Loop 1 (close): school opening dashboard

Question: Imagine you are the leader of your local school district. You can build a public dashboard that shows only one metric that you use to decide that it is OK to open up your schools for in-person classes. What metric would your dashboard show?

The purpose of the question is both to think constructively about a current issue (there's already plenty of... unconstructive thought out there about the subject) and to think about dashboards more generally. Let's go to the phones...

External inputs reduced to:

  1. Shouldn't be in this situation anyway
  2. No new cases in x days

My input:

  1. All students have means to complete studies online

I just wanted to address #1 first. Wishing to not have to make a decision about a situation instead of considering what decision to make is magical thinking. If you are in a house on fire, and you ask your companion what to do, and they say that they wish the house wasn't on fire—let that person burn. Once you're in the situation, you need to act, and you need to be able to decide how to act, what parameters are important and what parameters you can affect. Wishing for better circumstances in which to exist is worse than useless, it is detrimental.

That's all for that—small sample size for this survey, let's insult half of it, good strategy.

Let's think about the other one: no new cases for 21 days. Let's adjust that a little to get a good abstraction: no new cases among students for 21 days. From the point of view of a school, new cases are going to come from two sources: (1) inside the school; (2) outside the school. (Everything seems to apply to people who work at schools the same as students—I suppose that they're functionally synonymous, and we'll just say student.) 

You're only going to know if a student has a disease if you can test that student. Or else you'll have to use a weaker, lagging indicator: when a student shows symptoms of the disease, although this has the negative aspects of missing asymptomatic cases, and indicating sources after they've had opportunities to spread.

The issue then seems to be: (1) do you wait to find cases inside the school, and then react; or (2) do you require that all students are clear before coming back to school? (1) seems to require that you have a plan to react (and probably also good insurance); (2) seems to require that you have the capacity to test, plus another decision on what the threshold should be for letting the student body return (e.g., 80% are disease-negative) and how to handle the disease-positive cases (e.g., remote instruction for some, in-person instruction for others).

My idea for this one: I assume that there will be a second wave of cases eventually, and it may happen after class resumes in person. Assuming schools will need to be closed again is not unreasonable. If that needs to happen, how prepared are you to handle Plan B? This round of surprise homeschooling was haphazard. That it was a surprise is excusable, that it was not considered in crisis playbooks is not. Some students are going to have all of the tools, materials, etc., that they'll need to learn effectively; some will have none; most will be on the spectrum in between.

So: in between now and Round 2, I would want to know that a percentage of students (say, 90%) have been brought up to a minimum threshold level of things they'll need to be effectively taught remotely before allowing them back. Sending them away this first time was detrimental; the second time would be worse, because not only would they lose the education, but also trust in the education, especially if the adults in control didn't prepare.

Personally, I like the external feedback better than my own approach here. My approach is more like making sure the house has enough fire extinguishers (lagging the problem); the external approach is making sure the house is less likely to contain things that start fires (leading the problem).

But the question is just a model anyway, right? One factor to make a complex decision? You'll need more than one. But it just provides a viewpoint on the problem. All models are wrong, but some are useful. We're not going to solve the world's problems here, but we might develop better methods of thinking about the problems, and understanding the issues and guiding the public response and holding accountable the people who are responsible for responding. The goal is better, not perfect. To that end, send any links to better information (the best/worst ways schools are handling these issues, papers, videos, books, etc.) and we can append them here.

Output: Let's call the output of this loop: how do you balance leading and lagging indications when making a critical decision?

Next loop: I'm going to use the topical output to feed into the next loop. Imagine you are a teacher. You have a class of 30 students with basically no home resources. You have 1 month to prepare for fully remote learning. What 3 steps do you take to prepare to effectively provide an education to your students?

PS: I don't think I'll always publish the output of these openly on the site. I might just publish them in the newsletter, with a few notes here in the open. Dunno. You might just want to sign up for the newsletter then: The Captain's Newsletter.

PPS: Merlin Mann almost brings an issue home in a recent episode of Back to Work: #477: The Immediacy Filter (notes).

[25:36] John Roderick and I were talking about this yesterday on our program, and just kind of grousing--mostly John, but me too--grousing a little bit about the theater of school that we're still expected to perform with fairly small assets and space and whatever. [...] Is it that we're trying to keep our kids with the idea that they are in school? Are we trying to keep the ritual alive? Are we trying to instill the curriculum that they would be tested on? What is this in service of? Because the way we approach this can and should be extremely different for each kid, each family, based on what it is we're trying to accomplish, and I don't think that mission statement... Maybe it's in the thousands and thousands of emails that I get all the time about the most minute things that happen inside the school system.

The missing part is, in my opinion: the mission statement of what school should be is missing. If it's missing now, maybe it's always been missing? Or forgotten? Whichever the case, it's a good time to think about what it should be, negotiate it, and publish it. What's the North Star?

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