Transmission chains broke trust chains

The debates over schooling in the pandemic are best explained by a concept defined by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider in their 2004 book about Chicago school reform, Trust in Schools: relational trust. As they describe in the book’s second chapter,1 relational trust is the social glue needed within the type of organization that requires its members to risk a great deal just to keep the organization operating. Teachers and other school staff are regularly asked to risk their professional careers, sense of self, and their time for all sorts of tasks and initiatives that are demanded either by schools as organizations or society at large. Unlike skilled positions where people can assume a basic level of infrastructure, educators often cannot assume that they will work in an environment where they have current textbooks, enough undistracted time for lessons, or planning time; and in many places, they work in schools without safe drinking water, soap in bathrooms, or modern or safe HVAC systems.

In many places, before March 2020, schools worked effectively despite such hardships because the people in them had effective relationships where they knew they could worry about the right things, and had a critical mass of administrators and community members who supported them in worrying about and working on the right things.

What’s happened to elementary and secondary schools in the last year has been a set of layered disasters: a president and secretary of education who took no responsibility for helping schools navigate challenges or even collect basic data, a federal agency for disease control and prevention that made some mistakes and also was interfered with, states that regularly prioritized in-person business operations over school operations, and a public that had a politically-polarized response to the pandemic. To that, add moralizing responses to low-risk activities like beachgoing, aided by public misunderstandings of risk long after it became clear that the greatest problem lay in breathing indoor air with aerosolized virus particles rather than surface transmission.

Why are we surprised that schools flailed to the extent we have seen?

Just in the past three months, debates over school operations have taken place in the context of the highest community spread thus far, disastrous early vaccination rollouts, and continued prioritization of in-person business operations at the state level. Yes, Joe Biden is now president, and has been for about 10% of the pandemic as it’s been in the United States. Yes, there is now accelerating vaccination, and declining hospitalizations and deaths from COVID — but also what may be the first signs of more transmissable variants of the coronavirus starting to accelerate infection again.

In that broader context, the trepidation of some teachers and parents about in-person operations should make greater sense. In the summer, I heard enough teachers say that if the schools couldn’t keep bathrooms supplied with soap, why should they trust that schools could follow public-health guidelines? Now, in late winter, I hear enough teachers say their windows don’t open, the HVAC systems are broken and/or mildewy, and the students’ bathrooms only have cold water; thank you for the snazzy New York Times infographic about open windows but that won’t work in my building.

To me, these are all about relational trust: if you ask teachers to risk their health, you need to build on a foundation of precisely those relationships inside schools that have always been important. That has been especially true for teachers asked to figure out how to teach students simultaneously in-person and also online.

The same issue is also at play when you look at families that have not sent children to school when in-person schools have been available: in cities like New York, a disproportionate number of families keeping their children in remote instruction have been Black and Brown parents, and not only because their communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID. They also don’t trust schools to a disproportionate degree. When you ask a parent to send their child to school in a pandemic, you may be asking them to risk far more than their children’s health. Again: relational trust is a critical factor in the response.

I thus agree with Leanna Wen: the school reopening debate is all wrong, not only for the reasons Wen states, but also because we have not wrestled with the issues of relational trust, and how chains of transmission substantially ruined many of the chains of trust that existed a year ago. Part of rebuilding in-person operations require public-health measures broadly conceived, as Wen argues. But we also need to pay attention to rebuilding trust, and avoid ham-fisted measures that will make that harder.


  1. Julie Kochanek cowrote that chapter with Bryk and Schneider []

It’s the summer, sunshine

If the Biden administration’s COVID-19 relief package passes with funding for K-12 summer school, we’ll see a great deal of things more clearly as a result. How much are parents worried about the academics their children have missed, as opposed to all the other roles of schools? How much have teachers been stressed to the point of quitting/disengaging when they can? How much can schools operate in-person smoothly if the staff are vaccinated but the students aren’t?

