In our educational system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The children who have committed no crime, and the adults who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.

We need to close the schools to slow the spread, they said. But what profit us to close the schools, if most everyone is getting Omicron anyway, the schools aren’t less safe than what kids would do anyway, and the kids were never in real danger?

We need to do remote learning if we close the schools, they said. But what does ‘remote learning’ accomplish in its current form, other than to ensure children are properly punished for the crime of being children? Teaching them that society wants them to suffer and that their success depends on obeying arbitrary rules while looking like they are looking into a computer screen all day and ‘paying attention’ without secretly doing anything useful or fun? Teaching them how to get around such rules?

We need to keep the schools open, they said. No one is learning anything with this ‘remote learning,’ they (correctly) said. But what profit us to keep the schools open if no one is doing any learning there either, no matter what you think of a normal school day, because the rules and obsessions regarding Covid-19, combined with absences, render the entire operation non-functional? What profit all these precautions, tests, isolations and rules, if they transparently don’t identify the sick and keep them out of the building, and in many cases create situations that look quite a bit like superspreader events?

No profits. Only pain.

Because all these options have one key thing in common.

They all fail to Play to Win the Game.

Or at least, they fail it for any good game. For any game where winning is preferable.

The Game is up to you. You define what winning means.

The Game can be learning reading, writing and arithmetic, probability and statistics, economics, history, science, art and music, or anything else you care to teach. The Game can be to cultivate their creativity, or give them socialization. The Game can be our children not suffering and not being depressed and suicidal. The Game can be the living of life.

If you’re cynical but not too cynical, The Game can be allowing parents to go to work and society to function. It can be teaching children how to sit still and control themselves, and how to guess the teacher’s password. The Game can be to avoid having the wrong marks on a child’s permanent record. It can be for students to signal how smart, conscientious, rules abiding or rules abiding they are, or to certify their class membership. It can be a place for them to make business connections.

Remote learning is widely acknowledged to have failed at these goals, and is very unpopular. Sending children to schools where their time is chaotic, stressful and wasted, and very little is taught, will doubtless do the same.

The Game can also be ‘keep children from getting Covid-19, even if they are not themselves in danger’ whether or not one agrees that this game is worth playing. Some people seemed to think this is the ballgame, that children’s lives should be about this for years on end, and now that many no longer think this they are turning around and saying that school is ‘the safest place for children to be.’

This is obvious nonsense for a given child, and only somewhat less obviously nonsense for children in general, if taken literally. It’s also a rather scary statement about such people’s range of potential places ‘for children to be.’ Why can’t they be?

The actual claim is, as far as I can tell, some combination of ‘in practice many kids end up taking more risks otherwise and on net it’s worse’ and ‘we want the schools open so we need to call them safe,’ or perhaps ‘safe means obeying authority, and we’re saying come to school, so coming to school is therefore safe.’

Then there are the fully cynical theories about what The Game is about.

The Game could be about ensuring that all children have their movements and actions sufficiently restricted for a sufficient number of hours, either because without this they will ‘lack the credits’ in some form necessary to ensure their lives can be permitted to continue by authority, or because it would be unfair to have children whose movements were not sufficiently so restricted, or because restricting movement is how we get children ready to obey orders. If not enough orders are issued and followed, that would be bad. Or, potentially, it could be about ensuring children suffer rather than that they merely have their movements restricted.

Or The Game could simply be about letting authorities claim that they were pretending to perform the action of school and impart this thing they call education, so they need to do things that maintain some level of the plausibility of that pretending.

In any case, how is it going out there this week?

We only hear about a small fraction of places and how things are going in those places, and that sample is presumably biased, but these stuck out since last time.

Note that to fuel efforts like these, the Biden administration is buying up millions of tests to give to schools as their primary use of the tests they buy, thus making it harder to find tests if you need them for other purposes. Situations like this worker earning $10/hour paying $150 for a test will only get worse.

Kids and Covid-19

This isn’t the point of this post, but seems right to say it one more time here.

