The Tyranny of Silver Linings: My kids have been promised school on September 1. Please don’t move that football.

From the newsletter

In 13 days, my college kid should step into a classroom for the first time since March 2020. The younger guy will start a job training program run by the school district on September 1; he hasn’t been in a full day program or school since COVID started. I have constant, low-key stress that the rising infection rate of the Delta variants, local officials on a power kick, and vigilant teachers’ unions will yank away the football, and I’m going to land on my back. 

To push back against the “close schools” forces and to get the school board to talk about something other than hand sanitizer and six foot distancing, I am a regular presence at our school board meeting. If I keep talking about learning loss, maybe they will think twice about closing the schools again. 

By now, buckets and buckets of research show that American children learned less during this period of remote and hybrid education, than they typically do in a regular classroom. If the states had not suspended standardized tests, we would have even more information about this. 

Parents know this. I emptied my younger son’s backpack yesterday and sorted out his binders from last year. There was nothing in there – no worksheets or quizzes. He did no work last year and it makes me want to barf. Not only did my autistic kid’s social skills regress, but they wasted the few hours per day that he was actually in a school building. 

Other kids had even bigger problems. Lost students aren’t just an urban problems; we have lost kids in our upper middle class suburb, too. My mom friends tell me that their boys (all average students) in their freshman year of high school had the most trouble. 

So, learning loss is a real thing that researchers and parents know. But administrators and the news sources that cater to the education industry don’t want to talk about it. They cherry pick data. Newark actually covered up some very serious drops in test scores. Or they come up with cute names — “It’s not learning loss. It’s unfinished learning!” They try to find silver linings, ie “The kids might not have learned the multiplication tables, but they sure learned resilience!” 

When administrators point to resilience, I want to ask them if I can have the keys to their cars. I would like smash their cars into telephone poles, because that experience will help them build resilience. And isn’t that great! 

Now, why are educators avoiding discussions about the failures of remote education? Wouldn’t they want to point out that teachers are indispensable? It is more clear than ever that no online charter school can replicate the work of a dynamic in-person educator. 

First, nobody wants to own the fact that kids were harmed for nearly two years. Second, teachers worked hard learning how to deliver content to students through a computer. Older teachers had huge technical learning curves. And nobody wants to hurt their feelings by telling them that they wasted their time AND hurt kids. Third, some parents actually opted to inflict remote education on their kids. Nobody wants to hurt the parents’ feelings either. 

Also, teachers are by nature very optimistic people who like to decorate their classrooms with positive affirmations and rainbows. They love silver linings. It really goes against their nature to say that something sucks. 

So, there are a lot of reasons why schools are trying to deny something that is really, really obvious. What they are doing isn’t exactly gaslighting, but it’s a close cousin. Denying obvious facts is annoying, but not having a plan to address the obvious problems this fall is infuriating. 

So, lately I’ve been showing up at school board meetings demanding that they spend our town’s $1.1M federal COVID education money on after-school tutors and counselors for the kids. Students missed out on school, so they are owed hours. But our district doesn’t want to set up this tutoring service for students. They say that the teachers will get the kids caught up. (Somebody tweeted today that we shouldn’t use the words “catch up” around students, because it will depress them.) 

Administrators here can’t tell me how fourth grade teachers will teach division, when half of the class never learned multiplication tables. They can’t tell me how they’re going to handle the fact that some students were supported by $150 per hour tutors, while others had no help. They can’t tell me what they’re going to do about first graders who never developed the core muscle strength to sit at a desk all day. 

I also really want to know how my town’s schools will spend its $1 million. One million dollars is not enough to revolutionize education, but it is enough to do something interesting. They haven’t released a plan yet, like other schools in this country. Nation-wide, schools are getting $129 billion, but it’s unclear what’s going to happen to all that money. 

If COVID rates rise enough to require sacrifices, schools cannot shut first. Close bars, restaurants, everything else. Mandate vaccines for school employees. Mandate vaccines for students. We have to make every other sacrifice before we demand that kids suffer again. And to prioritize kids, we have to be honest about what they’ve lost.

30 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Silver Linings: My kids have been promised school on September 1. Please don’t move that football.

  1. What’s happening with COVID transmission among children is exceedingly upsetting. On my parenting list, we have a tale of 2 members in 2 different districts in California. The teacher from San Jose says they have a mask mandate and 100% masking. If a kid’s mask slips, they remind the child to pull it back up. The other CA teacher is from Orange County. In her school they just sent 18 kids in one class home because 2 kids tested positive. As my friend said, “needless to say, these 2 kids were not masked and their parents were … difficult.”

