Covid Journal # 7 – Returning to school is risky

These graphs put out by science teacher and biostatistician, Ryan Imgrund are something I am going to watch closely over the next month.

‘On August 2, in Ottawa there is a 4.8% chance you’ll encounter an individual who can transmit COVID-19 in a group of 27.’

This is actually a statement put out on Ryan Imgrund’s Twitter feed. You can fill in the blanks for your region if you would like. How’s it going for you?

What this means should startle everyone. There is a significant risk of COVID-19 spreading in classrooms this fall. There is no hard cap for kindergarten classes or grades 4-8. Kindergarten classes can still be as high as 29 students, classes in grades 1-3 are capped at 23 (90% of classes must have 20 or fewer students).

From Ontario Families for Public Education

The only meaningful caps that exist right now are in grades 9 – 12 where students will attend in groups of 15.

Not to sound overly critical, but I am not sure how this is going to work.

Today, Sunday, August 2 – Australia declares a state of disaster in Victoria and imposes curfew in Melbourne  

Great Britain and Spain are beginning lockdowns again in various regions.

In the New York Times – After a brief reprieve, coronavirus charges back in US

Again the New York Times – A school reopened. It had to quarantine students within hours.

I am going to stop at four, but I could add many more stories. My point here is to state the obvious, this virus is not under control. Reopening is fraught with danger and in many cases leads to more outbreaks.

The great thing about daily statistics is that we can track the daily spread of the virus against significant changes in behaviour.

While we all should be concerned as Minister Lecce is for the emotional well-being of students, is sending them back into a very risky environment the best way to do this?

Should we not be trying to reimagine what school could look like if we were not so tied to an industrial era school model? We could be asking – what was so good about how we did things in the past? What could we do better? Why are we so tied to tradition at the risk of our student’s and teacher’s health?

Schools support the economy, there is no question about that. When kids are in school people can go back to work. If we truly were concerned about the well-being of staff and students we would be looking closely at the statistics and we would be using this time to reimagine school.

Are the people in charge of our school systems motivated to do this? People in senior positions traditionally want to protect the status quo. It is in their self-interest to do this. There is nothing amazing in this – all large corporations act in the same manner.

But what should we be doing?

  • Should any grouping of students be above 15?

  • Could we be using facilities like community and health centers to spread out our teachers and students?

  • Could we develop more robust video conferencing tools to make the online experience more meaningful (is there life after Zoom??)

  • Is five days a week, 6 hours a day really meaningful? Can we develop a community-based model for education that makes parents active partners?

 

We do ask these questions in countless blog posts and podcasts, but are these questions ever taken seriously? If not now, when? How tied are we really to an old model that really doesn’t work well for many kids?

I really want to see what happens in the next 30 days. Will there be meaningful debate about what education in Ontario will look like this year? Do we realize that we are in this for the long haul? There is no returning to school until there is a vaccine.

I will be working with teacher candidates in first and second year so I will certainly have lots of opportunities to see how we protect our students and staff. I will continue to look at the stats – we are very fortunate to have this daily reminder about what we are heading into.

Will we invest in real change or will we just hope for the best?

Covid Journal # 6 We all live each other’s backyard now

I woke up this morning to a startling note. I was being chastised and I guess I deserved it. I had made a snarky comment on a public Facebook post that celebrated someone’s generous idea of social distancing.

I have seen other posts like this. From this person and others. Here I just let things slip. I really should have kept my mouth closed, even though the behaviours of others has an impact on all of us.

The Ottawa Citizen came out with a great article today. The article makes it really plain how the virus is being spread: ‘It’s not just people in their 20s’: Multi-age gatherings driving spike in Ottawa COVID-19 cases.

So people are interpreting our new social rules in a way that is making more people sick. No, it is not people in their 20’s although this is a useful stereotype, it is people like my former friend above who feels that they can socially distance using their own rules. I hope they read this article. Today, over 30% of new cases in Ontario were reported in Ottawa. But let the summer roll on.

