Our Schools Can’t Reopen Safely – And That’s On Us

The CDC guidelines for reopening schools are, as the kids say, Problematic.

The guidelines themselves are pretty reasonable. They’re about what you would expect from epidemiologists who spend their lives in offices or labs. They read like the work of people whose life pursuit is understanding how diseases spread in the population and providing guidance to the average citizen as to how to reduce their personal risk.

They are also obviously written by people with no grounding in the realities of running a US public school.

The recommendations themselves are not terrible. Trying to implement them within the context of current US public schools, however, is likely to cause infection hotspots on par with US prisons.

Here are just a few of the places the recommendations fall short.

schools

The CDC recommends that “staff and students should stay home” if they have tested positive for or are showing COVID-19 symptoms.”

Having worked full-time in schools in the past and having coached in public schools for the past five years, I see at least three immediate challenges with this one:

  1. A person can infect others for up to two weeks before they show any symptoms of COVID-19. By the time a kid or teacher spikes a temp, they could have exposed everyone else in the same building.
  2. Parents frequently send their kids to school sick because they don’t have a choice. They cannot take time off work without risking their jobs and they cannot afford an alternate arrangement like daycare. Schools will basically need a quarantine ward for these kids.
  3. There’s already a major substitute teacher shortage in the US. Subs receive about $80 per day and zero benefits. The moment a teacher needs to quarantine for symptoms or exposure to a kid with symptoms, they’re out of action for 14 days. There are not enough subs in the US to cover even one teacher per building being out for 14 days.

There’s an additional problem embedded in relying on substitute teachers, too. Being a contingent workforce, substitutes typically rotate among school buildings and districts. They take whichever job they can get wherever they can get it.

This makes substitutes a major potential vector for the spread of COVID-19. A substitute who picks up the virus in one school won’t show symptoms for about 14 days.

That’s two entire weeks in which a sub could visit a different school every single day, or even multiple schools in a single day (my spouse, a band director, goes to three different buildings each day, for instance).

The CDC recommends schools “teach and reinforce handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and increase monitoring to ensure adherence among students and staff.”

By itself, this is a good recommendation. We all benefit from increased handwashing and proper handwashing. It’s a skill everyone, including kids, should learn and practice.

Making this plan work in a school setting, however, poses some challenges that don’t appear in other settings:

  1. School bathrooms are typically not equipped for more than one or two people to wash their hands at a time while also practicing social distancing. A class with 30 kids, where each kid washes their hands for 30 seconds (20 seconds of scrubbing plus 5 on each side to turn water on/off and grab a towel), will need 7.5 to 15 minutes for each handwashing session, plus ten or so minutes on each side to get the kids to the bathroom and settled down again after, and a minute or so per kid to switch out who’s at the sink while maintaining social distancing. This process could take up to an hour – multiple times a day.
  2. Increase monitoring…by whom? Schools are already understaffed. A teacher who takes the kids to the bathroom for handwashing time has to both make sure the kids wash correctly and supervise all the kids either waiting their turn or who have already washed (and are touching God knows what).
  3. School schedules are currently packed as schools scramble to prepare kids for the month or more of standardized testing we put them through each year. Taking an extra hour, or even half an hour, to do handwashing even once per day is time our schools do not have – at least if they want to stay funded.

The CDC recommends “cloth face coverings” be worn.

Again, not a bad idea on its face (no pun intended). Also, probably not an issue among high school students.

But the younger the kids are, the harder this one will be to enforce. Kindergarteners in particular are good at losing normal clothing, like socks and shoes. They are not going to keep a mask on their faces for six hours a day plus the bus ride. They also don’t have the self-awareness or self-control skills yet to refrain from touching their own faces. They just don’t.

Think we don’t have to worry about kids that little catching COVID-19? Think again – not only can they catch it, they are more likely to carry and transmit it without ever showing symptoms.

The CDC recommends that schools “provid[e] adequate supplies, including soap, hand sanitizer…, paper towels, tissues, disinfectant wipes, cloth face coverings (as feasible) and no-touch/foot-pedal trash cans.”

To this one, I have only one response: With whose money?

