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America’s children: guinea pigs in a petri dish?

Leaning Left

You know what a petri dish is:  a little glass or plastic dish that you put some cells in, some human cells maybe or some sort of bacteria or some unknown something or other – maybe add a drug, or two – then cover it up . . . and see what happens.

Schools, of course, are really just big petri dishes. 

Into these enclosed spaces you put a whole bunch of disparate materials, animate and inanimate:  kids and adults, of all different ages, genders, cultures; a variety of materials, from chalk dust and play toys to books and paper tests; various kinds of circulating air systems in different spatial layouts; and throw in a disparate bunch of red tape, rules . . . or just “guidelines.” 

The drive to get kids back into these enclosures, face-to-face with their teachers, is threefold:  the frustration of parents who are a bit (no, a lot) tired of having their kids underfoot 24/7; the belief that kids are better educated in the classroom than in front of a computer screen; and the need to “open up” everything, all businesses and schools, in order to get back to “normal” – i.e. full economic productivity. But when schools offer any type of face-to-face instruction they become research labs.

“Gold standard” drug and vaccine research, as we know, is also threefold:  Phase 1 is with a very small group, of rats or monkeys perhaps, or even a few willing humans; if all goes well, you go to Phase 2, probably with a few dozen or a few hundred humans; and then – if there is possible efficacy and no adverse effects found — on to Phase 3, using your drug or vaccine on hundreds of thousands of humans. 

And the United States is currently launching one of the biggest Phase 3 research experiments ever. With the new school year, our petri dish-like public schools will be using millions of children as guinea pigs, or worse, lab rats — along with the hundreds of thousands of adults who instruct and support them. 

So, besides measuring educational outcomes, we’ll be learning much more about the impact of COVID-10 on young children. Can schools, with the appropriate safety measures, do the standard sort of teaching — kids sitting distance-spaced in chairs, the teacher up front — without creating a bunch of “hot spot” viral breeding grounds? (And how many of the nation’s teachers will actually be willing to come back to these classrooms?) 

And when the virus does occur, in a child, teacher, principle, janitor, what is the “Plan B”? What are the next steps, the best follow-on practices given the infinite number of possibilities for infection and its spread — from families to children and back again? And what is the education impact of opening, closing, reopening, or the switch from one teaching method to another – and over what period of time?

Of course, we’re already gotten lots of information about children and the virus, all incredibly mixed:  scientific papers on “viral load” in children and how they do, or do not, spread infection; data on how sick, or not, they actually become when infected; and reports from other countries, where their “experiments” are already under way, some successful, others not. 

Whatever position you decide to take – distance learning vs. in-class teaching or some hybrid approach – you can find some study to support your opinion. But there is one obvious fact:  none of these studies, none of these researches, none of the experiences in other countries, deal with millions of students in American school buildings, with all their different sizes, layouts, air systems and different degrees of anti-viral safety. 

So on a national level, the “opening” of a large number of schools is hugely risky,  both with the possibility of new viral outbreaks and the likely confusion concerning the alternative paths forward. Do you revert to one or another of the proposed hybrid models or simply fall back to total distance learning? 

The results of this huge experiment will be . . .  one would hope, positive, with as few adverse events as possible, while adding greatly to our knowledge. But here in America we’ve already had reports of schools opening with face-to-face instruction, then having to close again. 

We hope that those schools forced to provide (or revert to) distance learning will do so with every tool available to do so effectively:  with online expert-level subject matter modules for each subject matter/class level; teacher and student training in the use of the available online techologies; help lines and other resources for those families and students needing assistance. 

And our most fervent hope:  that all those in schools providing face-to-face instruction are not harmed by serving as guinea pigs in this massive Phase 3 experiment.

*Note: Opinions expressed by columnists and letter writers are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the newspaper.

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