Lost Children and Political Games (Newsletter Excerpt)

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In early March of 2020, when the infection rates were sky high in New York City and its suburbs, I shouted on social media at Bill deBlasio (I am sure that he was very afraid) for not shutting the schools and the subways. Eventually, he did it, along with every other school district in the country. It was necessary at that time. And with vigilant mask-wearing and extreme social distancing, we brought down our infection rates in the spring here in the Northeast.

But there were costs.

I’ve written quite a bit about the impact of school shutdowns on my son with special needs. With only an hour of live classes per week, he was a mess — he developed verbal tics and his speech skills regressed. He missed structure, routine, and school itself. He had no interaction with peers for months. Even after multiple heated zoom meetings with school administrators, I was never able to get him more live face-to-face time with his teachers. His education largely consisted of worksheets and YouTube videos.

Because my husband and I have resources and social capital, we supplemented. I hired his teachers to talk to him during the school day. I stopped working and tried to replicate a school day here at home. Others have not been so lucky. Plenty of kids, especially young, low-income, or disabled kids, are still learning little and are extremely isolated. Yes, things have improved since the shitshow of this spring, but most schools are still not operating normally, even though schools are not super-spreaders

Now, you would think that these observations — kids suffered this spring, and continue to suffer now — would not be controversial or political. Those truths should be self-evident to anyone with eyeballs and a modicum of sensitivity. But politics muddied that story. With the unions supporting closures and Trump pushing back on them, schools became the football in a political scrimmage. So most of the media’s coverage of school closures emphasized the risks of infection, and rarely mentioned the cost on children and families. (Some great links and overview from Alexander Russo in his education newsletter.)

That is starting to change. We’re starting to hear more about the costs, like the plummet in school pre-K enrollment in Chicago’s all-remote schools, and we’re hearing quotes, like  “While we’re seeing similar trends across the country, the stunning decline among Black children enrolled in pre-K casts a somber light on how the pandemic and remote learning negatively impact our youngest learners,” LaTanya McDade, CPS’ chief education officer, said in a statement.

Alex McGillis’s story, “The Students Left Behind By Remote Learning,” is a must read.

But one should not end a newsletter on a sad note. One hope is that this pandemic is exposing the long standing cracks in the system, such as the lack of adequate child-care in our country and the inequities between rich and poor schools, and that as we rebuild our country, we can make things better. I’ve been interviewing teachers for the past couple of weeks and hearing some surprising stories of promise. But that’s an article for another day. 

21 thoughts on “Lost Children and Political Games (Newsletter Excerpt)

  1. Public sector unions are generally more powerful than any other element of the Democratic coalition, and Republicans don’t spend a lot of time worrying about learning-disabled inner city children, so I suspect that Laura’s hopes for real, lasting, systemic reform are about as likely of fruition as the lion lying down with the lamb.

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      1. ds said, “Governor Newsome wants me to get my vaccine sooner! God Bless Governor Newsome!”

        Governor Cuomo does, too! He’s talking about the same sort of state-level panel for approval:

        In happier news, Texas is also starting to do school COVID testing:

        https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/14/texas-schools-coronavirus-tests/

        I really want to see a national focus on high school COVID testing, as there’s more potential for high schools to become hot spots.

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  2. I don’t think we are going to be able to have the conversation on schools until the election is over. Right now, in my liberal community, it’s happening behind closed doors (i.e. closed parent groups, in personal conversations) except for the learning disabilities community, who are suing, publicly talking about their children’s needs.

    I think that’s partially because some of us are not ready to send our kids back to school. I would send my teen son back because he would demand it, but it would be a stress for me (for us, and not so much his health). And, he’s being educated, and I don’t need child care. There’s more agitation among parents of younger children, but also a lot of concern about the safety of the schools, I think, enough that parents aren’t organizing to open schools (say, compared to the agitation I saw about boundary changes for a high school in our area, which resulted in a concerted show of force at the school board meeting).