I apologized to this person. Then I told her that we can’t do multiple bubbles as some people seem to be doing. Most of our children and their partners work in health care, some in very high-risk communities. We have elderly mothers in residences that both have had outbreaks.

Our social bubble consists of three people and it has to stay that way.

This is the thing. If you are going to flaunt our new social conventions, if you are going to do whatever you want because you can somehow justify this please keep it to yourself. When you post on Instagram or Facebook, you are making your actions public. If someone makes a comment maybe you should think about that. Maybe you can take some direction from what people are saying.

We now all live in the same backyard. You no longer get to do what you want. Your actions can certainly have an impact on others. We are all trying to stay safe while we wait for a vaccine or treatment. Once you tell people what you are doing you are opening yourself up to public comment or in some cases censure.

The pandemic is tough. I am finding that social media has more of an edge to it now. People take offence easily, people strike back quickly. We don’t have the normal face-to-face relationships to tamper down this negative energy. We are all in our homes writing and commenting furiously.

I have had my share of dustups in the past few months, some pretty upsetting. We all have to be so careful in what we say and write, but the blow-ups will continue to happen, sometimes when you least expect it.

In some cases, I am sorry for the disagreements. In some cases, I am happy to be free of some people. We will continue to tear up relationships online as the pandemic continues. In most cases, this is just part of the shedding that probably should have happened anyways.

We all probably need to cull the annoying people who still don’t seem to understand that we are in a pandemic. But for the ones we keep, people need to realize we are living in a closer world. We really have to think about how we present ourselves and what we say.

This is a brittle world and it will be difficult to put back the pieces.

COVID Journal # 5 Breaking up is hard to do

Today has been an interesting day. Earlier I had an incredible conversation with a colleague of mine on how to teach online in the fall. I am still digesting this, but what struck me the most was the notion that when we teach online, the first thing we need to do is consider the emotional health of our audience.

We need to find new ways to draw everyone in, make sure in our isolated spaces that everyone is part of the conversation. This will mean, among other things, that I will need to have a one-on-one conversation with every student I work with in the fall. If I don’t do this I will lose them and it will be my fault.

Today’s conversation was an eye-opener to me. I don’t know if many of us have figured this out yet – apart from teachers who have been working through this since the middle of March.

For the rest of us, I don’t think we understand yet that most social media is unidirectional. It is designed for conversations between two people. Three becomes a crowd.

In the old pre-COVID days, conversations could become organic, especially when one or two people monopolized the conversation. In the classroom, you could redirect. In the living room, you could start a side conversation and effectively move things along. People could pick up on cues, they could usually use their social skills to sense the room.

Now, this isn’t happening. A few days ago I saw a tweet from someone who has become part of a podcast I used to really enjoy. They were asking for feedback on how the show was going. In the past, the music had been great, there had been room for many voices and lots of music suggestions.

The same show now has become a conversation between two, or maybe three people. It has lost the ability to be inclusive –  it is misreading the room. This is part of my response for feedback on the show:

The show now seems a little like a conversation for two or sometimes three people. It used to be more inclusive, more of a community – not any longer. Maybe this is what the pandemic has done.

Our current communication systems can’t allow for more than one or two voices. We haven’t figured out yet how to be inclusive and allow relationships to grow online. This will be a challenge for all of us.

This kind of pushback usually doesn’t turn out well, but after mulling this over for a few days, I felt I needed to write something. More than ever before, people need to reach out and build community.

What spurred me onto this was my last meeting with my book club. We have been meeting online since the pandemic and for me, this hasn’t worked out too well. We have been together for more than fifteen years, but I don’t know if we will survive the pandemic.

Tonight I sat through a conversation that was almost exclusively between three people. It was sad to be there. I had actually looked forward to our conversation, but there was no way to become part of what was going on. No one took the social cues, the conversation was not inclusive. I left the meeting abruptly, but I did tell the group that the conversation no longer worked.

