Back to school or learning pod, every parent’s choice is reasonable

I don’t think my behavior should be characterized as doom-scrolling, but I do subscribe toand read dailytwo of the major American newspapers as well as a handful of magazines. I prefer my news* to be well-researched, fact-checked, and professionally edited, thank you!

Recently, everywhere I look, I’m confronted by angry, polarized debate creating artificial binary positions on the particulars of education in the COVID-19 era.

In person learning is too dangerous! Remote learning is useless! Both positions are flawed…

“In person learning is too dangerous!”

“Remote learning is useless!

Both positions are flawed because real life is nuanced. What works for one child—or one family, or one community—can’t be arbitrarily exported to someone else’s situation because there are meaningful differences between cases.

school supplies - 1Some teachers aren’t at particularly high risk for complications from the novel coronavirus, and want to get back into classrooms quickly. By all means, let’s put those educators to work in communities where infection rates make that a sensible solution. Other teachers have pre-existing conditions or would prefer to teach remotely: there’s an audience for that modality, too.

I have yet to see any analysis comparing the number of teachers who’d like to get back inside schools with the number of families who desire the same for their kids. What if all this finger pointing is for nothing and those numbers align naturally in most communities? Shouldn’t someone put a modicum of effort into asking such a straightforward question that could solve so many problems?

Remote education worked well for some students. Learning outside of a large, “industrial school” setting was the dominant mode of education for most people prior to the past century. It’s ridiculous to pretend that there is only one path from ignorance to wisdom; all of human history argues otherwise.

Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10I’ve read articles bemoaning the selfishness of (rich) parents forming COVID-19 learning pods instead of sending their kids back to public schools. At the same time, many (mostly urban) schools don’t have enough physical space to safely host all of their pupils in a socially distanced manner.

It strikes me as obvious that the removal of some kids—admittedly, those whose families can afford to pay private tutors or take time away from work to teach their own themselves—from over-crowded conditions will only improve the odds against infection-via-density for those who remain.

Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

It flat out sucks that we have yet to find a way to offer any semblance of an equal opportunity for an excellent education to all students regardless of color, creed, or zip code, but reducing each pupil’s risk of contracting COVID-19 in his or her classroom is a more straightforward problem to solve.

Since this is literally a matter of life or death, I think we should start with the low hanging fruit of smaller class sizes by whatever means possible. Some skilled educators may be lured by wealthy families’ ability to pay for private tuition, but few go into teaching for the money, so I suspect most passionate teachers will remain in the system where they chose to work.

Some families have no option but to send their kids back to classrooms. They depend upon this one and only form of state-sponsored child care in America in order to work, earning a paycheck, but also contributing their labor to benefit society. Their kids deserve to be the first children back at school in person. I willingly cede the seats my kids could rightfully occupy to children who need them more.

The children of essential workers and kids who live with food insecurity should have first dibs on in person instruction this year. This isn’t about getting the most back for every penny I spent in taxes, it’s about doing the right thing at a tumultuous time.

lunch box on kitchen counter

Lunchbox, ready for school.

It is pathetic that many of our schools are in poor repair and lack modern HVAC systems or windows that open. It is ridiculous how many young bodies we squeeze into rooms designed for far fewer. It is outrageous that millions of our children depend upon meals served at school for essential nutrition.

None of that is right, but all of it is true. I will continue to advocate for better schooling for every kid at every opportunity I see, but I’m not going to ignore reality when lives are at risk. Neither choice is pure merit, but neither choice deserves scorn.

The choice that works for your family this year is good enough. Do what works. Kids can learn in many ways and from many sources, especially when they see their parents carefully making thoughtful choices on their behalf.

Children play amongst colorful leaves on a sunny autumn dayKids are resilient. Thank God! Most of the kids will be all right. That’s the best we can do in the face of a viral adversary that has killed 171,787 Americans as of August 29, 2020.

For the moment, the best I can offer my community is to keep my kids away from public spaces to alleviate the pressure of a pandemic on the strained resources of our health and education systems.

