This is What Failure Looks Like

There have been a lot of great questions and concerns about East Penn’s health and safety plan for district schools this fall.  But the school district doesn’t operate in a vacuum.  The viability of the health and safety plan will be determined more by the larger social and political context in the country than it will by any of the specific details of the plan itself.  To evaluate whether the plan will work therefore requires we take a step back and look at this larger social and political context.

The situation we find ourselves in today was NOT inevitable. Different countries have responded to the pandemic in different ways, which has in turn largely determined the fate of education and the schools.  This is an important enough point that it’s worth an example or two.

Contrasting Choices

New Zealand is a country of 4.9 million people that took COVID-19 seriously from the start, closing schools, shuttering businesses, and requiring people to stay home on March 25th, at a time when they had fewer than 200 cases nationwide (and no deaths).  They immediately expanded their testing and contact tracing capacity to the levels scientific and public health experts said was necessary.  The result?  The country completely eradicated the virus in less than two months.   On June 8th– after 17 straight days of zero new cases– New Zealand lifted all pandemic restrictions. Only their border remains closed, to protect what they’ve accomplished.  All told, they had 1,154 cases and 22 deaths from COVID-19.

By comparison, the U.S. state that comes closest in population to New Zealand is Alabama (also with 4.9 million people). COVID-19 appeared in Alabama for the first time about the same time as it did in New Zealand, and governor Kay Ivey ordered all non-essential businesses in the state closed on March 27th– just two days after a similar order in New Zealand.   Unlike New Zealand, however, Alabama never enforced the order to close, and in any case most of the order was  lifted less than a month later.  Rather than telling people to stay at home, the state instead created a “Safer At Home” campaign that “encouraged” doing so.  Alabama also did not ramp up its testing or contact tracing capacity to the levels needed to combat the spread of the virus. The result?  Alabama has recorded 68,891 cases through July 20th, with 1,291 deaths. The state has recorded more new cases every single day since July 10th than the entire total of New Zealand’s cases over more than four months. I’ll ask the obvious at this point: Which of these results do you think is more conducive to returning to school?

This isn’t an isolated example.  In Europe, Slovakia has more people than Alabama– at 5.4 million– in an area less than a third the size of the state, and was well connected to initial pandemic hotspots in places like Italy and Spain.  Yet to date they have had only 1,980 cases and 28 deaths due to COVID-19.  How did they do it?  Slovakia used the best public health expertise to confront the virus; they acted decisively in shutting down schools and non-essential businesses when the virus first appeared; and they led the world in requiring universal use of masks in public places.

The lesson here is clear.  The spread of COVID-19 presented a challenge, not an unstoppable catastrophe, to leaders around the world.  Those that chose to confront the virus with aggressive action and the best available scientific and public health advice met the challenge. Those that downplayed the threat, ignored best practices, and delayed tough choices for containing the virus now face greater danger, economic losses, and social disruption. 

The Choice Today

All of this is now history. The choice today is whether we will learn from the successes and failures of the (recent) past and change course? Or will we continue ignoring both evidence and expertise, choosing short term convenience over long term recovery until COVID-19 has consumed us entirely?

It is on this crucial choice that the future of our schools depends in the coming months. Here in Lehigh County, the number of new COVID-19 cases has stayed low for almost two months now. This offers us a real opportunity to give the education of our kids the attention, resources, and support it deserves.  But this can happen only if the social and political context allows us to keep these numbers low– something that the district’s health and safety plan simply cannot guarantee. The fact is that the four basic ingredients needed to safely reopen schools have been known for months now:

  • We need to be testing many more people for the virus. There are minor disagreements about the exact standard to properly judge the number of needed tests, but current testing levels in Pennsylvania don’t meet any of these standards.
  • We need to have labs returning test results quickly enough that those who test positive can isolate themselves and minimize the spread of the virus.
  • We need to have robust contact tracing that can quickly and reliably identify those who might have contracted the virus from others.  
  • We need social distancing measures that are widely practiced and enforced. The most proven of these measures is the use of masks, but also include physical distancing and a continued suspension of “super spreader” events that gather crowds in the hundreds and thousands.

Can East Penn Safely Reopen?

The answer lies not in the details of East Penn’s health and safety plan, but in the willingness of the community to do what is required to stop the spread of COVID-19.  And it lies in the hands of the choices America’s state and national leaders make in the weeks and months ahead.

Here in East Penn, I have the utmost confidence in the leadership of superintendent Kristen Campbell as well as the dedication and wisdom of every one of my colleagues on the East Penn School Board. I am sure that our district’s teachers will step up to the unprecedented challenge we now face.  And our children are more resilient and adaptable than we give them credit for.  

I don’t know if all this will be enough.  We have been watching the tragedy of America’s response to the pandemic for months now.  This is what failure looks like.  But it doesn’t have to continue this way.  We can change course and fix this.  There is nothing inevitable or unstoppable about COVID-19.  But reopening East Penn schools will require more than a well formulated health and safety plan; it will also require a change in will, competence, courage, and perseverance at the national level. 