    I’m in NY now (just dropped my kid off to college directly in the path of the incoming hurricane – what kind of mother am I?) and masking is … ok. Not great but good, I guess.

    My sister-the-nurse was exposed to Delta a couple of days ago, so we won’t be seeing her on this visit. She is actually due for a booster (she was vaxed in mid-December), but I don’t know if they’ve authorized shots for the health care workers.


  2. I’m just reading this:

    I haven’t gotten to it yet, but there’s a similar piece here that I haven’t gotten to yet:

    Matt Shapiro notes that, “We are currently at over 90% of all seniors vaccinated and 0% of children under 12 vaccinated and yet the rate of hospitalization with COVID for people over 70 is 20 times higher than the rate of child hospitalization.”

    “One of the most jaw-dropping results I’ve seen about the risk of COVID in children came from another UK study in which they tracked *every* child who presented COVID symptoms (a whopping 258,790 children) between March 2020 and February 2021 to see what the effects of COVID might be in the long term for kids. Stunningly, the children who did *not* have COVID experienced a greater symptom burden than the ones who tested positive for COVID.”

    It’s debatable whether masking kids in school reduces COVID risk. On the other hand, staff masking is important, as staff-to-staff infection is the most common kind of infection in schools.

    “When we look at COVID rates across Florida school districts, the rates among students were not at all correlated with whether or not the district had a mask mandate.”

    There’s a very nice chart.

    “The most commonly cited piece I’ve seen has been the Duke study, made popular in a New York Times piece in which the authors studied a million North Carolina students and concluded that masks were responsible for the low rates of child transmission in schools.”

    “But what I found in that study was the utterly flabbergasting fact that they authors only studied schools that had mask mandates and did not compare them to schools that did not have mask mandates. They simply saw that schools had low COVID transmission rates and just asserted that this was due to mask mandates without any kind of control group.”

    Wow, that’s unfortunate.


    1. Shapiro notes that there are a variety of approaches in Europe, with little to no mandatory school masking in many countries. France, Spain and Italy do have school masking, but “none of those countries require masks for children under 6 in any circumstances.”

      This is following the WHO guidelines. The US CDC has a (possibly unique!) 2+ rule for masking for kids.

      States like Florida allow kids to mask at public school if that’s what their parents want. My kids’ private school is mask-optional for the upper school (7-12), as those kids can be vaccinated, but mask-required (with family opt-outs) for the lower school.

      People who are worried that their vaccine isn’t adequate need to use high-quality medical grade masks, not cloth novelty masks. I know that little kids probably can’t wear medical masks very well, but most bigger kids can, so if parents are worried, they can invest in better masks for their kids.

      I was just looking at this from July 19:

      Very briefly:

      –Case are basically identical for all age groups, except for 0-4, who have slightly fewer cases.
      –0-4 and 5-17 have lower hospitalization rates than 18-29, but people 30-49 have 2X the 18-29 hospitalization rate, 50-64 has 4x the rate, 65-74 is 6x, 75-84 is 9x, and 85+ is 15x.
      –With death, again, 0-4 and 5-17 are lower risk than 18-29, while the following age groups are this much riskier than 18-29: 30-39 4x, 40-49 10x, 50-64 35x, 65-74 95x, 75-84 230x and 85+ 600x.

      I don’t know how Delta and the vaccination of older people figures into this, but COVID is still way more dangerous for older people than for younger people. As people have noted, it’s (on average) safer to be an unvaccinated kid than a vaccinated elderly person.


  3. Here’s David Zweig on the state of research on school mask mandates:

    “At the end of May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a notable, yet mostly ignored, large-scale study of COVID transmission in American schools. A few major news outlets covered its release by briefly reiterating the study’s summary: that masking then-unvaccinated teachers and improving ventilation with more fresh air were associated with a lower incidence of the virus in schools.”

    Note: ventilation and masking TEACHERS helped.

    On the other hand, “Distancing, hybrid models, classroom barriers, HEPA filters, and, most notably, requiring student masking were each found to not have a statistically significant benefit.”

    “Many of America’s peer nations around the world — including the U.K., Ireland, all of Scandinavia, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy — have exempted kids, with varying age cutoffs, from wearing masks in classrooms.”

    As Zweig notes, WHO has very different kid masking guidelines than we have in the US.

    The US, on the other hand, is pushing masking on kids 2-and-up in daycares and schools.

