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.

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  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. []

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.

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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.

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More candidate education platforming

I have some thoughts about the K-12 policy position released by Elizabeth Warren’s campaign on Monday. The big story told in most reporting is about the quadrupling of federal aid to local schools under Title I, but I have some other observations:

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Yes, we can make historical analogies

Yesterday, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum released a statement whose first sentence is stunning in its historical ignorance: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary. The museum’s leadership is wrong. To put it bluntly, if we are never allowed to draw historical analogies, we remove one of the most important reasons to learn history. There are no exact parallels or repeats in history, but there are patterns, and a significant part of our job as people (let alone my job as an historian) is to learn those patterns and watch for them where we know they’re dangerous.

There is a defensible statement within the misguided claim of the museum’s leadership, but it’s restricted: there is no useful point in comparing the horribleness of genocides. The Shoah is incomparable. So was the slave trade. So was the genocide of indigenous peoples on multiple continents.

But we don’t have to rank-order the horrors of history to learn from them. One can learn from them as singular events, as you would in a seminar class — and Peter Hayes taught such a class on the Holocaust at Northwestern for years (his new book Why: Explaining the Holocaust reflects that focus). One can also learn from putting them into broader context, learning from or teaching about genocides and intolerance more broadly. You learn different things from studying an isolated event from an event in context, and both are valuable.

But you don’t go around telling people not to learn broader lessons from the Holocaust, and that’s what the museum leadership is attempting to do. And that’s just plain wrong for history and for citizenship.