Fairness In School Reopening

Editor’s note: The following letter was submitted to the Los Alamos School Board as an open letter and is published here with the permission of the author.

Dear Los Alamos County School Board:

Re: Fairness in School Reopening

As someone who has worked for decades on education and health globally, I have great appreciation for the efforts our School Board and the LAPS administration are making to help our students continue to learn during this pandemic, while staying safe.

I also appreciate that the school system has taken a number of measures designed to ensure fairness in its approach to reopening. These include, for example, the opportunity to enroll in the online academy, rather than the hybrid model; the opportunity for some students to go home for lunch, rather than to eat at school, and, the encouragement of eating and learning outdoors, whenever possible.

Nonetheless, I note below several aspects of our school reopening that raise important issues of fairness and a number of ethical concerns. The increasing incidence of the virus in Los Alamos makes attention to these matters even more important.

The principles of ethics require that the approach to schooling during the pandemic should:

  • Maximize educational outcomes, while keeping children safe
  • Be fair
  • Pay particular attention to the least well-off.

The approach the Board has taken to several reopening issues raises questions of both fairness and the extent to which the system is meeting the ethical principles noted above:

  • Children in some schools will eat in the cafeteria but students will eat in the classroom at the other schools, except at Chamisa, where the students will go home for lunch – CDC and the NMPED do say that students can eat either in their classrooms or in cafeterias. However, on the face of it, the approach taken by our school system intentionally exposes the children who will eat in the cafeteria to greater risk of infection than the children allowed to eat in their classrooms. This violates the first principle of keeping children safe. This is also not fair, since some students (and supervising teachers) are being forced to accept greater risk than others. It also violates the public health premise of trying to keep cohorts of students as small as possible.
  • Chamisa Elementary School will have a different approach to the hybrid than the other schools – In this case, students at Chamisa will meet physically for 5 hours a day, then be dismissed for lunch at home. They will then have two hours of online instruction. In the other elementary schools, the students will have seven hours of instruction at school, eat in the cafeteria or their classroom, and then go home. Chamisa students and teachers will have reduced risk of exposure to the virus solely because they are at Chamisa. This raises important questions of fairness and whether or not such an approach is ethical. It can only be seen as fair if the school system has taken this approach in order to learn from it, has a carefully laid out plan to evaluate its health impact compared to the other approaches, and has considered how it will generalize to the others schools any lessons that might emerge from the “Chamisa experiment”.

Although hybrid in-person learning has already begun, I believe the School Board is now obliged to do what it should have done earlier:

  • Clearly articulate to the community a compelling justification for why it has chosen to expose students and teachers in some schools to a greater risk of infection by eating in their cafeterias, rather than in their classrooms.
  • Clearly articulate to the community the basis on which Chamisa was permitted to operate a hybrid model different from that at other schools. The system should also explain clearly to the community if Chamisa is an approach from which it expects to learn in ways that would benefit the broader community and, if so, how the system would elucidate and generalize those lessons.

In the absence of the above, the community will have to conclude that the approach the system has taken to these matters does raise important questions of fairness and ethics.

The school system will continue to face challenges raised by COVID-19. Yet, the system, understandably, lacks expertise in public health and health law and ethics.  I would recommend that the system identify experts in these areas who might be willing to help the system consider such matters as they arise.

I am not an expert in the ethics of health or education. However, I have spent considerable time working on and writing about the ethics of health and health research. I have also worked with outstanding specialists in legal and ethical issues in health. My comments and suggestions above take account of the views of several such experts. 

I hope the School Board will be willing to consider these matters at its November meeting.

Richard Skolnik
Los Alamos