Remote school works best for YOUR child? You have the RIGHT to continue!

Late spring polls—and the blessed waning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the USA, at leasthave prompted headlines like this one from the Boston Globe:

“After a difficult academic year, the majority of Mass. parents want in-person school this fall

Boston Globe article headline with "the majority" highlighted by this bloggerThat unambiguous headline hides the whopping 31% of parents who disagreed with the sentiment. Almost a third of the 1,619 parents polled by MassINC Polling Group are NOT eager for mandatory, full-time, in person education just a few short months from now.

That’s more than three out of every ten people. In my childhood classrooms that averaged around 30 kids, that would have meant nine or 10 were attending against their families’ best instincts. I don’t think numbers this significant can be dismissed as a “trivial” minority over whose preferences the majority can ride roughshod with impunity.

An earlier Gallup poll restricted to 14 to 18 year old high school students in the same state of Massachusetts showed similar dissonance with an equally head-scratching headline:

Few Massachusetts Students Prefer Remote Learning

The data in that case also shows that most people, shown a few narrow options, prefer to travel the path of least resistance and do what they’ve always done. Half (50%) of the kids polled, if given these three choices, would attend “in person full-time.” Only 16% would choose “remote school full-time.”

Then again, 34% in the Gallup poll selected the third option: a hybrid “in person/remote” approach. That third of the student body can’t necessarily be described as “preferring” in person education. A more accurate headline would have been: Half of Massachusetts Students Prefer Full-Time, In Person Learning.Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

Half of Massachusetts Students Prefer Full-Time, In Person Learning

Some of these students might’ve been reacting more to a lousy remote education experience—one they got stuck with during a worldwide crisis—rather than alternative learning in general. Even with widespread reports of low quality remote instruction in 2020, from this data, I see that half of the polled teens expressed an interest in at least some education outside of the traditional brick school building.

From yet another source, I offer a press release from National Parents Union including a third poll (poll data here) producing similar statistics. The NPU poll shows 56% of surveyed parents “value having a choice between in-person and remote” learning. Roughly half prefer in person classrooms, but 17-25% of parents depending upon geographic region would prefer a hybrid model.

As with the other polls, 20% of these respondents would prefer full-time remote learning in 2021-22.

The right to an education

Before I say anything more, let me be clear: I do believe that opening schools this fall looks likely to be safe enough for most. The decision to do so appears to be based upon a sound assessment of current conditions in the USA.

Families who want to send their children back to schools in person should absolutely have that option based upon currently available data.

American children have a right to an education. Maybe even a constitutional right to at least basic literacy. In no way am I looking to dictate the best way for other people’s children to learn.USA flag - 1

I grow frustrated by the outright dismissal of the reasonable preferences of a sizeable minority of parents and children who want continued access to remote learning options for those who prefer them.

If even “just” 16-20% of students would choose remote learning, that’s 4.8 to six students in my hypothetical classroom of 30. I find it interesting that 20% of respondents in the NPU poll (see question 14) also reported their pupils “learning more than they normally would” during remote classes than they felt they had attending school in person.

These are real outcomes from American students for whom remote education works well.

The 31% from the first poll of families who don’t want to send their kids back to traditional school buildings—for now, or perhaps forever—deserve to be heard and accommodated by the public system. They may not be the majority, but the group is large enough, and the stakes are high enough, that ignoring the needs of these families is a dereliction of a very reasonable duty of care.

Let’s face reality: it’s not as though our system has been offering an excellent education to every child who wants one up to this point. (An example: the fierce fighting over scarce seats at Boston’s best public schools.) We have a lot of room for innovation and improvement. The point at which 16-31% of participants in the system ask for an alternative seems like an ideal time to start.

Parents usually judge best what works for their own kids

Barring extreme dysfunction, parents know their own children best. While most moms and dads aren’t professional educators, they are experts on the subject of their offspring.

I have two kids, and only one of them was educated at home before the pandemic. 2020-21 was as much of a wild academic ride for us as it was for students everywhere!

I posted about my family’s educational choices here—Home education as a radical act—back in 2017. I was also grateful to take advantage of my son’s school’s outdoor classes during the pandemic.

I mention the different choices made on behalf of my two children because I’m not a rabid proponent of homeschooling at all costs. My sociable younger son is enrolled in school because he prefers learning in a group, and evidence suggests the system works… for him.

My other kid has definitely found his groove, but even my homeschooler didn’t love the shape of every part of learning through a pandemic. That child, too, is eager to return to some classrooms for some subjects; my kid can’t wait to have choices again.

