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Mendo Lake Family Life

What Are School Administrators’ COVID-19 Challenges?

By Michelle Hutchins, Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools

I recently read a blog post (“The Risks–Know Them, Avoid Them”) by Erin Bromage, Ph.D., a comparative immunologist and professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, that explained his formula of how COVID-19 spreads: Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time. After reading his blog I began to worry, once again, not only about what will happen when school resumes this fall, but also about how people will line up against each other: those in favor of distance-learning versus those in favor of returning to the classroom.

The COVID-19 pandemic has people choosing sides in a way I could not have predicted, and this polarization is dangerous. When we stop listening to each other and make decisions based on belief rather than on a careful weighing of all the issues, we are far more likely to make bad choices.

Voting by Proxy
In our sound-bite, meme-driven world, complex problems don’t fare well. Many people don’t have the interest or the attention span to really understand what’s at stake. Instead, we use a proxy. We say, “I’m with my elected officials, so if they say the pandemic is declining, it’s declining,” or “I’m with healthcare professionals. If they say wear masks, I’m wearing a mask,” or “I’m with economists. If they say go back to work, I’m going back.”

Using a proxy tends toward oversimplification and rarely takes into consideration all the motivations at play. You’re not the president, motivated by getting re-elected. You’re not a healthcare professional sworn to the Hippocratic oath (i.e., “First, do no harm”). You’re not an economist who uses assumptions to create economic models—assumptions you may know nothing about, let alone agree with.

No Good Options
As school administrators begin contingency planning for the fall, they are sure to receive criticism from all sides. There are few topics that make us more emotional than our children, and if we believe our children are at risk or getting short shrift, we typically give our school officials an earful.
School administrators are in a no-win situation. They must plan for social distancing in facilities that were not designed for it. They must safeguard staff and students, including those most at-risk for the virus, such as employees 65 or older and anyone who is medically fragile. They must continue to adhere to state regulations, such as balancing the budget even when tax revenues have plummeted and the need to invest in new technology for distance learning has skyrocketed. They must consider all students, including those with special needs, those without Internet access, and those with other obstacles to learning.

I share this to ask for your patience and to remember that schools must deal with trade-offs. For example, one of the benefits of bringing children back to the classroom may be that students will experience a more robust education, better social and emotional health, and more financial security, as their parents go back to work.
However, there could be serious downsides. Students may inadvertently share the virus with each other and others they encounter. More people may die. Fear of infection may cause the economy to fall deeper into recession or, worse, cause a steep decline in people’s social, emotional, and financial health. Sadly, we simply do not have enough information to know. We cannot predict the future. All we can do is extrapolate from the information we have and learn from those that go before us, including schools around the world that are not on summer vacation.

School administrators are not the only ones forced to make decisions that cannot possibly please everyone. On June 16, 2020, the non-partisan news outlet published an article titled, “‘Things have gotten ugly’—Pandemic Pushback Drives Health Directors to Quit.” In it, reports of death threats to public health officers are cited as one of the reasons so many California health officers have resigned or retired in recent months.

Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, said, “Health officers are always there working in the background to protect communities from communicable disease. This is the first time I’ve seen this level of animosity.”
She continued, “Health officers all over the state are feeling tremendous pressure, not just the expected pressures of working really hard to stop this virus. We’ve never seen this level of public comment becoming threatening, a personal attack, a questioning of a health officer’s motivation.”

Seek to Understand
As this pandemic evolves, we continue to learn more about how it spreads, who is at risk, and what treatments or actions can slow or stop its transmission. Before you judge those responsible for making hard choices, seek to understand their position. If appropriate, get involved in the process. Share your thoughts, preferably without malice.