We Were Unprepared

In so many ways.

It is said that newspaper reporters write the first draft of history. If that is true, then reporters are now writing the first draft of the history of how the United States responded to the modern day plague - Covid 19. And it is not a good history so far.

It is apparent that we were woefully unprepared for this, in so many ways, at so many levels. Sure, there was significant preparatory work that had been done, and “practice rounds” with SARS and Ebola. And much federal and state money was spent ostensibly to prepare for “the big one.” But it seems clear from the reporting already that the decision not to coordinate a response at the federal level was disastrous. And given that decision, local health departments were not sufficiently ready. Both factors made our response inadequate, and many have died unnecessarily, and much societal disruption has taken place.

Those decisions involved leaders and government agencies whose job it is to prepare for infectious diseases and coordinate our response. Educators are not infectious disease experts, so we are not responsible for our health departments giving us conflicting information about opening school, or closing school, or hybrid instruction... it seems to change which one we are doing by the day. But it is becoming clear that our educational system was also woefully unprepared for this, and the chaos caused by the back and forth with online and in-person instruction has been a mess, for students and teachers alike.

Partly this is simply because it is not human nature to spend a lot of money and time preparing for something that happens rarely. There just isn’t government and institutional will to do so, at least not at the levels necessary when the big one hits. So that is why we had a ventilator shortage early in the pandemic, and could not get sufficient PPE fast enough, and we’ve had so many other shortcomings.

But the education system, writ large, had plenty of experience teaching online before this. Most high school systems have an online high school program available. Universities have been teaching online classes for more than a decade. Graduate schools too. But because these options were resisted by many and considered second-rate by others, we did not invest in them, and were not ready when they were really needed. As a result, we have chaos and confusion, and it looks like many students are falling behind.

In a recent survey of 647 Denver parents with school-age kids found that 65% said their children were learning less online. In another survey of 650 Colorado parents, 54% said they believe their children are falling behind academically during the pandemic. In that study, half of the parents responding thought their school district was doing a fair or poor job teaching their children during the pandemic. In the Wausau, Wisconsin school district, high school freshmen received 856 F’s in the first quarter of 2020, compared with 189 in the same period last year. Attendance is down in public schools around the country.

This is troubling data, and many would assume that it is simple evidence that online learning is inferior. But I take a different view. I believe it is damning evidence that we were unprepared - that we had no unified strategy for addressing a pandemic in our educational systems. And that we lost years before the pandemic when we could have embraced the technology and developed online learning expertise throughout our educational system.

It has been a failure of imagination as well. The biggest mistake being made in online learning environments - I believe - has been to try to replicate the in-person experience in the virtual world. We know how to teach in the classroom. We are comfortable with that, so we tried to do the same thing. But online learning environments have different strengths. If you are trying to do online all the same things you did in an in-person classroom you are missing an opportunity to leverage the technology for greater learning. Full stop. And, unfortunately, probably handing out more F’s to your students.

We should have been better prepared. We had years of experience with online learning, but we resisted it and disparaged it, and missed an opportunity. Now, many of us are still hoping we will return to “normal,” and in the meantime trying to do online what we did in the classroom. It has not worked very well.

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Letters of Recommendation

We made it through Dry January, so how about a drink? One of the worst things about living in the United States is we do not have pubs like they have in the UK. The Public House was a truly great invention, and not only because it became each neighborhood’s living room, and not only because it brought people together who might disagree with one another cordially. It also was a great invention because of the way beer is served there - using a draught system from kegs stored in a cool basement below the bar. Not too fizzy, light on the alcohol, and just the right temperature. Fortunately, technology has saved the day for us in the US: British beer in draught cans. There are lots to choose from. If Guinness Stout is your thing, it is available in these cans. Boddington’s Ale also, and my personal recommendation: Wexford’s Irish Creme Ale. The British know what helps, especially on a cold damp night in February.

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Quote, from the poet and Civil Rights activist Maya Angelou:

When people tell you who they are, believe them. But when people tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them, and absolutely nothing about you.