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A Complex Argument for Opening Schools

For this week’s LogicChecker, I’d like to look at an argument that relies heavily on the kind of numerical evidence I’ve been talking about over the last few postings where the certainty of mathematics must contend with imperfection of the real-world things being quantified.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof kicks off this editorial (reproduced below) not with number-laden premises, but rather with an argument that people (likely those who do not support the current President) should not automatically reject prioritizing opening schools just because Trump has been aggressively pushing a return-to-school agenda.

That argument can be boiled down to:

Premise 1: President Donald Trump has aggressively pushed for a reopening of schools.

Premise 2: Trump’s aggressiveness (and opposition to Trump in general) may cause Democrats to instinctively oppose what Trump supports (reopening schools).

Premise 3: Reopening schools carries health risks to students, teachers, and family members.

Premise 4: Keeping schools closed and teaching remotely carries risks that students (particularly those less well off) will fall far behind and never catch up, with life-long negative consequences.

Conclusion: Decision makers should make school-opening choices based on weighing risks and benefits, not on partisan opposition to anything Trump advocates.

After his call to base decisions on risk-benefit analysis, rather than politics, Kristof provides data regarding the number of kids who do not have access to computers (more than seven million) and high-speed Internet (almost 17 million) needed for adequate at-home schooling.

While those numbers are based on a study that spells out its methodology for counting homes without hardware or bandwidth, other assertions Kristof makes are less supported, including:

  • An undocumented numerical claim that missing 10% of classes translates to a seven-fold increase in drop-outs

  • A claim made without numbers regarding students leaving schools after a different disaster (Hurricane Katrina)

  • Statistics about historic drop-out rates in schools tracked by the Bureau of Indian Education (presumably a stand-in for schools with many low-income students) before the pandemic

Keep in mind that editorialists are not required to provide hard numbers for every assertion they make. But we readers (if we are going to think critically) are required to weigh the evidence based on its origin and quality, as well as determine which statistics are relevant to the point being argued.

This is particularly important when Kristof runs down statistics on both sides of the question of whether reopening of schools is safe.

It is to his credit that he is not making the claim that putting kids back into schools does not represent significant risk of COVID infection. But his “straightforward” claim that we can “Control the virus with masks, business lockdowns, social distancing, aggressive testing and rigorous surveillance (including sewage testing, which gives early warning that the virus is present)” might not be so straightforward once we realize it is not a statement of fact, but the conclusion of an argument which goes:

Premise 1: Young people are unlikely to die from coronavirus, but they can get infected and become sick or spread the disease.

Premise 2: Other countries, including Sweden where infection rates were high due to lax distancing measures, have not experienced increased risks of infection when they reopened schools.

Premise 3: Students, particularly low-income students, face grave consequences if they are not properly educated, including falling behind, dropping out, and lifelong loss of income.

Premise 4: We have ways of maximizing school safety (masks, distancing, open windows, etc.)

Conclusion: We should reopen schools in any place where COVID infection rates are under control with all proper safety measures in place.

Kristof also embraces a Bandwidth for All agenda meant to ensure all students have access to the key resources they need to engage in remote learning. This is a deliberative argument since it proposes a solution for improving things in the future, with future-oriented recommendations generally strengthening any argument.

That said, advocacy of Bandwidth for All can be used to strengthen a different argument than the one Kristof is making, one that pushes improving online education as the best way to support student learning while staying safe during the pandemic. The fact that Kristof’s argument implies, but does not argue, that in-school learning (especially with all the restrictions he recommends be put in place) is inherently superior to remote learning also weakens his case that getting kids back into school is the best way to educate them.

If you’ve been keeping up with posts and analyses on this site, you can probably recognize that an editorial like the one written by Kristof is not one argument, but rather a string of arguments that represents a chain of reasoning leading to a conclusion the writer wants you to accept.

While I don’t think Kristof has adequately made his case, given that his piece does not address the important question of educational quality based on modality (in-person vs. remote - beyond hardware and bandwidth equity issues, which might be solvable), he has made a good-faith effort to marshal evidence, honestly present data that could support different conclusions, and played on good emotions, such as devotion to our children, rather than partisan anger, which should be driving our decisions.

