A Teachable Moment: Should Schools Teach about Covid?
Updated: Sep 22, 2022
I've been talking with parents who are trying desperately to keep their kids safe in the classroom. It sounds like most staff and students are unmasked despite higher Covid numbers in the hospital and higher fatality rates than last year at this time. It doesn't have to be like this.
A big part of the problem is the type of messaging that says something like this: "Please understand and be tolerant of classmates who are still wearing masks." It makes it clear, subversively, that NOT wearing a mask is the normal thing to do. But shouldn't schools be teaching the facts about Covid?? We should expect students to come home educated about what's happening in the world around them as it affects them. When recycling was brought in to our cities, they targeted kids in grades 2-5 to bring the message home to parents, and it worked! In some science classes, people are learning how Corsi-Rosenthal boxes work, but they're still not allowed in our board. But here are some other options for lessons in the classroom to develop an educated populous.
First, kids need to understand a bit about how politics works and why Biden might suggest the pandemic's over despite averaging 500 deaths/day in the U.S. right now, which is more than a 9/11 tragedy every week.
What would make him say that it's over? Numbers were lower last July, but he didn't say it was over then? What's different now? It might have something to do with the midterms coming (Novembers 8) and a desire to present a rosy picture of Democrats solving this problem as people go to the polls. We don't want kids to be jaded about politics, but at the same time, they need to know that some people in power sometimes have ulterior motives for the decisions they make.
AND then they can also look at the possible that the virus has become endemic, which is not the same as "harmless" even though some people use it like that, so it's not something to look forward to. Malaria is endemic in some areas of the world and continues to kill people. It means it's hitting specific areas at specific times. If Covid becomes endemic, it might mean specific areas will need to lock down as the virus flares there until numbers are more manageable. It shouldn't mean that we just ignore it.
Divide the class in half and have half look for evidence that the pandemic has hit a steady plateau (despite being very high), and the other half look for evidence that it's still rising and falling. Then compare the sources. Quality of news sources? Any peer-reviewed journals cited? Rankings of the journals? Prior issues of dubious quality of any of the authors? Types of evidence presented (anecdotal vs data-driven)?
Give them a quick look at local hospitalization rates for Covid (see yesterday's post) or wastewater samples going back to March 2020, which both make it clear that now is NOT the time to remove protections from the virus. Do a lesson on statistical manipulation by showing a graph from the peak of the last wave until now, which makes everything look amazing, but then show the entire scene from the beginning. Our numbers aren't anywhere near where they once were, and we have to be aware of any move to normalize this rate of death and disease. We have to find ways to mitigate Covid so that we don't have to tolerate a higher death rate and a lower lifespan.
A bit more math: if 14% of people are immunocompromised, how many people does that translate to in this classroom? In the school? If 11% of Canadian have had confirmed cases of Covid so far (which is a very low marker - there are likely many more), and 19% of them will get LongCovid, how many people will be affected by a longterm disability in the room? In the school? In my old school, that works out to about 154 people who will not be able to access the school as long as people aren't wearing masks, and 23 people, about as many in a calculated average class, who will have on-going medical and/or cognitive problems. Now figure out how many kids are in my old school!
Look at how viruses mutate. They keep changing fast enough to evade vaccinations because they're able to spread so easily and find more and more hosts (that's us!) to thrive in. If we want vaccinations to work, we have to stop transmission as much as possible in order to decrease the potential for so many more mutations.
Explain the difference between Covid and a typical cold or flu. The big one difference is that a cold or flu tends to hang out in the nose, sinuses, throat, and lungs. It can cause problems, and some people do die from the flu, but it's a respiratory condition that's relatively contained. Covid gets in the bloodstream, travelling throughout the body making micro-clots that can jam up the system in a multitude of ways. One of the most worrisome is the effect it has on the brain, causing substantial cognitive decline and early ageing. This 13 minute video can help understand the differences.
Look at how masks work. They're not like a sieve, but more like an electrostatic field! Check out this 6 minute video. Think of a flurry of arrows being shot at a target across an empty field (no mask) compared to being shot across a dense forest (mask) to understand how the virus is stopped but oxygen isn't. Look at the rates of infection for different types of masks (N95 vs cloth), and the importance of a good fit, AND look at how long it takes for the average person to catch the virus depending on types of masks worn around them.
Do some experiments with air flow to understand how a virus can move across a room in minutes when someone's talking without a mask on. Check out the blowers and returns in the classroom to see if they're blowing and sucking air with a simple kleenex on the end of a stick. Use a CO2 monitor and see what happens if the return air is blocked or the windows are opened.
Look at how ratios work in math class by looking at the rate of hospitalization for the vaccinated compared to the unvaccinated. How can we understand vaccinations working when the number of vax'd in the hospital are similar to unvax'd? We have to pay attention to the denominator!
Explain that, for most of us, we can't possibly know that we don't have Covid right this minute (unless you recovered from a case less than two weeks ago). Rapid tests have a high false negative rate in the first few days of infection. Having Covid without knowing it is what makes Covid spread so easily (it's sneaky!!) and what makes masks so necessary. Some people never have symptoms, about a third of all cases are asymptomatic, and people might not know they ever had it, but if they weren't wearing masks, then they likely spread it to other people.
What even IS Long Covid? Between 10-30% of people who get acute Covid, even an asymptomatic case, end up with Long Covid. The virus lays in wait, circulating through the body, and then gets more potent and re-attacks as chronic Covid, which can last a lifetime. It's like how chicken pox can turn into shingles later on if you don't get vaccinated for it. Research cases of healthy people who's lives were dramatically affected by Long Covid.
Check out the history of cholera and what John Snow had to do to convince people to clean the water before drinking it! Look at the legal case of a non-smoking restaurant employee who got sick from second-hand smoke that convinced Ontario to ban smoking in restaurants. How are people persuaded to change policy? What would it take to change policies on clean air in schools? Notice how the rhetoric of "you do you" and individual responsibility shifts any potential legal action away from policy-makers.
Look at discrimination in the face of disease. First we had lots of overt racism (name calling, threats...) against people who might be Chinese because they were being blamed for the pandemic, inanely. Now we have more covert ableism and ageism (barring people's access to schools, stores...): when we don't all mask in class, the amount of potential virus in the room can be more dangerous for some kids. One way we see this is an insistence that only immunocompromised people (who can be perfectly healthy) or old people end up really sick. Two things there: 1. Lots of very athletic young people have gotten sick, and 2. Dismissing concerns with allowing a virus to kill off specific groups of people, as if it doesn't matter if they die, is a form of eugenics. If children can't go to school because of a prior condition that would make them more likely to suffer serious consequences if they walked in a room with no Covid precautions (no masks, no filtration, no monitoring of CO2), then a policy that allows that to happen is discriminatory. It also again misses the stark reality that Covid can affect any of us, making us immunocompromised, and affecting our ability to think or work or take care of ourselves.
Sometime people are experiencing overt ableism for wearing a mask, with kids (or even adults) threatening them in the streets. For any social science classes, try to understand what's been happening in our society over the last few years, or few decades, that makes people feel okay with yelling at people in the street or spitting on them. These are really new behaviours at this level of intensity and frequency. How much did the January 6th insurrection in the U.S. or the convoy to Ottawa affect our society? How much did Trump's earlier behaviour (making fun of disabilities, etc.) affect our society? And what needs to happen to regain our civility?
That's a start. Unfortunately, it felt like we weren't allowed to even discuss masks in the classroom last year, so I'm not sure any of these lessons could happen easily. But they should happen. Here's a doc of peer-reviewed studies that might help for anyone up for the challenge.