Despite research showing that it’s generally safe for schools to reopen in the face of COVID, many schools around the country remain closed. The problem, says Professor Meira Levinson, goes beyond adequate ventilation and personal protective equipment to a cycle of mistrust in the school community.
"What you have is the exacerbation and intensification of preexisting lack of mutual trust, where the educators and the administrators and the policymakers tend not to trust the families so much to make good choices for themselves and for their kids. The families know that, and they don't trust the teachers and the administrators and the policymakers actually to have their interests at heart, or to respect the choices that they make,” she says. “The teachers more often feel disrespected actually by the school administrators and the district administrators. And the school and district administrators tend not to trust the teachers as much to make the choices that they think are best. And so what you have, rather than a virtuous cycle of trust, is a vicious cycle of mistrust."
In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Levinson discusses the importance of building trust and how school communities can take steps to get it back.
Three ways to develop trust in your school district:
- Involve teachers, principals. and family members in the plans around reopening.
- Invest in building upgrades, air filtrations, and PPE, and so on. “Those kinds of expenditures will have really significant payoff for a long time in the future,” Levinson says. “Having working windows, having well ventilated classrooms with also working heat and air conditioning has real benefits, whether or not you are living in a pandemic. And frankly, building the trust and demonstrating to both educators and to parents that you care about their own health and wellbeing, and that you really will invest in creating classrooms that they feel safe to teach and learn in is also a really important and good long-term investment.
- Set up an infection control board. This board should have expertise and also representation from the school community, and be able to respond to concerns that arise in the district. This is “something that a district could set up relatively quickly,” she says. This board provides advice on whether you are meeting the criteria to safely reopen and lay the foundation as a trusted and respected resource in the community.
Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast. Harvard Professor Meira Levinson knows lack of trust in schools is a major obstacle keeping schools from reopening during COVID. Studies have shown it's safe for schools to reopen with appropriate steps. Meira co-authored The Path to Zero Report, which provides guidelines on how to safely reopen. But she recognized that the challenges in reopening go beyond obvious issues with ventilation or inadequate supplies. Instead, COVID has revealed how key players in the school community need to build trusting relationships with each other first. I wanted to know more about how we are seeing this play out in so many districts around the country.
Meira Levinson: I think this challenge of trust, like basically every other challenge that we have been facing in education under COVID, is an exacerbation and intensification of problems and inequities, and outright injustices that existed before COVID hit. In smaller school districts, in private schools, and in school districts that serve both a wealthier population and that serve predominantly white and/or white and Asian families, we are not seeing the trust issue come up so much. My guess is that this is because there is a fair amount of congruence among the families and the educators and the policy makers. Right? So we know that educators in the United States are disproportionately white, as compared to the student population. And that's even more so for school administrators and policy makers and school board members. They are also disproportionately middle class. My definition, every teacher has a college degree at least. And most of them have master's degrees, and again, that's true for administrators and often true for school board members.
And so what you have is a whiter, wealthier teaching force and policy making body. And when the families that they serve are also whiter and wealthier, my guess is that there is a greater amount of mutual trust, that the families feel more respected by the educators and the school and district administrators and the school board members. My guess is that, again, the educators and administrators and school board members also feel more trusting of the families who they are serving. They seem more familiar to them. They give them the benefit of the doubt when the parents or the kids do things that strike them as odd. And then you have this virtuous cycle of mutual trust that then has carried over into COVID times.
And so if the principal says, "I think we can open the building safely under these circumstances," or if the school board says, "We've been consulting with this group, and we don't have money for surveillance testing, but we also don't think we need to engage in surveillance testing. We think that with masks and this and that, we can open safely," the families are more like to say, "Okay," and send their kids back to school. Whereas in larger districts, where there's just less mutual knowledge of one another, and in these larger districts where also, the student body and the families who you're serving are more likely to be low income and more likely to be families of color, but still with a predominantly white teaching and administrative and policy making body,
what you have is the exacerbation and intensification of preexisting lack of mutual trust, where the educators and the administrators and the policy makers tend not to trust the families so much to make good choices for themselves and for their kids.
The families know that, and they don't trust the teachers and the administrators and the policy makers actually to have their interests at heart, or to respect the choices that they make. The teachers more often feel disrespected actually by the school administrators and the district administrators. And the school and district administrators tend not to trust the teachers as much to make the choices that they think are best. And so what you have, rather than a virtuous cycle of trust, is a vicious cycle of mistrust. And when you compound that also with the necessarily somewhat adversarial stance between teachers unions and district administration, which is part of the setup of a labor union, and you compound that by the very different kinds of risks that different groups are experiencing within the same communities, that's when you get what I think is this total breakdown.
