What If They Close All the Schools?

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S1: Slate Plus members, it’s survey time, which means it’s your chance to tell us what you think about Slate. Slate podcasts and Slate. Plus it’ll only take a few minutes. You can find it at Slate dot com slash survey.

S2: Hi, it’s Lizzie. Just wanted to flag for you all that the situation is changing pretty quickly as we were putting the finishing touches on this episode. We learned that schools were closing in Maryland, Ohio and Kentucky. Okay, here’s the show.

S3: Good morning. Good morning, Dr. Reid. How are you?

S4: Could not be better. It’s a beautiful Tuesday here in the Northwest.

S2: You you’re sounding very upbeat for someone who’s in the middle of dealing with what you’re dealing with. Well, that’s that’s what we do. Michelle Reed is the superintendent of a school district near Seattle called North Shore, 34 schools, almost 24000 kids, and Seattle is also where the first U.S. case of the novel coronavirus turned up. Do you remember when you first heard that some people in your district might have been exposed to the virus? I do. What happened?

S4: I think from a personal standpoint, I remember just need to close the door and sit down for a few minutes and collect myself and think about what the future likely would bring.

S5: NBC News has just confirmed two new cases in Washington state. This morning, Washington state remains the center of attention as the Corona virus spreads quickly.

S6: And eleventh person in the United States has died from the Corona virus. Ten of those deaths have been in Washington state. And tomorrow, as the weeks went by, Reid had to make a series of difficult decisions.

S7: When a family member of a staffer might have been exposed, she closed one school. Next, a different staff member started showing potential symptoms. So she closed another school. Then a school parent tested positive, with families scared and attendance dropping. Reid made two decisions. First, all the schools in her district of almost 24000 students would close for two weeks. Second, that every one of those students would switch to an online curriculum.

S2: Walk me through your decision to move to online learning. What did you have to kind of evaluate to figure out if you could try and pull this off?

S8: Well, we began to realize that with an over 20 percent absence rate, we actually were tipping over 7000 students. Absent that, we were not really meeting equitable educational needs by staying in a brick and mortar classroom. So we’ve had a number of staff around the district in pockets experimenting with blended learning and online tools with their families. Our decision really was how quickly could we bring that to scale for all twenty three thousand five hundred and seventy seven students?

S2: Listening to Michelle Reed talk, it’s striking that she and her school are in a tech corner. It’s Seattle after all. Big tech companies are all around. And even partner with the schools. And the district itself is affluent and able to loan devices to kids who don’t have them.

S4: To date, we have issued just over 4000 computing devices and we will have distributed over 800 mobile hotspots. T-Mobile has been a fabulous corporate partner and are forwarding us another six hundred hot spots immediately for our use at no charge. And we’re we’re seeing some strong results. We’re working really hard each day to get feedback from our families and our teachers. And we’re funneling that feedback through our cabinet and our corporate partners, Microsoft and so forth, to craft tools that will each day improve what we’re able to deliver and the quality of the instructional experience.

S9: North Shore is the first U.S. school district to move to online learning during this outbreak. It’s both a test case and an outlier. The district will get to see whether learning in the cloud is sustainable, but they’ll do so as an affluent district with proximity to some of the biggest tech companies in the world. For the rest of the country, it’s more complicated. Today on the show, we’re going to talk about what this outbreak means for schools and why online learning isn’t a realistic option for a lot of U.S. students. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. And you’re listening to what next TBD, a show about technology power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

S2: Michelle Reade’s district, North Shore, is just one school district. In one corner of the country. But I wanted to know how the threat of Corona virus is being met by administrators and teachers all over the U.S.. So we asked Dana Goldstein to come into the studio. Dana is a national correspondent for The New York Times and has been reporting on education for 15 years.

S10: I think it started with that CDC announcement saying it’s not a question of if, but when. And the statement from CDC officials that schools should start to think about taking their classes remote. And, you know, I started calling my sources and the reaction I got was what? Because the vast majority of the nation’s schools, they just really do not have the capacity at the current time to go REMAUT. And many school officials were irritated a bit by that statement, feeling that the perspectives of education experts were not necessarily reflected there. And the sort of panic that that induced from many parents who heard that message and started wondering, is my child safe return home? What does this mean? What’s it mean for me, my work, et cetera?

S2: When you talk to sources, what what were they telling you? Were they kind of panicked or were they sort of like, let’s take a breath and go through all our plans?

S10: They were taking a breath and they were emphasizing that they thought about infectious diseases in their environments. They thought a lot about it. A lot of them had already, before the CDC announcement, hired extra cleaners, for example, from local companies where you can bring extra temporary staff in. They were wiping things down multiple times with disinfectant, using stronger cleaners. They were changing hand-washing procedures, especially for younger children. So a lot of them were doing things already. I think what really shocked them was, are you ready to teach all your classes online that they were even really hesitant to talk about with me on the record? Only on background, because the answer to the question really is that they’re not prepared.

S2: What kinds of conversations are happening in school administrations right now?

S10: So many districts, especially larger ones, already have a plan that’s been written for years on how to deal with infectious diseases or with the likelihood of an epidemic or a pandemic. So that conversation is not necessarily new to school district leaders, especially in bigger cities that are more densely populated, where viruses are more likely to spread. What is sort of added on to this is the idea of the potential for long term closures.

