Distance Learning, Disrupted Learning & Social Eruptions

The piecemeal national approach to coronavirus was replicated in the local jurisdictional closures of schools, as a rolling database of closures of schools in cities and counties reflected the different priorities of urban and rural communities. As 5.7 million students stayed home in less than twenty-four hours, we were in uncharted territory as epidemiologists ensured “This is a temporary thing,” disruption of education in California and in the nation was occurring more suddenly than any time in the past. The false calm of calling the suspension of schools purely temporary was true, in the long run, but brought a massive change in the availability of schooling throughout the land: if public schools had an almost built-in system of inequity in the United States, relying as they do on local property taxes, and essentially investing not in the nation,–but, rather, in replicating advantage in more affluent areas.

The accentuated perception of inequalities with the suspension of schooling systems was particularly acute: although the possibility of shifting the huge budgets assigned to local policing, inflated not only by salaries seeming just compensation for risk, but costly arms and military-style weaponry, raised questions of the possible budgetary reallocation to education in the future.

26. There is a bitter irony that the proposal for school closure to limit infections that entered the powerful playbook of reducing probability of infection from viruses came from a corporate-sponsored High School Science Fair: the statistical benefits of such a reduced social network won endorsement in the Bush administration team who searched for “out-of-the-box” non-pharmaceutical interventions suggested suspending school attendance, seemed to offer a possibility of containing the terrifying prospect of four-day doubling of cases of COVID-19, by depriving a space for the multiplication of SARS-CoV-2. The presumption that social networks would indeed be cut or dramatically reduced made sense when it was run through a larger computer by the team of White House as network theory prioritized school closure as a non-pharmaceutic public intervention a back in 2008 to curtail contagious spread: the presumption that students would remain at home, and not socialize with one another, or visit each others’ houses as childcare placed premiums on many’s time however may not have meant that it would reduce infections so dramatically, if it did create less of danger of contracting COVID-19.  

Two weeks after the first school closure in the age of COVID-19, the closure of 56,000 schools by March 15 indiscriminately affected a minimum of 29.5 million children, and exposed them to unequal access to distance learning, and unequal attention span that underwrite an achievement gap: as many students have gone “AWOL” and not performed assignments or checked in, minority students most severely effected, the dialectic of disparity already present in education was accentuated as many students lost contact with instructional models, potentially increasing widening learning gaps and setting up a picture of mixed progress or learning loss that interrupted their education.  Marked discrepancies of sustaining contact with teachers was clear. Moreover, if internet access for distance learning was shown to be quite uneven, as was teacher preparedness. Were the thoughts so far outside the box that the effects of school closures on students–and on learning communities–were not taken into account among the casualties in the communities that the spread of the novel coronavirus has created.

The elevation of school closures reset the logics of responses to the global pandemic from outdated public health guidance limiting closures to district schools where someone had tested positive for the virus, and assumed the spread of the virus, since confirmed, was far greater in scale than we had imagined, and we had to remap the possibility of contraction of a viral fingerprint we can map retrospectively as arriving in bodies as it traveled from New York, as its spread was failed to be contained–

Were schools the last line of defense for containing the virus’ spread?

The first school to shutter its doors on March 2, 2020 in Seattle followed pandemic advice designed to slow the spread of infection, modeled after the infectious models of influenza. While the pathways of COVID-19 are not known, the schools seemed incredibly risky breeding grounds for the novel coronavirus, whose signs don’t immediately present in the infected body, and whose risk of contraction seemed a magnitude greater than other transmittable diseases.

The nation looked, for all its political divides, and the differences among governors, as the end of in-person instruction was decisively agreed upon in amazingly uniform fashion my early May, even as the nation was divided around the question of “re-opening” the nation. The clear policy of such closures seemed global–if it was not the choice of Denmark and some other nations, the scale of infections, even without an adequate plan of testing, must have immediately seemed far larger than anything a public health system in the United States had ever dealt, and the absence of any working plan was truly terrifying. And we forgot entirely about those families whose three meals come from schools, which offer perhaps one of the last functioning social assistance nets in the nation. The absence of investment in a system of public schools provided one backdrop against which the policy of school closures remained he sole national mandate in the face of COVID-19, upending educational practice, even as the White House was spreading open disinformation about the virus’ spread, and puzzlingly not accelerating a demand for better counts of cases of infection across the land while trying to reduce public panic.

GLOBAL INTERMEZZO 2: Pandemic Version

27. Closing schools was a near-global response to COVID-19, to be sure, and was not specific to the United States as a reaction to the highly infectious virus whose doubling infection rates so alarming to call for containment. Children did not present cases of infection, but carried the same levels of viral load as adults, it was found, and social distancing was shown to the most effective means to contain the virus by far, in the absence of a vaccine; the lifting lockdowns risked new waves of outbreaks. School closures in China not confined to Hubei Province began across the country in China from February 16, effecting one million learners by February 20, as medical researchers realized the high communicability of a virus that concentrated its viral load in the naso-pharyngeal area threatened high communicability in indoors setting: nationwide school closures in China from late February were adopted soon after in Italy,–by February 25, impacting nearly 300 million, and creating three nation-wide shut-downs to contain COVID-19, in what were imagined to be its hotspots in our control–spaces able to be “kept safe” and clean by daily vigilance.