Home education allows for remote learning

This rambling? preamble has served to get me to the following point:

Families who aren’t well-served by the public system are entitled to remove their kids from it. Aside from expensive private institutions, home education is a legal right in all 50 states. Remote classes—many taught by trained professional educators—can be a part of homeschooling.

The internet began offering amazing online opportunities to homeschooling families many years ago, and the pandemic actually increased and enhanced the quality of the choices found thereon.

  • You don’t have to be a trained teacher to do a fine job teaching your own child.
  • You can purchase ready-made curricula for a term or a year, by grade level, or for individual subjects.
  • If your kid excels in one area while struggling with another, you can tailor everything to his or her needs on your own, or with targeted help by hiring tutors or joining group classes.

Here’s a post about a particular online foreign language program that worked out well for my kids: YES! CLV’s Virtual Village is great remote language learning for kids. I’m also a fan of the affordable online courses offered by Royal Fireworks Press.

Roughly 2.5 million American students were learning from home before the pandemic; by March of 2021, that number doubled to 4.5 – 5 million. (Homeschool statistics from NHERI) Plenty of families rejected their schools’ responses to COVID-19 and took the plunge at the time; all of us can make that choice today based on what we’ve learned over the past year and a half of disruption.

If you know that returning full time to a classroom isn’t the best decision for your child, I encourage you to try home education… if you believe it might be a good fit. Making this choice now doesn’t commit you or your child to this course forever; many kids transition in and out of homeschooling every year.

The NHERI link I gave above offers more detail on the subject of the success of home educated students, but the short version I believe everyone deserves to know can be summarized thusly:

  • Homeschoolers as a group perform better on standardized tests than those educated in public schools— 65-80th percentile for the home educated vs. 50th percentile for public institutions (Ray, 2015)
  • Homeschoolers as a group “succeed and perform statistically significantly better than those who attended institutional schools (Ray, 2017)” as functioning adults
  • “87% of peer-reviewed studies on social, emotional, and psychological development show homeschool students perform statistically significantly better than those in conventional schools (Ray, 2017)”

Oh yes, and, add to those points: selective colleges are generally very accepting of well-prepared home educated applicants because they also tend to perform as well as institutionally-educated enrollees at the university level.

Beyond these general facts gathered prior to the ravages of the coronavirus over the 2020-21 school year, it is worth acknowledging that a child who doesn’t feel safe at school is less likely to learn well. A parent who fears for her offspring’s health and safety is likely to perform less well in her own work. These are not insignificant issues; these feelings deserve to be dealt with in a constructive way.

Where state governments or boards of education dismiss out of hand the wishes of 20-30% of their enrolled families, I offer the option of parent-led home education, not as a prescription, but as a valid choice available for those who want it.

Though I’m not a home education focused blogger, per se, I’m happy to answer any specific questions that I can, or to provide links to specific types of resources that have worked for my family, if asked. Ask away in the comments!

If one fifth of students learned more during the pandemic, it seems obvious to me that public schools have an obligation to understand why that happened, retain that advantage going forward, and incorporate remote options for that sizeable chunk of their constituents.

Post-COVID, I’ll remember NCL, Delta & Alaska Airlines put safety first

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) Holdings announced on May 7th that, if Florida’s government holds to its misguided law preventing private businesses from enforcing vaccine compliance, NCL will take all of its sailings to other ports outside that state. For a Miami-based company, that’s a pretty bold promise.

While my sun-loathing, beach-avoiding tendencies made Florida’s appeal a mystery to me in the past, its near total lack of sensible governance paints it as a positively terrifying “vacation” destination today. I’m hardly the only one to notice Governor DeSantis’ lunatic anti-corporate stance on this question, either.

I want to commend NCL for making a rational commitment to protect passenger safety even as the pandemic wanes. I haven’t cruised with Norwegian yet, but taking a firm line on this issue after a year of unprecedented collapse in the travel industry gives me a powerful reason to consider them more seriously in the future.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 3

I’ve only taken a handful of cruises, having traveled twice with Crystal Cruises, once on Holland America Line, and once with Carnival. I’m delighted that Crystal has also adopted a 100% vaccinated passenger policy at this time.

At the same time, allow me to commend Delta for being the airline which blocked middle seats longer than any other major U.S. carrier. Delta ended that policy on May 1, 2021.

