virus poses a mortal threat to in-person schooling of any kind in the near future.

Currently, viral infection rates in Florida are extremely high, with a rolling average of 14.2% of tests positive for new infections over the past two weeks. Public health experts and infectious disease physicians almost universally recommend that children not go to schools until the positive test rate is 3-5% over a rolling two week average. If children go to school with such high infection rates, schools will be forced to close very quickly after opening, and many children and families will likely become ill with SARS- CoV-2. In other parts of the world where schools have successfully opened the infection rates from SARS-CoV-2 were much lower than here in Florida.

Now let’s try to make this a little less abstract. Walk through an August 24 “Big Bang” opening with me if you’re eager, like I am, to provide meaningful in-person schooling this year.

A “Big Bang” thought experiment

For the sake of argument, let’s say that 50,000 kids show up to brick and mortar schools all at once on August 24. That’s a little less than half of Polk’s 105,000 students. Forget even talking about busing — a rolling petri dish of logistical impossibility — for a moment. Let’s just say parents manage to get these 50,000 kids to the campuses all at once for a “Big Bang” resumption of school.

Imagine that scene. Imagine the staff trying to execute safety “plans” or “guidelines” at massive scale with no meaningful practice and no meaningful resources, leadership, or guidance from the state or federal governments. Literally no one in the world has ever attempted what we’ll be asking our folks to do at this scale in the history of education.

Now imagine that a large portion of the staff has been subtly or directly coerced into showing up. (One of the reasons I wrote the piece I did yesterday about my position is that I’m beginning to perceive some machinery of coercion for our people. I can’t tolerate that. Their lives matter as much as mine or anyone else’s.)

Will this Big Bang environment be conducive to human development? Be honest.

Human resources are perishable and limited

The positive test rate for kids has been running 30 percent or higher, which means thousands of kids will walk into school with the coronavirus on Day 1. (That’s a testing rate; so it doesn’t mean 30% of all kids have it. But the number of actual kids with virus will be high, as it will likely be for faculty as well.) That prevalence is going to jack up the viral load in the environment, for kids and adults alike. Viral load is thought to be crucial in the spread and severity of COVID. See this article. The greater the load, the worse the risk, which is a very good reason not to do mass school opening in a raging pandemic.

If 50 people at a school have the coronavirus, it becomes a far more dangerous and spreadable environment than if two or three have it. Even the small load that individual children carry becomes amplified when large numbers of kids have it. Kids will take that home to mom and dad, where much transmission happens because of close contact. Those parents likely have kids in school because they have to work. And thus the school environment connects to the workplace environment.

Moreover, Florida’s horrific education model has made educators into a limited social resource in the best of times. When they start getting sick, everything will fall apart because there is no capacity with which to replace them.

The biggest mistake advocates for physical schooling make is to assume there is some massive untapped capacity of teachers and staff to fill in those who get sick or have pre-existing risk factors. There is not. Purely as a resource, education staff is perishable and limited. It’s precious; and we must protect it. Florida has failed to do that for 25 years because it has just assumed there will always be educators.

That’s a delusion no one can afford any more.

Magical thinking and empty political slogans do not get the rocket to the moon

Mouthing meaningless words about safety does nothing to provide it. And that is all your state government, which runs the state school system, has done. Gov. DeSantis and Richard Corcoran have essentially declared, “local districts must give parents the choice to ride a rocketship to the moon. Or else.” 

When districts ask, where are the rocket parts and NASA scientists and blueprints, they say: “figure it out and give us back that $400 million ($9 million in Polk) in state pension costs, too. It’s not like you need it.”  

Even if we had a state and federal government that looked at making mass in-person pandemic schooling possible as the moon shot national effort it should be, there is no plan that could make a mass opening during mass pandemic “safe” or even practically self-sustaining at our current viral level. But even beyond that, we have basically no plan or state leadership at all in Florida. And I will not tell our public otherwise.

I will not tell the public that our campuses and the people staffing them are remotely prepared or equipped to try to manage a Big Bang opening. Nor will I vote to force our people to risk their lives to cover for the selfishness and incompetence of others.     I will not take a vote that I know is likely to kill people I’m supposed to protect. Period.

Your state leaders do not care about you, whether you’re an educator, a desperate working parent, or anyone else. They just want all the personal political benefit of saying “give parents in-person schooling as an option” with none of the moral and logistical responsibility for providing that option. It’s despicable.

They have led parents to believe, despicably, that mass in-person re-opening can be made functional and “safe.” And they want to set up educators and local board members to take the blame for their utter failure to do anything right or helpful.

That’s rancid and perverse magical thinking. It deserves ridicule and rejection.

An alternative: build very slowly; practice safety measures; and look forward to “outside school” season

Now do this thought experiment: pick 200 kids from the highest priority groups of kids for in-person schooling. (I suggested a few populations in my original essay. You could use a lottery and do it geographically.)

Find a few willing volunteers from among our teachers and staff; there are plenty. Then set up a handful of classroom settings for them at different schools. Test safety procedures and in-person schooling at small scale. That could happen starting on Aug. 24 if we can get it together.

As we gain experience and master procedures, we could slowly increase in-person access in various ways, especially if we’re willing to ignore all state nonsense about seat time and hours in schools and blahblahblah and just focus on helping kids. The key is only to bite off what can be chewed — healthily, morally, logistically, and in staffing.

Can we get to 50,000 kids by the end of the first 9 weeks? Probably not. Can we get some thousands? Maybe. If we’re really smart and really careful and if we use the outdoors. That’s a much more sound path to sustainable in-person schooling than a doomed Big Bang. Indeed, I expect that we’ll end up backing into a de facto “hybrid option.”

Speaking of outdoors, as soon as temperatures drop at all, I would like to see us plan for voluntary outside school, especially for Pre-K-through-2. Think recess all day, with some reading and math and social skills built in. The outdoor/indoor distinction is the one coronavirus risk issue that every single health official I’ve spoken to seems to agree on.

It’s massively less risky to be outside, doing outside behaviors. It’s also good for the kids and helps with virus immunity, according to various things I’ve read.

I know you’re angry and desperate; but we have to make a bad situation better, not worse

I’m not a magical thinker; and I try not to delude myself.

This is a time of desperation for many people, mostly because our governments have chosen to jack up economic, health, and political stress on our population rather than seek to systemically reduce it as much as possible.

Many desperate Polk parents see Aug. 24 as a vital stress reducer for kids and parents alike. Not doing a mass opening on Aug. 24 will hurt. But so will closing everything down a few days later and killing any chance of in-person schooling for months. That will arguably hurt much more. And that’s before you ever get to the moral question of asking educators to die for our state and national failures — or lose their jobs. You know where I stand on that.

I am pledged fully to work as closely as I can with anyone willing to collaborate to build sustainable in-person options. But I can’t, in good conscience, set everyone up for failure and harm just so I can say I provided a choice that isn’t a choice.

The Townsend position: offer e-learning to everyone; stagger in-person start to carefully, slowly provide in-person services to the neediest kids


2 thoughts on “The path to sustainable in-person schooling runs through slow, careful build up — not a Big Bang

  1. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
    I want to teach my students, I want to see them, but more importantly I want them to be safe!

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