Odis Johnson

The Pandemic Public Health Divide

Air Date: September 13, 2021

JHU Center for Safe and Healthy Schools executive director Odis Johnson discusses educating during the pandemic.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I am delighted to welcome our guest today Odis Johnson Jr. He’s executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. Welcome, thank you so much for joining me today.


JOHNSON: Thank you for inviting me.


HEFFNER: We’ve had one school year, a full school year in the pandemic era. Now, now we have a little over half the American people vaccinated, but many in the school setting and many children are not vaccinated. What are you thinking about as we enter this fall, in terms of the appropriate policy that will keep all schools safe, right? Every school is different, but as many schools as possible safe, the faculty members, and of course the children?


JOHNSON: Of course, primary on my mind is the vaccine and the fact that vaccinations are really the only way that we end the pandemic and its impact on a school-going population. And of course we understand that at present the vaccine is not authorized for use, for all use, but those that are in U.S. high schools are largely eligible. And my hope is that we get as many vaccinated, and as soon as possible in order to stop the spread of COVID-19, but also just to bring back some of the normalcy that we had in schools prior to the pandemic.


HEFFNER: Prior to the pandemic, there were already issues concerning the safety and health in schools: hunger, gun violence. You know they have in some instances been neglected or, you know, not as clearly understood, but how are you tracking it at the center in terms of what’s happened over this past year and a half, two years, in terms of the extent of, of you know, poverty, hunger in schools and and violence, gun violence specifically?


JOHNSON: That’s a great question. And there are quite things that are, quite a bit of things that we’ve done at the Center for city schools to stay on top of COVID and understand its impact not just in the U.S., but also globally with our trackers for school reopen and closures. But beyond that, we’ve been in touch with our local school systems to understand how they’ve been responding to COVID, understanding better the requirements for hybrid education, understanding what teachers need in order to feel safe instructing kids, and then also what families and schools also need in order to feel safe in returning to school. In addition to this, we understand that there were lots of other school-related inequities, as you’ve mentioned, that predated COVID. And of course, a lot of these inequities have continued to become problems or continue to be problems. On top of that, we’re trying to understand how COVID has impacted folks. And here, we’re largely in a black hole because our federal government, along with state governments, were not effectively coordinating during the time the schools were shut down, to understand what was happening with achievement within schools and whether those opportunity gaps and those ways in which opportunities to learn were different across racial and ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Have those inequities grown? But unfortunately, we don’t have the question, we don’t have the answer to those questions because we largely did not collect data and we’re not coordinated in our approach to understand it being handled, find the appropriate metrics and the conditions that kids were facing once they left school. So there is a lot to be learned here. And we’re at this moment where we’re resuming education in many states and meaning in-person education, not hybrid education. And yet we know so little about what happened during the year in which kids were largely kept away from schools.


HEFFNER: Well, that year likely will continue this fall. I mean, what is your assessment of at what point hybrid education or Zoom education, you know, basically remote learning, should be instituted again, because we do understand there are breakthrough infections. Even people who are vaccinated are not fully protected, there is currently the Delta variant, but there are various, you know, next strains that we’re concerned about. It doesn’t seem like, to your point professor, that there, there really is any kind of clear guidance at the beginning of this semester coming from Secretary Cardona or the department of education on, you know, what, what is kind of the general guidelines of, you know, and do you think that that deference to state and local authorities is appropriate? I mean, is it going to be, yield the best outcome?


JOHNSON: That’s a great question. And we do have some guidance from the CDC, from federal sources, and in general I agree that these procedures and protocols are important and should be followed. We should be wearing masks in schools. Students should be getting vaccinated if they’re eligible. Schools should pursue appropriate benching strategies, meaning to make sure that when they can to open the windows, to keep doors open to clean installers and HVAC systems to you whose exalt within kitchens and also even within school buses to make sure that those windows are open to the extent that they can be. But where I think we are not prepared, at least in terms of really is about what about the safe distance we’re supposed to maintain, it used to be six feet. Then it went to three feet within schools, is that inappropriate to distance now, now the schools are at full capacity instead of at a reduced capacity as they were in the past. Also, I’m really curious about mask mandates and how we can make sure kids, especially the very young kids that tend to be a little bit more active and less worried about their masks will keep those mask on and keep themselves safe. I’m concerned about ventilation because it’s hot someplace, right? And later on, it’s going to get cold, and kids are not going to learn effectively and teachers are not going to teach as effectively if there are climate concerns. So there’s a lot to be understood. There, there is no perfect solution to these things. So I understand that to the extent CDC guidance can be helpful, it nonetheless needs to be practical. And right now there’s really no assurance that kids will have an educational environment that was in any way similar to what happened before the pandemic.


