Open Letter To Los Alamos School Board

Dear School Board President Ben-Naim, and Members Bernstein, Boerigter, Colgan and Jalbert, and Superintendent Steinhaus

The most important decision we as a community must make is when and how we will interact in person while this pandemic is still a threat.

The decision to reopen our schools should be a community decision that has been broadly discussed and has great consensus behind the decision. Our schools are an intimate part of our community, connecting all of us, and thus impact our entire community’s health and well being.

The current pandemic is a grave threat to our health, and we are fortunate that we understand that we are all in this together. We should, however, understand that each of us needs to find the right path for ourselves and our family in our response. I write this today in the hope that we can come together and find a range of solutions that will work for all of us.

It would be ironic that so many of us still work in isolation while we make this decision to send our children into a hybrid school schedule, except for the potential tragic consequences.

There is strong consensus from the guidance, modeling and the reality we each are living that if we go down this path, it will result in some number of us contracting COVID-19. If our children attend a hybrid school schedule, some number of our children, our teachers and the school staff will contract this disease due to these interactions and they will infect others in their households. Each of these infections adds to the risk of community transmissions. We may try to minimize how many are affected, and with some luck and hard work this will help, but some of our neighbors and loved-ones will be affected.

Many articles cite the high percentage of children who are asymptomatic or the potential lower transmission rates as evidence it is safe for them to risk the interactions necessary to attend school. But all of these studies acknowledge, though too often gloss over, that some number of children will be infected and some number of those will suffer. Thus this path has real consequences for our children, and the risk is not to them alone.

As our children are the ones least able to speak for themselves, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard making these decisions for them. In addition to those who will suffer short term hardships, there is not enough evidence yet to understand what the long term health complications. We are just beginning to witness the impact to the children of New York and elsewhere who are experiencing complications we do not understand. It will take some time to understand what chronic conditions may shorten their lives, and what health issues may significantly reduce their quality of life. Just because they do not suffer now does not mean there are no effects.

Even if our children survive this disease with no ill effect, while they are sick they pose a significant risk to the rest of their household. Many of our families are multi-generational or have others living together who this puts at risk. Many of the parents or others in our households have conditions that make them high-risk for complications if they catch COVID. Our family is one of these, and it worries us gravely. As parents, we want the best for our children but we should be sure the risks we take result in significant benefit.

Many of our LA Schools teachers and staff are being asked to assume much greater risk to themselves, and to their families. As it is impractical — particularly with current high unemployment — to find a different job, are we coercing these public servants to take risks we would not, or are not, assuming ourselves. The NMPED guidance indicates that all those in a classroom for a day together must be quarantined and tested if anyone in that room tests positive. It is clear each teacher is assuming not only the risks they themselves take, but the risks each child in their class has taken.

These are just some of the risks we will take if we pursue this path.

The dominant driver that has been put forth to return to limited or full in-person school is the need to provide for the socio-emotional well being of our children.

It is hard to anticipate what this crisis has changed in how our children will see the world. Like those who lived through the great depression, there can be no doubt this will shape how they interact with the world around them. We all want to ensure that they live to appreciate the joy in the world, to aspire to their hopes, and to always have a love of learning. It is not clear how best to accomplish this, but obvious that there will be many paths depending on the needs of each child.

The current path is a hybrid school model to provide limited, two days a week, interactions with classmates and teachers. The goal is to enhance the socio-emotional well being of our children. This is only one option we might take, and our family does not believe it is right for us.

My wife Sarah and I play what we call the restaurant game. What do you want for dinner, one asks? If you don’t like the suggestion, you can’t just say no, you have to offer an alternative. It is vital that we all put our heads together and find alternatives. Please realize that I offer my objections below to parts of this plan we do not believe will work, at least for us, but there is much good in it and like all plans we can modify it. We need to find ways to enable our community to pursue many paths to help each other, especially to help our children.