As a group, we are not adept at creating a community online. The radio show I commented on has also lost its ability to do this. We seem now to only be able to connect in groups of two or three. More than that seems to be beyond us and our grasp of the current technology.

We can no longer retreat to the classroom or the livingroom to restore community. These options are out of reach for the foreseeable future. We will have to become much more mindful of the importance of inclusiveness in a world dominated by unidirectional communication.

I am breaking up with my book club. It is not their fault, but I need real community, real human relations. The challenge for the fall will be to make sure none of my students end up feeling as I did tonight. Everything I do will have to be about building community and trust with the imperfect tools we have at our disposal.

We all need to be doing this. We are responsible for building and sustaining important positive relationships. Look around you, think again, we need to do much better to sustain each other for the times to come.

Covid Journal # 2 – Asking the Right Questions

I saw this post from Stephen Hurley on April 24th. We are not there yet, but he is right to put this out. In the midst of the first truly global crisis many of us have ever seen it is right to start asking some really hard questions. Are we ready to do this?

This is a hard thing to do. Today I am reading articles in the New York Times where they are doing a great job of creating a record of some of the nightmares that are happening in the United Staes right now.

Gladys Vega, a longtime community activist, helped a man who had been banished to a freezing, unfinished dirt basement, where he was riding out the illness on a piece of cardboard. Another man had been sent to sleep on a porch, despite temperatures that still dropped below freezing at night.

“People are being treated as if they have leprosy,” said Ms. Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative.

New York Times Sunday, April 26th, 2020 – In a Crowded City, Leaders Struggle to Separate the Sick From the Well 

This is what we need to be doing right now. We need to read the stories. We can’t become too isolated. Our social infrastructure is so broken that those who live in poverty, those without what should be the necessary resources are dying terrible deaths.

While the situation here in Canada is better, at least for now, medical workers are doing incredibly heroic service in a system that was already at over 100% capacity before the crisis hit. It is a marvel that they are able to do this. We can’t ever forget this.

We are scrambling in other areas as well. As many post pictures of their latest bread creation, teachers are struggling to connect to students who, in many cases, do not have the resources to learn from home. How many educators are spending sleepless nights worrying about their students?

While we have known for years that hard to serve communities needed to have computers and internet services to effectively link to their schools we did nothing about this. We didn’t provide computers for home use, we didn’t think that was something that schools were supposed to do. We were woefully underprepared for a crisis like this.

Those with the resources can surf through a crisis like this. Those without are suffering in silence.

So how do we start asking the hard questions?

Do we really ever look at how we distribute our resources in a rich country like Canada? Are we willing to be really critical about the level of health care services that we make available to every person here in this country? Are we really willing to offer excellent support, the support that is needed in low-income communities? Do we really want to support those who do not have a voice in our communities?

It is too easy to condemn our neighbours to the south. We love to congratulate ourselves saying that things are so much better here. Is this true?

Is a vital social infrastructure really our first priority? When we see the gaps what do we do? Where do we put our resources? Why do we allow so much inequality to exist?

These are the questions I would like to put out there now. After the Second World War, the world really changed in significant ways. We started to realize the importance of new institutions like the United Nations, and the importance of seeing ourselves as global citizens. Poverty and ignorance caused the war so we had to find ways to combat these evils.

Our world changed. Will it change now? Or, will we just go back to Major League Baseball and let all this slide?

The death toll is already staggering. Just as after the war, we need to mourn the terrible loss, but we need to do so much more. Can we make the incredible effort once again to really change how we all live and how we look after our most vulnerable?

I am a cynic. I don’t know if we really learn from a crisis. I think people just want to make sure they can get their hair cut again. I don’t see the big questions being asked.

I really hope I am wrong, but can we actually make the incredible changes that need to be undertaken?

I would love to be wrong on this one.