As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on schools and place pressure on students, parents, and educators, questions and controversies continue to rage about vaccines, masks, what the “science” says, and more.
John Bailey, an education policy expert and writer of the nightly COVID-19 Policy Update on Substack, joined me and Diane Tavenner on our latest episode of Class Disrupted to talk about the current state of COVID and schools, Omicron, vaccinations, testing, and more. In this post, I wanted to highlight just three of the points he made in the episode (listen here!) around vaccine hesitancy, vaccine mandates, and the nature of scientific findings and how policymakers speak about them.
First, on vaccine hesitancy—he observed that new data show they are overwhelmingly safe for teenagers, but “our biggest issue there isn't safety, it's answering parent questions.” He noted that that we haven’t seen “any sort of campaign led by philanthropy, or the federal government, to just honestly engage parents in a dialogue about what their concerns are, what their questions are, and get those answered.”
How might a campaign to engage with parental concerns unfold? Bailey said that this shouldn’t fall to school systems. Instead, connecting parents to their doctors to answer their genuine questions and speak to their nervousness is critical.
Bailey’s point struck a chord. It also raised the question of what a campaign should look like.
In thinking about Adam Grant’s writing in his book Think Again about “vaccine whisperers”—individuals who persuade people opposed to vaccines to reconsider their point of view—these whisperers don’t go about their work by preaching the merits of vaccines or prosecuting those who hold an alternative view.
The whisperers instead listen carefully to the objections. That also means showing that they really understand what the person is saying. And they point out the areas of nuance in people’s thinking‚ which helps those individuals become more open to alternative points of view.
This segues into a second perspective John offered when I asked him about vaccine mandates for children. I confess I’ve had the view that mandates shouldn’t ultimately be a big deal. After all, we have mandates for all sorts of other viruses in schools. But John’s point resonated.
“I personally fall into the camp of it's too premature to be mandating vaccines for either age group, frankly,” he said. “In part, because we just haven't tried to reach parents and answer questions. Again, it's shocking to me how little outreach there has been. And so, to just jump suddenly to mandating it, frankly I think galvanizes a lot of opposition.”
That speaks to the value of not preaching or politicking but listening and engaging.
“And also,” John added, “It's not really clear the benefits, to your point, I think it's still an open question about how much kids transmit COVID. And there you also have to put sort of a question mark, because it's not just COVID, but it's Alpha, Delta and Omicron. Do kids spread Omicron slightly faster than Delta?
“And it doesn't look like that's the case, but again, vaccinating kids to protect adults. You have to have really overwhelming, unimpeachable sort of evidence that that's the case, to justify the mandate, from moral grounds and medical ethics grounds, and just public health grounds. And I don't think we're there yet, and I still think if we created more space for parents and for doctors to have a conversation, we'd be getting a lot further along in some of these vaccine and booster conversations than what we have.”
Chris Kresser, the functional medicine expert who has written about the benefits of vaccines, offered a similar if even stronger perspective than John’s that I’d encourage you to read here. Meanwhile, on the Education Gadfly Podcast, Checker Finn offered a very different take in favor of mandates. I’d encourage you to engage with both.
Finally, John talked about the nature of science and our evolving understanding of COVID itself.
“The COVID policy update that I do every night, almost every issue there's at least one other study that comes out, that contributes to our understanding of the severity of the virus, or different types of treatments or what it means for schools,” John said. “And it just struck me that we don't have a great system of getting those individual studies synthesized, and into the hands of parents, but also school leaders. You don't see them ever summarized at the US Department of Ed, rarely at the NIH, and almost hardly ever at the CDC. What you see is the CDC sort of picking the studies that they're using to base their decisions on.
“And so, I think we do have this information void. We have to have a better way of saying, ‘Here's a whole series of studies.’ Because what's happening right now is people are going out with a lot of confirmation bias. They're skeptical of masks, they'll find five studies that say masks aren't effective. And if they think masks are the most protective thing, they'll find five studies that say it. And the thing is, you have to look at the body of evidence and approach it with skepticism, in a sense that it questions and interrogates the data, but not cynically, and not in a way that just sort of tries to confirm our priors already. So, there's that.”
John’s comments show the value of approaching this world like a scientist. That means not saying things like “the science says” or “the science is settled about”… when in fact the “science” is really a process of stating hypotheses and continually collecting evidence to disprove the hypothesis or understand the circumstances in which it doesn’t apply. Instead, it would be better to say things like “the current evidence suggests” or “the preponderance of data imply” and view “the science” as an evolutionary process whereby studies are all contributing to our understanding of the underlying phenomenon and an understanding of cause-and-effect.
To that end, John added another thought.
“The second thing I would love to see our federal government start doing is assigning a level of confidence they have to certain findings,” John said. “The UK does this, by the way. They'll say, I'm making this up a little bit, but for illustration purposes, that ‘the Omicron variant is more mild,’ and they'll assign it a medium level of confidence. And I think there's something about assigning something high, medium, and low confidence, that helps people sort of digest but also weigh the information. Here we've turned ‘the science’ into this sort of all... With such an air of certainty, that inevitably chips away at the credibility when the science changes. Because that's what science does. Science is a process. And as other studies come out, as our understanding comes out, or as another variant comes out that acts very differently, our understanding changes. And so, I think we need a little bit more humility in how we talk about this, and I think I would love to start seeing that high, medium, and low confidence, based on the body of research, not just one or two studies.”
This set of ideas relates to another concept Grant wrote about in his book Think Again. Acknowledging nuance and uncertainty rather than undermining an idea or revealing weakness actually increases believability and can strengthen an argument, particularly for those who bring a skeptical mindset to a topic.
As Diane added, taking this approach would also offer “an opportunity to teach real-world science, and to really have people understand that science… is a process. And the whole point of it is that we're constantly learning more, and updating our knowledge, and getting better, and using it in different ways along the way.”
That’s not only something that can inform how we communicate around schools during the pandemic, but it can also inform how teachers and students operate and learn during this evolving time.