As I write, it’s a month after Biden’s inauguration, a week after the first Biden-era CDC guidance on school operations. It is also the time of year that for several decades, parents of school-aged children have started to scramble to find summer placements: camps, part- and full-day child care, etc. In contrast with the academic year, summer placements are much more clearly about all the non-academic roles that schools fill and the wide gap they leave when closed. But the arguments floating around the ether about summer school this year are all about the academics: the learning that children have missed in the pandemic, and how to help them catch up. While Dana Goldstein and Kate Taylor’s article in the New York Times earlier in February explained the complications of trying to expand summer programs, they correctly reflect the arguments about academics.

What would a federally-funded summer school show?

First, summer school operations could be an early test of how individual districts might pivot mostly away from remote instruction by the start of the next academic year. At the moment, the Biden administration is pushing hard to make vaccinations available to all adults by early summer, and whether or not teachers and other school staff are prioritized in the next month or two, it is very likely that the bulk of school employees will have at least one vaccination dose by the end of the year this spring. Thus far, every approved vaccine has a clinical record of no hospitalizations and no deaths from COVID. This is great! But only one vaccine approved for emergency use is authorized for minors (Pfizer), and only for 16- and 17-year-olds. It will take a few additional seasons for the clinical trials to extend approvals downwards in age, which would leave staff vaccinated, but not most children.

This will change the relationships between schools and families once again. My guess is that barring a change in the risk of severe COVID illness for children, the majority of parents will be satisfied sending their children to school full-time by summer, if summer school is available. How will schools respond if that is the case? And what about the families who still need and/or request remote instruction: will those children be allowed to attend some form of a summer program remotely?

Summer school operations will also be a test of whether schools can focus on an academic curriculum in the summer, and how much parents want that. Right now, hundreds of thousands of teachers are stretched by a combination of risk, distance from students, demands to teach students both remotely and in-person, and the stresses within their own households. Will academic subject teachers sign up to teach summer school? My guess is that depending on the relationship between teachers and individual districts, the majority very well might, from a combination of wanting to serve their students and the desire for income. But a lot hangs on what Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider called relational trust, or the organizational resources that came from interpersonal connections within individual schools as well as districts.1 How much is left at the end of the pandemic?

But will it matter much if academic subject teachers mostly decline to teach in summer, and schools offer a form of tepid mass tutoring, or mostly non-academic services? A good part of parental angst with remote teaching is all about the non-academic roles of schools: child care, peer relationships, socialization, connection with even a fictional version of community. A school offers a bundle of things, not a set of a la carte services. From that angle, it may not be all that important that certified teachers be the ones staffing summer school. The more parents value the non-academic (or non-standard-academic) role of schools, the more they’ll reinforce significant parts of the grammar of schooling, and schools as a bundled institution. Valuing peer relationships implies acceptance of the age-graded school. Appreciating the child care role of schools will reinforce not only the existence of in-person schooling itself but also the before- and after-school care connections that schools can provide and that organize themselves around schooling, from aftercare to extracurricular activities.

While arguments about “learning loss” may be driving various proposals around summer schooling, that may be irrelevant to the resumption of in-person schooling. While everyone cares about learning, parents are being driven to distraction/concern for all sorts of reasons. The benefits of summer school from a parental perspective may extend well beyond academics, and the reinforcement of the grammar of schooling may come quickly with larger-than-normal summer school operations.


  1. Translation: if a school has never consistently had soap in its bathrooms, teachers are going to trust the district very little in terms of pandemic precautions. []

What ed policy wonks might want to know about the CDC school advice, February 2021

Three and a half weeks into the new administration, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a new set of guidelines for K-12 schools. The general features of the guidelines have been well-covered in the press (with some minor mistakes–it’s complicated!), and some public-health researchers have started to weigh in as well (also with some mistakes–it’s complicated!).1 To me, the key operative expression is three and a half weeks into the new administration; the timing reflects both political needs of the Biden administration as it pushes through its COVID relief package,2 and also professional needs of the public-health community to return to ordinary public-health politics after the sheer awfulness of the Trump administration response to the pandemic.

