Thursday, November 26, 2020

School Is a Safe Place During COVID

“The truth is, for kids K-12, one of the safest places they can be, from our perspective, is to remain in school,” stated Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Robert Redfield on Thursday regarding a recent wave of school closures due to the coronavirus. “It’s really important that [we’re] following the data, making sure we don’t make emotional decisions about what to close and what not to close. And I’m here to say clearly the data strongly supports that K-12 schools — as well as institutes of higher learning — really are not where we’re having our challenges.” He added, “And it would be counterproductive from my point of view, from a public health point of view, just in containing the epidemic, if there was an emotional response, to say, ‘Let’s close the schools.’”

Earlier this year, Redfield pointed to what he saw as a far greater threat to children’s health than the coronavirus. “We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID,” he observed. “We’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose that are above excess that we had as background than we are seeing the deaths from COVID. So this is why I keep coming back for the overall social being of individuals, is let’s all work together and find out how we can find common ground to get these schools open in a way that people are comfortable and they’re safe.”

It turns out President Donald Trump has been right all along, which comes as no surprise to our readers, nor should it come as a surprise to any who have been following the actual science. It has been well documented that children and young people are neither super spreaders nor seriously threatened if they contract the novel virus. In fact, the annual flu has a higher mortality rate among children and young people when compared with COVID.

However, what may come as a bit of a surprise is that a journalist from The New York Times is finally admitting that Trump was right when he called for reopening schools to the objection of many Democrats. In a story titled “When Trump Was Right and Many Democrats Wrong,” Nicholas Kristof writes, “Trump has been demanding for months that schools reopen, and on that he seems to have been largely right. Schools, especially elementary schools, do not appear to have been major sources of coronavirus transmission, and remote learning is proving to be a catastrophe for many low-income children.”

Wait. We thought Trump was a racist and a bigot who cared nothing for the plight of minorities and the poor. In truth, it is Democrats who better fit that mold. Kristof writes, “So Democrats helped preside over school closures that have devastated millions of families and damaged children’s futures. Cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., have closed schools while allowing restaurants to operate.”

Thus far, out of more than one million children who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, only 133 have died. That’s a fatality rate of 0.01%. So at the risk of overstating it, we’re shutting down schools and doing inestimable damage to our children’s future to prevent … what, exactly?

For Some Post-Graduate Plans, Employer Tuition Reimbursements Is the Way

Many students since the pandemic have questioned whether they should attend graduate school or change their career plans altogether. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 17 percent of graduate students said their career plans changed since the pandemic started.

Students are now worried they cannot afford graduate school. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center Survey,

Half of the oldest Gen Zers reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a cut in pay because of the outbreak. This was significantly higher than the shares of Millennials (40%), Gen Xers (36%), and Baby Boomers (25%).

Students are also dealing with mental health and problems job hunting in a pandemic, too. But for some paths after undergrad, students could find a solution with tuition reimbursement programs.

Tuition reimbursement is an employee benefit that an employer may offer to their graduate school employees. The employer pays for a predetermined amount of education credits or college coursework. The employee may then be required to work for the employer for a certain amount of time while they take their courses or after receiving their degree.

According to Northeastern University Graduate programs, employers spend $177 billion annually on formal education and training programs for their employees, and $28 billion of this spending is for tuition benefits. Almost 60 percent of employers in the US offer either tuition assistance or reimbursement to their employees, but not many employees take advantage of the programs.

Those who do generally use it for law or medical school. Medical school is 4 years and a student can expect to pay anywhere from $150,444 (in-state, public school) to $247,664 (out-of-state, public school) or more. Law school is 3 years but still costly; from $85,000 (in-state, public school) to $150,000 (private school) or more for a degree.

Some law firms have tuition reimbursement programs so that law students may work at a law firm while getting their tuition paid off. The firm gets to train a future lawyer to focus where the need arises. Instead of hiring a lawyer fresh out of school with no experience, a firm invests in a student as they learn about the firm and the legal world.

For example, Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner is a law firm that specializes in patent and trademark work and has a reimbursement program that covers 100 percent of employees’ law school tuition.

Students don’t get guaranteed reimbursement that easily, however. A full reimbursement requires an A in their courses. A letter grade of a B is eligible for 80 percent reimbursement and a C is eligible for 60 percent. They also work part-time as “student associates.”

Dawn Ibbott, director of human resources and administration at the firm told The Washington Post that the program is “an incentive for the employee to do as well as possible with their course work.”

Similarly, the high price to become a doctor or surgeon can be mitigated by scholarships and loan repayment programs.

While it may not be for everyone, “the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) offers medical trainees a full-tuition scholarship in addition to a monthly stipend, in exchange for a specified term of commitment to a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.” Serving in a marginalized community can also lead to loan forgiveness through the National Health Service Corps or the Indian Health Service.

University hospitals also tend to offer tuition repayment as an employee benefit for staying with the hospital for a decade. Other medical groups may offer full or partial tuition repayment.

Though it may be harder for would-be grad students in the social sciences to find generous tuition reimbursement plans, for some students, the opportunity is out there.

