The Whitewater Unified School District held a community focus group on 7.8.20 via Zoom about public schools opening in the fall. A video of the recorded meeting is embedded above. There have also been other, in-person meetings over the last ten days.
A few remarks:
Translated. The focus group had, sensibly, a Spanish language translator. Community meetings in Whitewater should be conducted to include Spanish translation. It’s long overdue for the city and school district. Municipal leaders’ talk about the importance of diversity requires a commitment to inclusion and integration. (The much-lamented same ten person problem cannot be solved when local politicians ignore – as they have for years – action on multi-language messaging.)
District Administrator. Whitewater has a new district administrator, Dr. Caroline Pate-Hefty, most recently of the Maywood, Melrose Park, and Broadview Public Schools in Cook County Illinois. (Video, 1:43.)
Process. The district’s presentation offers three teaching options for the fall, but it is the district’s school board that will decide on the teaching plan or plans. The board meets again on July 27th. (Video, 3:52.)
Three Options. The presentation described three options for the fall: Face-to-face instruction, hybrid learning (possible combinations of face-to-face and distance learning), or distance (audiovisually-managed) learning. (Video, 7:05.) Distance learning seems to be (subject to board approval) one (but not the only) certain option for the fall, for anyone who wishes to chose it for his or her children. The question for the board – based on this presentation – is what kind of in-person learning the district will offer along with a distance learning option for others. (Video, 8:07.)
Public-Health Confidence. If these were simply matters of pedagogy, there would be time enough to explore each option in depth. The course of the pandemic and the traditional timing of the school year make lengthy deliberations impossible.
For a minority of parents, whatever the board decides will be foremost a public health decision, not a back-to-school decision. Some group of parents will address the learning option based almost solely on their confidence in public-health measures the district undertakes. This confidence will not rest on what officials say, but what these families expect the district will be able to do, day in, day out. These families are ones that find failure to wear masks or maintain physical distancing a sign of ignorance. Others who downplay risks – neighbors, parents, teachers, administrators, board members – will look inadequate to these public-health-first families.
The most practical option for the school board is to provide a satisfactory distance learning option for those families. Trying to bring all students back, against the wishes of these families, will bring avoidable, daily controversies over public health. It would take a nearly fanatical level of rigidity for board members to insist that every student comes back into the schools against parents’ wishes. It would also be oddly self-destructive for officials to do so. The stated proposal to assure a distance option is the easiest practical step the district could take.
Face-to-Face. A larger group is sure to want their children back in classrooms, and that’s where a real choice presents itself: every day or alternate days? As committed as the distance learning parents will be, so will the face-to-face-every-day-all-day parents. Other districts are finding this out – hybrid options do not satisfy the every-single-day-back families. Whether families supporting hybrid learning will hold fast to their position, or will accept face-to-face every day, I’m not sure. (I am confident that families on the two ends of the continuum — distance learning and back-every-day — will fight tenaciously for their options.) Families wanting their children back include those who feel risks can be managed, families who doubt the risks, families who think masks will be adequate, those who are resolutely opposed to masks, and those who see risks if one learns remotely.
Here’s the difficult aspect of this choice between in-person options: what families want may not be what’s safest. If one gives in-person families what they want now, will those families regret it later, and if so will they then recriminate against district officials and board members? If one does not give in-person families what they want now, as a public health imposition against individual choice, is this board strong enough, and are these administrators and teachers strong enough, to defend that decision?
(I’ll not offer an opinion about the relative safety of the two in-person options – face-to-face or hybrid – as I’ve no training to distinguish between the health risks of them. I am reminded, powerfully, that attorney Richard Epstein, an otherwise noted lawyer and economist, threw away irretrievably his reputation by speculating erroneously on epidemological outcomes. See ‘Come Meet the Biggest Fool in America.’)
If the hybrid option could be shown to be safer, measurably, over face-to-face every day, then a cautious calculation would favor that option so as to avoid injury (and – this is also critical – inevitable recriminations over injury). Even parents who argue strongly in now favor of face-to-face will likely extend recriminations if their children later become sick. There would be some disappointment now, but disappointment now would be small compared to greater injury later.
If there is a sound basis to measure the risks of the the hybrid over daily face-to-face models, then relying on that assessment as the basis of a decision is a rational (and shrewd) basis for deciding. This is true even if decision brings controversy now.
If there is no way to tell whether the hybrid option is safer, measurably, over face-to-face every day (considering all risks inside and outside the classroom), then board members will be able to act more freely.
A retained, qualified public-health professional’s detailed opinion should be the basis of this school board’s decision. Big decisions require thorough (in this case science-based) justifications. Those justifications should be published for community review.
Recording. The best record of a meeting is a recording, as always. One should watch and evaluate directly, for oneself.