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.

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