So for example, if you are a family of color living in relatively dense housing, surrounded by a number of people who go to work in person at essential jobs every day, you know that you are at heightened risk, and your kids are at heightened risk of exposure to COVID, which is really scary. It may also be that you do not have the same kinds of benefits that would allow you to take off time to quarantine, say for a full 10 days or two weeks without say, losing wages, losing medical benefits, potentially losing a job. We know statistically that if you are a family of color, you're likely to have less good healthcare, than say, if you're white. You also have worse morbidity and mortality rates. Right? So your risk of getting seriously ill is higher. Your risk of dying is higher. If you live in more dense housing, it means that you run the risk of exposing more people, in fact, to COVID. And you're likely also to have more people in your home, or in your apartment building, or whatever, who are themselves increasingly vulnerable because of their own comorbidities, which are structured because of systemic racism, economic injustice, et cetera.
And so with all of that in place, an if on top of that, you don't really trust the school district to have your family's interest at heart, then it's actually perfectly rational to decide that you should keep your kids home from school, even if virtual school is not going very well for them because that's better than running the risk of getting seriously ill, losing your job, and potentially dying or putting other family or household members at risk of dying. Right?
And on the flip side, if you are living in fairly expansive housing with only a few number of people in there, in the house, if you have decent healthcare, if you have decent benefits, so that if you need to quarantine, or if you get sick, you need to take time off of work, you know that you won't lose your job. If there are fewer people that you worry about exposing to COVID, if those people also have decent healthcare and also don't feel quite as vulnerable to the disease if they were to get it, and if you trust the people who are in charge of your kid when they're at school, and frankly, also if the building facilities than they are in many urban school districts, then that all translates to you're being more likely to decide to send your kid to school, whether or not virtual school is going well with them.
So what I see here is that everybody is potentially making rational choices. But these rational choices are leading in these horrifically inequitable directions. And that was all about families. That wasn't really about teachers. But it is also the case that in particularly in urban districts, where teachers have been used to for so long being given less than they need to do their job successfully. Right? And we know, there's now actually quite good data that teachers around the country, and particularly teachers who serve low income students in schools that serve low income communities spend a lot of their own money on basic teaching supplies every single year. That was certainly true for the eight years that I taught in urban public schools. I spent literally thousands of dollars each year on my classroom on basic supplies.
So then if that's the norm, and if the norm is to teach in buildings where the windows don't open, or where the broken radiator hasn't been fixed for three years, or as in my classroom, where both of those were true, also you're used to having mice run around the classroom, and just part of what you do is you bring in mousetraps and other things. Right? There's no way that you're then going to trust your building or your district to keep you safe from COVID. Right? My college roommate teaches in a district outside of Boston that did reopen. And what they gave her was two masks, one container of Lysol wipes, and one container of hand sanitizer. And that was her annual supply of COVID protection. Right?
And she teaches high school. She has five or six different classes of kids coming in every single day. Right? I mean, that is a joke, except that it's lethal, potentially. So again, I think what we see is that it's rational for teachers to be mistrustful of a system that they have for years now felt has not had their own interests as teachers at heart, that has not taken seriously what they need to do their job well and safely, that has not taken their own capacities and emotional health and mental health, and actually physical health, seriously. And it's not surprising that then they say, "No, I'm not going to believe you when you tell me that my school is safe to open, or that I can safely reenter the classroom." Even if in fact, those districts are telling the truth. Right?
And that's what's so tragic about this, is that we do have quite good evidence that if the right mitigation measures are put into place, then most schools, at least at the elementary and middle school level, can open safely. But even if the districts are doing all they can to put those into place, it's not surprising that teachers and families don't really trust them to do so.
Jill Anderson: Yeah. And I know the numbers change kind of quickly.
Meira Levinson: Right.
Jill Anderson: Where are we in terms of how many students are not in school right now?
Meira Levinson: Yeah. That is so hard to say. One of the many features of, I would say the mismanaged federal response to COVID over the last year, but really, as much the not managed federal approach to COVID is that, shockingly, we don't actually have good data about that. There is no federal agency, for example, that has simply been collecting the data on how many kids are showing up to school each day, or how many schools are actually open, versus hybrid, versus totally remote. I think the best data about this that just came out is from the New York Times. They just went through and did a pretty massive study that tried to understand what's going on. And then also, Emily Oster at Brown University has been also trying to reach out to districts and get some understanding of what they're doing. Even in this Times article actually, they do not give actual numbers about this.
So you have districts like LA that have been totally shut. You have districts like New York City, that has mostly, supposedly been open. But in fact, 70% of families are choosing to keep their kids home. You have states like Florida and Texas that mandated that all schools open. In Texas' case, they mandated that they all open five days a week. But I don't think that anybody even in Texas is tracking what percentage of kids are choosing to go to school five days a week. So we really just don't know. I mean, it's really quite clear that under 50% of American school children are regularly in school, just based on which districts, which large districts are simply closed, and for the districts that are open and are reporting their data, what percentage of kids are actually going back.
Jill Anderson: And that's crazy because it's half the year over.
