Heartbreak, Health and Politics

Every so often a piece of journalism breaks through the flotsam and jetsam that is the contemporary Twitterverse, and compels digestion, contemplation, and discussion. If you’ve given any thought to the trade-offs involved in extending distance learning or resuming campus-based instruction and have yet to read Alec MacGillis’, “The Students Left Behind by Remote Learning,” find a comfortable chair and prepare to be discomfited.

Mr. MacGillis puts a human face on the academic and social-emotional deprivations inflicted upon millions of children by telling the heart-rending story of one sixth-grade student from Baltimore. Shemar (his middle name) is a bright, inquisitive kid with an impressive vocabulary, who enjoys school and is eager to learn. He’s also a poster boy for the daunting complex of challenges with which the children of the American underclass must, sadly, contend. He lives in poverty and experiences food insecurity. His single-parent mother struggles with drug addiction, and appears to be losing the battle to provide her children with a stable, structured home environment. He moves from place to place. There is no apparent father in the picture.

School appears to have been something of an oasis for Shemar. He was a diligent student who enjoyed learning and respected his instructors. When his social studies teacher – his favorite – resigned, he cried. Reading the opening paragraphs of Mr. MacGillis’ article, one receives the impression that, despite the formidable odds stacked against him, Shemar could have succeeded. But then, on March 16, Maryland shut down school campuses and moved to distance learning.

The remainder of the article, which was co-published by The New Yorker and ProPublica (where Mr. MacGillis covers politics and government) criss-crosses its way between an exploration of the political terrain upon which the controversy over the resumption of campus-based instruction is being waged, and Shemar’s struggles to cope with the unintended consequences of prolonged distance learning. At its end, readers are left with two inescapable conclusions: millions of children are paying a terrible price for the extended closure of school campuses, and science often takes a backseat to politics in related policy making.

To find convincing evidence of the triumph of politics over science, one need scarcely look beyond the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH), whose physicians and social scientists have largely abandoned the pretense that their actions are driven by science. As LACDPH Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer prefers to put it, the Department’s decisions are made “in consultation with the Board of Supervisors.” The truth of the matter, however, is that Dr. Ferrer and her colleagues do as they’re told by the supervisors, and the majority of the supervisors do as they’re told by organized labor interests, led in this case by United Teachers Los Angeles.

It must be noted at this point that LACDPH has long treated private schools in an exemplary manner. The Department is led by hard working physicians and social scientists who care, first and foremost, about public health. They are not politicians, have no ulterior motives, and pursue no agenda beyond keeping people safe and healthy. They have never drawn distinctions between public and private schools when being of service. They are good people who have bent over backward throughout the course of the pandemic to make themselves available to school officials through weekly tele-briefings, a dedicated phone line, and email. They are, however, stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, as they try to put the best possible face upon the County Board of Supervisors’ politically motivated directives. I feel for them.

When in early August, the state of California released guidelines for the submission of a waivers application allowing the resumption of campus-based instruction for pupils in grades TK-6, the LACDPH let school leaders know that procedures were being put in place to help schools wishing to submit applications get a running start on the process. Then they got the memo from the Supervisors. The teachers union was not going to support any waiver application. And if there was one thing the unions were less likely to allow than the resumption of in-person instruction on public school campuses, it was the re-opening of private school campuses while public schools remained in distance-learning mode. Turning on a dime, LACDPH summarily terminated the waiver application process, citing the unique challenges faced by a county the size of Los Angeles.

Near the end of August, the state established rules permitting campus-based instruction for small cohorts serving a limited number of students who were either English learners, required special education, or were otherwise at risk of academic failure. The L.A. County Supervisors had little choice but to comply. Refusal to do so would almost certainly have invited a pile of lawsuits brought on behalf of children with special needs – lawsuits the County knew it could not win. The spin placed by LACDPH upon this development was that the small cohort experience would be closely monitored and rigorously evaluated so as to inform future decision making about the expansion of campus openings, which the Department now saw beginning “sometime following the elections.”

What LACDPH didn’t acknowledge was that the students participating in the small cohort groups comprise what amounts to a biased sample – one that can neither be regarded as representative of the entire population of public and private school students, nor permit valid generalizations to that population. The fact of the matter is that those meeting the criteria for inclusion in the small cohort, campus-based programs are more likely to possess extra-school characteristics that place them at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19.

When an informal coalition of public and private school leaders, parents, and medical professionals brought increased pressure to bear upon the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to initiate the waiver application process, the politicians relented, in part. As quickly as it had previously decided to foreclose the process, LACDPH now (in early October) announced that it would accept up to 30 waiver applications a week from public and private schools wishing to resume campus-based learning for students in grades TK-2.

In order to obtain approval from LACDPH, however, private schools are, literally, being forced to grant veto power to their employees. If a school’s teachers and staff lack union representation, the waiver application form and accompanying instructions make it clear that the school must supply a letter of support signed by a majority of all school employees. No distinction is drawn between public and private schools.

Any private school worth its salt esteems its teachers and respects its additional employees. Surely, a reputable private school will consult with its faculty prior to making important decisions around the reopening of school campuses. State guidelines require such consultation, and private schools are completely on board with the policy. LACDPH, however, goes well beyond the state’s requirement by granting private school employees the power to nullify a waiver application. No other category of private employer appears to have been subjected to any comparable expropriation of authority.

Highly valued as a school’s teachers are, the faculty is not part of the legitimate governing authority of a private school. Teachers are not fiduciaries; they bear neither legal, nor financial responsibility for decisions made, and/or policies established by governing boards, ecclesiastical authorities, or owners. In fact, the audacious requirement imposed upon waiver-seeking L.A. County private schools might actually expose teachers to unwitting liability. If teachers now possess the ability to prevent a school from resuming campus-based learning, and something should go awry, may the signatories to the requisite letter of approval be named as defendants in a complaint alleging negligence? (Teachers and support staff are, surely, not covered by directors and officers liability insurance policies.)

In any event, there is not a shred of science to be adduced in support of such a requirement. The County’s action is a clear example of governmental overreach, one that makes a mockery of science while openly subverting the governance of private schools. And it’s not just happening in Los Angeles. A recent working paper by political scientists Michael T. Hartney and Leslie K. Finger, titled, ” Politics, Markets, and Pandemics: Public Education’s Response to COVID-19 ,” found that:

Contrary to the conventional understanding of school districts as localized and non-partisan actors, we find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making. Mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening. Additionally, we find evidence that districts are sensitive to the threat of private school exit.

Whereas it’s been said that even paranoids have real enemies, there is nothing delusional about organized labor’s desire to impose its will upon private schools. It’s time for our friends at LACDPH to drop the pretense of a scientific basis for granting veto power to employees of a private employer, and make it clear that the politicians are the authors of such policies. Failure to do so invites distrust of science. Do we really need more of that?

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessary represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.

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