This Month’s Featured Article

Border Wars

By Published On: August 28th, 2020

Deep in Mount Washington State Forest is a waist-high piece of granite. Intrepid hikers with a few hours to burn can reach it without too much trouble for the experience of standing on three states at once. Position yourself on one side of it, you’re in New York. Step to your left, and you enter the Bay State. Circle around, and you stand in Litchfield County, CT. Hikers can do handstands on top of the stone or perform whatever commemoration strikes their fancy.

Living in the Tri-state

Nothing changes, though. The same mute trees surround you. There are no tolls, no checkpoints, and no customs officers checking your paperwork. Yet during a pandemic, movement from state to state is limited or governed by quarantine rules that can change by the day and alter our behavior as we move about the area.

Those of us who live in the Tri-state region, however, regularly shop across state lines and travel back and forth for a variety of reasons. We keep track of blue laws, plastic bag bans, and other arbitrary injunctions that govern our behavior from one town to the next, even when it is only a stone’s throw away.

When we need to respond to a pandemic, however, the variations among these injunctions can impact the effectiveness of our response. All three states in our area issued requirements and guidelines for returning to school in the fall, but ultimately, it fell to local districts to flesh out those plans with the details that were appropriate for their particular situations.

Returning to school

Local control is a longstanding characteristic of America’s schools, and one that features benefits and detriments. Thousands of boards of education control everything from curriculum to social services, and our state and national governments provide laws, guidelines, and some significant purse strings that can dramatically impact a school. For instance, while CDC guidelines for reopening suggest six feet of separation when possible, most school rooms in America are built to accommodate 25-30 students, and strict adherence to these guidelines would allow for 12-15 students in a typical classroom.

Schools with small populations may easily meet this cap, but larger populations will find it challenging or impossible. Regional school districts may have both small and large populations, in elementary and high schools, respectively, so in this case, the flexibility that comes with local control is necessary and essential.

But every town in America has its own beliefs about the role schools should play in the lives of their children, and those beliefs play out in political agendas whose rubber meets the road in the form of school funding through mill rates and taxation. Beverly Hills, Brooklyn, and Bentonville, AR, have such wildly different ways of funding their schools that they might as well be in different countries. So in steps the federal government to level the playing field. Supposedly.

Federal involvement in schools

LBJ’s “Great Society” ushered in the era of federal involvement in education with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). ESEA aspired to assume federal responsibility for school funding by distributing money to schools based on the number of poor students in each district (primarily determined by counting the number of students who are eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch as a percentage of their overall populations). This is a noble and righteous objective, but over time, lawmakers have had their fingers on the scales in favor of their states and constituents. Politics play a role in everything from what constitutes eligibility for Free and Reduced Lunch to the amount of money available to a district based on its performance on standardized tests or its location in a rural or urban setting.

Fast forward to the current pandemic and the federal legislation of The Elementary and Secondary Schools Relief Act (ESSER), which provides funds to schools to offset the impact of COVID-19. The funds are disbursed in a fashion similar to Title 1 funds, a program that originated in ESEA, over fifty years ago. The assumption on the part of lawmakers (presumably) is that schools with a greater need for school funding have also been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. While that assumption is largely true, the formula for funding to address it remains murky. In Region 1 in Connecticut, grant amounts range from $0 in Falls Village to over $47,000 in Sharon: two towns with different populations, but nothing like the difference between say, Bridgeport and neighboring Fairfield, CT.

Based on these disbursements, state governments expect schools to meet CDC reopening guidelines with approximations of the expenses they will incur. Some districts benefitted from donated PPE while others have had to pay for it, but in either case, how much will they need? Should they stock up on disposable masks, or will students and teachers bring their own? Should they purchase infrared thermometers for temperature screening, or is that an inexact measure that isn’t worth the expense? If the disease is extensively spread by aerosol droplets, should they purchase fans for every room? Overhaul the HVAC system? Hire extra nurses? Budget for custodial overtime? The CDC guidelines, infection rates, and related expenses shift by the day, making planning for opening schools like building a sand castle, only to have it partially washed away by the next wave.

My challenge and our collective challenges

If writing is an attempt to convey the truth of a situation through language, that last sentence is the truest one I’ve written. I rarely labor this hard to produce an article, but the words on my screen emerge like waves, advancing and retreating along the sand, a few words ahead, then a sentence deleted. As both a principal of a high school and a writer, I hear the voices of parents, teachers, students – all potential readers – and consider their perspectives in each thought.

Beyond the challenges of language, government, and a pandemic, our shared culture offers no safe shore from which to establish a beachhead against the virus. We all seem to be feeling our way through a fog of uncertainty with whatever information is available to us, and for every person who believes it is necessary and safe to open schools, another believes it is unnecessary and hazardous. Both marshall scientific evidence to support their views. But maybe that will change next week.

For now, we have different plans in different towns. Some schools are preparing for a full reopening, with almost all students in attendance except for those who may opt-out to engage in distance learning. Others have developed more conservative, hybrid models that engage a percentage of the school for in-person instruction and the remaining population in remote learning activities with teacher support, with students taking turns in school and out. Yet a third option is a distance learning model where all students work from home. These models are necessarily embraced by individual schools because of their unique needs and constraints such as student population and room size but also because of other considerations that vary between buildings, districts, and states.

As of this writing in mid-August, Taconic Hills School District in New York is opening fully while its neighboring district of Pine Plains will be going fully virtual, Housatonic Valley is opening with a hybrid model, and Mount Everett High School is opening with a distance learning plan. Three states, three different plans. •