I’m doing my best, like so many other parents. Frankly, we should all give ourselves a break, because our best really is good enough for now. Instead of blaming each other for making different choices, let’s all focus on meeting the needs of our own kids, each in our own ordinary, reasonable way.

I voted Election sticker - 1Highly paid elected officials in D.C. and other capitals deserve the pressure and expectation of doing more, because they are the ones who dropped this particular ball. Give them the blame they’ve earned. The U.S.A. is failing in its attempt to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, but it isn’t for lack of effort on the part of average American parents.

* It’s true that I added the New York Times to my paid subscriptions only after COVID-19 started sweeping the world, but I’d been on the verge of the upgrade purchase for almost a year. I think this is where I give a shout out to the Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Wired magazine, and The Economist for edu-taining me through a pandemic, right? 

It was my growing reliance on NYT Cooking recipes during the early phase of sheltering-in-place (with hit-and-miss grocery deliveries) that finally prompted me to input my credit card number.

According to this NY Times article from September 4, 2020, 40% of parents have chosen remote learning instead of taking advantage of the hybrid or in person options offered in that city.

As a mother who has home schooled one of her children for over seven years, my experience was that customizing my own plan for my own child was far easier than implementing the adapted curriculum dictated by my other kid’s school that was unprepared for the sudden need for remote learning last spring. American parents have the right to educate their own children as they see fit, so declaring as a home educating parent is an alternative for those whose kids responded poorly to their schools’ offerings.

In 2018, 29.7 million children received free or reduced-cost lunch daily per the USDA

What I eat affects how I feel: consider an elimination diet for chronic pain

The Internet is full of dietary advice, much of which has as much basis in opinion as fact. I won’t try to define for you what constitutes healthy eating, but I can share an effective strategy for testing your own diet that could potentially improve your health and well-being.

You could feel healthier within weeks, and it is free

Twice in my life, I have undertaken “elimination diets.” I credit this process with measurably reducing symptoms that were severely impacting my quality of life. In my case, I was able to reduce migraine headache symptoms from daily to just a few episodes per year. More recently, I shifted constant, debilitating joint pain and fatigue associated with autoimmune disease to a still regular, but less incapacitating, condition.

In both cases, I was able to stop taking some preventative prescription drugs and take fewer pain relieving drugs (an objective and measurable result.) I also made myself feel better (a subjective improvement in my well-being.)

You don’t need to spend an extra penny to try it, and you should know within a month if it is going to work for you.

What is an elimination diet?

An elimination diet is not designed to eliminate weight and/or fat. This isn’t a weight loss diet. I think of it as a health gain diet; you could also consider it a symptom loss diet. I prefer to focus on the positive.

Reduce foods you eat to a “safe” list

Put simply, an elimination diet involves first reducing your diet to a limited list of foods known to be inoffensive. By inoffensive, I mean foods that are not commonly allergenic or irritating to the system. At this stage, you would eliminate any food you think might be triggering your own symptoms.

Re-introduce different foods one at a time

After a period (typically around three weeks) on the very restrictive diet, you re-introduce new foods one at a time into your meals and see if symptoms recur or increase. If you feel worse, you remove the offensive (or “trigger”) food again and go on to the next test food. Ideally, you wait a day or two after being “triggered”/negatively affected so your body can return to a neutral state.

Continue this process until you have tested the foods you prefer

You continue this process until your diet includes everything you prefer to eat (excluding trigger foods!) Speaking again from my own experience, it took me a few months to recover from almost daily migraines; I experienced profound relief on day four of my elimination diet for autoimmune disease symptoms.

Elimination Diet food picture - 1

I began with a low-fat, vegan diet of exclusively cooked foods, mostly vegetables. Olive oil was my only fat. I included rice, quinoa, and black beans. I avoided foods that I previously ate the most frequently.

What foods are safe to start an elimination diet?

