Thinking the Unthinkable

In his latest New York Times column Nikolas Kristof strays dangerously far into heresy:

Some things are true even though President Trump says them.

Trump has been demanding for months that schools reopen, and on that he seems to have been largely right. Schools, especially elementary schools, do not appear to have been major sources of coronavirus transmission, and remote learning is proving to be a catastrophe for many low-income children.

Yet America is shutting schools — New York City announced Wednesday that it was closing schools in the nation’s largest school district — even as it allows businesses like restaurants and bars to operate. What are our priorities?

I think I can answer that question. Primacy is given to the fears of teachers and staff and to what’s easy to administer.

As I pointed out in my post yesterday, the evidence that we should be keeping schools open is mounting. Not only do they not pose enhanced risks, closing them has serious costs as Mr. Kristof notes:

America’s education system already transmits advantage and disadvantage from one generation to the next: Rich kids attend rich schools that propel them forward, and low-income children attend struggling schools that hold them back.

School closures magnify these inequities, as many private schools remain open and affluent parents are better able to help kids adjust to remote learning. At the same time, low-income children fall even further behind.

It would be complicated but it seems to me that there must be some way to coordinate the needs of most students, the needs of students who are at greater risk, and the needs of teachers who are at greater risk. I can understand why administrators wouldn’t like it and unions would oppose it. Sounds like the sort of problem that could be solved with a clever computer program.


More here at City Journal from John Tierney:

For young students, the risk of dying from Covid is lower than the risk of dying from the flu, and researchers have repeatedly found that children do not easily transmit the virus to adults. The clearest evidence comes from Sweden, which did not close elementary schools or junior high schools during the spring Covid wave, and which did not reduce class sizes or encourage students and teachers to wear face masks.

Not a single child died, and there was little effect beyond the schools, as a team of Swedish economists reports after analyzing records of Covid infections and medical treatment for the entire Swedish population. The researchers, from the universities of Stockholm and Uppsala, took advantage of a natural experiment in Sweden by comparing hundreds of thousands of parents at the junior high schools (for students aged 14 to 16), which remained open, against those at the senior high schools, which switched to online instruction for two months in the spring.

There was scant danger from the schools that remained open. The parents at those schools were 15 percent more likely to test positive for the virus than the parents whose children stayed home, but they were no more likely to be treated or hospitalized for Covid. The classroom teachers were twice as likely as the online teachers to test positive, but their infection rate was nonetheless lower than the rate among parents at either type of school. Just 0.2 percent of the classroom teachers were hospitalized for Covid, lower than the rate among parents. The Swedish researchers suggest additional protections for classroom teachers, like encouraging them to start wearing masks or allowing the older, more vulnerable ones to teach online. But after calculating that a closure of all the junior high schools would have reduced the Swedish national rate of Covid infection by a mere 1 percent, the economists conclude that closing schools is “not a particularly effective way” to stop the spread of the virus.

26 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    “I think I can answer that question. Primacy is given to the fears of teachers and staff and to what’s easy to administer.”

    You forget mothers. Just hired a woman who does pediatric intensive care. She pulled her kids out of in person school two weeks ago. The risks are tiny, but not zero. Also, it was reported in Swedish newspapers that they did close elementary schools, so I think the cited study is flawed or the Swedish newspapers were wrong.


  • PD Shaw Link

    I think most teachers want to teach in person. They end up working twice as many hours when teaching remote with half of the production to show for it. We just did parent-teacher conferences on Zoom and there was a strong odor of despair from all-remote teaching. The pleasant parts of teaching are completely gone.

    Our local school is sending out surveys for parent, student and teacher preferences for next semester. It will be interesting to compare those results from late summer, but I would be surprised if many high school teachers want to continue to teach remote. A large part of our complaint is not that there are legitimate issues and concerns, but that choices were ignored by the school board.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    I’m sure a lot of administrators wish a higher authority would take the decisions off of their laps.
    The on again off again nature of school and quarantine must be a nightmare for working parents but the smart kids will do fine.
    For the lower 95% they don’t learn much in school of use in fast food or an Amazon warehouse anyway.

  • The risks are tiny, but not zero.

    I think that’s the crux of the matter. We need to accept that risks won’t be zero in any of our lifetimes. Policies with zero risk as the objective are doomed to failure.

  • For the lower 95% they don’t learn much in school of use in fast food or an Amazon warehouse anyway.

    My objective for the U. S. economy is opportunity for people other than the top 5% beyond fast food or an Amazon warehouse. They also shouldn’t be burdened with educational debt.

  • PD Shaw Link

    The study mentions that Swedish schools did not do anything to reduce class sizes or recommend masks, but I think a lot of U.S. schools have also installed plexiglass dividers and air purifiers in the classrooms, upgraded filtering and provided additional custodial staff to do extra cleaning and sanitizing. I’m not entirely certain of the utility of those measures, but I assume there might be some and it doesn’t sound like Sweden did any of that.