    “Scientists I spoke with believe that the decision not to include the null effects of a student masking requirement (and distancing, hybrid models, etc.) in the summary amounted to “file drawering” these findings, a term researchers use for the practice of burying studies that don’t produce statistically significant results.”

    Zweig asked the AAP and CDC what their evidence for kid masking in school was. The AAP didn’t reply to multiple requests. The CDC had no relevant data on kids to present.

    Zweig corresponded with various doctors, scientists and experts and searched in vain for better evidence for masking kids in school:

    “One doctor, who is on TV regularly and has around 100,000 Twitter followers, sent me two studies where masks were required of all students so there was no way to determine the effect.”

    The evidence for masking kids in school just isn’t very good.


    1. ““We lack credible evidence for benefits of masking kids aged 2 to 5, despite what the American Academy of Pediatrics says,” Jeffrey Flier, former dean of Harvard Medical School, wrote recently. While there are models, and simulations on mannequins with masks, “mechanistic studies are incapable of anticipating and tallying the effects that emerge when real people are asked to do real things in the real world,” Vinay Prasad of UCSF wrote in a critique of the CDC’s child masking recommendation. “The CDC cannot ‘follow the science’ because there is no relevant science.””

      “Over and over, studies and reports on children in schools with low transmission rates claim in their summaries that masking students helped keep transmission down. But looking at the underlying data in these studies, masks were always required or widely worn, and implemented in concert with a variety of other interventions, such as increased ventilation.”

      “Celine Gounder, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at NYU, who also advised Biden’s transition team on COVID-19 policy, recently tweeted a chart that showed when cloth masks are worn by both the source and receiver they provide just an estimated 27 minutes of protection from an infectious dose of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Higher-grade N95s, or KN95s, the Chinese equivalent, offer more protection, but are also much harder to tolerate over extended periods of time.”

      My high schooler wore KN95s almost all last year and did a good job, but kids that age are eligible for vaccines this year. Meanwhile, younger kids aren’t eligible and may have trouble wearing a good mask.

      ““Mask-wearing among children is generally considered a low-risk mitigation strategy; however, the negatives are not zero, especially for young children,” said Lloyd Fisher, the president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

      “One troubling aspect of the CDC and AAP’s guidance for masking children in school, nearly every expert I interviewed said, is that it has no endpoint or specific metrics.”

      “Several of the experts I spoke with said that given the lack of evidence of a substantial benefit from a student-masking requirement, it’s not at all clear this measure will be effective against a more transmissible variant. One of the costs of an intervention that lacks clear benefit, said the immunologist, is distraction from the tools that we know protect people — in the case of schools, vaccination and ventilation.”

      There has been some push to mandate vaccinating teachers, but it’s true that there’s been little talk about ventilation recently.


      1. Here in Toronto, all public school aged kids have masked up. Sure, they do so imperfectly but actually casual observation suggests they adapt more easily than adults. At my academies, pre-Delta we had 3 cases of Covid where people were in classes the day before they tested positive, and we had no transmission of which we were aware. In my son’s class at school (grade 4) there was a case again with little transmission.

        Not sure how Delta is changing that. We’re continuing to require masks and 2m distancing, and we recently had a positive case so we’re holding our breath. Currently no one else has tested positive.


      2. Jenn said, “Here in Toronto, all public school aged kids have masked up. Sure, they do so imperfectly but actually casual observation suggests they adapt more easily than adults.”

        A pretty big sacrifice if the most commonly worn masks do almost nothing…

        “Engineering researchers at the University of Waterloo [in Canada] performed experiments using a mannequin to simulate a seated person breathing in a large room. The studies showed a significant buildup over time of aerosol droplets – exhaled droplets so tiny they remain suspended and travel through the air – despite the use of common cloth and blue surgical masks.”

        “The study showed that most common masks, primarily due to problems with fit, filter about 10 percent of exhaled aerosol droplets. The remaining aerosols are redirected, mostly out the top of the mask where it fits over the nose, and escape into the ambient air unfiltered.

        “By contrast, higher-quality, more expensive N95 and KN95 masks filtered more than 50 percent of the exhaled aerosols that can accumulate indoors and spread the COVID-19 virus when inhaled by other people.”

        “Experiments also quantified the impact of ventilation systems, which circulate and replace air in rooms, on the accumulation of aerosols. Even modest ventilation rates were found to be as effective as the best masks in reducing the risk of transmission.

        “Ideally, Yarusevych said, the evidence shows that high-quality masks and proper ventilation should be used in combination to mitigate the threat posed by indoor aerosol accumulation as much as possible.”