Schools have relied on parents to donate sanitizer, tissues, and disinfectant wipes for decades now, because these items simply are not in a school’s budget. Increased handwashing alone is likely to strain school supply budgets because it will mean more soap and paper towels. Replacing all the trash cans is also an added expense schools haven’t budgeted for.

Normally, I think we could expect parents to rise to this challenge and donate the needed supplies. They generally do, and they know we’re in a crisis here.

The problem is that the market doesn’t have an adequate supply of sanitizer, tissues, disinfectant wipes, and so on. For instance, all the stores around here only allow one purchase of each item per customer per visit, and they still cannot keep these items on the shelves most of the time. (I tried to buy bar soap the other day and there were only two packages left of any variety.)

When families can get their hands on these things, they’ll restock their own homes first, not schools. And that makes sense. Families have a home and people to help keep safe and healthy, too. But it means that there’s no supply left for schools.

And schools are going to need much more of these things than usual, because the CDC also recommends cleaning and disinfecting all high-touch surfaces and items several times a day. In a school, that’s pretty much everything in the building.

(Cleaning the entire building multiple times per day will also require an increase in janitorial staff, further increasing the school’s operating budget. Or it will require existing staff to take on cleaning duties, reducing their ability to teach, supervise, plan, and so on.)

The CDC recommends that schools “ensure ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible, for example by opening windows and doors.”

Several problems.

  1. Most school buildings have shared HVAC systems. A school ventilation system that “operates properly” is pushing all the building’s air throughout the entire building – and spreading COVID germs from any one room into all the other rooms. This effectively renders moot the CDC’s recommendation to put students into “cohorts” that can be quarantined altogether if one member gets ill.
  2. The vast majority of schools do not have windows that open. This is especially true in places where air conditioning is a standard feature or has been retrofitted to an older building. Windows that open have long been identified as a safety risk in schools.
  3. Propping doors open is a safety hazard in most schools, because it’s a security risk in both directions – a kid can slip out, or an unauthorized party like a mass shooter can slip in. Some building security systems will not allow the propping of doors without setting off an alarm after a short interval.

It’s worth pointing out the irony here. We have spent years, and millions of dollars, building or retrofitting our schools so that the windows and doors can’t just be thrown open to the breeze, on the grounds that it’s how we’re going to protect kids from mass shooters. Yet now, when the threat is a virus, we find ourselves with buildings that prevent us from doing one of the very things that could help keep those kids safe from lifelong disability or death.

The CDC recommends increasing space between students in classrooms, putting up physical barriers, closing communal spaces, and so on.

Yet again, this is reasonable advice in most situations. But our schools are not equipped for it.

Schools are designed to cram in as many students as is practicable. They’re designed this way to reduce the overhead cost per student of running the building.

Currently, the average school has about 180 square feet per student. Which sounds like more than enough for that six feet of social distancing – until you realize that that’s the total square footage of the average school divided by number of students.

That means it includes spaces like utility rooms, janitor’s closets, loading docks, kitchens, and stairwells. You know, the kinds of places you can’t really put desks.

School buses are also a problem. 

School buses are also on the list of the CDC’s places to increase space between students – but since school bus routes are drawn so as to pack the bus to the brim, the only feasible way to do this is to double or even triple the number of buses available.

A new school bus costs about $50,000. Used buses currently cost less – anywhere from $3,000 up – but if every school district needs buses, those prices will quickly spike, because demand will greatly exceed supply.

Meanwhile, each bus route on average costs a district $37,000 per year to operate, between paying the driver, buying and maintaining the bus, and so on. That means that every route that has to be added in order to socially-distance kids on buses adds $37,000 to the school’s budget – but the per-pupil funding the school receives stays the same, because they added buses but not kids.

Just like the substitute teacher shortage, there’s also a bus driver shortage nationally. My district, for example, had to cut late bus service last year because they could not find even one additional driver to hire to take that route. That’s despite offering competitive pay and benefits.

To bus kids while socially distanced, we’d need an additional thirty bus drivers – and so does every other district this size in the area. Bigger districts will need even more drivers.

If we can’t find even one driver, where are we going to get hundreds of them?

Conclusion: It’s not that the CDC recommendations are bad. It’s that they presuppose a school environment that does not exist.

