(Not Quite) Back To School

Here we are at the end of the summer. Along with other parents, I’ve been holding my breath as to whether we’re doing in-person schooling in the fall in the midst of COVID-19. After reflecting on last school year, it’s become more apparent that the distance learning didn’t work at all in our house – not for lack of effort by the school, our great teachers, or by the parents – we all gave it our best, but it just didn’t work for our first grader.

Now we’re T-minus 10 days from an already-delayed start of the school year. While our district has maintained that they will be doing in-person learning for elementary students, they’ve already walked secondary schools back to a hybrid model (rotating cohorts of 2 days per week). This week we’ve seen neighboring districts announce the suspension of in-person learning until October, with the announcements leaving a lot of ambiguity about the date.

During that time I’ve seen a lot of people take to social media (especially Facebook) to publicly express their concerns and fears about whether to return to schools, on both sides. While I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject, discussing it with my wife (who has been in logistical discussions all summer about how to safely open and operate a high school during COVID), I’ve purposefully avoided discussing this on social media. Facebook more and more just seems more toxic.

As the son of a teacher, the husband of a school counselor, and an adamant supporter of public education, I have the utmost sympathy towards school district leaders that are making excruciating decisions, when all options are the table are bad ones. They’re facing the “Kobayashi Maru” scenario, where they’re going to be criticized by all stakeholders, regardless of what decision gets made. As decisions get made (and changed), I think it’s only natural and appropriate to feel disappointment in the decision, as well as appropriately express the way this decision impacts the kids and their families. Mature adults should be able to compartmentalize the disappointment without expressing malice and anger at the officials making the decisions.

It does seem, however, that the officials are struggling in these areas in the process of making these decisions:

black wooden writing desk chair inside room
Photo by Rubén Rodriguez on Unsplash

Lack of transparency in the decision process

Watching these decisions unfold and reading the communications made by school districts as they’ve shifted dates and strategy, many announcements seem to omit the process and metrics that are being used to evaluate the decisions. Many cite recommendations made the health departments on all levels, but missing from those statements are the specific criteria that prompted the change.

It’s important that districts are forthcoming about the metrics they’re looking at (e.g. case positivity percentage, hospitalization numbers, virus reproduction R0), or if there are other factors that are being considered (staffing shortages, known outbreaks in relevant populations). As a community, it’s important we understand what data is driving the decision, and when it’s being evaluated. By being forthcoming about the process and data, the community could feel informed and empowered, rather than at the mercy at what’s perceived as shifting goalposts and detached arbitrary decisions.

Adapting re-opening strategies to specific schools and grade levels

It seems when districts were creating their plans, the scenarios seemed to encompass an “all or nothing” approach to all grade levels and schools. I understand that COVID-19 is novel and we’re learning more about it each day, but there does seem to be some consensus that spread is different for kids under 10 and those older than 10. As that became apparent, it seems that many districts did not take the opportunity to further refine their plans to provide different solutions to the age groups.

An opportunity was wasted early on to prioritize elementary schools, figuring out how to get those higher-impact/lower-risk grade levels operating in-person as safe as possible. Given the level of spread risk to those 10 and under, combined with the ineffectiveness of distance learning to that age group, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have conceded that high school should start with distance learning out the gate, especially since there are fewer concerns with leaving high school-aged teens at home. Given thatthe high school structure is at odds with cohorts, as well as the risk associated with older teens becoming virus spread vectors, a tough decision could be made to keep high schools in remote learning for the year.

There could be a scenario where the district focuses on sustainable in-person learning for elementary students. Plans to accommodate older and at-risk teachers could have been devised – perhaps a temporary swap where younger secondary school teachers could trade jobs with the teacher for the year (and even use each other as mentoring opportunities). I’ve also seen the idea floated that at-risk teachers could have Zoomed into classes to deliver the lessons, with the in-person facilitation of the class being done by a recent college grad or senior-year student teachers under emergency dispensation.

If the elementary plan resulted in positive results, districts could employ a plan to start in-person learning for middle schools. Vacant high school buildings could be repurposed to improve social distancing for middle schools (in addition to their current schools), sending the 7th and 8th graders to those schools.

These are just a few ideas, but the bottom line is that with things changing so quickly and drastically, school districts need to be nimble in their strategy. We’re seeing a little bit of this in some districts where secondary schools are employing different models, but it does seem that most districts are quick to paint all grade levels with the same broad brush – especially when it involves keeping all students at home.

Be clear about goals

This problem is not limited to the school districts, but rather our society as a whole. We’re not on the same page with what we’re looking to accomplish. This ambiguity gives the perception of shifting goalposts and ultimately makes people angry.

We need to separate the “opening” and “mitigation” strategies. I do agree that mitigation and stopping spread requires different tactics but again must try to be precise as possible. For opening, however, we’re not clear whether the goal is to have zero cases occur in the school district, or if it’s to reduce risk where possible, conceding that some spread will occur.

The problem is that a lot of our discussion about COVID is presented as a binary issue, couched in these polar opposites of people either dying from this, or not catching this. This spirals into whether people should stay home or live life as COVID doesn’t exist. There is a silent majority out there that are trying to live with this, mitigating (as well as avoiding) risk to themselves and their families where they can. However, this is not the same as ensuring that no new cases occur.

