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Reducing Risk Is Not the Same as Remote Learning

Binary thinking

It’s human nature to try and reduce things down to a binary – a yes/no, either/or – but reality tends to be more both/and with a bit of everything in between. It’s messy, it’s inefficient – about the only thing that rejecting binary thinking has going for it is that it’s accurate.

The conversation – or really, the non-conversation – in education circles about the response to Omicron offer a painful demonstration of how little people want to move beyond binary thinking. We have a nearly infinite supply of fallacies related to binary thinking, but for this post I will focus on one:

Mitigating risk is not the same as “closing schools.”

Because Covid has been a political nightmare as well as a health nightmare from the very outset, reactionary viewpoints have taken up a lot of space in the conversation. With Omicron, we face multiple realities, some more painful than others:

a. Omicron was going to hit hard no matter what we did. While the impact can be blunted, even the best case outcomes aren’t great;
b. Because of a, it’s easy for people to pick apart any mitigation strategy as ineffective. Even if the strategy did help people, the worst case scenario isn’t available as a point of comparison because it didn’t happen. In the case of a surge as devastating as Omicron, the only visible outcome is the one we have in front of us, which isn’t good. Basically, a better outcome in a bad situation still feels like a bad outcome, which leads to a lot of:
c. People making the argument that mitigation and risk reduction don’t work.

And when we are two years into a pandemic that is still ripping through us, any argument that lets us think we can do nothing and still be fine is very attractive. We’re all exhausted, and we want to be done, but we’re not.

When people started proposing sensible risk reduction strategies to help blunt the impact of Omicron, policymakers and pundits doubled down on the standard arguments they have been using for the last several months and longer – straw man arguments such as kids don’t get Covid, kids are safer in school, kids have already lost so much, etc, etc. The relative merits, or utter lack of merits, of all of these arguments can be left for another writer or another post because for where are now — January 6, 2022 — these arguments and their ilk are completely irrelevant.

These arguments are predicated on data from and responses to earlier variants, and mitigation strategies that take place over months or for a full school year.

The situation we want to address is this specific spike in cases, with acute mitigation over the next couple weeks.

No one is talking about switching to remote learning as a universal strategy for an undefined time. If the 2020-2021 school year taught us anything, it’s that the decision makers who spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on EdTech to support “anywhere anytime on demand learning” were fleeced by EdTech vendors (again, a topic that needs more attention in a different post).

What we are talking about are creative, focused solutions that help reduce risk for as many people as possible while minimizing the impact on people’s lives. Many teachers have kids under 5, and when they are required to work in unsafe conditions it places them and their family members at risk. The pressures on parents to stay employed is real, and these pressures are not evenly distributed – some parents can easily support a kid during the school day where others don’t have that level of privilege.

A balanced solution could include:

  • asking parents who can support their kids at home to keep them home for a couple days to reduce crowding in classrooms;
  • targeted use of teacher professional development days and/or snowdays to give teachers time to prepare to supports students who need to quarantine;
  • providing N95 masks for staff and students;
  • providing portable HEPA filters to improve air quality in indoor spaces;
  • break lunch and snack times into smaller groups, and only eat in spaces with good air flow and portable HEPA filters;
  • use outdoor space for class and meals when possible;
  • if case numbers are high enough where it’s necessary to temporarily pause in person learning for every kid, priorize access to in-person learning for students who need it the most (elementary age, students with learning differences, children of essential workers, students for whom remote learning isn’t possible or realistic, etc);
  • implement pooled testing to get an accurate sense of where clusters of positive case could be happening

None of these things need to done forever. None of these things are closing schools.

The goal of any intervention is a targeted, balanced response to blunt the impact of the current spike in cases: reduce risk; minimize disruption. We know that layered protections are essential. We need to move past binary thinking and use the full range of tools at our disposal.