As I mentioned above, you can tell these guidelines were written by epidemiologists who work in labs or offices. They’re decent epidemiological advice. They’re about what you’d expect to hear from professionals whose life’s work involves helping populations understand how various diseases spread and how to mitigate their own risk.

What these guidelines do not do is account for the realities of most US schools. It’s that missing piece that means these guidelines will fail.

Schools do not have the resources they need to implement these guidelines fully. They just don’t. And that’s on us.


If you like my work, please feel free to buy me a coffee and/or share this post on social media – as well as with your state and local lawmakers. 

My New Morning Activity is Schooling Other White People About Racism

I joked on Twitter this morning that my new morning routine is “wake up, get breakfast, write 2,000 words explaining to white people why/how Black people are human, clean catbox.”

But it’s really not a joke.

For various reasons, I would be a bigger burden than a help to my fellow protestors on the ground. So that’s not my lane. My lane in this fight is to educate other white people – and as a professional writer who does at least 5,000 words a day out of sheer habit, I can easily do it.

In case you need some quick answers to share with white people, here’s a few I’ve done so far:

racism

The Same Old Nonsense

How can Floyd’s death be motivated by racism if Alexander Kueng is African American?

Because individual Black people can participate in a system that perpetuates and enforces Black oppression.

George Floyd and Derek Chauvin are examples in a pattern, perpetuated by a system. You can replace Floyd’s name with the names of literally dozens of black people who were killed by police during a routine police encounter and Chauvin’s name with the names of literally dozens of cops who got away with it, and the story is the same.

The protests are happening because people will no longer stand for the system.

 

Why do a lot of black people get offended when they see the “All Lives Matter” hashtag? Why do they believe other lives like brown people and Asian people’s lives don’t matter?

Black people are the most likely of ANY racial group to die during a routine police encounter.

Black people don’t think other POC or White people should be murdered by police instead of Black people. They think no one should fear for their lives during a routine police stop.

And since they have more to fear, they are also the angriest and loudest about making these lynchings stop. That includes not letting White people get away with obvious lies like “All Lives Matter.”

 

The Protests and What Comes of Them

People in America are calling for the police force to be disbanded, is this a legitimate proposal and if so what would be the alternative? 

At the very least, our current police departments might be disbanded and rebuilt on the model of countries whose law enforcement are tasked with first responder and deescalation duties, rather than supplied with leftover military toys.

 

Who is funding and organizing Antifa in the United States?

No one, because “antifa” isn’t an organization. It’s a political stance. Specifically, it’s the political stance that fascism must not be tolerated in human societies.

“Antifa” is every person who has completely had it with fascist actions by authorities and will no longer tolerate them.

Proving There’s No Question Racism Doesn’t Touch

Can black people be autistic? Why does it seem that there are more autistic white people than autistic black people? 

There seem to be more white autistic people because:

  • Autism diagnosis is expensive, and the money in the world is concentrated in the hands of white people,
  • People qualified to diagnose autism tend to practice in wealthier, whiter areas,
  • Black autistic children are more likely to be “diagnosed” by white people (not just doctors, but also teachers, cops, etc) as “defiant” or “troublemakers” or “uppity” than as autistic, because too many white people believe that anything but cheerful servileness from a Black child is proof of budding criminal intent.

….

 

As so many Liberals now want to tear down the statute of R.E. Lee in Richmond, isn’t it true that his citizenship in the United States of America must first be revoked?

No. What? Seriously, I don’t follow the logic here.

“Being a US citizen” and “having a statue of you displayed in a public place” are not related qualities.

The idea that you have to revoke the citizenship of a dead man – which the US doesn’t even have a legal process for, by the way – in order to take down a hunk of stone or metal purportedly shaped like him is baffling.

 

Why I Write About Racism

Do you consider yourself a privileged white person which the Black Lives Matter activists are claiming we all are?

Oh, absolutely yes.

One of my grad school professors was a Black woman who shares the same birthday I do. We’re in the same field, we took similar paths to get here, we have common academic interests, we live in the same city, we went to the same university. We’re even the same height!