HEFFNER: What you’re saying must be alarming to school administrators and to teachers, that there really is not a way forward yet. I mean, there’s not a conclusive way forward. And part of that is influenced by the fact that younger people are starting to show up at hospitals and needing to be hospitalized from this by most accounts that seems to be unvaccinated people. But the virus does seem to be attacking younger people now. And I think you’re suggesting that the mandates are appropriate. And even though, of course, they’re not being practiced in places like Texas or Florida, other states too, but basically the mask mandate or vaccination mandate for faculty and staff are the policies that are going to be safest going forward.


JOHNSON: I agree. Listen, there is no replacement for the vaccine. As a matter of fact, a mask mandate really is just kicking the road, kicking the can down the road because ultimately the vaccine is the only way that we can make sure all kids are safe within schools. And again, I understand that certain age groups cannot have the vaccine. They’re not eligible for it. And the FDA is working on a vaccine proving or identifying and proving a vaccine that would be appropriate for that age group. But we have a problem right now where high schools, for example, where most kids are eligible because they’re usually 14 years old and above, to get the vaccine. And some of those kids are not getting the vaccine. And at some point, the United States and its school systems, largely the municipalities and states in which schools really take their orders, will have to mandate COVID vaccines much like we did back when smallpox was an issue at the turn of the 20th century and later, or more recent times when measles was a concern in the 1970s, all 50 states have mandatory vaccine requirements as kids enter school.


And that is the only way that we’re going to keep it safe, is to mandate COVID vaccines as well. And right now we just lack the political will to have that be reality in most states. I doubt that some states, Texas and Florida in particular, whatever mandate that their kids have a COVID vaccine. And in fact, I believe in the state of Texas just hours ago, the Supreme Court there decided that schools don’t have the authority to mandate masks. So right now we’re just at a political impasse that is really impacting public health and the ability of schools to keep kids safe.


HEFFNER: There was an opportunity to think of the pandemic through the lens of like a healthcare reset, just as there is for educators now to think about a reset to improve the systems that suffered from grave inequities, pre-pandemic. And, you know, I think that if you go to places where there are many unvaccinated or, you know, virtually half the population is unvaccinated and hospitals are buckling and the system, once again, you know, I’m sure folks are wondering what, what did we experience over the last two years going on two years that could lead us to this point of just repeating that blunder. And when we think of what can be improved in the long-term, in the education system, I wonder, you know, how we can contemplate that conversation, even if there’s not a destination yet, because there are going to be closures and more shutdowns likely in the coming months until there’s a more fully vaccinated public. So, I understand this is what the caveat, and it’s a major caveat that we don’t have a vision yet of a post-pandemic school, but if there are ways to reset through the infrastructure legislation or no other means of supporting, you mentioned ventilation, air quality, I think a lot about hunger knowing that in many of our metropolises young people suffer from, you know, really a pandemic of hunger as much as there was a pandemic of COVID. And so what can we do to reset the social and economic conditions of the American education system so that there is ground, you know, sort of a newly entrenched foundation to build on in the years ahead?


JOHNSON: That is a question, and you’re absolutely correct that prior to the pandemic, there were a lot of inequities that plague schools and its ability to respond to students’ health and wellbeing: social, emotional wellbeing, but also just to health. We only need to look to the Flint water crisis as an example of school systems and the larger political environment failing them in keeping them safe while they’re in school. But yes, I think COVID does provide this moment where we, as you said, reset, or perhaps reimagine what school can look like, and not just, you know, school meeting, learning objectives, but a more equitable and health-conscious system. And so to that we have been working with Baltimore city public schools, for example to understand the lessons learned there. So Baltimore city is with us trying to get through the pandemic, but it is trying to learn from the pandemic and what actually happens for kids. Perhaps there were kids that actually excelled during a pandemic, and it would be good to know what were they facing when they were in school and how did time away from school perhaps change that? And perhaps in thinking from what happened, their experience as while they’re away from school or away from school, can be taken to scale and impact kids more broadly. Likewise in other cities, such as St. Louis, systems they actually really collaborated. They came together because they understood that what was before them in terms of the pandemic was something that they could better fight together than apart. So they collectively negotiated with internet service providers so that kids, even if they had bills, or their service was disconnected because of payment, were able to have their internet service reestablished. They also collectively got together a school lunch program and a meals program that not only served kids and made sure that they had proper nutrition, because some of them only relied on schools for that but also their families. Because you can’t just feed children at home and leave the rest of the family hungry. So there are ways in which we’ve come together because of it, that need to be sustained beyond COVID. Again, getting back to the hybrid learning and the technological divide, the differences in access to internet that was something that K-12 schools were not really interested in solving, even if they were aware of it. They didn’t have much leverage in making sure kids had access to internet. But now there’s been collective will. And now success in engaging internet service providers so that kids can have equitable access to really vital knowledge, knowledge that helps them complete schoolwork, even when COVID is not an issue. So, yes, there are things we can definitely learn and ways we can reimagine schooling and to make it more equitable for everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic background or city and, other aspects of inequality.