As planned, each child will interact with their teachers for two standard school days per week (Monday, Tuesday or Thursday, Friday). There will be an opportunity for limited small group remote assistance one other day (Wednesday), but it is unclear how much time is available. (Are teachers cleaning, or teaching? And if everyone has questions, how much time does each student get.) The other two days, plus the weekend, they have only email or chat interactions.

Contrast this with the current situation. Each child currently attends several sessions — language arts, math, science and social studies, and an elective — four days a week and still has time each day (~2 hours), while questions are fresh, to follow up in a small group or one on one. Wednesdays the teachers can focus on helping individuals or planning. While we have just begun, this has been remarkably more effective than last spring. (Many thanks to all the teachers and staff who made this happen!)

Many in the community worry that the hybrid plan results in less overall teaching and interactions.

Furthermore, it is hard to understand how this plan does not increase the burden on parents to find more time to actively teach their children. This goes the opposite direction of what many need. Many parents desperately need help ensuring their children are appropriately supervised while they work in order to provide for their family.

Any plan can be improved, but it requires thoughtful discussion, engagement and a willingness to evolve. The hybrid, hybrid model is already so named because it has been discussed at the grass roots level by students, teachers and the administration, but without socializing it publicly as an option. We need to get such ideas out early, and determine if they will truly improve our plan. Why should teachers teach the same lesson twice (as would happen in the current plan). Why can’t we combine remote and in person with half in person, and half remote? We have learned how remarkably adaptable our kids are, perhaps even more so for the youngest. Isn’t it worth a try, or at least some formal discussion.

Perhaps the biggest gap in the current plan, at least as documented, is what will happen to kids or classes when they are quarantined. Do they now lose all interactions? There is no indication that they can participate at all, which leaves parents frightened that now they must teach their kids all of the lessons. A hybrid, hybrid option with remote participation in a live class addresses this need, not perfectly, but probably good enough.

A hybrid, hybrid option allows for life.

Many children are too scared to just go back in. They have acclimated to a new normal. Few have had the opportunities adults have had to interact at work or in the community. Ours have expressed their fear and anxiety and said very directly they do not want to go back to school. I will not cause them more harm by forcing them to go, particularly as this directly defeats the goal of promoting their whole well being. But I want them to see their class everyday, and not have to change their wonderful teachers.

Also, what happens when a child has the sniffles, or allergies. If everyone in each class must be tested each time anyone has a runny nose, or a headache, we will spend an enormous amount of our time and resources in wasted effort. Unless we truly have the resources to test every child in the state almost every day, or at least once a week, we need to be strategic in our approach to testing. We need to have enough medical professionals involved to judge each symptom case-by-case or we will over-test, or under-protect. Many symptoms will clear up in less than 24 hours, and the person will be safe to return to school within 72. When the symptoms are well known and the child has a history, should we disrupt the whole class? We must actively lesson the disruptions, and manage our resources, to see real benefit from any plan that involves more interactions.

The current back to school toolkit has clear plans on how to treat real illness, but lacks the finesse that will be required to deal with the real world. We need more thought, and a better plan, to pull this off without, quite frankly, jerking our children around. This is not a game, I am sure no one takes this lightly, but it still seems like we are willing to ‘try this out’ when we need to make sure it is right.

There are a host of other creative ideas we haven’t even discussed, or thought of.How do we incorporate outside structures (it is likely transmission rates are at least 20x less than indoors)? Why does the onsite schedule have to be a standard school day? What can we do with block schedules rather than shorter sessions? Can we avoid a lunch period, which is likely the highest transmission risk by a staggered schedule? We are so fortunate to live in a creative community, so why aren’t we exploring such options?

Jumping back into in-person school is a big step, and getting our plan wrong risks a loss of trust and unnecessary chaos. I ask the school board tonight to delay the return to onsite schooling, to give us time to find better alternatives to help enable the best learning experience for everyone.

Morgan White
On behalf of our family, Morgan, Sarah, Ginny, Max, Jacob and Zachary White