S2: This question of how long a school could realistically close is key. It’s one thing to assign and grade work remotely for a few days, but to move classes online for weeks or a month is something else. It requires a detailed plan and access to technology. Remote learning is one of those phrases that we’re sort of constantly hearing right now. Let’s talk about the state of tech in classrooms and the ability to do that at scale. What exists right now?

S10: Well, the vast majority of schools are connected to the Internet and have pretty good access to computers and broadband and all that. The question is, do they have the ability with students and staff not in the building to teach kids remotely? And it’s kind of a resounding no. They’re just not prepared to do that. And there’s so many reasons why. I mean, teachers may be able to sort of host a Google Hangout for their students, but what is the age of the child? How much adult supervision and help do they need to be able to technically do that? Do they have the device at home that has the capacity to connect? Many low income kids only have access to the Internet through their parent’s cell phones. So they’re using 3G, 4G, LTE wireless to get online, but they don’t have like a keyboard with full capacity too, and probably running up someone’s plan. And that’s the other thing is that, you know, many of us pay a flat fee for our unlimited Internet at home, but many of us do not have that.

S2: So for those kids, who is footing the bill, even if we kind of societally writ large had all of these tools in place and in a way that assumes equal access, which is not the case. Are there electronic curricula at scale?

S10: There there’s stuff out there, but I don’t think many districts have asked the question like can we move our entire endeavor of teaching and learning online? And remember to do engaging instruction online as a skill. College instructors who work primarily or partially in that medium have gotten really, really good at it. Your typical K-12 teacher, that’s not how they work. You know, I’ve heard from teachers who are saying, oh, I got a link to a cot like, you know, an online conferencing thing and I’m going to undergo some training. So it’s starting to happen. And this may be kind of a wakeup for the nation that we should advance here. But there is reason to believe that online learning is not as effective for certain students in certain populations, has traditional classroom instruction. And all of these questions just haven’t been addressed by the CDC when they make the suggestion to schools. It’s almost like they haven’t, you know, even really thought about the technical issues here. And that doesn’t even get to some of the other impacts of shutting down schools on families.

S2: Even if schools have the ability to move everything online, there’s the simple fact that they do a lot more every day than just instruct students, schools or a place to be social, to eat, to have somewhere to go.

S10: When parents are working this idea of widespread remote learning, sort of it almost kind of assumes that like mom or someone is at home and is guiding child through this sort of home schooling scenario. And that’s just really not reality. That’s not reality at this moment. I mean, in a scenario where basically society stopped and, you know, mom and dad did not have to go to work, maybe some kids will have that experience. But I think even professional parents who are still working from home will struggle with with an acting this. And those parents that work by the hour and service professions are just not going to be able to do that. I mean, they’re going to have the core question, how am I, child, be safe? Who will provide just regular child care for my kid when I’m at work? These are the sort of crisis questions that parents are going to be actually asking.

S2: These are also the kind of questions that administrators in the country’s biggest districts are asking. While one small or wealthy district could focus solely on caution, in a place like New York City, things are really different. Last week, New York City’s school chancellor, Richard Carranza, said that he considered long term school closings a last resort.

S10: Seven hundred and fifty thousand of New York’s 1.1 million students are low income, so it would be complete catastrophic to shut schools down here. And not just for the families whose kids are in the public schools who may not be able to handle this disruption, but for the entire city. I mean, these are the parents that are working behind counters. They’re the parents that are working in crucial jobs like mail carrying nursing and hospitals, health care workers who we need at the front lines of this virus. It’s very reasonable, I think, for city officials and school officials here to have sort of tapped the brakes, said that you don’t necessarily have to shut down an entire system to deal with a threat.

S2: Do you think that other districts will take their cues from a system like New York? It’s possible.

S10: I mean, I think the nation’s school system is totally decentralized. But I think, you know, are they watching what each other are doing? Absolutely.

S2: Does something like this strain that decentralization?

S10: It it does completely. And the interesting thing is, when I mentioned that to a friend of mine who’s a doctor, she said, well, look at our health system. We’re so decentralized. We have we have a weak federal government compared to other nations. That is absolutely playing out and stuff like access to screening and testing for coronavirus. And similarly with the school system and trying to figure out how to respond. So our ethos of local control in the United States is going to impact how we respond to a crisis like this.

S2: Underlying all of this is uncertainty. No one really knows how long this could last or how long. Education and families lives could be disrupted.

S10: This is a really difficult scenario to play out the society wide disruption of a six month school closure and a community or a nation wide, God forbid. I think that’s very unlikely.

S11: It’s kind of hard to grasp how incredibly disruptive it would be to the economy, to families, personal lives and to kids learning. I mean, that’s why we sent kids to school. I think probably a lot of parents are ceding the authority and decision making here to the schools and they are worried, but they are thinking that school and health officials will let me know what I need to do for my kid. And they’ve got my kids best interests at heart.

S12: Danielle, same thank you very much. Thanks for having me. Dana Goldstein is a national correspondent for The New York Times and Michelle Reed is the superintendent of the North Shore School District in Washington.

S13: That’s our show for today. What next? TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and hosted by me. Lizzie O’Leary. And it’s part of a larger what next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense Partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And if you missed what next episode about Syria earlier this week, you should take the time to go back and listen. It’s intimate and human and really heartbreaking. Mary and her team will be back on Monday. Thanks for listening. Talk to you all next week.