    The political ramifications do definitely play a role, not the least because any discussion about schools ends up with someone writing, in a comment, that the virus is a hoax, that masks are foolish, and that we should open everything up.

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    1. bj said, “The political ramifications do definitely play a role, not the least because any discussion about schools ends up with someone writing, in a comment, that the virus is a hoax, that masks are foolish, and that we should open everything up.”

      There are parallel false beliefs on the other side–namely that in-person school is very dangerous for kids and that COVID is very dangerous for kids.

      It’s right to be concerned about risk to parents, staff, medically fragile kids, and older people in touch with kids going to school–but I have seen a lot of false assertions about the danger to the kids themselves.

      While “just the flu” underestimates the risk COVID presents for adults, it is arguably true that the flu is more dangerous to kids than COVID.

      https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/sep/08/ron-johnson/johnson-mostly-track-claim-flu-harder-kids-covid-1/

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  3. “Out of 15,111 staff members and students tested randomly by the school system in the first week of its testing regimen, the city has gotten back results for 10,676. There were only 18 positives: 13 staff members and five students.

    “And when officials put mobile testing units at schools near Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods that have had new outbreaks, only four positive cases turned up — out of more than 3,300 tests conducted since the last week of September.”

    I would like to see a lot more school-based surveillance testing nationally, especially at high schools and middle schools.

    “The city’s success so far could put much more pressure on other districts that have opted for only remote instruction to start considering plans to bring their children back as well.”

    A bunch of NYC-boosterism here–but why no mention of Emily Oster’s project?

    “The city’s new schools testing regimen, which began Oct. 9, calls for 10 to 20 percent of the school population to be tested once a month, depending on the size of the school.”

    Not including charters.

    Hometown U. is testing about 10% of the college community (students, staff, contractors) every week.

    “Under the rules, one case can cause the closure of a classroom. Two or more cases in separate parts of the same school can prompt a temporary schoolwide closure.”

    The two-case rule seems excessive if they are applying it to high schools.

    “At least 25 schools have temporarily closed since classes began. But only three were closed as of Friday.”

    That is very interesting.

    “Mr. Cuomo also ordered an increase in testing in schools around hot spots — from once a month to once a week. And on Thursday, he announced that the state would send 200,000 rapid antigen tests to New York City to help in the effort.”

    That’s great!

    “So far, only about 72,000 parents have returned consent forms, the school’s chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, said at a City Council hearing on Friday. That is out of about 500,000 children who are attending in-person classes at least one day a week.”

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  4. Laura tweeted:

    “Listening to our local school board meeting. Big issue: local private/catholic schools are open full time and the local school is not.”

    Our two younger kids have been doing in-person private school since Aug. 19, starting at a time when the local community had 13-15% positive COVID tests. The community tests are at about 8% now.

    Size-wise, private schools do typically have an advantage over public schools. Our private jr./sr. high school is literally 1/10 the size of the local public high schools. All things being equal, smaller is better for COVID.

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  5. We need fast, cheap home COVID tests, but they’re currently illegal:

    https://reason.com/2020/10/20/rapid-home-covid-19-tests-are-the-best-path-to-a-new-normal-theyre-illegal/

    “The good news is that a number of companies, including biotech startup E25Bio, diagnostics maker OraSure, and the 3M Co., are working on and could quickly deploy rapid at-home COVID-19 diagnostic tests.”

    “But there is one major problem. “Everyone says, ‘Why aren’t you doing this already?’ My answer is, ‘It is illegal to do this right now,'” Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina told The Harvard Gazette in August. “Until the regulatory landscape changes, those companies have no reason to bring a product to market.”

    “It took Food and Drug Administration regulators until July to finally issue the agency’s template for approving tests that “can be performed entirely at home or in other settings besides a lab” and without a prescription.”

    “It would cost around $20 billion to provide 330 million Americans with rapid at-home test kits costing $1 each for weekly use. Given that the federal government has already borrowed $3 trillion in response to the pandemic and appears interested in borrowing trillions more, that would be a real bargain.”