Notes From a Teacher's Desk: Virtual Survival

I’m a career educator, and for the last 21 years I have taught in an independent college preparatory school for boys. Our school has high standards: strict admission requirements and dedicated professionals who are committed to their students and their courses are the status quo. Our educational philosophy is generous in not only allowing but encouraging teachers to be creative and progressive in their classrooms. For over 100 years, we have learned from and subscribed to the practice that says boys learn best when they are actively engaged in their classes and when they are bumping into each other in a friendly, rough-and-tumble boy kind of way. Sitting still for hours all day limits their desire and potential for learning.

We intentionally have not required our students to use their own device (iPad, laptop, Chromebook, etc.) in classes because we know that actual pen-to-paper has a positive neurological impact on imprinting (better learning) in the brain. Writing and learning go hand in hand (pun intended).

Until Friday, March 13, 2020. The first “Friday the 13th” of 2020.

I refer to that date as “Schexit” — the exit from school.

Many people I know have observed that 2020 has been characterized by more sleeplessness, more suppressed anxiety, and more “wondering.” I am an adult who lives by a deep faith in God and who also respects science. As I think about everything happening around me, how much more do children — who aren’t developmentally ready to assimilate the world news and real life — struggle with making sense of all that has happened and continues to happen in 2020?

I have more questions than answers.

Our students have traditionally carried the “burden” of academic pressure, but now they’re engulfed by ubiquitous reminders that the virus is waiting at every turn. Their new 2020 daily routine now includes a morning checklist that gives them permission or prohibition to be on campus: temperature check, questions about contacts who may/may not be positive, date of last negative test, plans to be on campus. Upon arriving on campus, they immediately mask, stay at least six feet apart, sanitize their hands at every door, spray desks after each class, and grab a lunch where they eat socially distanced from their friends. There is nothing social about “socially distanced.”

It takes longer for us to know our new students. Never seeing a full face is now normal. We have to learn our students by their eyes and hair color, and we can’t be near them. Teachers who respond to body language and non-verbal cues now have to guess if a student smiles at a pun or if he winces at a corny joke, if he smirks or if he has a sad countenance through the day. We teach from a distance, which is now the socially accepted/required practice, and the distanced connection is the oxymoron we now know. Reminders of CDC guidelines and recommendations are the prelude to every weekend, holiday, or extended break. The emotional toll is taxing.

Students are more anxious, and they don’t even realize it. They are carrying a load too big for their adolescent bones and minds to carry. Before they begin to learn anything academic, they have to cut through the fog of viruses, parental employment uncertainty, unexplained irritability, sleep deprivation (I’ll touch on this soon), and normal adolescent development.

We now have to require our students to have their own device (in education, we call this 1:1, meaning one device for one student), because at any moment a call from the Health Department may require the student to become a virtual learner. A teacher may have to quarantine and teach a physical class virtually after a family member tests positive. (Note: When a teacher has to quarantine and teach virtually, we still have to find a substitute for the students in the classroom for them to have supervision or attend to technological difficulties.) Children who developmentally thrive on routine are now living with 2020 that has given the gift of daily uncertainty and an increased threat level.

What is the long-term impact of living with this threat? Time will tell.

Before the COVID pandemic hit, educators and parents struggled to teach the balance of screen time for their kids. Thanks to the pandemic, the requirement for students to have a device for academics, as well as gaming/entertainment/social networking, unrealistically expects that students use an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex to exert the self-discipline to unplug. Any device in their hands gives them access to anything and everything, and the intention of games and videos (even the educational variety) is to keep them plugged in. (If you haven’t seen “The Social Dilemma,” I highly recommend it.) I set out on a search to find evidence that more screen time increases learning, but everything I have found proves the opposite. More screen time decreases learning, creativity, and restorative sleep. (Sleep is important for good health and learning.) Too much screen time is antithetical to increased learning.

We will have to be proactive as parents and professionals to listen to our children’s fears, concerns, and anxieties. We have to tune in to our children and turn off the devices. We have to engage with them and others on a personal level. Look at them. Listen to them. Our school is fortunate to have trained school counselors on campus to work with our teachers, students, and their families. Psychologists report that children of parents who are constantly distracted with their smart phones are less resilient, have lower self-esteem, and have delayed development. This research was published before a global pandemic. What will research show about the effects of an entire household that is glued to a device for work and school, and then for games, entertainment, and social media?

While I am concerned about my own school and our students, I realize how immeasurably blessed we are that we have the facilities and resources to be open for physical classes. We are blessed to have families that have access to devices and the Internet. How many thousands upon thousands of students do not have the access, resources, help, and availability of supervision? What happens long term to students who require special intervention and services to accommodate their learning differences and/or socioeconomic disadvantages? What about those who are now at their homes, who used to be able to escape the emotional and/or physical abuse that they received at home, for the routine and safety of school with adults who protect and educate them?

Surviving 2020 is only the beginning. The lasting impact of the gravitas of shutdowns, masks, and other extraordinary measures is yet to be determined. Our children will have lost months of education, growth, natural curiosity and discovery, and personal interactions. I fear we will feel the lasting effects of this gap resulting in stunted or delayed development. Will the relief of a vaccine overcome the grief over the loss of special moments, milestones, family traditions, and family members?

The pandemic interruption will require student triage for years to come, and it will take more than a “village” to put this Humpty Dumpty back together again.




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