By contrast, American Airlines decided after just a couple of months in 2020 (April to June) that cramming passengers three abreast on flights of any duration—while an airborne virus sickened tens of thousands per day in a way science did not yet clearly understand—was sound policy.

AA made this choice well before the second surge of cases and deaths in the United States.AA entertainment welcome screen above pocket with A321S safety card visible

You can bet that Delta has moved up on the list of airlines I’ll choose to fly with going forward.

The day I got my first vaccine jab, I booked tickets home to see my dad for Christmas 2021.

I noticed when Alaska Airlines made the news for banning Alaska state Senator Lora Reinbold. The dis-Honorable Senator Reinbold repeatedly ignored staff instructions, violating a mask order designed to protect her fellow passengers.

Most of those good people were likely Reinbold’s constituents, yet she couldn’t be bothered to don a few square inches of cloth to reduce the risk of infecting them all with a contagious disease. The senator couldn’t know if any those in her vicinity were high risk; she simply didn’t care more about human life than she did political posturing.Tail of Alaska plane visible on tarmac through airport terminal window

I’m incredibly appreciative that Alaska Airlines chose to institute a face covering policy even before the United States federal government implemented its own mandate. I’m proud to say that Alaska is the airline with which I’ve had elite status for the greatest number of years.

I’m gratified that I’ve regularly paid a premium for flights with this airline that chose to do the right thing, even when doing so cost them the business of customers who couldn’t—wouldn’t—be bothered to take any small measure to respect others.

It’s interesting to me that I’ve long felt that customer service was better on Alaska and Delta than on other domestic airlines, even as frequent fliers began complaining bitterly about changes in the latter’s SkyMiles Frequent Flyer program devaluing their points. Personally, I prefer good service and more stringent safety protocols to a higher return paid in free trips.

This post is the product of a lot of noticing, over the course of a pandemic, which big companies took specific kinds of thoughtful action, and how often those actions corresponded with my previous impression of a given corporation. Trader Joe’s and American Airlines disappointed me; Delta, Alaska, and NCL have earned a great deal more of my esteem.

I have a long memory, and I’m the kind of traveler happy to pay a premium to support my values. Here’s hoping some pandemic-era changes in the aviation industry remain, and that the skies stay a little friendlier in the future.

Masks may be liberty-preserving alternative to mandatory vaccines or vax passports

There may be an alternative to mandatory vaccines and the inherent privacy and security concerns of either paper or electronic vaccine passports: allow people to opt out, but normalize the use of masks in densely populated, public, indoor settings when conditions suggest caution is demanded.

In the United States, this requirement should be tied directly to CDC reported rates of dangerous, communicable diseases with wastewater surveillance informing decisions. Medical research should be funded to track the effectiveness of masks against flu and anything else that’s feasible, not just COVID-19.

Ongoing investigation of the role aerosols—and inadequate ventilationplay in spreading common diseases demands equal attention and funding.

I, for one, would not return to an office as of May 2021 without a mask on my face if the space didn’t promise four to six air changes every hour or a fully vaccinated cohort of coworkers! This Wired story is a must read for those who’d like to understand the origins of medicine’s deeply flawed 5 μ myth defining “airborne” pathogens.

While our coronavirus memories are fresh, we owe it to future generations to prepare better for the next global outbreak. It is as inevitable as SARS-CoV-2 was. Fumbling our collective response, however, is not preordained.

We’ve learned a lot during the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ample real world evidence is now available suggesting that even simple homemade cloth coverings reduce the risk of infection from at least this one airborne virus. Flu also virtually disappeared during the 2020-21 season, though that could be as readily attributed to social distance and isolation as opposed to masks.

In the absence of the worldwide supply chain disruptions common early in this pandemic, more definitively effective surgical and N95 masks are easily obtained and affordable. Employers with public storefronts should have boxes of them deployed in the workplace in the same way food service companies provide gloves to their workers.

Unfolded ProGear N95 mask sitting in front box of 50 it came in

As with gloves and hairnets in restaurant kitchens, masks should be the immediate, hygienic response to entering the personal space of unknown persons with unknown vaccination status while any community is in the throes of an infectious agent.

Massachusetts’s governor is quoted in a May 7th Boston Globe opinion piece as saying, “some people have ‘very legitimate reasons to be nervous about a government-run program that’s going to put a shot in their arm.’” The same piece goes on to report, “Attorney General Maura Healey… this week repeated her call for public employees to be vaccinated as a condition of their jobs.”