    I don’t know about you all, but I’d be totally willing to do this every day for my kids.

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  6. My husband has been back at his elite private for over a month. So far so good. Everyone wears masks–he has kn95 ones we purchased–and is distanced. Classes are normally very small, but in addition the students are only taking 1-2 subjects at a time and then switching after a month or so, so each teacher/student is exposed to very small group. Yes, privates are safer.

    My daughter who started her first year at college is taking in-person music classes, including choir. She is not partying at all, but her college town is currently in a declared state of emergency due to the partying of students living in apartments. Few of the partying students are attending classes in person, because few classes are in person–music is an exception–and there have only been a handful of cases on campus. Not too worried about her because she and her roommate (and a kitten they decided to get, which we okayed because covid, yes it might be ours at some point) are basically homebodies. Because they grocery shop in state-of-emergency town my daughter has taken a few covid tests so her grandmother can come visit. She’s very careful. (I think she went to an Aquarium with her roommate and didn’t tell me because she thought I’d be worried. Masked up, because that’s required here in PA. And got a test after! Yes, we are being very cautious. I haven’t gone to the grocery story once since last March).

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    1. Choir! wow. How do they do it?

      I think that assessing COVID risk is complicated and that we all need more help. Came across an app from a college the other day — it asked you 4-5 questions and then gave you a level of risk. It was OK, but not great compared to my other risk assessment sources (like this one: https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3223, Figure 3).

      I would like better apps. I’d proposed “risk cards” to my kiddo, but he said you could do it all on your phone. I suspect there are some liability issues, but maybe blanket waivers work?

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      1. Choir is outside and distanced, and won’t take place when it’s too cold to be outside. Individual voice lessons are masked, with these odd singing masks. She’s also taking brass, which I think is risky too. I did worry about her, but the cases in the music school are very low, basically nonexistent, and I’m not going to stand in her way.

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    2. I am very concerned about equity issues. Elite private schools are open, but public schools are not. Not only do you have to be rich to attend those elite private schools — one local private school here costs $43K per year — but you have be a typical learner. Those schools would never admit a weird kid, like Ian. He was kicked out of two private pre-K programs when he was three, and I never recovered from that. Virtual education sucks. Big time.

      There are MAJOR costs for this shutdown. We cannot ignore those problems.

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      1. Pretty much everything is going to shit unless it makes money for big corporations. Fortunately, that’s enough for me to earn a living. And my mom gets thousands to pay for the soybeans Trump can’t sell.

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    3. There’s promising news on overall survival rates of hospitalized patients from two studies in the US & UK: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/10/20/925441975/studies-point-to-big-drop-in-covid-19-death-rates

      Just eyeballing the hospitalization/death rates for the US, in the April peak, 2200 deaths/60000 hospitalizations (3.7%) v 1088/60000 hospitalizations (1.8%) and the studies show that this is not simply a change in the hospitalization population (i.e not just that younger, less frail patients in the 2nd wave). Unfortunately I think we are going to have the data to see what happens in the 3rd wave but maybe we’ll see continued improvement?

      The data on lack of school-centered outbreaks (except for colleges) is promising, too.

      There are significant costs to shut downs and they do seem to exacerbate all the inequities in society. We do need to be talking and evaluating.

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    4. One of the things I think about is how I’d be thinking about this if it was young people at risk, like the H1N1 flu. I would be so much more paranoid and obsessed.

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      1. bj said, “One of the things I think about is how I’d be thinking about this if it was young people at risk, like the H1N1 flu. I would be so much more paranoid and obsessed.”

        That would be a different kettle of fish.

        I have wondered about the ethics of vaccinating kids for COVID if there is any risk involved, given that the vaccine is primarily for the benefit of other segments of the population, not for the benefit of the kids themselves.

