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.


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To The Class of 2020: A Predictive-Text Commencement Speech

This is the first year since 1997 that I have not played “Pomp and Circumstance.”

I’m not sorry that I’m not playing “Pomp and Circumstance,” for a lot of reasons (not the least of which is that its lyrics are alarmingly imperialist). I am sorry that my not playing “Pomp and Circumstance” means that no one needed a clarinet ringer for graduation.

Because no one is holding a graduation. At least not the kind that has a live band.

To lift our spirits or whatever, I plugged the top 15 Google search results for “commencement address” into Botnik. The included commencement speakers are an illustrious bunch: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Brené Brown, Jim Carrey, LeBron James, Steve Jobs, Mindy Kaling, John F. Kennedy, Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Gayatri Patnaik, Natalie Portman, Ben Sasse, David Foster Wallace, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg.

So whether your school is known to everyone or no one, here’s the median commencement address from among the top 15 most-Googled commencement addresses in the US.

tea party (1)

Minus teachers, can you use your mind?

That’s something worth living in. All of your hard work and health care is about to create a world where everybody has meaning.

Which of you remember exactly what you wanted from Harvard? Community? Peace? 25 years of severe telenovela addiction?

All those things are graduating today.

When I was a baby, the world was a shock to me. It always has been. I had take more classes than I should have. I had to think deeply about Houston. I had to admit I am earning $40,000 out of your own skin.

Here, today, even 12 year olds experience profound loss. Do not deny that. It’s what you don’t want that you’re going to remember most.

Successful female minorities show us not how to cope with people, but how to build communities in spite of people. With self-care receipts, we can pretty much do anything.

Stand up for once in your life. Journey down the path of purpose. Somewhere between nations and neighbors are graduating students who are going to change something. That’s why I’m so grateful to be here today.

The world will always require increased understanding between different types of wars. It will always have insane confidence. It will never have adequate justice.

Tips for your work:

First, film that. You know the one. Major, major bummer.

Second, energy is not exactly free, but it’s not impossible either. Ask for bartending tips.

Third, know that you are graduating into a world where you’re automatically absorbed by the Amish. Do not deny it. Your dream is really not even a thing.

Finally, obligations to family members and friends who love you will control your entire future, but you will hate how you become without them.

Before you die, you are going to get kicked out of college. Tuition receipts won’t help solve anything. But you can, because we’re technically children, and that’s great.

Society just sucks. Secondary schools are supposed to make meaning from experience but often don’t.

Don’t waste time screaming into Harvard – drop out. Your degree represents actual work. When you begin anew, you can harness that inexperience to make hundreds of people follow your social media.

Imagine these memories. Look at your hands. Get back up. Acknowledge your blood.

Thank you for joining us tonight, and congratulations to all you diplomas.


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Can Quarantine Boost Your Creativity?

One of the most frequent questions I see on Quora is how to be more creative, or how to have more ideas, or how authors and artists generate their ideas.

My stock advice has always been to get bored. My famous ten-step creative process begins with it.

I recommend it because it works for me. My brain-monkey absolutely cannot sit still for more than a few minutes before it starts screeching and flinging the stinky, sticky poop of boredom to fertilize my idea garden.

Quarantine is an Aegean stable of boredom. Boredom is stacked to the ceiling. You’d need two rivers to clear out all the boredom. If there were ever a time grow some first-class ideas from a pile of boredom manure, now is that time.

But just because I think something is a good idea – and even recommend it on Quora! – is no proof it’s actually a good idea. I can’t be trusted for advice on what to do in quarantine. I cut my own bangs last week.

So I did a little Googling. Here’s what to know about boredom and creativity.

quarantine creativity

The human brain needs boredom to function optimally.

Boredom may not feel pleasant, but it’s essential for proper brain function. Engaging with external stimuli, without a break, can result in cognitive overload, which has a negative effect on memory, mood, and executive function (the ability to plan, predict, and execute your own daily tasks), say Erin Walsh and David Walsh in an article for Psychology Today.