Requiring every public employee in a customer facing position to wear a face mask at work unless s/he chooses to offer verifiable proof of vaccination seems like a cheap, simple, practical solution to me. As every scientifically literate, law-abiding citizen of the United States now knows, wearing a mask is no more difficult* than wearing pants.

Rome, the power house of the ancient world, believed trousers were ridiculous, barbaric garments. Quite literally, Romans, like the Greeks before them, saw pants as uncivilized clothing fit only for uncouth Goths and Vandals. The entire Western world, and most people around the globe, now don trousers without compunction. Masking one’s face requires no greater degree of adaptation!

Most of us could decide which we prefer at work: to wear a mask, or to accept vaccination. Crucially, the public at large ends up protected either way.Redacted official CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card

I think it is likely that I, personally, will never want to fly again without a face covering, if only because I’m so well aware of my own tendency to touch my face and even bite my nails when experiencing anxiety. It’s a terrible habit I’ve never been able to break, but a comfortable face shield or mask would remove almost all of that risk to my health.

There will always be liars and attempted cheats, of course. Responses to those caught committing public health fraud should be proportionate and focused on preventing harm to the community.

Perhaps being fitted with a device designed like the ankle bracelets employed for house arrest for a period of time would work, offering a visible warning to strangers while broadcasting via Bluetooth? a message alerting those in the vicinity of the need to increase social distance. This could be a system that works with individual’s cell phones, or a device required for public occupancy of spaces meeting certain size or density limits rather like the requirement to install smoke alarms and fire sprinklers before opening a hotel or nightclub for business.

The primary solution is to normalize the continued use of masks in dense situations where we crowd together with unknown persons. The secondary need is for public spaces to meet reasonable, updated standards for safety in light of our current understanding of risk in the post-COVID-19 world.

Once COVID-19 vaccines are fully approved by the FDA, I do believe that employees who work specifically with the most vulnerable population should be required to accept vaccination or leave those particular roles.

Aides in nursing homes should not be able to opt out of coronavirus vaccines, nor the flu vaccine in normal years, nor should nurses serving the immune-compromised. Prison guards—who work with populations literally unable to escape from unvaccinated sources of exposure—are another obvious group whose personal choices should not be allowed to endanger the lives or health of others.

The actual conditions of employment for such positions demand a workforce that doesn’t subject other people to unnecessary risk so easily mitigated by inoculation. Case in point: the unvaccinated Kentucky health care worker who caused the death of three elderly residents of the nursing home where s/he worked. To pretend otherwise makes a mockery of both human decency and common sense.

In another example: a recent study published in JAMA showed that 46% of organ transplant patients produced zero antibodies after a complete 2 shot course of SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine. It’s unreasonable that such individuals should be unknowingly subjected to the ministrations—however well-intentioned—of unvaccinated health care workers, certainly not without the immune-compromised patient’s being informed of their relative risk and given the opportunity to offer fully informed consent to taking said risk.

Face masks could also offer an effective solution for the conflict between public school vaccination requirements and anti-vaxxer parents currently allowed in some states to claim religious or other non-medical exemptions for their children.

Further research might prove that masks are not effective against every disease against which we have mandatory childhood vaccinations, but face coverings could potentially eliminate the friction between parent choice and community health in the context of the vital public good which is free, universal education.

Where freedom is the prize—and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable childhood infectious disease remain rare in America—I’d argue that the value of face masks as an alternative to mandatory injections is well worth exploring.Disposable surgical mask

Western medical science was patently wrong, before COVID-19, when it declaimed that face coverings offered no protection from infectious disease. We still aren’t sure if they protect the wearer so much as those in the vicinity of a masked, sick individual, but we do have substantial evidence that widespread adoption of masks can protect populations during a deadly outbreak.

Perhaps most importantly, where even the most well-vetted, safest vaccine or medication carries some tiny risk of harm to its recipient, wearing an appropriate, well-fitting mask correctly has virtually zero chance of injuring anyone. Low cost interventions with few side effects are ideal public health measures.

Asian nations which had internalized the historical lessons of earlier epidemics had it right; many** normalized face coverings during flu season. Now we know better, too. Science proves its inherent value when we incorporate new data into our body of knowledge, especially when we recognize data challenging existing beliefs and ingrained patterns of behavior.

This BMJ editorial (PDF) highlights the danger of clinging to false understandings. This opinion piece by Dr. Zeynep Tufekci is well worth a read on the subject of organizations lurching only slowly toward acceptance of new information challenging medical and scientific preconceptions.

