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The Issue Behind the Issue

It’s back-to-school time as I am writing this post. But this year, it’s different, because this year we are 18 months into the pandemic. And that means we’re not entirely sure what kids and teachers and administrators should be doing.

Some are saying that because young people are very unlikely to catch COVID-19, we should be back to business as normal. Others believe we should require vaccinations for anyone who works in schools. Some people are focused on masks: making them mandatory, optional, or even not allowed.

And because of new virus variants, there is another problem. The data we have is from before these mutations. So how much is that data useful?

The issue, I think, is not properly framed. Because instead of focusing almost solely on what about COVID in schools we should devote time to what is it about schools that makes COVID a problem?


COVID is a problem in schools because our model for education is mass colocation. We require hundreds of otherwise unconnected people from all over to commute to the same enclosed space—every weekday, nine months out of the year.

That’s a recipe for rapid transmission of communicable diseases.

Now that we know the fundamental weakness—the issue behind the issue—we can start to explore what to do. Can we create an education system that doesn’t depend on mass colocation?

This is not easy. We all learned last year that with a camera and a screen we could sort of conduct business and sort of stay in touch with friends and family. But ask any parent or teacher: this did not do much good for kids in schools.

And even if we somehow figured out how to teach completely through screens, we have another problem: kids need in-person supervision. And most parents and guardians can’t do that because they have to work.

So the real, true challenge we face isn’t COVID. It’s that the we can’t adapt to problems like new diseases because our systems aren’t set up for this. We can’t spend time apart without nearly collapsing.

I don’t know how to address this for education in the long-term. But we do have to make difficult choices in the here and now. I know it’s frustrating. I know it’s frightening. I know it’s not the childhood we all had. But if you’re going to bring hundreds of otherwise unconnected people into the same space, we have got to choose the safest option: wear a mask, or stay home.

I don’t like this at all. But if we don’t require masks at schools, we are increasing a risk, right now, that we know exists but cannot calculate. And how we will ever make the big changes that we know are needed if we can’t handle a short-term challenge today?

This is what it means to prepare for the future. It’s to do something today that we don’t want to do because we believe it might help us to have more options in the future.

Please help. The future needs us.


  1. Paul Jimenez

    This overlooks/doesn’t mention that the school problem is heightened by the fact that most school age kids are too young to be able to be vaccinated.

    1. Robby Slaughter

      Indeed, you are correct. But if we did require masks for everyone and vaccines for everyone who can get one, that is the safest option for schools right now.

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