The data is overwhelming and unambiguous on how much kids have to fear from Covid. This is:

  1. Slim.
  2. None.

It’s basically that first one if you’re a relatively older child and unvaccinated, and that second one if you’re vaccinated or under the age you can get vaccinated currently. Every report I see says that almost every child who does get hospitalized is unvaccinated and old enough to be eligible.

I have strong confidence that kids that catch Covid-19 get better. They are at minimal risk for Long Covid, and at minimal risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death. This was already true for Delta and without vaccination. Omicron is milder and vaccination helps a lot.

Children getting infected is not about children. It is about adults.

It is about adult fears, adult neuroticism, adult Sacrifices to the Gods, adult posturing, adult convenience and liability and blame. The kids are alright regardless, except that we’re responding by screwing them up.

I apologize for not being organized enough to give an endless series of links here, but seriously, I keep getting asked about kids and the answer is to stop worrying about the kids getting Covid-19 and worry about them being able to be kids.

Stanford

Classes are being delayed based on positive test results.

Stanford will delay the resumption of some in-person undergraduate classes, adopting a phased approach, after nearly 400 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since last Friday. Nearly 300 faculty, staff and postdocs have also tested positive over the last week.

Most undergraduate courses will now resume in-person instruction on Monday, Jan. 24 at the beginning of week 4 — one week later than the University initially planned. All graduate-level courses will resume in-person instruction as scheduled on Tuesday, Jan. 18. Undergraduate courses that must be taught in-person — such as labs, design projects, art practice and performance-based classes — will also resume on Jan. 18.

Is that a lot of positive tests? No.

Stanford has 16,914 students enrolled, so this is a 2.2% positive rate if everyone tested (presumably some did not, so it’s somewhat higher), versus our estimates from hospital data of an 8% rate for the nearby city of San Francisco. There are over 24,000 employees, so the rate there may be even lower.

When you respond to an unexpectedly low rate of cases by shutting things down unexpectedly, something has gone wrong.

By contrast UCLA isn’t allowing in-person teaching until midterms. I don’t see any reason to be this cautious, but if you’re inevitably going to do that, better to tell people in advance, rather than drawing things out like Stanford did and leaving people not knowing where they stand, in true Silicon Valley fashion, in the hopes that the impossible occurs or in case one changes one’s mind.

[Note for fairness that I have a history of that with Stanford. As a high school student they invited me to apply (due to my participation in the USAMO) despite no one with my student profile ever getting admitted, then refused to admit this on the phone when I asked them to, and my parents forced me to apply, using up one of my seven application slots. The North Remembers.]

I don’t know what Stanford is hoping for now either, so if I was a student there I would anticipate at least another month of delays, but it still seems better than places like Yale and Princeton that are imprisoning their students on campus.

Then compare this test rate to the one in other places, like Los Angeles.

Los Angeles

The Los Angeles unified school district ran a bunch of tests, and they got a rather high positive rate. Yet the numbers on the left tell a rather different story?

Zero cases from school-based transmission, and only nine cases among staff and students. Yet somehow, when running hundreds of thousands of tests, more than half of those in the district (there are about 640k students in LA Unified) they got back a 12.5% positive rate.

And then note that the ‘change since prior 7 days’ number is to cut the result in half. What does one make of that?

The numbers on the left clearly don’t reflect any physical reality whatsoever. Whatever procedure is being used to determine ‘school-based transmission’ is not merely obvious nonsense. It is a joke.

There’s no reason to presume that Los Angeles is uniquely infected, and if anything it is being unusually transparent.

In this situation, if exposure to Covid-19 makes one ‘unsafe’ then the idea that classes can be held safely is simply a joke. Trying to do this is only going to cause massive disruptions that often make things worse, so one needs to either accept that some people there will have Covid-19 (and any student who wants to stay away to avoid this, can choose to do that) or not accept it and close the school. You’re not going to control transmission with a 12% background positive rate.

If that’s how it was in Los Angeles, it’s fair to assume that things in New York City were worse. Which is, indeed, what we find.

San Francisco

The teachers union has three simple demands.