The result is the closest thing to a consensus I would expect at this point, among public-health professionals who disagree on some important things. It’s probably a misnomer to think that a public-health consensus on all important issues are possible, and as a layperson I see significant public disagreements about transmission risks related to school reopening. In addition, we might expect some behind-closed-doors disagreements about the political realities of what drives school re-openings, how much to acknowledge mistaken CDC guidance of the past year, and what to emphasize in a complicated and troubled communication environment. So the guidelines have some clear signals: masking should be universal, schools should come before other parts of society, and younger students and students with disabilities should have priority for in-person schooling. But other things are more complicated or murkier, and either discussed very little–ventilation!–or completely ignored: how to handle both students’ and employees’ needing to eat during the day, when eating unmasked in a group setting is one of the riskiest behaviors in a respiratory pandemic.

Remember: three and a half weeks into the new administration. In reality, that’s fast. There were bound to be omissions or emphases that are wrong in retrospect.

What stuck out to me, as an historian of education and an observer of policy things?

  • The guidelines include explicit discussions of equity issues, both the uneven impact of the pandemic on communities (and thus hesitancy of parents in returning to in-person schooling) and also unequal likely impacts of separation from an in-person school environment. There is no “here’s our solution” statement, and that would have been unlikely; the inclusion of these issues was necessary in itself, notable, and welcome.
  • The guidelines are remarkably flexible: there are only a few very hard pushes (universal masking and very serious cautions about extracurricular activities). For example, screening is not pushed hard at all, and there are separate in-person-or-virtual tables for districts/schools that can manage testing for screening purposes and districts/schools that cannot.3 For those of us who have seen the past year as a rolling disaster related to the failure of the federal government, this looks painfully tepid as a set of guidelines. But I can see the value in being very cautious about what the guidelines push: the CDC has a serious credibility problem, and it is at least as important to rebuild the long-term credibility of public-health communications as to push every behavior that we’d like to see systematically. And, speaking of which,…
  • The big question about this new guidance is how and whether states and districts will respond. After all, they’ve essentially been on their own since the start of the pandemic, and in some states, either the governor or key political actors will push back very hard against either state departments of education or districts that try to follow the CDC guidelines. Ask yourself not only what the districts will do if they try to follow the CDC guidelines with the usual challenges of implementation, but also who will push back, and what leverage they have. And no, despite what you might read in some outlets, unions are not the big problem. Instead, think about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, and the more reactionary forces in the Arizona GOP or in Michigan.


  1. At least one op-ed criticized the guidelines for requiring testing for screening purposes, which the guidelines don’t require. []
  2. See the White House statement released yesterday in response to the CDC guidance, and how the statement connects the CDC guidance with COVID relief. []
  3. The detailed written guidelines have some important cautions about issues related to testing for screening purposes. []

Single studies are good; literature is amazing

We can learn quite a bit from the surge of amateur epidemiology: It’s hard to be a good reader of a single study, and you don’t have to do that to learn from research. For almost half a year, I’ve repeatedly seen many well-educated, well-read people try to learn The Secret of Covid from individual studies in fields they have no training in.

This is understandable, but not generally a good use of someone’s time. Nor is it necessary.

My relevant expertise is epidemiology-adjacent: a masters of arts in demography, taught by some of the leading researchers in mortality and fertility. Graduate degree in counting death, in part. This is not the same as epidemiology, and I earned the degree 28 years ago. In terms of understanding papers coming out today, I have a fighting chance of understanding the gist of an article on epidemiological modeling but no experience in original research in the area.

This matters. It means I can follow an argument, but not evaluate it anywhere near an expert in the field.

So when multiple relatives/friends started citing a certain PNAS paper to say it “proved” the value of face masks, I said something like, “Let’s pause and wait a few days for epidemiologists to weigh in.” That process took less than a day — most prominently, in this Twitter thread from Kate Grabowski:

I’m claiming no epidemiological spidey-sense here. Instead, it’s considerable experience in not putting too much weight on a single study.

At my college, we teach masters students how to read individual studies in empirical social-science traditions. It’s a good course! And it’s a more formalized version of what I had to learn when I moved into colleges of education – I mean, what’s the fun in trying to silo oneself off as an historian of education when there’s all this brain candy going on around you? In my postdoc, it was a bit of a drinking from a firehose experience.

At this point I have more experience and facility with reading empirical education research than I ever had in demography. I’m pretty good at spotting strengths/weaknesses, and will probably catch a majority of major issues in manuscripts regardless of field. Probably.