Before the next pandemic, we should take great pains to study when, where, and how cheap, medically risk-free facial coverings work to effectively control the spread of disease. How many thousands fewer would have died if we’d deployed masks as a solution worldwide in days instead of months in 2020?

This is not merely a political issue. It is a matter of public health. Where solutions exist that preserve both life and liberty, we owe it to democracy—and humanity—to explore every possible compromise.

Per the CDC, roughly 1000 flu cases were diagnosed during the pandemic 2020-21 season vs. more than 65,000 cases in the more typical 2019-20 season.

* As with trousers, some are the wrong size, and some are more comfortable on a particular body than others. Trial and error may be required to find the perfect fit for a given individual. Compared with the effort necessary to remediate infecting a susceptible individual with a life-threatening disease, this process is, at worst, a trivial inconvenience.

Per the Boston Globe: One of the major senior care operators in the state of Massachusetts came to a similar conclusion before COVID-19, though the quote perversely suggests that the organization was more interested in shaming staff members as opposed to protecting elderly residents:

“A year before the pandemic, Hebrew SeniorLife required flu shots for the first time for staff. Administrators achieved 100 percent compliance by imposing what seemed at the time an onerous condition: Holdouts would be required to wear masks 24/7 during flu season.

‘That was totally embarrassing then, but not now,” Woolf said. “We don’t have that hammer anymore.’”

In my opinion, after legitimate scientific studies were conducted to confirm that mask use by unvaccinated staff protects vulnerable patients to an equivalent level as vaccinated staff with faces uncovered, this could be a sufficient and highly appropriate alternative to mandatory shots in some cases.

Voluntary residential situations for children under age 18 should probably be held to a higher standard, in my opinion, and strictly require vaccinations for all but medically exempt participants. Absent direct parental supervision, it seems unreasonable to subject anyone else’s child to unnecessary risk due to personal choices that contradict the best current medical advice.

** Routine wearing of masks was imported to Japan from Western nations who’d adopted them as one response to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Unlike we Americans, Japanese culture never dropped them as a reasonable personal response to being contagious after the urgency of the Great Influenza subsided.

This Huffington Post article suggests that the Chinese adopted protective face coverings even earlier: “In 1910 and 1911, citizens were encouraged to wear masks to combat the pneumonic plague outbreak in Manchuria.”

The article goes on to point out that other Asian nations picked up the habit of covering faces during outbreaks due specifically to the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003. I’ve read that Koreans, in particular, actually viewed masks in a somewhat negative light as a foreign, Japanese import before the first SARS crisis.

Elite public schools SHOULD consider zip code + academic performance

Fourteen families in Boston recently brought suit against the Boston Public School district, alleging that the COVID-19 era adoption of zip code as a determining factor for admission to the city’s elite “exam schools” was a proxy for race.

I’m delighted that these parents lost their suit in federal court, though I’m sorry that the young scholars represented fear for their futures due to the state’s failure to supply appropriate educational opportunities.Boston Globe online edition with Civil Rights suit article circled

My reasoning? Human beings may tend to sort themselves by distinguishing characteristics—skin color or “race” amongst them—but, in spite of its history as a racist city, there are no formal color-based barriers to residence in any Boston neighborhood today. People who would like to improve their children’s odds of admission to the exam schools are free to live in neighborhoods with larger quotas assigned to them.

Even at the height of segregation, I’m not aware of any rule that ever prevented wealthier, more powerful groups from moving to areas with lower median income. Most efforts prevented the richest “undesirables” from inhabiting homes viewed as the exclusive domain of the then current “better classes” such as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs.)NZ Botanic Garden Curator's House - 1

According to the Boston Globe, when the traditional entrance examinations were deemed unsafe due to the pandemic, BPS adopted the following policy for admission to its three elite institutions including the storied Boston Latin:

“…students will be admitted to the exam schools based largely on their grades and in some cases MCAS scores. Seats will also be allocated by ZIP code, giving top priority to areas with the lowest median household income. The number of seats per ZIP code will be proportionate to the share of school-age children living there.”

Quoted from article by James Vaznis updated April 15, 2021, 10:21 p.m. (emphasis mine)

Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but nothing prevents families from moving to the suddenly more advantageous zip codes. Given that these people must live somewhere with a higher median income, affordability—by definition—can’t be a barrier. Preferring to live in a racially, ethnically, or fiscally homogeneous enclave is a choice; sometimes our choices have consequences we may not enjoy.