Meira Levinson: Half the year is over, and we're talking about 55 million kids. Yeah. And so I think we can quite firmly state that at least 25 to 30 million kids are not regularly in a school building.
Jill Anderson: Wow. Well, that's going to make next year very interesting. I keep thinking to myself: In some of these districts where these challenges of trust exist among the teachers and the families, and in the community, is there a way to move forward quickly and do some repair to that, or solve that? Because trust is a huge issue that you could work on for years and years, I imagine.
Meira Levinson: Right. There are a number of districts where the teachers, sometimes represented by a union, sometimes not, have complained that they just haven't been consulted about the reopening plans. And in some cases, like in the DC public schools, even principals were not consulted about reopening plans. They often found out what the reopening plans were for DC, which has been closed until all throughout 2020 basically, the fall of 2020, they would find out what the plans were at the same time as parents would, when it was announced on the DCPS website, or in the Washington Post. So one way to rebuild trust, or to start building trust, is really to involve teachers and principals and family members in the plans around reopening.
The second way that now is potentially possible that wasn't possible as a practical matter under the previous administration, just because they weren't sending money in a significant way to schools, is to actually take new expenditures and spend them on building upgrades, HVAC and air filtration upgrades, and PPE, et cetera. And just quickly proving that they are putting money where their policies are. Right? And those kinds of expenditures will have really significant payoff for a long time in the future. Right? Having working windows, having well ventilated classrooms with also working heat and air conditioning has real benefits, whether or not you are living in a pandemic. And frankly, building the trust and demonstrating to both educators and to parents that you care about their own health and wellbeing, and that you really will invest in creating classrooms that they feel safe to teach and learn in is also a really important and good long-term investment.
Now I don't know how quickly the money is going to be sent to schools, nor how quickly it will actually be able to be spent. So I'm not sure if this is a potential short-term fix or not. But I think that is what it is going to require. One of the other things that we recommend actually in The Path to Zero and schools report is that every district set up an infection control board, similar to what you have in a hospital, that has the expertise and also has representation from educators and family members on it to be able to quickly respond to concerns that are arising around the district.
And that is something that a district could set up relatively quickly. Districts are incredibly stretched, and so it's hard to do anything quickly and hard to do anything well these days. But if there's anything you want to do to open up your schools, one thing is to create a respected, quasi independent board that can actually give good advice about whether or not you are meeting the criteria to reopen safely. And that is then trusted and respected by school personnel and by families. And it isn't just seen as just being a mouthpiece of say, the board or the superintendent.
Jill Anderson: All those examples are phenomenal. And in a way, it's almost the fast paced emergency response to building trust. It's like the quick guide. Right?
Meira Levinson: Right.
Jill Anderson: And we have to hope that someday this will end, and it won't be a big question mark about: What do we do? And if you look in the long-term, since this has exposed so many issues of trust among so many people, what do districts and communities need to be doing sort of after this, or even just starting, that are not really emergency responses, but looking to keep these relationships of trust there? Does that look different than what you just mentioned?
Meira Levinson: One of the things that schooling under COVID has revealed or again emphasized, further intensified, has been the multitude of ways in which schools really do not just educate the whole child ideally, but serve the whole child and serve the whole family. When we think about how to rebuild trust, how to build trust in the first place, how to maintain trust once it's built, I think one of the real insights that we can build on is that when schools recognize that they are serving the whole child, and when they take that responsibility on, and they're open and honest with families and with teachers, about what that means and what that requires and what kinds of supports it requires, so that schools can serve the whole child safely and without burning the teachers out and so forth, I think that will help to build and maintain long-term relationships of trust.
That is one reason that so many teachers feel so frustrated with their districts, is when they are the ones who are attempting to serve the whole child by bringing in the fruit, by calling the families over the weekend to see what is happening, by organizing the clothing drives after a fire, by trying to contact the social worker who's not employed by the school, because there's not many, but where the kid or the family clearly needs it. Educators take on so many of those extra responsibilities because they recognize that's what their students need in order to thrive. And if school districts can be more open and transparent and proactive about saying, "Yes, this is actually what we're in the business of doing," for better or worse, it is through schools that the United States has decided to basically provide whatever social safety net we provide to children.
That may not be ideal, but that's actually what we do. And so therefore, let's actually weave that social safety net more tightly and in a more reliable way, and not have the educators be the ones who are trying to bounce from strand to strand, keeping kids upright. But really, we will try to help educators and school leaders and district leaders provide those supports, and will provide funding and personnel, school nurses, et cetera, social workers, to enable these kinds of supports really to reach kids in a consistent way. That I think would go a tremendously long way to helping to rebuild and maintain trust.
Jill Anderson: Lots of great ideas here. Thank you so much, Meira.
Meira Levinson: Sure. This was fun, Jill.
Jill Anderson: Meira Levinson is a professor at The Harvard Graduate School of Education. She co-authored The Path to Zero in Schools, Achieving Pandemic Resilient Teaching and Learning Spaces. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by The Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.