  1. N95-level masks for students and teachers.
  2. Weekly tests for everyone.
  3. Ten days paid time off for Covid-19.

And then they describe the response when the city doesn’t agree as ‘not being ready’ to give in to all these demands. Even if the tests can be found and administered, and thus wasted, ten days is obviously incompatible with the reasonable operation of the schools over the course of January. This is a demand to go remote by another name.

New York City

Attendance last week never got above 72%.

Even if one expected the schools to function like nothing happened, that still doesn’t seems surprisingly low. A good portion of the 28% likely had Covid-19, a decent number of students are absent by default, and there’s some kids and families that doubtless think going into a school packed with students right now might not be the best idea.

Then there’s the problem that the schools are very clearly a giant s***show right now. Tons of teachers are out sick (and others are sick but still there), tons of other students are out, constant Covid-19 tests and ‘contact tracing’ concerns and other countermeasures disrupting everything, nothing else on everyone’s mind.

That’s the thing about ‘having days to waste.’ They’re wasted if you attend. There’s no plausible case that coming into school is going to teach the students. The only way to not waste them is to study on your own, or otherwise live life.

If anything, the term ‘s***show’ is being polite. Here’s an account from Reddit.

I’d like to preface this by stating that remote learning was absolutely detrimental to the mental health of myself, my friends, and my peers at school. Despite this, the present conditions within schools necessitates a temporary return to remote learning; if not because of public health, then because of learning loss.

A story of my day:

– I arrived at school and promptly went to Study Hall. I knew that some of my teachers would be absent because they had announced it on Google Classroom earlier in the day. At our school there is a board in front of the auditorium with the list of teachers and seating sections for students within study hall: today there were 14 absent teachers 1st period. There are 11 seatable sections within the auditorium … THREE CLASSES sat on the stage. Study hall has become a super spreader event — I’ll get to this in a moment.

– Second period I had another absent teacher. More of the same from 1st period. It was around this time that 25% of kids I know, including myself, realized that there were no rules being enforced outside of attendance at the start of the period, and that cutting lass was ridiculously easy. We left — there was functionally no learning occurring within study hall, and health conditions were safer outside of the auditorium. It was well beyond max capacity.

– Third period I had a normal class period. Hooray! First thing the teacher did was pass out COVID tests because we had all been close contacts to a COVID-positive student in our class. 4 more teachers would pass out COVID tests throughout the day, which were to be taken at home. The school started running low on tests, and rules had to be refined to ration.

– “To be taken at home.” Ya … students don’t listen. 90% of the bathrooms were full of students swabbing their noses and taking their tests. I had one kid ask me — with his mask down, by the way — whether a “faint line was positive,” proceeding to show me his positive COVID test. I told him to go the nurse. One student tested positive IN THE AUDITORIUM, and a few students started screaming and ran away from him. There was now a lack of available seats given there was a COVID-positive student within the middle of the auditorium. They’re now planning on having teachers give up their free periods to act as substitute teachers because the auditorium is simply not safe enough.

– Classes that I did attend were quiet and empty. Students are staying home because of risk of COVID without testing positive (as they should) and some of my classes had 10+ students absent. Nearly every class has listed myself and others are close contacts.

– I should note that in study hall and with subs we literally learn nothing. I spent about 3 hours sitting around today doing nothing.

– I tested positive for COVID on December the 14th. At the time there were a total of 6 cases. By the end of break this number was up to 36. By January the 3rd (when we returned from break) the numbers were up to 100 (as listed on the school Google Sheet). Today there are 226. This is around 10% of my school. As of Monday, only 30 (Edit: not sure of the specific number) or so of whom were reported to the DOE … which just seems like negligence to me (Edit: from DOE official number. Id like to stress this isn’t the fault of the school just an overall system failure).

– 90% of the conversations spoken by students concern COVID. It has completely taken over any function of daily school life.

Some observations.