      3. Phil Kerpen pulled out the effectiveness numbers from the Waterloo study:

        He writes:

        “Canadian mannequin study finds mask filtration efficiencies of:
        Cloth: 10%
        Blue disposable: 12%
        Fitted KN95: 46%
        Fitted R95: 60%
        KN95 with 3mm gaps: 3%
        Even modest ventilation (2 air changes per hour) outperforms best mask.”

        So, I’m not sure what the justification is for having kids in school all day in either cloth or blue procedure masks. It’s not actually doing anything that justifies all the sturm und drang over requiring them.

        Again, the kind of masks that are actually effective aren’t suitable for young children. There’s a reason why the public health establishment was so hesitant about masks at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020–they probably understood on some level that a) cloth masks aren’t effective and b) the kind of masks that are effective require some finesse to wear effectively.

        (This past school year, my husband spent a lot of time regluing and adapting our 16-year-old’s KN95s so that they fit snugly–among other things, he added a 3D-printed nose piece and added 3D-printed clips to the straps so that it was possible to wear them pretty tight.)


      4. Yup, someone do the RCT, in one of the school districts trying to avoid masks and compare transmission rates and convince me.

        The private school I follow will be doing vaccinations for staff/faculty and masking (required by the state for all schools, including private), ventilation, and weekly testing.

        If case rates fall, we should talk about changing the mitigation strategies as data comes in. My county is starting to show a little bit of flattening, which is hopeful, as are FL & CA. My endpoint is that the number of cases not be increasing, and masking is an easy strategy to turn on and off. If cases are increasing, let’s mask; when they’re not, we can take off mask but still keep testing to try to catch outbreaks early.

        No one thing (or all the things) is going to bring us to COVID 0, it seems, so we do our best to employ a range of mitigation and remain as flexible as we need to be.


      5. I don’t know, I don’t see it as a huge hardship.

        On the ground what I see is what seems like less transmission in groups wearing masks (junior kindergarten vs. daycare, for example.) Maybe it’s kids not touching their faces, maybe it’s that it keeps them a bit more aware to be cautious about distance, maybe it’s masks + ventilation, maybe it’s good luck. But if it keeps our kids in school and my business open, I’m for it. I honestly have not understood why masks became so politicized. Admittedly, in Toronto they weren’t super common pre-Covid but they weren’t like, unheard of either, partly due to being in the Asian diaspora and partly due to being an outbreak centre for SARS-1, where we started masking up on subways. (And tourism took 3 years to rebound.)

        But I wear shoes and a bra and underwire is no good and the bra, anyway, is for less public good. Here where masks are just a regular thing, even 10% is a rational improvement (and given how our classes move around etc., 27 minutes is a long time! We have outdoor time and classroom airing out about every hour 15 minutes.) We also wear balaclavas in winter so maybe Canadians are just used to covering their faces more.


      6. bj said:

        “My county is starting to show a little bit of flattening, which is hopeful, as are FL & CA.”

        Most states are at this point, although TX isn’t quite yet.

        Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas (all present or current hot spots) are seeing lower new cases compared to 14 days ago.

        “My endpoint is that the number of cases not be increasing, and masking is an easy strategy to turn on and off. If cases are increasing, let’s mask; when they’re not, we can take off mask but still keep testing to try to catch outbreaks early.”

        It’s fairly easy to control what people do in public spaces. The question is–does public masking reflect behavior in (enclosed) private spaces?

        I’m thinking that at this point, the answer is no, it doesn’t.

        “No one thing (or all the things) is going to bring us to COVID 0, it seems, so we do our best to employ a range of mitigation and remain as flexible as we need to be.”

        With the possibility of reinfection, Delta’s super infectiousness, the large number of people unvaccinated globally, and the existence of animal viral reservoirs (both wild and domestic), and the possibility of new variants, I really don’t think COVID zero is even theoretically possible for any substantial length of time. It seems to have turned into something like an especially nasty year-round flu.


  4. Our state has a vaccine and mask mandate and the local school district invested heavily in ventilation. I think until case rates are falling again, all of the above has to be the answer (with the hope that schools won’t have to close because teachers or students are getting seriously sick). We can back of when the schools are doing well with controlling the disease.


  5. Can’t remember if I mentioned it at 11D — I’ve been terribly on edge about Rice U breakthrough cases that Rice delayed the start of school for, and switched to two weeks of online (as an example of, no really, but it feels like it, pulling the football away). Rice seems to have identified a testing flaw and are now allowing students back on campus and though they will continue the 2 weeks online, plan on going back to their original plans.

