Hi everyone, and Happy New Year!
I spent most of my holiday week as a fresh recruit in the growing legion of covid-infected. I weathered it roughly as I would the flu—it wasn’t particularly pleasant, but vaccination likely kept the edge off and I’m fine now—and reflected on the state of the pandemic and schools.
As with many cultural flashpoints, schools are the home for controversy about covid. I’ve written a bit about this general phenomenon. Schools are nominally a common ground. But they are populated by children whose upbringing is a naturally a matter of sensitivity for parents, and whose parents naturally disagree about educationally-relevant topics. Whether it’s evolution, or sex ed, or race, people are least likely to want to compromise when their children are involved. Schools essentially draft people into the culture war.
So it is with covid. Adding gasoline to this fire is the general shape of the pandemic: children are the least at-risk population but have incurred some of the most onerous and persistent restrictions. They are also the one population still not eligible for a vaccine.
It’s a truly egalitarian stressor: there’s something for everyone to worry about. Whether you’re concerned about health risks for your children and your family, or you’re concerned about onerous social restrictions and health-related overreactions and neuroses, these feelings are going to be magnified in a school context.
Covid has also driven a tremendous amount of creative and critical thinking about school. It’s been a huge accelerant for pedagogical and structural critique, fomenting parent discontent, weakening unions, and driving alternative programming.
Here are some highlights from the past two years, with some bias towards recency.
Not Even Daycare (essay) — Bryan Caplan integrates widespread school closures with his general skepticism about the value of education. I don’t like the title—I think “daycare” is a disparaging term for what is in fact a developmentally important and valuable aspect of education. (Here’s a pretty good op-ed from Bryce Covert that discusses this point.) Regardless of your view, the failure of schools to provide it is an extremely big deal.
Schools warehouse kids so their parents can work, keep house, and relax. Until a few months ago, I thought this benefit was inevitable. No matter how little useful knowledge schools deliver, the most bogus ‘education’ of the young automatically has to provide daycare as a byproduct.
How wrong I was!
Don’t Close Schools (essay) — A counterpoint to Caplan. Matt Yglesias looks at data on learning loss, treating covid as a natural experiment for the effectiveness of schools. It turns out they are much more effective than one might think from more research involving more limited control conditions.
If you step back from the Covid-19 controversy, the learning loss findings are actually really interesting research.
For years, study after study has shown that the effect sizes of education interventions tend to be really small. And when they don’t look small, they tend to be very difficult to scale up. That led some people to infer that schooling is largely pointless. But we learned during the pandemic that if you try something out-of-sample like not having school at all, the effects are actually very large.
In Defense of Schools (essay) — Ray Girn wrote a year ago from the position of a die-hard pedagogical radical and critic of conventional schools—arguing in defense of keeping these very same conventional schools open. It could have been written yesterday.
The same radicalism, the same willingness to go to first principles, that leads forward-thinking people to challenge the conventional model of education, also demands that we must speak now in its favor.
Educating your Kids in a Pandemic (video) — A podcast interview with Ray Girn and myself on our covid approach. The details have changed over the last 18 months, but the principles have not: we’ve taken a risk management approach to covid. Our understanding is that human development does not stop for a pandemic, that education is an essential service, and that pedagogical insight should lead to the adaptability of programming to real circumstances.
When Will It Be Over? (essay) — Emily Oster, one of the best voices throughout the pandemic, wrote one of the most cogent pieces on the pandemic at the beginning of this past fall. It was written pre-delta and pre-omicron, but if anything, those variants have proved her point. Addressing parents who are naturally concerned about the risks of the pandemic and who have been cautious, she wrote that you can stop obsessing over covid.
When you decide to. And it will be a conscious decision.
The real pandemic ‘endgame’ at a decision level is to start thinking about COVID the way we think about the flu or other contagious illnesses. … We’ve spent the past 18 months with COVID-19 at the front of our mind, as the most salient risk. It is involved in every decision. That cannot be true forever, and it shouldn’t be once people are vaccinated. But choosing to relegate it to a more conventional risk bucket is going to require actual mental effort, especially at first.
One of Professor Oster’s most depressing takeaways has been that there has been relative learning during the pandemic—on the part of adults. That is, the schools that opened early have remained open, and the schools that closed have stayed closed, with relatively little in the way of new uptake of information or behavioral change.
This has been one of my observations as well. It’s worth reflecting on what children are absorbing from watching adults handle (or fail to handle) a crisis—what they see in the way of thought (or lack thereof), what they think of society’s actual and potential problem-solving capacity, how they think about health and disease more widely.
At the end of the day, the concrete of the pandemic will be taken up into the ever-operative fundamental machinery of child development. The effects of that uptake will persist long after covid ceases to be a threat.
Matt Bateman, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Montessorium