  1. It’s noteworthy that this student, after seeing all this, is still so trapped by the system he calls for a return to the same remote learning that destroyed student mental health. Because of ‘learning loss.’ It has been trained out of him to think that there are other ways to go about one’s life or to learn things.
  2. To show how much the system is focusing on that learning: When teachers cannot be present, the primary reaction is to ensure that kids movements are sufficiently physically restricted, even if that means they are to do nothing while they are detained, and even if this means packing class after class of kids tightly into the auditorium during a pandemic.
  3. Thus, teacher time seems mostly to be tasked with serving as prison guards, as kids can’t be left unsupervised. They’re taking away teachers’ free periods to do this, which makes what should be their actual job teaching children impossible to do.
  4. A full 10% of the school tested positive that day, which means the true positive rate was higher than that, as one would expect given the numbers in Los Angeles. Within one day this student directly witnessed multiple positive test results.
  5. The student was asked to take five distinct Covid tests based on ‘contacts’ that one day. Somehow the school then ‘ran low on tests and had to figure out how to ration’ I have no idea how that happened.
  6. Note that this student had Covid in December, but hey.
  7. The first comment, in its current state, tells you a lot about how school works.

Edit: It seems some school officials are trying to find out who OP is. Just to be safe, I’m deleting the contents of my comment.

That’s right. The school wants to figure out who posted this. One guess why.

I’d also note the top reply to that comment, as well.

Stay well! Both you and OP u/JoshGordons_burner are important voices here.

Pretty sure I can name the school by the context clues, but as a former HS teacher who left pre-Covid, stay well, both of you. And, be encouraged. This is an unprecedented time (cliché alert!) however, we’re also living in a time that amazes me. I can learn nearly anything I want. Until recently, schools were banning half the tech they piped in.

YouTube was my go-to to learn near anything, but it was banned in school. And, half the sites I needed to teach were blocked. “Miss, you want to use my VPN?” kids would say.

“No thanks, already got one!” I’d reply. The highlight of my day was scanning the room for kids’ “illegal” hotspots, because the names were hilarious. But, I digress.

You–if I’ve mentally geolocated you right–are at an exceptional institution. I fully expect you and the OP to bypass your challenges with that excellence. Do whatever it takes–form your own subgroups, reach out to well known professionals for guidance–I don’t know any (even famous in field) person who won’t give you their time. Continue learning!

I know you’ll succeed, rise above, and all (insert more clichés here). I’m sad you’re experiencing this, and very sad for my teacher friends still with you on the front lines, in NYC and nationally. You’re all heroes. Consider writing an OpEd (NYT), too. Your voice(s) are important.

Here’s the second comment:

Teacher here, not at this school but in the city. This student knows what’s up.

I’ve been having to cover for absent teachers during most of my planning periods all week. Each class is missing about a third of the kids at a time, and we’re getting constant notifications of being close contacts. And, today, one of the classes I have been covering is right next to the study hall room and I pass by during class and there is no adult in sight, but a decent number of kids are there. And I don’t think that the admin knew that there were unsupervised kids at all. So I basically have to cover both the actual class and watch the study hall class at the same time. I saw no other adults anywhere near this (usually high traffic) area.

Simply put, education quality is negative, students – like OP – know that the next few weeks are going to be worthless, and it’s unsafe not only because covid is everywhere but there’s an inability to ensure student safety due to an inability to provide enough supervision. It turns out that being forced into a soft-lock down by throwing unsupervised kids into an auditorium and saying a prayer is worse than going remote for a couple weeks. Healthy people are a prerequisite for healthy economic activity. Shocking concept, I know.

And the third:

What’s happening here is similar to what’s happening in another place where they are “deputizing” buss drivers and janitors to “teach” students.

This is just showing that the people in charge are not actually interested in actually educating the children, but only interested in checking boxes, warehousing, and going through the motions purely for appearances.

They will cry on the television all day and ask us to “think of the children”, but what is best is absolutely opposite of the bullshit they’re doing to pretend that they’re doing something.

Also seems worth listing this one, which lists some more numbers.

NYC public school teacher here too to chime in. First off, thanks to OP for writing this. I’m not your teacher, but I’m proud of you. You’re doing exactly what every teacher dreams to see from their students – eloquently make an argument, support it with evidence, and advocate for the change you want. Keep it up!