Richer families can afford private schools. The least well off families in higher income zip codes have the most reason to dislike the change in admissions criteria. Frankly, though, the truly objectionable reality of this case is that all students aren’t equally able to access high quality classrooms. Now that’s a worthy reason to bring a lawsuit. Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

But because of the tight link in the United States between home-ownership and wealth, those lower-middle income families are more likely to be renters. Renters can move more readily than people who own their own home. I’d call that yet another benefit to factoring zip code into BPS’ admissions criteria.

The fact that lower median household wealth correlates directly with skin color in America is an embarrassment to our nation. There is no evidence save the easily debunked rantings of white supremacists for any rational basis to this truth; it’s wholly a byproduct of long-standing cronyism and widespread, systemic bias on the part of both individuals and institutions.

In spite of the fairly obvious reality of systemic racism, the BPS admissions policy in question does not in any explicit way prefer to admit children with more, larger, and more pigmented melanosomes* over those with less. It does explicitly tie income to admission, but offering enhanced opportunities to the brightest, hardest working children in a city because they were born with the extra burden of poverty seems eminently reasonable to me.

According to the Census.gov analysis I pointed to earlier regarding household wealth, education is firmly linked to better financial outcomes.

“Higher education is associated with more wealth. Households in which the most educated member held a bachelor’s degree had a median wealth of $163,700, compared with $38,900 for households where the most educated member had a high school diploma.”

—2019 analysis of U.S. Census Bureau report and detailed tables on household wealth in 2015

I say, let’s give more children from our poorest districts the chance to prove their mettle. Let’s offer better tools to help our least advantaged young people outgrow poverty, for their own benefit, and for the benefit of our society as whole. There’s no evidence that education is a zero sum game though admission to Harvard may be.

This new—and, remember, temporary!—policy is admitting the best students from Boston’s public elementary schools into their best public high schools at a rate proportionate to how many children live in given neighborhoods. Those kids may not perform better than the second or third best students at another school in more expensive zones of the district, but so what? They remain kids who show up to class, work hard to please their teachers, and follow the rules. Great students are gaining those coveted admission slots.Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10

BPS is hardly admitting disinterested, failing students from poor schools at the expense of dutiful scholars from richer ones. The real issue is that a few kids enjoy exceptionally excellent free public education while the rest are left to endure in lower quality institutions due to the vagaries of circumstance.

Without extra household funds, the poorest kids in Boston can’t afford private tutoring. Their parents—the financial data from the Census suggests—are less likely to have been highly educated; they’re likely less able to assist their kids with their toughest assignments. In spite of that, these children excel academically at the school their limited circumstances proscribed prescribed for them. I’d argue that their success is the most deserving of acknowledgement and reward on the part of the school system because of how hard won it is.

Policies such as this one finally offer an incentive to encourage our cities to integrate. Integration benefits all of us, not just poor children or students of color. The wildly uneven quality of public schools has driven real estate bubbles and worsened multiple types of segregation, directly leading to many of the upheavals and protests that roiled America over the past year.

I applaud Boston Public Schools for taking this step toward becoming an agent of change in this dynamic. Now they—and the rest of us—should work on offering an equivalent caliber of education to those rarefied, elite “exam schools” to every child who wants it.

* Melanin is responsible for pigmentation of human skin, hair, and eyes; melanosomes are the cells in the body that synthesize the melanin responsible for darker skin tones

Outdoor school, in person amidst COVID-19, looks like this

Nervous families want to know if sending kids back to “in person” school during a pandemic is safe, and if it is worth the risk. Here’s what I’ve seen at my child’s school in September 2020.

I write this post first acknowledging my position as a parent with every conceivable advantage. Having been on site every day since two days after Labor Day, I can share what the autumn of COVID-19 looks like at one small New England institution serving elementary and middle grade students.

Red autumn plant by fence - 1

Decision 2020: Remote or in person education

My younger child, who prefers learning in a group, was given the option by his school to attend in person or remotely. Our community has low COVID-19 infections rates that makes this a reasonable choice. Even better, “in person” classes would be conducted outdoors until the weather turns cold when autumn segues into winter.

In accordance with advice from the department of health, DS2‘s school is requiring* the kids to:

  1. maintain social distance at all times and
  2. to wear masks any time they aren’t seated at their assigned desks for working or eating.

Lectern with laptop and whiteboard propped on mobile tool cart outsideMy child requested a return to in person school, and we agreed that he may go until they move indoors with the caveat that any surge in local virus outbreaks or lax enforcement of health protocols at school could change our position.