And unless you have more experience than I do in a specialized field, or are sharper than me (and you probably are! But still), you’d need to spend a lot of time with each article or white paper to evaluate it.

There are hundreds of papers on Covid coming out each day, and many of them are in languages you don’t read or speak.

So it may be intellectually stimulating to ask, “What can I learn about X (Covid, whatever) from this individual paper?” But outside your expertise, you’re going to drown before too long. A question you can answer, with a little more efficiency, is, “What can I learn about X from a chunk of studies?”

It is one thing for a single study to claim that putting on sunblock will help prevent the next pandemic. It’s when a barrel of studies does so that it matters. No, don’t put on sunblock to stop a disease! That was a joke! Yeesh…. I hope you get the point.

Even when you see a review or synthesis of research, there is still the question of study quality. But the nice thing about trying to look for multiple studies is that you don’t have to be an expert, in general. In an area of active study, the researchers in the field critique each other. And you can see much of it. Often that debate takes time. Many years ago, John Hattie started to gather every single meta-analysis (systematic synthesis) in a whole bunch of areas of education research: the visible learning project. What we know now is that he collected everything he could, good and bad.

The collection of every study you can find gives one the rough average of hundreds of hundreds of studies. It’s like the average taste you get when you mix champagne with swamp water.

We know now that you probably want to filter out the swamp water (or its equivalent in research) to keep the champagne (or at least decent wine) — that is, set up some good inclusion/exclusion rules in a meta-analysis.

That internal discussion takes time, and I know it’s frustrating. But with Covid, we’re seeing all of it compressed. The public critique of a PNAS article in less than 24 hours? Amazing.

So… hold off helping that single study go viral outside your area of expertise. Instead, follow people who explain what they learn from multiple studies. Right now, in Covid, it’s going to be pretty rough, and people are going to make errors. As long as you can see the discussion as people wrestle with it, you’re at least following what experts say.

Will the cultural script of “school” change?

A colleague asked me over the weekend if there is any guidance from the history of education on what may change permanently in elementary and secondary schools as a result of the pandemic. There is now a little industry devoted to hot-takes about how this is the “end of ____ as we know it,” and there are plenty of entries in education as well as in other areas of life, from Steven Mintz and Bonnie Kristian in higher education to Conor Williams, David Mansouri, and Diane Ravitch for K-12. So I was not surprised by the question.

A bunch of us (historians of ed) have struggled with the question of what the history of pandemics and school closures may suggest. There are some things we know (about school closures in 1918, the use of “radio schooling” in polio waves in the U.S., radio schooling again in South Korea in the 1950s, etc.), but there isn’t a ready monograph on the history of schooling in pandemics.

There are a few issues that I think come out of that history, and this is primarily to explain how I place the question my colleague raised — and this is focused on elementary and secondary education:1

  • How did these (and other major disruptions – the Revolutionary War and Civil War are big ones) shape children’s lives in a concrete sense? Glen Elder is probably the scholar best known for this type of work with his Children of the Great Depression. But probably the biggest change was the Civil War and the end of slavery – that opened up educational opportunities for formerly enslaved people of all ages.
  • How did these disruptions change Americans’ way of thinking about themselves, and the future? That is intimately tied to how we talk about children and education. The 1918 pandemic was not isolated from the deep unpopularity of WW1, and was quickly followed by a sharp depression in 1919 and the Palmer Raids on alleged anarchist conspiracies (really, an excuse for the federal government to go after a broad range of leftist political organizations) – so, it was a major part of several years of great turmoil. Nicole Hemmer thinks the pandemic is going to dramatically increase our sense of uncertainty (see towards the end of her recent CNN column), and while I think it’s plausible, I’m not so sure what will last. I tend to see more debates coming out of great historical changes than Hegelian-like shifts of uberconsciousness – I wrote about that a little 19 years ago.
  • How did people see the responses to great disruptions – as innovations or as emergency measures? This is the one most clearly tied to the present moment. We know that radio-school programs did not last, and though I have some guesses as to why, I don’t think anyone’s written on that question … yet! For what it’s worth, K-12 schooling was more disrupted by the 1918 pandemic than colleges, because so many colleges had already been disrupted by the war. 