I echo the struggles of every other teacher/student who has posted in this thread. In our school of ~250 students, 47 are out today having tested positive for covid, along with 4 out of 19 teachers. Attendance as a whole today is 30%. I had literally 0 students in my first period class and spent the period sweeping the room and scrubbing desks.

As OP said, nobody prefers remote learning. However, the circumstances demand a temporary return to it. You can’t tell me that attendance wouldn’t be higher and lessons wouldn’t be happening today if we were remote.

Another reddit story, although not from NYC. Complete breakdown.

Here’s a story noting that the situation described in these posts is far from unusual. Here’s another saying the teachers want to go remote, given the alternatives and what we are putting them through, who could blame them.

There was a proposed walkout on the 11th at 11:52am in the name of Covid safety, I don’t know how popular it was but it did get at least some traction. Still stuck in the mindset, but at least protesting.

Attendance across the city does not seem to be picking up, if anything it is dropping further. It’s not hard to see why.

It’s a big school, over 5000 students, so the results aren’t surprising and they don’t indicate the school is relatively unsafe, but still.

I notice that spot checks don’t see many kids getting tested in general. I also notice I am happy about this, revealing my preference that views such tests as having negative information value.

Other

In France, the teachers stage a massive protest of attempts to keep school open, but I’m not sure that a symbolic strike in France should update me much, my understanding is they do that kind of thing a lot.

Kansas removes the ‘education requirement’ for teachers. That sounds bad until you realize this is a requirement to take official education classes, not a requirement to either have or provide an actual education. As usual, taking down occupational licensing requirements is a great way not to waste a crisis, so if you want to be a teacher but haven’t burned enough time and money on signaling to qualify, now’s your chance.

NPR reports that some parents are being asked to fill in as substitutes. This seems like a relatively good idea in many worlds, and seems to be working well in Palo Alto. Parents might be able to relate to and help children are available, have an interest in good outcomes, and by rotating can net free up time from all concerned, and they get a better idea of how the schools work. Note the contrast with most ‘parent-teacher association’ activities, which are about some combination of extracting money from parents, making children suffer and be under control and surveillance more, and making people feel guilty about not providing lots of free labor no matter how inefficient.

Minneapolis goes online only for now. Oklahoma City closes. Doubtless many more, these are simply the ones I happened to see.

Positive Covid tests, the new fire alarms? Is this where it’s headed?

Stop to appreciate exactly how perverse that is. Michael’s teacher responded to a signal of alarm if and only if it was known to be fake. What is our children learning?

This seems both safe and effective.

Alternatives

It’s hard not to reach the conclusion that authority, in some form, is the thing being maximized for.

The post that led me to this was criticizing it for going after public schools, and for failing to then as part of going after public schools devote all of one’s resources to the cause and also implement a new solution tomorrow. That’s an even-more-extreme-than-usual implementation of the argument that one can’t point out true facts about the world without becoming blameworthy for the facts one is pointing out.

So this, but unironically and also at all times.

Seriously, though, what are the alternatives?

In the short term, in all seriousness, how about… not being in schools? Or, alternatively, my offer is nothing. Does nothing work for you?

I’m not saying that’s my best offer. I’m saying we should take it. I’m saying that the kids staying home for the next three weeks, left to their own devices (and their own devices) would be an upgrade even if that was that. At a minimum, this is true for anyone over the age where leaving them alone would be an unreasonable decision, and we can offer pure child care before that for those that require it, if we feel the need.

If we can get them using Khan Academy during that time, great, let’s do that. If we get them all a copy of The Iliad, or a chess set, even better. A tablet with Hearthstone loaded is acceptable in a pinch. Play some audio books and great works of music. Have them play the great classic computer games. Let them frolic in the park or play a ballgame. Give them gainful employment and let them learn a trade as an apprentice. So many choices, all of them good. This isn’t hard. Education isn’t magic. Childhood is magic. And for most values of this website, this website is free. I don’t think this ‘get kids to learn more useful things or otherwise be better off than completely disrupted schools’ is a hard or expensive task. That’s nothing against anyone trying to make it work, they simply have an impossible problem on their hands.

I realize that’s not an offer people feel equipped to take, but they really should take it.