    BTW, though I entirely agree that the machinations of the schools feels like having the football pulled away, I do think that, unlike Lucy’s malicious and evil intent with no value, the schools are not trying to be evil, even if I fell they are prioritizing incorrectly sometimes. I really hate Lucy for the football and it bugs me that the loudmouthed girl (for which I don’t hate her is also evil and mean).


    1. Thank you, BJ. Lucy is malicious; school boards are not. And let’s be real: Americans are highly litigious, and if even one child dies of COVID that they caught in a school where there was no masking policy, and no remote option, can you imagine the lawsuit? I certainly can; a lawsuit that could potentially bankrupt the district. Then where would the children be?


    2. I don’t think that litigiousness is really the driver of the risk aversion (when the governor forbids a mask mandate, I doubt a district could be held legally accountable for not having had one). I do think that people feel the burden of responsibility and sometimes a highly visible and discussed risk drives out balancing the more complicated risks against it.

      One of the positions that I am advocating for is that we do need to take risks now. If this had been a virus that we could drive out (less mutable, less transmittable) we would have less need to integrate the risk against all the others and then see what happens.


  6. Kamala Harris told people to buy Christmas presents now. I suspect that means more lockdowns are coming, so no school.


    1. It really is remarkable how out of all the news in the world today, what gets shit out of the end of the Roger Ailes memorial colon is that.


      1. bj said, “I thought it meant supply chains are going to be a mess.”

        That’s very likely.

        I don’t know about you all, but I keep noticing weird rolling shortages in odd items–particularly office supplies.


  7. Some local notes:

    –After a pretty bracing summer Delta surge, local COVID here in Central Texas may be flattening out. The peaks have been very similar to the pre-vaccine 2020-2021 winter surge.
    –I’ll be watching K-12 school numbers. I don’t have anything to report right now.
    –My last couple visits, grocery store mask wearing has been around 50%, without any official requirement. It’s mostly cloth and surgical masks, though. *sigh*
    –Hometown U. is not currently requiring masks in the dining halls, but they are requiring masks in classrooms, labs, and some other places.
    –Hometown U. is not officially requiring vaccination, but they do have a 2X weekly testing requirement for the unvaccinated. Students are now almost 2/3 vaccinated and employees are over 80%. (I bet contractors aren’t included in “employees”, but the testing requirement applies to contractors, too, so they may get nudged into getting vaccinated.)
    –From what I’ve read, Hometown U. is planning to play things by ear for the first 4 weeks of class, and then dial restrictions up or down depending how it goes. I expect a good early fall after a bit of an initial bump. Students were warned to have an isolation/quarantine plan, because Hometown U. informed them that there will be a lot fewer rooms available this year, and the quarantine rooms are being prioritized for out-of-state students.


    1. I think living in the assess every 4 weeks is the new black and that we are going to have to embrace that uncertainty. Otherwise we’ll be pressing solutions for a world we don’t have. But that means enormous flexibility for course correction, including for big bureaucracies that move very slowly. For some, they might be able to chose the most risk averse option (Google can let people work from home), but I don’t think we can do that for schools (including college).


      1. bj said, “I think living in the assess every 4 weeks is the new black and that we are going to have to embrace that uncertainty.”

        I fully expect a cruddy 2021-2022 winter.

        “I don’t think we can do that for schools (including college).”

        I’ve been tentatively planning to take my teens home to WA for Thanksgiving, but anticipate that something weird may happen around Thanksgiving.

        I also expect that my younger kids (3rd and 11th grade) may wind up being sent home for remote a week or two here or there.

        It’s good to start in person, though.


  8. Here’s a college anecdote that I hope some of you will appreciate.

    My college sophomore and I were running an errand on campus this week (getting her a physics textbook at the bookstore) when we overheard a conversation between two male students. One student was grousing to the other that the professor for his course was so bad as a teacher that he was going to have to buy the textbook and read it.

    On a happier note, I have observed the appearance of free digital textbooks. We accidentally bought our sophomore a math textbook that we didn’t need to, as the course has shifted to a free digital textbook.


  9. Hi! I’m back from vacation. My brain has been completely wiped clean. I have no idea what’s going on in the world. I will post a new blog post…. soon?


    1. You should enjoy that brain wiped clean feeling while you can. If you post, make it about Bermuda! You can always think about other things later – and you will.


    2. Yes, I want to hear about Bermuda and live vicariously. The Hawaii governor just asked people not to come, and that was my hope for the tropics.


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