  • Never been to Sweden but if it’s anything like Germany, the Netherlands, France, or the UK, space is at a premium.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    shouldn’t be burdened with educational debt.

    But they are, and they know it’ll follow them the rest of their lives. For those I know, it’s insurmountable, they’ve given up.
    Living underwater till they die.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    If schools reopen when what has changed since August is far more community spread and President-elect Biden; its gives credence the charges that the closures were purely political to begin with; eroding whatever trust that government officials are making decisions based on data, and not solely politics.

    TBH, the unspoken factor is how the vaccine plays into it. A vaccine requirement for schools has the benefit for clearing any liability issues. But the risk / benefit calls for a cautious vaccination schedule with children; after a full approval and not an EUA.

    So I could see a lot of schools doing full remote this year and resuming in-person schooling next year with a vaccine requirement.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    I’d never consider giving a new vaccination to children, who are not susceptible, that would open a whole new world of liability.
    And as far as vaccine distribution, why not use the drive through COVID-19 testing centers that are already staffed and organized, with a physician’s order of course.

  • steve Link

    The drive throughs wont have the refrigeration needed. Might be able to make it work but would be a challenge. Also depends upon how the vaccine is packaged and what prep it needs.


  • Drew Link

    A few observations, some made elsewhere in comments.

    Because our daughter is zoom teaching right here in our house and not in DC, I have witnessed some of this first hand. Zoom teaching is a very poor second best. And it hurts minorities (her kids are 99% black or Hispanic) disproportionately not because of money, but because of a lack of supervision and discipline in the home. These kids need to be in class. The aunt or grandma, and many moms, are just not in control of the child. Many of these kids have no fathers in the home. It shows. Their learning and behavior issues are more a byproduct of family structure and attitudes than money. Blaming money is just the easy way to make one feel good about “doing something.” Free beer only makes people drunk; it doesn’t help.

    Most of the teachers in charter schools want to be in class. Look mostly to the public schools and their unions for those objecting. (And, BTW, look at Biden’s policy stance. He cares about union votes, not the kids.) I seriously doubt the teacher’s unions concerns are mostly a result of health concerns. See: CPS’s.

    Zero risk is a silly standard and that case is made by silly people. It does not exist, in any human endeavor. It never has and never will.

    It was always political. And now Cuomo is being lauded for brain dead hospital/nursing home policies. You can’t make this shit up. What a sad, sad state of affairs.

    Vaccine risk is probably not justifiable with young people who have inherently low risk. The risk reward tradeoff probably begins to make much more sense for a 65-70+ year old or someone with comorbidity issues. That vaccine risk looks a lot different to them. Steve could better opine on health care providers.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    Saying Black children don’t do as well as others at virtual learning is racist on its face. I don’t care if you can prove it to be true because your metrics are racist.
    These children need their work to be validated, not judged as inferior.
    When they make it through schooling, and have the same letters after their names as you they will be your equal. If for any reason they are passed over for jobs given to pasty whites or Asians, that’s racism by definition and illegal.
    Thing is, you’re old, you think old.
    New party baby!

  • steve Link

    Talking with the teachers at our church and the ones I see at work most seem to think Zoom teaching is a pain. They really miss the in person interaction with their kids. Most want to go to teaching in person. But they belong to the union so they must be lying. Anyway, it is interesting that so many people who have bad talked our teachers and thought kids could learn better at home, a mostly right wing delusion, now believe teaching must be in person.

    Healthcare providers dont have any special information yet. Hope they release the data from the Pfizer trials. My best guess is that people will just have to make a leap of faith. It is a new way of making vaccines and there will be no data on long term effects. Each health care worker will need to evaluate their individual risk-benefit ratio. As of now, at least at our institution, there is no talk of making it mandatory.


  • Drew Link

    No, Grey, not racist. Cold hard reality, which very few are able to come to grips with because to acknowledge reality is icky in current society. Few want to deal with it – they just want be nice, make excuses, and hope it all goes away – and that’s why we have so many problems. These kids are all but totally unsupervised. Family structures are a mess. Discipline issues abound. Absenteeism. And just don’t careism. These kids are failing miserably on objective test standards. Put them in a zoom environment and you have chaos. Default to mindless excuses like being old or racism if it makes you feel better. But you are part of the problem, then.

    Until we can deal like adults with value structures, and historical norms of educational environment, discipline and expectations we are just coddling a permanent underclass. Its immoral in the extreme. And no amount of money is going to fix that.