Home school is great if you are in a position to manage it, now more than ever, but our society does not make this easy. More schools to choose from that real people can afford would also be helpful, competition works wonders.

If we are stuck with the schools we have, what can be done on the margin? And if the literal only choices are ‘remote’ or keeping schools open, how do we decide when that line has been crossed?

Bringing in more people to serve as teachers on a temporary basis seems like the obvious first thing to do. Suspending educational requirements like Kansas did seems obvious. Bringing in parents like they did in Palo Alto seems obvious. This is a matter of both education and of safety, to the extent that one cares about the schools providing either of them. Without enough adults, schools are packing lots of children into fewer rooms. If we care about this enough, we should be doing what it takes to get more people who can help, and let existing teachers have some chance of at least teaching some of the classes while not creating Covid hot boxes. If we don’t care, what are we even doing.

If that’s exhausted or unavailable, and the school can’t be operated in a reasonable fashion, then I would of course advocate for simply closing down for a bit, whether or not one then extended the school year on the back end, optionally or non-optionally. But again, we’re saying that’s unavailable. At that point, I’d say that yes, if you’re going to spend multiple periods per day in study halls and doubled periods where you’re both exposing kids and essentially putting them in holding pens with little hope of what usually passes for instruction, then even ‘remote learning’ is likely an improvement, and we should move classes to remote as needed in order to allow the remainder to operate on some semblance of normality. Again, that’s if ‘read a book, people’ and other obviously superior solutions are unavailable.

As a parent, I would absolutely keep my child out of such a disaster area if it was clear they were not getting anything out of it under present conditions and the schools were still determined to stay open, which seems like a very pro-social and a very pro-my-child thing to do.

I do not expect this wave of closures to need to continue for long. As an upper bound, consider that a given school can likely stay open while missing 20% or so of its teachers, with kids on average missing one period – you can send them home early, or give them one ‘study hall’ to do homework that would have wasted the rest of their lives instead, or whatever. And let’s presume that on average we let a teacher be out for seven days when they get Covid. If every teacher gets Covid at most once, that’s a maximum of five weeks or (given how days off work) about 23 school days, and substantially less than that since some cases will be asymptomatic and some teachers will get lucky and not get Covid at all, or got it before things got bad or after they get better. It should be rare this is more than a 3-weeks-or-so issue. So all we’d have to do is not do isolation for exposure and the loss is capped at a reasonable level.

Even more than usual, I don’t expect any systems to respond to such notes, but individuals reading this can make better individual decisions for themselves and their own families, and we can educate ourselves going forward.

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6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:55 PM

I think the biggest cause of societal decay is the fact that we’ve lost the ability to play to win on any game that can be criticized easily.

So, I don't know the first thing about American education, so I wonder, can a parent just let their kid stay at home, skip school and do whatever the kid wants while all this crap is happening? If yes, why aren't they doing it if things are this bad?

I think normally the child would be punished for this (or if it was common enough, the parent could be). In COVID-times I think people can get away with this by claiming they're worried about COVID though.

Both the child and parents can face legal consequences if they do this unilaterally. I found this by googling "usa truancy laws": https://www.findlaw.com/education/student-conduct-and-discipline/truancy-sample-state-laws.html

But there are some ways around this, e.g. signing your kid up for "home schooling" (this may be difficult and require your kid to take tests, depending on your state), switching to a private school, convincing the school that the student's absence should be excused, etc. For "why aren't they doing it": bad reasons, see the rest of this post.

In the state of Maryland, an exemption to truancy laws exist while a state of emergency is declared. So, in MD, you can just not go to school up until Jan 31 (when the current state of emergency in MD expires) and you'd face no penalty with regard to truancy laws.

While I'm sure many other states have similar laws in place, there may or may not be states of emergency declared there that would cause this exemption to be valid.

Also, there is the issue that this exemption is solely for the purpose of truancy laws. If a child in MD stayed home, they (and their guardian) could not be prosecuted/fined for truancy, but there would still be other consequences for having "unexcused" absences.

I think children can be prosecuted in any state but the prosecution of parents is more novel and was a minor controversy during the last presidential campaign.

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