Wissahickon School Board met [August 6] to re-evaluate their school opening plan, based on the Superintendent's recommendation to move to a fully virtual program given developments that have occurred over the last few weeks. I listened with dismay as the President of the Board said over and over again -- "I still haven't heard what's changed since we last voted to approve the hybrid plan." This inflexible thinking is a major barrier to making good decisions in the face of ambiguity. Which is exactly what we are dealing with now. If we listened to this mode of thinking, we wouldn't be wearing masks, we'd still be gathering in large groups, and the death rate would be even higher than it is now. Any new data point matters in a situation like this, and requires us to use intuition and scenario analysis. It seems to me this board struggled with this lack of data and have locked in on the prior decision due to discomfort with these challenging decisions. In the words of experts from the University of Chicago on decision making, "this tendency to lock on to a single narrative -- or more generally, this inability to handle uncertainty -- may result in overlooking valuable insights from alternative sources, and thus in misinterpreting the state of COVID-19 outbreak, potentially leading to suboptimal decisions with possible disastrous consequences (Chater 2020; Cancryn 2020; Rucker et al. 2020).
In fact, since the school board voted for a hybrid/partial in-school program, multiple data points have emerged. For one, Montgomery County does not have adequate testing and is experiencing 6-10 day delays in getting results. Having adequate testing with rapid turnaround is a dependency to manage contact tracing effectively -- it is required. We don't have it. One new data point. Secondly, this means that our case data at 3.5% positivity is inaccurate, and decisions are being made on the basis of this inaccuracy. Second new data point. Thirdly, until recently there weren't a lot of kids dying from this disease. That has changed. Multiple children have died from COVID in the last few weeks. Third new data point. Schools across the world including the US which have opened have had to close rapidly due to spread of the disease in the schools. Since the "reopening plan" is in fact an "experiment"-- there is ample proof that the experiment is failing. Fourth new data point.
I don't actually think there are any more new data points needed to project what this means for this decision. It is clear that we don't have a handle on exactly how many cases there are, and therefore how much risk there is. It is clear that we will not be able to carry out contact tracing with testing so behind. Early data is indicating that in-person schooling is a major risk. And -- yes -- kids are not only a-symptomatic spreaders, they can in fact get very sick and die from COVID.
I then listened to the school board discuss the continuation of school sports (which are practicing now) and approve Phase 2 operations providing for competition with no plan in place to ensure adequate buses are available to provide for social distancing (if that's even possible on a bus), and with rules in place that allow for players to remove their masks on the field where they will be breathing heavily, will be close to other players, and exposed to large groups - certainly more than 10. This is on the heels of the Governor of Pennsylvania today recommending that school sports be cancelled for the year. Everything we know about COVID and the recommendations to prevent infection fly in the face of approving this recommendation including:
-- any activity that involves heavy breathing like singing are high-risk
-- social distancing of a minimum of 6 feet
-- minimize size of group
-- minimize exposure to many
I walked away from this school board meeting concerned about not only the COVID situation, but about the future potential for innovation in our schools. This board revealed a shocking lack of scenario consideration and evaluation. They never evaluated the costs and benefits of each choice put before them, and instead made all the decisions on the basis of having "no data" in a situation where data is changing every day. If they had considered the comparison of 2 choices -- virtual versus some version of in-person -- it would have been very clear -- that the potential downsides are more serious with the inperson option. The negative scenarios with virtual can at least be mitigated, whereas the negative scenarios with in-person (infections and death) cannot be mitigated once it's occurred.
If the fate of our schools lies in the judgement capability of this board, we better all start worrying.
Parent, Wissahickon School District