HEFFNER: Odis, you said earlier that the data, that the data really aren’t available yet to understand the scope of impact on communities and educational communities during the pandemic, I was asking that in the context of other health metrics, specifically hunger and the wellbeing of students and tracking that. I was also asking in the context of public safety and incidents of violence that in some communities had been on the rise during the pandemic. But you identify the digital divide as central to this dilemma of any quality in the American education system. And it’s something we’ve talked about on The Open Mind actively for many years. Is there any data we can see on how many schools, you know, had full access to high-speed internet pre-pandemic, and now have access as of fall of 2021?


JOHNSON: There are data out there, but those data are not lived experiences. And let me elaborate here. We can at one point in time, ask a family whether they have access to the internet. And we routinely do with the longitudinal database to say, we have a National Center for Educational Statistics. But we don’t have data on how consistent is that access. Whether there are financial barriers to maintaining consistent access, whether kids have access to the internet in a more user-friendly way. While I think everyone recognizes smartphones have internet access usually or data service. They’re not the best thing to use to complete homework and, and, you know, visually they they’re probably going to have some inaccessibility or say, incompatibilities with other software kids routinely use within school settings. So we need to understand the equality of access and whether it’s conducive to homework completion and learning and exploration. And I guarantee you, once we get into those data, you’re going to find a pretty huge, significant inequalities along social economic lines and racial lines that lead to then more pronounced differences in achievement.


HEFFNER: But will we find, Odis improvement? I think that’s the critical question because there have been stimulus investments over the course of this last year. We’re on the precipice of legislating infrastructure. We may not have access to that data until 2022, until next year, but, but there was such a tale of two zip codes in the data that exists prior to the pandemic. This is one area of internet access that by necessity should have improved. And if it hasn’t you know, we are in even deeper trouble than we could have imagined because this is the one area, maybe not hunger in terms of food, access or security, maybe not in terms of the criminal justice system and you know, violence, but on this metric, and I know you’re a computer scientist you’re as someone who gets deep in the data by training, this is one metric that should have gone the right direction.


JOHNSON: I agree. And there definitely needs to be focused on infrastructure investment, and yes, let’s talk about that. Let’s make sure the resources are there. Let’s make sure that we’re not just talking about access, but then also quality of access. But then also there’s some other things that we need to look to. For example, within St. Louis, where I was on a school board, it became very clear that even when technology such as iPads and computers were extended to families for the purposes of hybrid education, you know, to give kids access to libraries and other resources that were vital to completing the homework that their teachers were sending home. Some of the families did not take those iPads, those laptops, because they were forced to sign an agreement saying that you’re responsible for that iPad. And if they’re damaged, then you would be responsible for replacing it. And of course, some families thinking, you know, my child is going to break this iPad, you know, very young kids. Should we trust them with technology that we cannot afford? So even there, there was this affordability question that I think a lot of families had about equipment that we loan to them. And then also we ran into the problem of, yes, the ISP was providing access to the internet, but they also put a cap on access. So think about it as your cell phone, deciding to cap the number of hours and minutes you can have access to or data, or what have you. This was the case with other internet service providers and when you have a family that needs access, students often found that when they were ready to do their homework, that their family had already used up all of the allowable minutes. So these are just other layers that, you know, not going quite far enough to ensure that the kids had unabridged access in that service. So I guess my response is that we have to have a commitment of will in making sure that kids have what they need in order to be successful. But then also understand that it’s a family unit. It’s, we need a two-generational approach because we can’t just serve kids while the rest of the family unit needs serving as well. So this gets to your point about hunger and well-being…


HEFFNER: Let me just ask you in the seconds we have left, and this is a question that deserves more than seconds, but when it comes to the community that the families that you’re referring to and the erosion of the village, is it, are you hopeful, or do you really feel over these last few years that the village, if you will, has been eroded?


JOHNSON: I think in certain cases we have done quite well in, in responding to the pandemic. And I think in those cities their elected officials have by and large done all that they can do. But elsewhere I’m afraid that some cities have decided to politicize the pandemic in a way that has eroded a lot of those supports that kids need to be successful in school. So unless we develop a national plan and a political will to do that plan, we’ll find that have and have nots with respect to the pandemic and the access to opportunity will continue.


HEFFNER: Odis Johnson at Johns Hopkins University. Thank you so much for your insight today.


JOHNSON: Thank you.


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