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    5. And, how we allocate resources, including combined risk (meaning as an example if we need 50% of the kids to stay home in order to make the schools safer, who stays home?). My kid, for example, really wants to be back in school. He said he’d do vaccine challenge trials if he could (i.e. take the vaccine and then be purposefully exposed to coronavirus). He misses school; he misses sports; he misses friends. But, he’s OK, including his mental health and his education. Not ideal, inadequate, but OK. Does he have to stay home?

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  7. As for the risks to children, I am not as sanguine as AmyP. I’ve been commenting all sorts of places about Awakenings, the book by Oliver Sacks which was made into a movie with Robin Williams, and this week there was something in the New York Times about it. (Also a medical journal editorial, linked below). Encephalitis Lethargica was a Parkinson’s-like disease that struck large numbers in the 1920s, and was thought to be caused by the 1918 flu epidemic. People were frozen, unable to initiate movement or talk. Dr. Sacks treated some of these patients in the 1960s–they were in homes, still unable to move. Their illness greatly outlived the epidemic itself.

    You can’t predict what the long-term consequences will be of a novel virus. Viruses can have really nasty aftereffects even when the initial infection is mild, sometimes because the virus does not leave the body and sometimes because of the aftereffects of the damage the virus does to the body. HPV and Hepatitis causing cancer, etc. Viruses that get into the brain–as this one does, significantly–can cause harm that leads to Parkinson’s-like syndromes later on. (It’s described in one article as a “hit” which among other hits can cumulatively lead to the disease–that’s why it happens later, after a period of time).

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7347327/

    I’ve noticed that lots of people, including anti-vaxxers but not only antivaxxers, believe it’s good to get sick. That it’s healthy for the immune system to be “challenged” by illness. I believe that is playing a role in how people view this disease. That is a mistaken viewpoint. Disease is invariably bad, and should be avoided. Vaccinations are good beause they enable immunity without disease. Before the 20th century, people died earlier not only because they died of acute infection–often in childhood–in staggering numbers, but also because they died later in life from the long-term consequences of infectious diseases they had when they were younger. My mother had rheumatic heart disease, so I know this well. She would have died in her 50s in an era without access to surgical repair of heart valves.

    We should take care to make sure children are not exposed to this disease–we have no idea what that will mean for their future health. IMO we will be dealing with the impact of a variety of post-covid syndromes for the rest of the century.

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    1. lisag2 said, “We should take care to make sure children are not exposed to this disease–we have no idea what that will mean for their future health. IMO we will be dealing with the impact of a variety of post-covid syndromes for the rest of the century.”

      One of the post-COVID syndromes we’re going to be dealing with is kids who are desocialized due to isolation and never come back, or who take years to come back. One of my kids has (even without especially severe isolation) gotten desocialized during the pandemic and I have no idea how that kid is going to come back. It has been very difficult to get that kid (who is special needs) back to a normal routine.

      There are also kids getting left in suboptimal care situations because their parents don’t currently have better options.

      https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-online-sex-abuse-caught-charged-20201017-fepiggml2bcopkduhoaqmpcofi-story.html

      That’s the story about the Chicago 7-year-old whose molestation by an 18-year-old got caught on Zoom.

      All of these things have consequences.

      And yes, I hear you about consequences. I normally do work editing head injury reports and it has definitely pinged my radar that there’s a connection between COVID hypoxia and the post-COVID mental symptoms that people are reporting. (I ran this by the psychologist I work for, and she said that sounded right.)

      However, the good news is that schools do not seem to be a big COVID incubator. But, as I’ve said before, I’d like to see mass school-based testing, particularly of high schools (and middle schools if there are enough tests available).

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  8. There’s also the question of what exactly we’re waiting for.

    If it’s the vaccine, there’s a possibility that it will be only 50% effective and that only 50% of the population is going to get it, which would be bad. Neither of those numbers is unrealistic, given what we know today.

    Even if it’s 80% effective and 80% of the population gets the vaccine, that’s still not anywhere near 100% safety.

    Vaccine or no vaccine, there’s going to be a certain amount of risk involved in going back to school. It’s just a question of degree.

    On the other hand, I think that remote schooling should be available indefinitely to families that want it.

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