And I have personally witnessed her having to deal with rudeness and mistreatment that I have never faced – rudeness that clearly implied she didn’t deserve her job/title/position/credentials because she is Black.

Nobody has ever implied or stated that I didn’t deserve my job/title/etc. because I am White.

My life hasn’t always been easy, but nobody is ever going to look at the color of my skin and use it as an excuse to treat me the way this country treats Black people every single day.


I’m sending 100% of my book royalties and website tips to bail funds from now until we see real changes in policing nationwide. Please also share this post on social media. 

The “Tea Party” Is Back, But It’s Not On the Side You Think

This meme sparked a huge fight on my spouse’s Facebook page yesterday:

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“But that’s DIFFERENT!” cried several commenters. “The Boston Tea Party participants were going after the actual source of the oppression, not looting some random Target store!”

I’m over how badly U.S. schools teach our own history, but I’m not over writing long-winded educational articles about it.

The Minneapolis protests and the Boston Tea Party have a great deal in common – but today’s “Tea Partiers” are almost certainly not on the side Hancock and Adams occupied in 1773.

Here’s what to know so you don’t pants yourself refuting Boston Tea Party/Minneapolis protest comparisons.

tea party

Both the goods destroyed in the Boston Tea Party and those destroyed in the Minneapolis Target ransacking belonged to a private corporation.

One of the first arguments I encountered in response to this meme was that the Boston Tea Partiers were “addressing the source of the problem,” whereas the Minneapolis protestors were taking their frustration out on an “innocent” business.

During the protests sparked by the police-perpetrated homicide* of George Floyd, a Target store in Minneapolis was looted. The photos appear to show damage both to store fixtures and possibly to the structure itself from flooding, which may have been caused when the sprinkler system deployed.

Critics are correct that Target’s inventory inside this store doesn’t belong to the federal government or to the state of Minneapolis. They are wrong, however, in their implication that the tea destroyed in Boston in 1773 belonged to the British government.

Rather, the tea belonged to the British East India Company, a private corporation – one that eventually controlled half of the world’s trade in various goods.

Throwing the East India Company’s tea into Boston Harbor did not “address the source of the problem” any more than carrying off baby strollers and milk from the Target in Minneapolis “addressed the source of the problem.”

…Or did it?

Both Target and the East India Company are/were involved in politics.

Both the East India Company and Target are private companies, not government entities. “Private company,” however, shouldn’t be taken to imply that either company has (or had) no connection to their respective governments.

Corporations don’t exist by fiat. Rather, they are chartered by a state or federal government, which recognizes them as a legal entity distinct from their leaders’ identities and grants them the right to behave as such.

Like many businesses before and since, both the East India Company and Target exist(ed) as corporations by the grace of their respective governments. The East India Company was chartered by the Crown in 1600; Target was incorporated in Minnesota in 1902 (as “Dayton’s Dry Goods”).

And both the East India Company and Target involve(d) themselves in the politics of their respective chartering entities.

In a speech given to the House of Commons in 1833, Lord Macaulay explained that “the Company’s commercial and political functions have always been intermingled.” Chartered by the Crown to serve the interests of the Crown, the East India Company didn’t hesitate to call upon the Crown when it needed money, supplies, or military and police protection it could not provide itself.

The company did precisely that in 1773, when it called upon Britain to close Boston Harbor and send additional troops to protect its interests in the colonies.

Likewise, Target has contributed to a number of police-related projects in Minneapolis over the years. For example, Target’s $300,000 donation to the city’s police department allowed the MPD to launch a surveillance camera setup in downtown Minneapolis.

Both entities are private companies, not official government bodies. But both also contributed significantly to “the source of the problem”: British tea taxes on one hand, police brutality on the other.

Both events happened after years of more peaceful attempts to resolve the issues went unheeded.

In every conversation I’ve had about George Floyd’s death, the words “Why can’t they protest peacefully?!” make an appearance.

The short answer is they have. For over eight years. And not only have police killings failed to decrease significantly, in some of those intervening years, they actually went up.

The death toll is disproportionately borne by people of color, and among people of color it is disproportionately borne by black people. Black men are more than twice as likely as white men to be killed by police. And people of every race killed by police tend to be quite young – wasting, on average, 50 years of life per victim.