So three dumbbells for Nicholas:

Original Editorial

Remote Learning’ Is Often an Oxymoron

Nicholas Kristoff, New York Times, September 2, 2020

While President Trump has insisted that schools physically reopen, the private school his son Barron is attending is sticking with remote learning.

Yes, that feels like a double standard, but it’s more complicated than that. Barron will have a computer and internet access at home. He’ll have adults making sure he does his work, and he’ll be able to eat his fill without free school lunches.

In short, affluent children will mostly be fine even without in-person classes. But one study found that almost 17 million American children live in homes without high-speed internet, and more than seven million don’t have a computer at home. For disadvantaged kids, “online learning” is an oxymoron.

Prolonged school closures will worsen dropout rates across the nation, for missing just 10 percent of class days is associated with a sevenfold increased risk of dropping out. Even in normal times, only 53 percent of children attending Bureau of Indian Education schools finish high school. Closures after Hurricane Katrina led many students to leave school for good.

I fear that Trump’s hyperbolic embrace of reopening schools has led Democrats to be instinctively wary. The risk is that in trying to protect students from the pandemic — especially disadvantaged students — we may permanently damage their futures.

Let’s sort through the evidence, which is inconsistent.

It’s false to assert, as Trump did, that children are “virtually immune” to the coronavirus, but the direct risk to schoolchildren is small. Those aged 5 through 14 account for fewer than one in every 1,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States. Among all causes of death of children in that age group since February, the coronavirus was responsible less than 1 percent of the time.

The greater risk is to elderly teachers and to students’ grandparents, but advocates of reopening schools note that other countries have successfully operated schools. In most of those places, like Germany, Denmark, Norway and Taiwan, Covid-19 was relatively rare, but Sweden kept its schools open even though it has had a significantly higher per capita death toll than the United States.

I’ve criticized Sweden’s approach to the pandemic, which resulted in very high mortality and substantial economic damage, but it does offer a window into what happens when a country with elevated levels of Covid-19 keeps schools open. Sweden found no increased risk to teachers, compared with those in other jobs.

One review article by a Swedish epidemiologist, Jonas Ludvigsson, concluded: “Children are unlikely to be the main drivers of the pandemic. Opening up schools and kindergartens is unlikely to impact Covid-19 mortality rates in older people.”

There’s plenty of contrary evidence, however. A study in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that children may carry enough virus to spread the pandemic. The coronavirus raced through a sleepaway camp in Georgia so that 76 percent of campers and staff members for whom test results were available tested positive. Schools in at least five states reopened and then had to close again, at least temporarily, after eruptions of the virus — a particular problem in parts of the country that did not take the pandemic seriously.

Putting aside the health impact, we also know that low-income children suffer disproportionately not only from the virus, but also from school closures. McKinsey has estimated that prolonged closures could cost students up to 14 months of education and lead to one million additional high school dropouts. The educational losses would reduce lifetime earnings of students by $80,000 each, with Black and Latino students suffering percentage drops in incomes twice as great as those among whites, McKinsey calculated.

Given all this, the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics seems right, that we do everything possible to allow children to safely resume in-person learning.

That’s especially true for special needs students (about 14 percent of enrollment), as well as low-income pupils and those at risk of dropping out. But this isn’t about rashly herding children into schools, but about doing all that can be done to make schools safe. That means aggressive testing, mask-wearing, open windows, outdoor classes when possible and grouping students in pods, and it will require much more federal assistance for schools.

Let’s also embrace Bandwidth for All, modeled on rural electrification in the 1930s and ’40s. The internet is as essential today as electricity was then.

There will be some places in the United States where coronavirus prevalence is so high that in-person schooling will have to be suspended, but that should be the exception. It’s absurd that we have allowed liquor stores, gyms, gun shops, restaurants and marijuana dispensaries to operate while keeping schools shut.

Let’s also remember that in a larger sense the best way to reopen schools is to demand responsibility from our leaders and all the rest of us. The path is straightforward: Control the virus with masks, business lockdowns, social distancing, aggressive testing and rigorous surveillance (including sewage testing, which gives early warning that the virus is present). If our peer countries can do it, we can, too. Our children are worth it.


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