School Closures in Response to COVID-19, February 24 2020

And by March 15, according to UNESCO, some 2.5 billion students were affected globally, in hopes to mitigate the highly infectious novel coronavirus’ spread, country-wide school closures were limited, but multiplied, as schools provided a center to infect teachers, whose recirculated air seemed akin to old age homes and hospitals, if serving a different demographic, and the terror of the losses of medical workers in Italy and other nations haunted the fears of multiplying the sites of super spreaders

2.5 Billion Students Impacted by School Closures in Response to COVID-19, March 15 2020

As aerosolized presence of SARS-CoV-2 hung in the air in crowded spaces such of airlines, classrooms, or busses and workspaces for up to three days at a stretch, the risk of breathing, talking, coughing, or sneezing in spaces took on a new risk that all agreed the school systems could not sustain, with aerosolized particles of 1-3 micrometers remaining in the air indefinitely, and larger particles remaining suspended for up to twenty minutes before they fell to the ground.

As much as adopting a rhetoric of public vigilance that echoed the spread of cholera, would the regular wiping down of surfaces of classrooms tasked to teachers in the most recent CA plan for reopening schools be either an adequate or serious reduction of risk? Could air ventilation systems be equipped with HEPA filtration systems able to purify the air? Or would the risk of reopening for face-to-face encounters be too problematic to all?

28. The logic of school closures appealed across America by providing a needed sense of vigilance. Permanent school closures seemed imminent, with sixteen schools in six districts now posed to close permanently in California, experts in public health and parents hoped the educational infrastructure would not be set back as much as the public health structure is under attack. Would educators have time to reflect on the use of distance learning? Will the current atmosphere of school closures allow room for considering strategies as they plan the next schoolyear?

And as principals are asked to plan on integrating strengthened distance learning as integral parts of educational strategies fro the coming year, uncertain of how physical structures will be used in the coming school year, and what form they can use them to allow frequent disinfection of surfaces, secure ventilation systems that may be harboring droplets, and ensure that six feet distances between students–as they tried to imagine what sort of instructional spaces would be adopted and how they had space for ensuring reduced classroom sizes that would meet the current CDC stipulations–in addition to providing masks for all students.

If social distancing in the nation was only adopted by March 16–a delay that epidemiologists reckon may have cost almost half a million human lives–over 400,000!–the quick closure by late March and early April reflected consensus on school closure, with no guidelines of social distancing in place, that set designers and classroom planners spinning for planning ways to increase distance among undisciplined students in reduced classes, imagining single file movement along once-crowded school corridors, and staggered lunches that might enable CDC mandated distancing. There is something oddly quaint in the idea that isolating students in seating charts would be a sufficient way of blocking the transmission of disease among student who would probably crowd in the corridors, schoolyards, recess periods, and park benches outside the school quarters, again removing the site of the school from the community context in which it functions. Can the new disciplinarization of the dispersed classroom be engineered by new seating diagrams alone?

Optimistic situations of reengineering classroom environments were developed, but the problem of months-long hiatus in learning removed mot from any context at all, despite the attempts of many cities to distribute educational packets, as questions of testing, grading, and evaluation were all up for grabs. At the same time, online learning models offered little abilities for the sort of social coherence and instructional engagement, and left teachers more disembodied and often depressingly detached from classrooms, even if the resourcefulness of many were cases for celebration. Although ownership of a computer and internet access for distance learning was uneven, the assumptions that engagement could be grown by the distribution of donated laptops–or new purchases by school districts was unclear. The result was more often to accentuate existing inequalities, and to upset teacher preparedness as all were expected to transition to an online platform, and perhaps to incorporate online learning models into their assignments–as many did.

What this massive shift to online distance learning at a time of increased stress means is still hard to measure, especially at a time when we have many deeper concerns about the spread and testing of infection, and the possibility of when schools might be opening–and in what form. With only one hundred and twenty-eight schools still providing traditional instruction in school buildings, the closure of 96.55% of K12 American schools–effecting 57.8 million–is an interruption of learning experiences of unprecedented scale, in an era of an increasing number of unprecedented events for which there is no model or existing contingency plan: things came together faster as well as in a more decentralized fashion that foregrounded the absence of any overriding policy in the nation, and the absence of any guidance in confronting COVID-19.

While it may be true that children don’t listen to instructions of regular hand-washing, the fetishization of the school as a site able to be closed began as the man tasked to pitch ideas of containment against the fear of something for which there was no vaccine or antiviral to turn to a New Mexican scientist whose sixteen year old daughter, Laura Glass, had completed a class project in Albuquerque High School of the ability to disrupt social networks students daily perform in classrooms and on school buses to be a model to contain the four-day doubling of a virus like COVID-19. And even if school closures are argued in some recent modeling tools have not reduced the deaths due to COVID-19, and provide a “very weak” means to combat COVID-19, the prioritization of school shut-downs was reflexive, as we searched maddeningly for any way to slow the pandemic’s spread. Who wouldn’t say that the ability to keep kids at schools, with the ability to monitor their temperatures and provide needed interventions of isolation if necessary, wouldn’t have been efficient?

Levels of risk differentiated by Visual Capitalist score “COVID-19 Occupational Risk” that reflects our unequal economy, preserving CEO’s and Financial Managers out of the stratosphere, with postsecondary teachers not at serious risk, but placed elementary and middle school teachers at a risk between police and correctional officers, with Kindergarten teachers and bus drivers at even greater risk.

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Filed under Coronavirus, COVID-19, education policies, remote learning, school closures

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