I know that we’ll learn a great deal about emergency responses and related operations – that piece is already clear at Arizona State University, at least from my perspective. How much of that translates into persistent practice, or changed expectations about what education might mean? A few thoughts:

  • I suspect that many parents who have at least some connection with schooling will have one of two impressions, and often both at the same time:
    • Deep sympathy for teachers and other school officials engaging in emergency instruction
    • Deep distrust that K-12 schools can do anything at the moment that is meaningful and educational
  • My impression is that schools have made “modal” choices for how to continue instruction – that is, they choose a mode, and their expectations of teachers, and are just trucking ahead the best they can along the path they chose. What would be a telling sign of district leadership is how they have been fine-tuning their response over the past several weeks – what are they modifying, and how? 
  • The upshot of the items above: it is highly unlikely that the pandemic has upended the cultural scripts of what schools are. Where schools are having any success in continued operations, it is surely tied to maintenance of the most common understandings of “school” as formal academics.
  • Other reasons to suspect that the cultural script for P-12 schooling is going to remain stable, and most of these are about the non-academic roles of schools:
    • Many children have no education at the moment. This is unlike the viciousness of the Prince Edward County School Board, which closed all of its schools from 1959-1964 out of spite at desegregation – but it’s still a huge gap in their academic and other educational experiences, let alone meals, health screening, and related services that piggyback onto formal schooling.
    • Parents who listen to their children are hearing a great deal about the absence in their children’s lives of the non-academic role of schools in their children’s lives – connections with friends, sports and clubs, and even just the opportunity to run around a schoolyard.
    • Parents who are employed are missing child care that schools provide.
    • Parents who have just lost their jobs are desperately fearful now, and likely desperate over the summer. Formal schooling is going to compete in parents’ minds, and their children’s, with nutrition, health care, and shelter. And two of those are partially provided by schools.
    • The recession we are now in is wreaking havoc with state budgets for the next fiscal year. There will be layoffs, and possibly very little wiggle room for rethinking organizational and cultural scripts absent an explicit push from local leaders such as district superintendents or unusual school boards.

School districts may learn (and states may give) more flexibility on some important issues. But millions of parents will be grateful if there can be anything like a normal school year next year. Not that “normal” is what we want it to be.

I do have a suggestion for everyone ready to gear up their chosen bandwagon under the “this absolutely proves that schools must change!” banner: this was the high-pressure approach under the Obama administration in the last recession. That last wave of school reform brought the Common Core State Standards, attacks on teachers and their unions, two giant state testing consortiums, and attempts to tie teacher careers to student tests. How exactly did that prior wave help schools prepare for a pandemic?

Instead of making that argument, I recommend looking to our current period of emergency education as a basis for asking what if? My colleague Ron Beghetto writes about this in Beautiful Risks (publisher; library), and having observed his use of what he calls a possibilities-thinking protocol, I think it’s a useful framework now. A few examples:

  • What if we acknowledged that no educator today has a good handle on how to educate children in a pandemic?
  • What if we then asked families their suggestions for how to set the right expectations when schools are closed?
  • What if we applied those ideas beyond the current emergency — to snow days, to summers?
  • What if schools and families collaborated on the basis of those experiences to look at expectations more broadly?2

People do this type of work in communities, a lot. But because the work is inherently local, it doesn’t attract all the bling that more aggressive efforts take. And there is a place for forceful edicts in terms of civil rights. But we don’t need to delve back to 1918 to see where we were 12 years ago — less disastrous, it turned out, but deeply painful as a recession, and used as a lever for a number of education policy changes. Some stuck, some didn’t, and it all had an argument with the flavor of “schools must change, and now,” what I think of as the Borg fallacy. That was the universal tone, and its use did not predict whether a proposed change in policy and practice lived or died. Time for a different approach.


  1. The classic pieces on cultural expectations of schools are Metz (1989), who uses the term script to refer to those expectations, and Tyack and Cuban (1995), who coined the term grammar of schooling. []
  2. Ann Ishimaru talks about this type of collaboration from a different angle in her new book Just Schools, available from her publisher, independent bookstores, and libraries. []