This is the second part of a weeklong series of posts on reopening the East Penn schools.  Here are the others:

Throughout this series, I encourage your questions, your concerns, and your perspective. Please share them in the comment area available at the bottom of every one of my posts.

5 thoughts on “This is What Failure Looks Like”

  1. As a teacher in our district, I appreciate so much all of the thought you are putting into these posts, Ziad, and thank you for your research and dedication. I think you make an excellent and extremely important point here that unless regional and national changes are made, all of the precautions our district may take could be irrelevant. I would love to have our district commit to distance learning for the next few months so that we can turn the conversation away from masks and physical distance and indoor/outdoor and to pressing concerns like how we are going to help our families in poverty or our families who need childcare. I recognize that these are flawed systems in our country and wish we could count on our government to help, but the fact is that we cannot and must make plans. I was moved this week by this post:

    Thank you again for your commitment to our students and faculty.

  2. Ziad, thank you so much for this post. You hit the nail on the head, inspiring confidence that East Penn will make the best and safest choices for school this fall. I hope that your message is received and truly heard by a wide audience of East Penn families–we all need to take personal responsibility to ensure a safe reopening. I wish we were hearing similar sentiments from leaders in the federal government.

  3. Mr Munson, I am friends with Mark Spengler and Sue Arnold(although one or both might deny that!) I am also a resident of SOLEHI SD where my son recently graduated and my daughter is now a Senior. I am a Republican, socially liberal(but pro life) and do not particularly like a lot of what our President does. That said, I’d like you to offer some “balance” from the other side. Also because I see parallels between EPSD’s plan and SLSD’s, as much as I can tell they are identical so maybe you collaborate? First I’d like to address your opening paragraphs on NZ and Slovakia. I completely understand the point you were making but I’d like you to consider a different process. If I was debating you I would talk about NZ being an island nation. Slovakia, I would ask you to dig deeper to satisfy your intellectual curiosity. The death rate in US of those infected hovers in the high 3’s, why is the death rate of those countries 60% lower than us? Same virus correct? Do wealthy people all over Europe and Australia say “I’m going to Slovakia or NZ if I get a terminal illness?” because of their phenomenal health care? So somethings amiss in how they report versus us, or something else. The point is, you’re justifying/advocating policy based on severe lockdowns in foreign countries whose COVID success is not necessarily because of severe lockdown. My larger point is many in the educational community are not approaching this as “how can we get the kids, who are statistically more likely to die driving to school than of COVID back into school?” but how can we protect the teachers who are not statistically likely to die either unless they are over 60 with a precondition but are frightened because of how COVID is being presented? You should also not weigh the decisions of a school district in Lehigh Co PA against the activities or behavior going on nationally. Currently in PA we have almost 24,000 active cases and have 736 in the hospital(3% Hospitalization rate)and from previous hospitalization rates about 40 are under the age of 50 and maybe 1 EPSD school age kid.

    • Thanks for taking the time to share your perspective, Mr. Coyle. I appreciate it. I agree with you that, as an island nation, New Zealand has some advantages in controlling the virus. This is why I included the example of Slovakia as well. If you examine the data on testing worldwide, you’ll see that the experts gathering this data at places like the Harvard Global Health Institute take the reliability of testing figures into account. Figures from New Zealand and Slovakia are very reliable. Testing figures for the U.S. are reliable too, but data on the number of cases in the U.S. are not reliable because our testing rate remains so low. As you may have seen, the CDC has recently confirmed that the number of actual COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is somewhere between 2 and 13 times higher than reported. If anything, this makes the comparison in my post even more stark. I agree with you completely that the relatively low numbers in the Lehigh Valley right now offer a window of opportunity to open schools at manageable levels of risk. But we do need to give some weight to what is happening nationally as well, if for no other reason than it offers numerous examples of other areas that had similarly low numbers that then spiked very quickly because there was inadequate testing, contact tracing, and social distancing to keep a small uptick in check. Finally, I did not mean to leave you with the impression that I advocated a severe lockdown, even though I do note how a short lockdown worked at the beginning of the pandemic for several countries. For us in the here and now, however, my post is advocating for building testing capacity, contact tracing capacity, and proven social distancing measures as an important basis for the safe reopening of the schools.

      • Dr Munson(apologies for missing that on the original post) Due to inadequate testing in April/May and the CDC saying that up to 80% of those infected show no, or very mild symptoms I believe the CDC estimate is on the high end of the “2-13 times higher” you mention. But lets split the difference and say 7.5%. A snapshot of COVID in PA today shows 23K+ active cases and 735 in hospitals receiving treatment. A 3% hospitalization rate. But if the CDC estimates of undercounting cases only at an average 7.5 times higher, then the Hospitalization rate is 0.4% if tested positive for COVID. Additionally the all time death rate, if we apply that same formula is 0.1% for people under the age of 65 if infected. Thats all time, not now where we have much better protocols in place and surviving (outside of nursing homes) is far more likely. The state used to post hospitalization %s by age, but removed it.


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