The first time I did an elimination diet, my primary care doctor gave me a “migraine diet” that I used as a starting point. On my second go ’round, I consulted with a nutritionist recommended by my regular physician to compile a food list for myself based upon a website and a book I regarded as trustworthy.

I used the book, The Elimination Diet by Segersten and Malterre. I borrowed it from my library and read the whole thing, but you don’t need the book to try this technique. This couple does offer many useful resources as free printables on their website, however, and they do a nice job providing a thorough blueprint for those who don’t want to do a lot of planning for themselves.

The point of this intervention is to find out, for yourself, how specific foods affect you.

If you don’t know which foods to start with, begin with a recommended diet from a professional—either your own health provider, or a list from a book or website whose credentials you trust.

An elimination diet is a short-term experiment

Perhaps the most vital thing to know about this diet is that it is never meant to be permanent. I hate the experience of working through an elimination diet, especially those early, very limited weeks, but I like the results enough to commit to a few weeks of deprivation to feel much better.

If you undertake this process and finish up with a long list of foods you plan to permanently eliminate, I strongly encourage you to consult a dietician or doctor to ensure your nutritional needs will be met. In my case, only a few key foods seem to be responsible for a majority of my current symptoms.

Look beyond the usual suspects

Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned in my most recent elimination diet phase was that two common foods I’d barely suspected give me the most trouble. I won’t name them because it’s easy to label foods as “bad” and then proselytize for others to avoid them.

Please do your own experiment and find your own best diet. My two “bad foods” are not any of the foods so popularly demonized these days. (Hint: neither of them is a grain or gluten!)

Your long term diet should be healthy and sustainable

I’ve learned that other foods—some of which are commonly listed as likely triggers—affect my symptoms, too, but they do so in a more gradual, symptoms-building-up sort of way.

For example, I can include some dairy and some organic wheat in my diet and live pretty comfortably. I don’t eat freely of these foods, limiting them to special occasions, but I enjoy life a lot more. Allowing these, in moderation, means more excitement and variety in my meals, which is another factor in long term, emotional well-being.

The myth of “the” healthy diet

My two dietary interventions happened about 20 years apart and resulted in the adoption of somewhat different “ideal diets” each time. The biggest similarity between the two situations was the process.

Did I misinterpret my results the first time I did an elimination diet? Have my needs changed? Has food itself changed? All of these are possible.

It is really difficult to do great studies on human nutrition. To put it very simply, this is because:

  1. There’s no expensive product to market afterwards, so no one wants to pay for long term, well controlled studies of large groups, and
  2. People have really complex lives so it’s hard to design great studies that give straightforward results.

For this reason, I take every bit of nutrition advice with a grain of salt, and I try to stay very open-minded as new research is published. I think it is likely that different people have unique dietary needs based upon lifestyle and genetics, the same way we are susceptible to different injuries and diseases. I think we probably need different nutritional inputs at different stages of life.

I also believe that the adoption of modern, processed foods has likely affected human health in currently unknowable ways. After all, “traditional diets” sustained us for thousands of years, and they differed around the world. What are the odds that one very specific diet could optimize health for all individual human beings?

In the USA, our doctors typically receive little to no training in nutrition. They can advise us when we need to lose weight, or tell us to “eat a healthy diet,” but they aren’t necessarily in a better position than we are ourselves to create a specific blueprint for what we should feed ourselves.

I advocate this particular approach to health through nutrition experimentation because I have personally experienced success with it, twice. It is also free, costing more in time and commitment than financial outlay. You will have to do some planning to successfully undertake an elimination diet.

I don’t believe that we are responsible for every ailment that befalls us. Sometimes, we get hit with an unlucky break, in health as with the rest of life. But here is an opportunity to shift the odds back in our favor by putting in a bit of effort.

If you are suffering, consider trying an elimination diet. The most you have to lose is a little time—and the enjoyment of a few favorite meals—over a few weeks. What you stand to gain is good health.

Have you tried, or considered, an elimination diet? What were your results?