Even with low COVID-19 infection rates, I would not send my asthmatic son to school indoors at this point in time. We also have two elderly adults in our household, both with significant underlying medical conditions on the CDC’s watch list, so I’m on higher alert than I would be if I had only our nuclear family to consider.

Because I am a full time parent, I volunteered to help the teachers keep an eye on the children during lunch- and free-time. Recess inherently lacks the strict visual supervision of class time. My selfish reason for doing this is to make sure my kid isn’t more exposed in reality than official policy might suggest.

Setting self-concern aside, however, I also proposed myself for this new volunteer position because I knew that our teachers would have all of their usual work to do in addition to enforcing a slew of new rules that combine novelty with literal life and death consequences. Showing up and lending a hand seemed the very least I could do. My time is my own to spend and three other adults would remain present at my house to support my teen with his online work.

When I walk the playground for an hour and a half, the teachers have an opportunity to take a real break and eat lunch in peace. The kids still benefit from having a grown up—me!— available to remind them to replace their masks after they eat, and my extra set of eyes helps even the most active among them to maintain social distancing no matter how vigorously they are defending a fort, swinging on the tire swing, or digging a giant pit.

COVID-19 School Lesson 1: Create defined spaces minding social distance for everything fascinating

Here’s my first take-away advice for other adults, teachers and parents: kids who are engrossed in something are going to forget to mind their social distance. The younger the kid, the quicker this occurs. If awesome projects are happening, do everything you can to set up “stations of awesomeness” that are fixed to locations six feet apart!

An example at our school? The science teacher brought in several live frogs for a lesson. Afterwards, multiple kids wanted to hold the tiny creatures as the teacher cleared away equipment to her car. While each child did a great job waiting his or her turn, they were drawn closer as if by magnets whilst waiting. They started out sitting at opposite corners of a large blanket where they’d been assigned for the lesson, but nothing prevented the forward creep of excitement that all parents know from their own young kids. Blanket spread on lawn with pumpkin, pencils, etc.

Separate frog habitats on individual, smaller towels with “waiting spots” assigned on other, distanced towels (one per kid) would have worked better than the larger blanket which was fine for a teacher-directed lesson with direct supervision. Visual distancing cues are good; physical barriers are better; using both together is best!

None of us wants to prevent kids from the deep concentration of fascination with their work, but we adults must step up to keep them safe while they are in a state of flow. “Six feet” is a pretty vague concept to any elementary school student; it’s utterly meaningless to one who’s distracted!

COVID-19 School Lesson 2: Kids need masks that fit well, especially once they are in motion

Another tip I’d offer parents is to watch your child play in the yard or at a park for a solid hour or so with a new mask on. It becomes very obvious on the playground when someone’s mask is ill-fitting.

Disposable surgical maskWatching the children organically form into a whooping, running mass as they re-accustomed themselves to being together was one of the most heart-lifting things I’ve seen since the pandemic began. These kids are thrilled to be in each other’s company again, and the joy of play was plain on every covered face. I felt terrible each time I had to interrupt a game to remind a kid that his mask was slipping.

The same kid would struggle to follow the rules on one day but not the next for what appeared to be a non-behavioral reason: one mask fit that kid’s face better than the other.

Some of the little kids show up wearing masks that are too large and therefore floppy. Three older kids on different days tried using neck gaiters as face coverings, but each was constantly adjusting his tube of cloth as those simply don’t stay up once a child is in motion. Gaiters are not a good option for school face covering.

5 styles of cloth face mask next to surgical maskTry to get your kid to jog around the block in a new mask before sending her with it to “in person” school. A kid with a mask that doesn’t fit well—or feel comfortable—is being set up for discipline and failure. There are many mask styles available now, so keep looking until you find one your child can tolerate.

A certain young child behaved beautifully every day but one; when I asked him what was going on with his mask that day, he admitted that it smelled funny. Mom and Dad, if you’re thinking of trying a new laundry detergent, consider doing the experiment on a Friday night and having the kids try on their masks well before school begins on Monday morning.

Another thing I wish every worried parent knew is how well the youngest kids are adapting to wearing a mask all day, every day. It already seems natural to most of them! From what I’ve seen, the littlest children acclimated quickly to what was just one more “first” in their short lives.

