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Part II - The School That Couldn't Quit Covid: Some Thoughts (and Science) On Why This Happened
A small private school still has indoor and outdoor mask requirements, and a ban on speaking during lunch. Why?
Earlier this week I published a feature about a Montessori school in upstate New York that, as part of its ostensible anti-Covid measures, still requires masking indoors and outdoors for all of its students, and does not allow them to speak during lunch. It should go without saying that these restrictions are patently ridiculous, and causing unnecessary harm to these children.
The evidence for indoor masking in schools has always been weak, at best. And there is no debate regarding the lack of benefit of outdoor masking or a prohibition on talking during meals. Further, the students do not eat silently or wear masks outside of school—nor does just about anyone else—which negates even a theoretical benefit of doing so exclusively in school.
These rules on kids didn’t make sense years ago. (Children in much of Europe never wore masks in schools and there is no evidence of higher pediatric Covid rates there versus the US. And the rate of Covid for students at this school, as far as anyone can tell, is the same as the rate of students elsewhere living normal lives.) The fact that these draconian interventions are still imposed now at a school—at a time when even medical facilities have largely abandoned mask requirements—is hard to fathom for many people.
It’s easy and satisfying to simply say the school administrators are idiots, and the parents are compliant fools, and move on. But I think it’s more complex and interesting than that. So let’s dive in briefly to deconstruct what’s going on.
1) Plenty of people were genuinely vulnerable to bad outcomes from Covid, and wanted to do what they could to reduce their risk (even though much of the actions were far less effective than what the authorities told them).
But from the get-go, much of the response to the virus had more to do with signaling membership in one’s tribe than it did with science. Specifically for progressives—which includes those in a far left town like Ithaca, New York, where the school is located—taking Covid “seriously” was equated with virtue. People wore the mask, in part, to demonstrate to everyone, and to themselves, their membership in the “good” tribe. Some people—in this instance, the school administrators—still haven’t been able to let go of this type of signaling. As long as they force masks on the kids, they as administrators, and their school, are virtuous.
2) I think there is a bit of a sunk cost fallacy—the school has invested so much social capital in continuing these measures long past their even theoretical usefulness that it’s become too hard to abandon them. To discontinue the rules now would be a tacit admission that they should have discontinued them a month, or three months, or six months ago, since the risks of the virus haven’t changed appreciably during this time.
3) We live in a culture, particularly on the left, of safetyism. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff discuss this extensively in their book The Coddling of the American Mind. The school leadership, as well as—according to the administration—some of the teachers and parents, may still sincerely be terrified of Covid. This is because they tend to be afraid of a lot of things.
4) Many parents, frankly, are tuned out. And they simply don’t think this is a big deal. As I detailed in the piece:
“There are so many other issues that are more pressing,” the parent told me, that objecting to the restrictions “didn’t seem worth it.”
5) Related to #4: As much as there are activist parents, there’s a converse group of parents who are weirdly passive when it comes to pushing back against schools and other institutions.
Several parents I interviewed of students at the school said that although they were unhappy with the rules they didn’t say anything because they didn’t want to rock the boat. They had a fear of standing out, of being seen as troublemakers. One of them also intimated that to complain about the rules could brand one as a Republican [see #1], i.e. one of the “bad” people.
6) A private school like a Montessori, that has a specific pedagogy and culture, becomes almost a lifestyle for a family. As irrational and harmful as these policies are, some of the people I interviewed explained that their child had been attending the school for years, they had friends there, and the parent felt emotionally connected to the school community. Leaving the school felt like too big of a departure, perhaps even like a betrayal.
7) As I noted in the piece, one of the major failures during the pandemic is that, in many instances, officials did not set an end date or specific benchmarks for the expiration of their recommendations. “So when restrictions were no longer mandated—such as when the school masking requirement in New York State was rescinded in March 2022—individual districts, and certainly private schools, were still at liberty to continue the directives.”
Without a termination date, or what might be referred to as a sunset clause, and without the government outright prohibiting these measures, schools were left to make decisions on their own. And it turns out that de-implementation is often really hard.
“There is little to no guidance on how to de-implement low-value or harmful healthcare practices” wrote the authors of a 2021 paper published in the journal Implementation Science. Researchers have found that as challenging as it is to implement new practices it is harder to “give up old practices, even when new evidence reveals that those practices offer little value.”
While much of the de-implementation research relates to clinician behaviors, the psychology translates well to regular people and policymakers. Loss, fear, and action bias (favoring action over inaction) are among the factors that appear to lead both physicians and regular people alike to continue policies long after they should have been discontinued.
8) Someone always needs to be last.
Diffusion of innovations—a theory published in the 1960s that describes how ideas and practices spread, and is referenced in many fields—can help explain, in the most generic sense, why there are holdouts like this Ithaca Montessori school. While there are first movers, and the majority in the middle, there are also laggards––the final group to adopt (or de-adopt) a behavior or idea.
A number of researchers have found DOI to be a useful framework for de-adoption of health or medical interventions. The exact percentages (shown in the diagram) for this reverse application are—as my kids would say—a bit sus, so don’t focus on the numbers. They’re not intended to be applied precisely. Instead the model offers a framework—essentially a bell curve.
It should come as no surprise that in a vast country, with a vast range of cultural norms in different locations and groups, that there would be laggards in discontinuing some practices, no matter how irrational they seem.
As I worked on the article, and in its aftermath, I found myself trying to understand how this absurd situation came to pass. These were a few of my thoughts, but this is by no means an exhaustive or definitive list. Please add your own thoughts in the comments.
One of the better tweets I saw about the article was someone comparing the school to the Japanese soldiers after the end of WWII who continued fighting because they didn’t know the war had ended. It’s a sharp analogy, and one I wish I had thought of! (More on the Japanese holdouts here, for those who are interested.)
Covid, thankfully, has never been a great threat to children, and—considering nearly all of them now have the protective benefit of prior infection or vaccination, or both—making children spend their days in a defensive crouch against this virus is, indeed, akin to a soldier fighting an imaginary foe.
Also, as promised in my intro to the piece yesterday, below are some “director’s cut” nuggets that didn’t make it into the piece:
In addition to the made up sign language the kids used during silent lunch, they also were permitted in some classes to write notes to each other on white boards.
According to a child I interviewed, the teacher got mad at the students for signing, so the kids were eventually barred from doing that. They then began exchanging written notes when they could briefly break distancing rules on the way to the water fountain.
Once distancing rules relaxed in spring 2022, children in some classes were told that they needed to ask permission anytime they wanted to approach another child (in case the child wasn’t emotionally ready for close contact, or still wanted to distance out of fear of transmission).
The school allowed older kids to stop distancing before younger grades. The rationale given was that older kids had been out in the community more so they could handle it, whereas younger kids needed more time to adjust to being close to each other. Beth Stein’s older daughter bragged each night at the dinner table for two or three weeks before the younger daughter got to enjoy being near her peers too.
The younger kids had to use pool noodles during tag outside to maintain social distancing from each other
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