Since at least 2012, protestors have been peacefully demanding that their government address a problem that repeats itself again and again – the problem of government law enforcement officers committing homicide against black people, out of all proportion to black people’s actual numbers in society, and getting away with it.

The Boston Tea Party wasn’t a one-off property-damage spree, either. It followed years of protests against a problem that repeated itself over and over – the problem of the British government imposing onerous legal obligations on American colonists, out of all proportion to those colonists’ actual numbers in society. (Many of the protested obligations were taxes, but not all of them – the Quartering Act of 1765, for example, forced colonists to provide room and board to British soldiers.)

In both cases, peaceful means of getting government leaders to change an oppressive situation were not working. Neither had previous less-peaceful protests – Minneapolis was preceded by Ferguson, for instance, while the Boston Tea Party was preceded by the HMS Romney incident and the Battle of Alamance.

Every set of frustrations has a tipping point. In Minneapolis, that tipping point was a white police officer kneeling on a black man for nearly nine minutes, while three other white police officers watched and did nothing, until that black man died.

In both events, some participants had mixed motives.

There is a counter-meme going around, in the format of the one above, that includes this passage from the Boston Tea Party Museum website:

Besides the destruction of the tea, historical accounts record no damage was done to any of the three ships, the crew or any other items onboard the ships except for one broken padlock. The padlock was the personal property of one of the ships’ captains and was promptly replaced the next day by the Patriots. Great care was taken by the Sons of Liberty to avoid the destruction of personal property – save for the cargo of British East India Company tea.

The counter-meme seeks to draw a distinction between Minneapolis and the Boston Tea Party, by implicitly condemning the damage done to the Minneapolis Target store and other businesses. The implication is that if the Minneapolis protestors were “legitimate” freedom fighters, they’d have destroyed the contents of that Target store, then tidied the building before they left it. Instead, the argument implies, the protestors enriched themselves by stealing the goods for their personal use – which makes their protest suspect, if not outright invalid.

The parallel does break down here. While Target owns its store buildings as well as the goods inside them, the East India Company did not own the ships that were boarded. The Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver were actually built in the colonies and owned by colonists. The Boston Tea Partiers thus had an incentive to treat the ships well that those involved in the Minneapolis Target looting did not.

But even if the Boston Tea Party participants took excellent care of the ships (while destroying their cargo), their motives weren’t entirely pure either. Both John Hancock (who signed the Declaration of Independence) and Samuel Adams (the guy on the beer) had well-organized tea-smuggling outfits that were directly threatened by the enactment of the Tea Act. They directly, personally benefited from destroying a large shipment of East India Company tea.

Maybe no one carried any tea off those ships, but at least a few of the participants got richer for destroying it.

A modern-day parallel would be Wal-Mart organizing the looting of the Minneapolis Target store. Yet that store’s destruction wasn’t organized by people seeking to protect their own monetary interests. It was looted by people who are fed up with seeing police officers kill black people with impunity.

Two more things worth remembering….

One: Looting, vandalism, breaking and entering, and the like are property crimes. They are, by definition, not “violent crimes.” Kneeling on someone till they suffocate is.

Two: Protestors destroyed the Minneapolis Target store because people continue to die at the hands of police. Protestors destroyed the East India Company’s tea shipment because the Crown had given the East India Company a tax break that undercut the protestors’ tea-smuggling business.

The strongest argument against comparing the Minneapolis Target looting to the Boston Tea Party is that the Minneapolis protests are about protecting lives, while the Boston Tea Party was only about protecting (illegal) financial interests.

I still think the looting was wrong!

That’s your prerogative. Keep in mind, however, that if you want property destruction to stop in this instance, the best way to do that is to fight for the changes required to stop police from killing any more people – black or otherwise – in their custody. 

These protests would not be happening if police weren’t killing black people in their custody, at a rate far higher than they kill anyone else in their custody, and experiencing no consequences for that death.

End the killings, and you end the protests. You may not control that entire solution – but you can control the role you play in reaching it.


*As of press date, we still don’t know if the charge or conviction – if any – will be murder or manslaughter. “Homicide” covers both while still indicating the death was intolerable in a civilized society.


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