Moving the Goalposts

One of the most frustrating aspects of the school opening situation is that a number of ultra-respectable policy organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatricians, strongly recommended opening in the spring and early in the summer, with relatively few restrictions.

“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

and then changed their minds as political battle-lines were drawn- mostly between Trump and Democratic-aligned teachers’ unions. In fact, the AAP released their updated guidance as a joint statement with the main national teachers unions. Similarly, Harvard School of Public Health put out a set of guidelines early in the summer that was thought initially by many too stringent:


Areas between 1 in 10 per 100,000, the “Yellow” zone, are recommended to open K-8 full time and 9-12 hybrid.  This, by Harvard’s own dashboard, includes the vast majority of the country:


(Note, given the likelihood of false positives, perhaps approximately 1% of results,almost anywhere with substantial testing is likely to be above the 1 per 100,000 threshold.)

But in astonishing duplicity, in late August the same group of researchers contributed to a separate New York Times visualization much more widely shared by those who want to keep schools closed, which combines the initial benchmarks they set early in the summer with a separate World Health Association benchmark of 5 percent or lower positive testing rates, to use the intersection of these separate benchmarks to argue that almost the entire country’s should be closed:


This is what they call moving the goalposts. The result of this changing consensus has been to enable districts’ own skittishness and fear of liability and got us to the situation where the large majority of kids will be staring at a screen this fall rather than leaving the house and interacting with other children and adults.

In net, public health researchers, pediatricians, and educators have turned on their own guidance for evidently political reasons, damaging their own credibility. Harvard School of Public Health has been issuing maudlin and self-stroking press releases that “racism is a public health crisis” while meanwhile, for political ends, supporting policies that will almost certainly, by nearly all available evidence, make the existing racial and economic gaps in achievement larger.

More importantly than whether closing the nation’s schools and gluing tens of millions of children to Zoom meetings does anything to achievement gaps as such, of course, is that it’s a stupid idea. A reminder: this is a disease that does not substantially affect children,  hospitalizing children aged 5-17 far less than any recent  year of flu and that appears to pass from children to adults very rarely.  Even with the New York Times hitting the drum claiming that children are getting sick increasingly, the total, cumulative hospitalization of American 5-17 year olds from COVID, for this year through late August, is 8.7 per 100,000, in comparison with 20 per 100,000 children in the same age group for flu in the last pre-COVID season, 2018-2019, and 19.5 per 100,000 for flu in the 2017-2018 season. This is putting aside that keeping children at home has its own health dangers, from COVID and from other causes.  Getting children and the adults who work in schools outside and active is genuinely likely  to be protective from COVID as well as any of the other other public health crises- mental or physical- we’re now experiencing.

I’m well aware that a substantial portion of my readers view  school systems, as they presently exist, as factories for indoctrination in the spirit of madness possessing many of the people who run them. But whatever malevolent designs the schools enact will be worse when mediated by the internet, unconstrained by the steadying force of dealing with other human beings, in person, together, every day. Some portion of parents will be able certainly to offer plenty of what their kids need this year, whether schools open or stay shut: air, light, space to run around in, conversation, surprise, other kids. But many won’t.

9 thoughts on “Moving the Goalposts

  1. I do have a special hatred of that percent positive ratio criterion, which is a really, really bad metric from a data and testing process point of view. That particular metric fortunately only delayed the opening of my children’s school for a hybrid model, but I know that if it weren’t for that last-minute moving of the goalposts, a lot of heartache and uncertainty would have been avoided, as the plan we set up wasn’t affected by it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Right?

        Here is an interesting data point on this school thing: when we asked the parents at my school if they wanted to do remote or in-person in the fall, about 2/3 rds said in-person, 1/3 remote, but at this point we up to 140/160 students in school, because lots of those who started remote can’t take it anymore.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great to have you back to blogging, Mr. Toad. You’ve helped me think through my own misgivings and frustrations with schooling and teaching (through a TFA-congruent program, the Mississippi Teacher Corps), now 10 years ago. Though at the time, and for a while thereafter, I was acutely cynical about the whole enterprise, I now have a more qualified appreciation for the way the poor district I worked at was, in fact, a crucial institution, providing support, if weakly, in many of the ways it tried to, as well in other parts of life that are difficult to index.

    Keep up the fine work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I got suspicious when you referenced a possible mental health crisis. Standards for what qualifies are ever changing and tied into concept creep, but suicide is something we do have somewhat reliable numbers on. Greg Cochran has noted that suicide went down during the Great Depression, and my understanding is that mortality for most causes other than COVID are down now. Does anyone have numbers on actual suicides (rather than survey responses) during the pandemic compared to the same time last year?


  4. Though I am highly sympathetic to your arguments for a number of different reasons, the evidence that you present for a lack of transmission of Covid-19 from children to adults is weak at best.
    Given that the “disease that does not substantially affect children” this is *the* question with regards to how schools should run this year.
    Until there is more robust evidence for a lack of transmission from children to teachers (especially older teachers), in-person learning will be a hard sell.

    P.S. Welcome back to blogging. Your presence was sorely missed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair, I won’t deny it’s contraversial. I think this modeling paper is about as good an estimate as we’ve got: half as likely to get infected, nearly (but not quite) as infective once infected . This site makes the point that the reduction in susceptibility has large implications for the length of transmission chains among children, which are necessarily much shorter, although clearly superspreader events can occur.


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