Education in the Age of Snake Oil, Part I

At every step, the United States has fumbled its response to the nation’s deadliest infectious disease outbreak in a hundred years. Since Covid19’s sudden arrival, a jaw dropping series of mis- steps, miscalculations and missed oppor- tunities have directly contributed to the pain, fear, and suffering of millions. As the traditional start of the school year approaches, the caretakers of our children’s education are in danger of following the same kinds of disjointed, poorly planned, sometimes desperate attempts to keep the economy off life support and control the virus’s spread.

As Americans began to understand the seriousness of COVID 19, most ex- pected the Federal Government to implement a First World response. People believed, or at least hoped the country would quickly harness science and tech- nology to stem outbreaks and crush the disease. Instead, the government’s re- sponse has been decidedly Third World.

With alarming frequency science-based recommendations have been disregarded, replaced by cheap, fast and even life threatening solutions.

We became the laughingstock of the world when President Trump offered his own lethal cyber-prescription for fighting corona. After Trump tweeted that drinking Clorox would kill corona virus germs, some were people gullible enough to follow this murderous advice. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had to issue public warnings telling people not to swallow bleach.

Is there any doubt we are living in a time when pseudo-science is given the same value as sound medical advice? Welcome to the Age of Snake Oil.

Now, Baltimore is already struggling public school system has the daunting task of developing a plan to safely restart instruction. The three options are distance learning, classroom instruction, and a hybrid of the first two models. The gravity of these deliberations cannot be overstated.

Ideal school leadership will need a skill set that includes the Wisdom of Solomon, a steadfast refusal to let political pressure dictate mandates, and the expertise to wrap science and technology around sound policymaking. For now, Baltimore City’s Board of

Schools Commissioners has decided not to reopen classrooms. Virtual learning is scheduled to begin September 8, 2020. Although, it is generally agreed class- room instruction is the most effective way to educate students, the health of students, their families, teachers and staff comes first. The Commissioners continue to develop a long term, safety- driven plan that meets both the academic, mental health, and social service needs of its pupils.

Access to science-based studies is essential to making well-informed, health-related decisions. However, scientific documentation does come with a caveat. When research and professional organizations like the CDC or the American Pediatric Association (APA) call for reopening public schools, it is helpful to be aware of factors that may lend sup- port for their recommendation.

It may be a best practice to rely on science, but policymakers should always know the demographics of the population studied. For example, does APA’s research indicate children do not get as sick when exposed to the virus, apply to kids in a broad spectrum of school settings? If the test group is limited, their endorsement may only be valid for a narrow group of students. Perhaps the low rate of illness only applies to children who live in wealthier, healthier jurisdictions.