  • bob sykes Link

    A great many people have been panicked out of their minds, and are beyond reason. My daughter will not have Thanksgiving dinner with us. There would only be the three of us. I have a school-teacher niece who is keeping her children home, even though her schools are open, and who will likely quit her teaching job. All out of fear of covid. Neither is in a high-risk age group. Both are in their 40’s and in reasonably good health.

    Under these conditions, it is probably fruitless and irrelevant to discuss whether or not schools or restaurants should be open. The panic will have to run its course.

  • It is a new way of making vaccines and there will be no data on long term effects.

    That’s the point I’ve been trying to make.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    These kids are all but totally unsupervised. Family structures are a mess. Discipline issues abound:

    Undoubtedly true, but who’s to say that the reverse is better?
    Would the beauty and creativity of hip-hop and rap music develop under strict discipline?
    The ghetto-wear fashions could hardly have developed under a dress code. A completely new language has even been created,
    Ebonics is now taught in schools,
    fortunes are made with nothing but Ebonics, sunglasses, and a mike.
    In the future, private equity will probably be managed with online programs like tax returns, insurance, and auto sales.
    Maybe it’s my own racism showing, but I think it’s futile to try to turn Blacks or Indians into darker skinned Whites. Their priorities will always be different.

  • Maybe it’s my own racism showing, but I think it’s futile to try to turn Blacks or Indians into darker skinned Whites. Their priorities will always be different.

    That’s fine as long as you’re willing to accept outcomes in which a handful of blacks prosper while most languish.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    I’d really like to see a poll of A A’s asking if they feel they languish.
    What I mean is, if you really want them to change, you’ll need to get their co-operation, and that’s a tall order.

    Discipline is all but impossible with Natives I know, imagine the family structure where children have six or eight mothers (aunties, grandma’s etc.) .
    The kids don’t get what they want from one they turn to the other and eventually get the cookies, every time.
    Given that, you can easily imagine how virtual learning goes. It goes out the window.

  • steve Link

    I guess I should point out that you see the same things in schools in poor white areas. The kids there often have no fathers, and if they do they are often abusive. The principal at one of those schools is married to my most senior nurse. Awesome stories. One of my favorites is the Mom who interrupted a meeting with him to announce she had to leave early because her daughter set up a time to have fight with another girl and she had to drive her there. Didnt even bother to lie. Then we had the nurse up north who was stealing drugs to give to her daughter so she could sell them. These problems are probably more class related than race.

    “The panic will have to run its course.”

    Alright, so I will be openly sexist. What bad thing is going to happen to me anyway so who gives a sh*t. Its almost as if you guys dont know any mothers. I do. Lots of them. That unconditional love thing and Moms? It is mostly true. As a guy I just dont have that to the same degree. I dont think most of us older guys do. So I think a lot , not all, of mothers just see things differently. They dont want to accept any risk. Its not panic but it is emotional based decision making. About their kids. (Yes, guys also make emotion based decisions too but more likely in other areas.)


  • I’d really like to see a poll of A A’s asking if they feel they languish.

    That’s the entire basis of charges of “systemic racism”.

  • As a guy I just dont have that to the same degree.

    I believe it’s biological, a glandular response. The attachment of fathers to their children has different foundations than the attachment of mothers to theirs. Indeed, that’s one of my concerns about modern American society—we’re undermining those foundations in the interest of other objectives.

    The percentage of single-parent families among blacks is 66%; it’s 33% among whites. When I was a kid about 25% of black kids grew up in single-parent families while fewer than 10% of whites did.

  • steve Link

    Interesting to see that people on the right still believe that schools are teaching Ebonics. Never really happened. Schools, very few, did set up programs recognizing that kids came to schools already speaking Ebonics and set up programs to teach standard English. That did require that teachers understood both.

    Also, couple looks at Covid among blacks.


  • I agree with Kevin as far as he goes but I would go a little farther. I think that susceptibility and outcomes in COVID-19 are multi-factorial and I don’t know how to disaggregate the differing factors.

    When I was in school “Ebonics” was called Standard Black English. It’s a distinct dialect of English just as Cockney, Strine, Indian English, or Standard American English are. I have no idea whether it was ever taught in schools. Since it impedes you in your choice of jobs, whatever you speak at home I think that Standard American English should be taught in schools while the use of other dialects in a school setting should be discouraged. If that’s “systemic racism” deal with it. It’s here to stay and no amount of training or reeducation will do anything about it.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    For that observation “ who have bad talked our teachers and thought kids could learn better at home, a mostly right wing delusion, now believe teaching must be in person.”

    There are a lot of parents who are putting money behind their beliefs (that public school isn’t offering a good deal). Private school enrollment is up a lot; and a lot of parents who are forced into homeschooling are finding it is better then public schools. Those kids won’t come back when the pandemic is over.

    It will take a couple of years for people to accept it happened but public school enrollment has suffered a structural decline.

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