Many people think that creativity is their personal dump stat, only to surprise themselves with their ability to generate ideas under the right conditions. A lack of creativity may actually be a lack of available brain power – because it’s all being spent on staying busy.

You can be “productive” while you’re bored.

One of the reasons boredom has fallen by the wayside in so many lives is that, culturally, we in the US prize being busy. We’re skeptical of anyone who has the time to get bored. We associate happiness with productivity, so we strive to be productive, or at least occupied. Staying busy has even become an American status symbol, according to one study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The drive to stay busy – whether for status, to make ends meet, to avoid dealing with other psychological issues, or as an end in itself – can become so overwhelming that it causes serious health problems. It can also be an extremely difficult habit to break.

Even if you’re not in a workaholic frame of mind, you may find it difficult to sit alone with your thoughts. If so, you’re not alone. In one 2014 study, researchers gave participants the choice of sitting alone with their thoughts for six to 15 minutes, or enduring a mild electric shock. Many of the participants chose the electric shock.

“Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative,” the researchers wrote.

Fortunately, you don’t have to flip the switch from “constantly busy” to “doing nothing.”

In a 2014 study in the Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman asked participants to generate possible uses for a pair of plastic cups. Participants were divided into three groups. One group was simply asked to think about the cups question. The second group was first asked to copy numbers from the telephone book, then asked about the cups. The third group was asked to read the phone book, then asked about the cups.

The participants in the third group – reading the phone book – outperformed those in the second group, who in turn outperformed the first group. By experiencing boredom, the participants’ minds seemed to become more eager for a way out, generating ideas more readily as a result.

Undemanding tasks like taking a shower or going for a walk can help incubate more creative solutions to problems. These tasks can convince your inner critic that you’re “doing something productive,” allowing your mind to wander more freely and creatively.

You are doing something productive when you embrace idleness. Your brain may just take a little convincing.

Too much boredom, however, is a bad thing.

Some boredom – enough to give your brain the “elbow room” it needs to daydream – can boost creativity. Chronic, unrelieved boredom, however, is linked to a number of health problems, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, as well as to a propensity to crave high-fat, high-sugar foods. It may even be linked to an increased risk of premature death, particularly when combined with other factors like a sedentary lifestyle.

Often, this type of boredom isn’t linked to a lack of things to do, but the feeling that what needs to be done lacks meaning or purpose. Unlike the “approach” state boredom that engenders creative thinking, chronic boredom becomes an “avoidance” state that has a negative impact on innovation.

What boredom does for you might depend on who you are.

While many studies have found that boredom has a creativity-boosting effect generally, not everyone appears to respond in the same way to boredom.

In a 2019 study in the Academy of Management Discoveries, researchers Guihyun Park, Beng-Chong Lim and Hui Si Oh studied the effects of boredom in the workplace.

The researchers found that “boredom did not universally increase creativity for a product development task.” That is, not all the participants saw creativity-boosting benefits from being placed in a state of boredom.

Rather, the participants whose creativity benefited most from boredom all shared a set of common traits. They were more likely than their peers to have a high learning goal orientation, a high need for cognition, high openness to experience, and a high internal locus of control.

In other words, people may be more likely to find that boredom helps them generate ideas if they’re already active learners, curious about the world, and inclined to seek solutions within themselves.

Boredom isn’t the only emotional state that boosts creativity.

While some boredom can be productive, boredom isn’t the only emotional state that can help you generate ideas.

In a May 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers Karen Gasper and Brianna L. Middlewood found that when people felt either bored or elated, they produced more creative mental associations than when they were distressed or relaxed.

What’s interesting about these results is that both elation and boredom are classified as “approach” states, or states in which the person is ready to engage with something. By contrast, distress and relaxation are “avoidance” states, or states in which the person retreats from engagement. It appears that we’re more likely to think of something new when we’re already in the mood to engage.

If there seems to be no room in your head for anything except the concerns of the day, it may be time to take ten minutes and let your mind wander. If even the concerns of the day can’t seem to concern you, however, the problem may be too much boredom – or your brain telling you that you’re on the wrong path.


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