Readers of this newsletter know I have been following school reopening politics closely over the last year. But even for me, it can get very confusing. Studies and public health guidelines often seem to contradict each other, new research is coming out all the time, and then there are things happening with schools in other countries you try to stay on top of, to reconcile how that should or should not impact our understanding here. One thing that has been very clear is that the science continues to evolve, even if not everyone cares to keep up with it at this point.
Today I have a new story in The New Republic that I hope clarifies a bit more of what has been a very challenging issue for most people to keep up with, and why it often has felt like people are speaking past each other in all these conversations about safety and risk.
I’m going to copy and paste the first section below, and hopefully you’ll continue on to read the full thing.
Inside a Long, Messy Year of Reopening Schools
Last month in Chicago, after months of heated negotiations, the teachers union and Chicago Public Schools emerged with one of the most detailed school reopening agreements in the nation. Brad Marianno, an education policy professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has been studying these agreements since last spring, called it the most comprehensive he’s seen, citing its inclusion of things like testing protocols, measures that might lead to reclosing schools, and vaccination commitments. Among other things, the union succeeded in negotiating accommodations for hundreds more members at higher risk of Covid-19 complications, or who serve as the primary caregiver for someone at higher risk, than the district had originally agreed to accommodate.
Stacy Davis Gates, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said one of the most important components of the agreement was the so-called “school safety committees”—a demand the union put forward in December to hold leadership accountable to the health and safety promises it’s made. The school-based committees include up to four CTU members, the principal, the building engineer, and a “reasonable” number of other employees like janitors, lunchroom staff, and security guards. On a regular basis, they will flag to the principal any issues that arise and can hold the school liable if they go ignored. “That is the part of the agreement which provides us with some space to enforce the safety protocols, and it gives people who are working in the buildings power to push back and keep themselves safe,” Davis Gates told me.
Likewise, when I asked the Baltimore Teachers Union about what they’re most proud of from the fall negotiations, Corey Gaber, a vice president on the executive committee, called the “key provision” in its Memorandum of Understanding the one that holds Baltimore Public Schools accountable for everything in its Covid-19 health and safety guidelines. In effect, this means violations of those guidelines could be pursued as formal contract grievances. “The district does not have a strong track record of following through,” he said. “Given past precedent, there is not a level of trust, so for us, it’s all about getting things in writing.”
The remarks from Davis Gates and Gaber reflect something relatively basic to those familiar with the labor movement: When it comes to workplace safety, avoid taking an employer at their word. They also highlight something that, following dragged-out reopening fights, has been confusing to worn-out parents and community members, who are unclear why the pledges made by school districts have been insufficient to persuade educators to return more quickly: Isn’t this enough? Aren’t you letting perfect be the enemy of the good? These dynamics are compounded by a raft of shifting and not infrequently conflicting local, state, and federal public health guidelines—which can and are routinely used to accuse each side of “not following the science.” Even in February, following the release of the long-awaited Biden Centers for Disease Control and Prevention school reopening guidelines, experts quickly came out with contrasting opinions on the recommendations. Some felt the CDC shouldn’t have tied in-person learning to community transmission rates, despite evidence linking the two. Others thought the CDC should tie them but believed their metrics were too conservative. Others were frustrated the CDC stuck to recommending six feet of social distancing, and yet still others criticized the agency for downplaying the role of ventilation. (Two weeks after releasing its guidance, the CDC responded by releasing additional recommendations on school ventilation.)
“I was very disappointed in the school guidance that came out. I think it still has too much emphasis on ‘Covid theater’—like taking daily temperatures and cleaning down everything all the time,” said William Mills, a ventilation expert and engineering professor at Northern Illinois University. Mills, who has been advising his state on Covid-19, says governments have been resistant to embracing a more interdisciplinary approach to safety and have been too slow to accept what has been clear to industrial hygienists like him for a year.
“Many epidemiologists and infectious disease people do not get taught about the ‘hierarchy of controls,’” Mills said, referring to the standard way occupational safety experts analyze and address workplace hazards. While measures like personal protective equipment and social distancing are important, occupational safety experts put greater weight on so-called “engineering controls” like ventilation, which depend less on proper and sustained human compliance. Ensuring young children or teenagers consistently wear their masks and always remain properly distanced—in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, and bathrooms—can be difficult, particularly if the school is crowded. “Engineered solutions remove the onus from individuals and their personal habits or attentiveness,” reads Covid-19 guidance from the American Industrial Hygiene Association. “Machines do not get tired, sloppy, or distracted.”
Bob Harrison, an occupational health specialist and clinical professor at the University of California-San Francisco, agrees what’s often missing from reopening conversations is the melding of different perspectives of safety. “While the CDC might determine that reopening schools will not lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases in the community, from a worker health perspective, whether or not I am significantly contributing to community health is not how I am coming to the issue,” he explained. In other words, in addition to fears of inadvertently getting their neighbors sick, school staff also just worry about their own health. Schools are workplaces, and since the passage of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, employers have a general duty to ensure all employees “are free from recognized hazards” that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
A year into the pandemic, it helps to understand that school reopening battles have involved different experts carrying different assessments of risk. This has sometimes led advocates for faster reopenings to believe school employees are demanding “zero risk” on the job—an obviously untenable standard. Educators, in turn, see many academics and pediatricians making assured pronouncements about how public schools can be safe, with little reckoning of whether schools are safe and how to keep them that way. “Most doctors have never visited an inner-city school or been in a meatpacking plant,” Harrison said. “They probably have never taken much of an occupational history course, they don’t know what unions do, they don’t know about power dynamics in a workplace. So we’re speaking across a gap trying to understand each other, and it’s been a long and challenging road.”
In other stories, both for The Intercept:
I reported on an Amazon VP who abruptly resigned from the board of a liberal legal organization, just weeks after he was renewed for another 3 year term
Connecticut lawmakers are trying once more to become the first state in the nation to make prison phone calls completely free. Right now Connecticut has the most expensive prison phone call rates in the nation.
Thanks for reading and supporting this work. I’m excited to share something else with you all later this week.