Our middle-group kids seem to be the most resistant to the need to wear masks. It’s tough growing into your “question authority” phase during a pandemic, plus these kids are better used to school and life without face coverings. I appreciate that our school is taking a hard line about the necessity of protecting others by taking precautions, but I feel for the rebellious ones.

Schools, make sure your pupils know when and where they are allowed to step aside for a mask break without breaking the rules. Some kids need to exercise this kind of autonomy more than others, or more often. Give them a way to do it safely when you can.

COVID-19 School Lesson 3: Educators who worked hard are now working HARDER

Though some people bemoan “lazy” teachers who took the job to get summers off, I think those are mostly people who’ve never managed groups of kids!

Professional educators tend to be people who sincerely want to help children achieve their potential. COVID-19 has foisted a lot of extra work onto teachers, none of it within the normal scope of training for the job. Oh, yes, and getting it wrong runs the risk of making children sick. I have to believe it is the rare educator who enjoys hurting children.

I am spending only about a quarter of the school day being vigilant on behalf of the pupils on our playground, and I am exhuasted by the time I get home from this duty. Sure, I live with chronic illness, so I’m hardly a model of vigor and vim, but keeping watch takes a lot out of anyone who cares about her charges.

Desk with plexiglass barrier - 1

Our school’s leader is a handy type. He was able to add plexiglass partitions to the kids’ work tables himself. This woodworking task was done during his “summer vacation.”

Don’t worry: the plexi extends above the wooden supports by another two times their length, but that’s hard to see on a small screen. The barrier extends well above the kids’ faces.

School tents for COVID-19 - 1On a fine September morning, tents nestled alongside a red-painted barn appear positively idyllic. School started with each child finding his desk ready for him, each with a personal bin for books and papers. The same fellow had to source and procure these new materials after doing the planning to figure out what was needed and how to pay for it.

Another bit of summer, consumed by COVID-19…

Upon arrival at school, kids help carry furniture and bins out of the barn to prepare for the new day.

But within the first week, a light rain highlighted a weakness of a certain style of canopy. Attempts to reach the manufacturer for parts proved that equipment bought from retail stores by small businesses—our school, in this case—often can’t be repaired economically.

A painful lesson for a tiny school without endowments or rich benefactors. Also, many extra hours of work outside the school day for a full time teacher.

Dismantled tent frame and fabric next to remaining erect EZ-Up style canopyOf course, there is more to weather than rain. When the breeze picked up, kids realized that outdoor classrooms require heavier jackets much earlier in the season.

And, it turns out, large sheets of plexiglass have their own issues with the wind!

Plexiglass vs. wind nature weather - 1

All of these little headaches have to be multiplied by the teachers’ love for their students and commitment to their well-being. They care if they get this right, and they want to keep the children safe.

At our school, most of the adults have years of experience doing the same jobs… in the same classrooms with their supplies just so. Though the school hasn’t moved, the transition to working outside the doors requires constant adjustments. That kind of effort consumes energy as well as time.

I suspect every member of the staff at our school feels like s/he is working a brand new job in a whole new environment while teaching. That is stressful, and that’s in addition to the requirement that these caring educators remember to remind kids as young as six years old to keep their distance and keep their masks on.

There’s no specific tip for this observation except to remind parents to be kinder than ever to their children’s teachers. Recognize that none of us has a monopoly on pandemic-induced stress. You and I may not have the same worst stressors during these crazy times, but odds are we both face some.

Two weeks into the new school year, I asked my son two questions this morning.

Are you able to learn in your socially distanced, outdoor classroom while wearing a mask?

Yes, he said. He’s learning just as well as always.

Then I asked him about socializing and play. Even with his mom on the playground annoying his peers, even with reminders and occasional rebukes about space and facial coverings, I asked him, is he having fun with his friends?

Yes, my son replied. He’s really happy to be back at school amongst other kids, even with the necessary restrictions.

For us, for now, in person education for this child is a risk worth taking.

Our employed household members continue to earn their usual paychecks, and both have the option to work from home. My home educated teen is attending all of the usual courses that we elect to outsource online. We have enough rooms for all this work to be conducted with relative privacy, and we had the means to upgrade our internet infrastructure over the summer to eliminate technical roadblocks we experienced in the spring.

I am counting my blessings, and they are myriad!

*Another change is the requirement to pack out all lunch detritus instead of disposing of potentially contaminated trash at school, and the kids no longer have access to a kitchenette for reheating their meals. My interest in waste free lunches and re-usable containers is serving us well. Hot food in insulated thermal jars is already receiving a warm welcome, and it is only mild September!