This notion is fueled by the assumption that a movie ending to the pandemic is iminent, where a vaccine arrives and overnight things are magically solved. The reality is that months and perhaps even years will go by before COVID isn’t at the forefront of our lives. To take the extreme solution of keeping people home until an arbitrary date that will inevitably get moved back is not going to be sustainable. We all need to take this pandemic seriously, but at the same time understand that drastic options cannot be long term. There needs to be some kind of sustainable solution, or at least continuous attempts to move in that direction.

I want every stakeholder – students, teachers, and parents – to be heard, but we do need to arrive at a collective decision as to whether schools are deemed as essential, and whether we can take realistic precautions to make it as safe as possible. We can’t keep schools closed in perpetuity while Grocery Stores, Amazon Delivery Centers, and meat-packing plants remain open.

I’ve also grown tired of those that continually bring up problems and concerns without proposing any solutions. As I stated above, these are all bad options, we’re just going to have to pick one of them and work through it. It’s also important to acknowledge that there has been a failure by government leaders on many levels. The CDC Guidelines reads more like a persuasive essay rather than a coherent plan.


This year is going to likely be one of the toughest in the lives of parents, teachers, administrators, and especially the students. We’re only going to get through it with being forthcoming about the information, quick to adapt to the changes, persistent about doing what’s best for everyone, as well as offering grace when things won’t work out.

New Amy and the Peace Pipes Single – Clear Reflections

Wow did July get away from me. More on that later, but for now I wanted to share that my band, Amy and the Peace Pipes, has a new single out! Check out Clear Reflections!

This is a new song that we wrote last fall, a love song for for Amy’s husband. The drum pattern is inspirted by Dave Matthews Band’s “Can’t Stop”.

It’s available on all of the streams, and it would be a big help for you to like the song, follow Amy and the Peace Pipes, as well as add the song to your favorite playlist.

Thanks so much!

COVID-19 at 3 Months: Zig Zagging Those Invisible Lines

This week will mark the third month of severe life disruption due to COVID-19. We’ve been one month into the “Safer At Home” transition, where things are trying to re-open and run at some limited capacity, but there’s still an emphasis on avoiding large gatherings – all along with the backdrop of 10+ days of major protests due to George Floyd’s murder.

Right now there is a sense of security that lies with being outdoors. The current belief is that virus spread is significantly lower when you’re outside, especially in this warmer weather. Watching these protests where thousands are gathered sets off alarms in my “socially distant conditioned” brain. Many are wearing masks, but it seems like all social distancing consideration has gone out the window. I know it’s for a righteous cause, but I can’t help but be concerned about whether we’re going to see super-spreader events that will manifest in the coming weeks.

One gets the sense that people are taking this less seriously as the weeks go by. It seems that every outing shows fewer people wearing masks. The mask-wearing seems to have devolved into a cultural issue, with people forgoing mask-wearing to make a political statement against being told what to do. There is a mixture of people cautiously taking the recommended precautions, while others are flaunting their disregard for them to make a statement. The frustration is definitely understandable as guidelines continue to evolve, as well as seeing a double-standard applied to the condemnation for people opening their businesses early, all the while thousands are chanting and screaming in the streets.

At home, it’s become difficult to explain the disparity of behavior to our kids, why we try to uphold certain standards when they see that others aren’t being as rigid. We struggle as we try to convey that the girls will need to continue to make adjustments and maintain awareness to do things they previously did before, but you do get a sense that they are also missing the normalcy. Clara, who always hates going shopping, told us that she misses going to the store.

There is quite a bit I miss about the pre-COVID life, but as things open up I’m still very reluctant to resume those activities. Despite missing people-watching in a coffee shop while I work, there’s no part of me that feels comfortable doing that (even if the opportunity arose). The same goes for my indoor spin cycle class, but in large part that I’ve become accustomed to biking outdoors on the trails. We do miss taking the girls on activities to the museum, library, and swimming pool, but the opening of those places seems to kindle apprehension about those activities.

My biggest hope is that Clara will be able to go back to school when fall comes, I’m cautiously optimistic, but we’ll see what occurs from the protests and whether we’ll see any epidemiological consequences.

Fingers are crossed, prayers are said.

COVID-19 at 2 Months: Invisible Lines Everywhere

After two months with everything shut down, we’re all trying to creep towards “the new normal” of life with COVID-19. There seems to be an abundance of anxiety from all different places. There are those worried that things are being rushed open too quickly with efforts that will be met with sudden spikes of infection, hospitalization, and deaths. There are those who are anxious to get businesses open get the economy moving forward, impatient with the slow rate of progress. There also seem to be those who are not accepting “the new normal”, whether they think the reaction is overblown, or that current mitigation suggestions are not relevant.

As we creep out of lock-down, everyone is drawing their own line of comfort and risk, then see others crossing those lines – whether it’s by strangers, neighbors, friends, or even family members. We’re seeing a vast spectrum of comfort levels being disrupted. On one hand, there are those that feel we’re moving too fast in opening things up and don’t feel comfortable yet leaving the house. On the opposite end, we are witnessing performative virtue signaling in people proudly announcing that they won’t wear masks, actively supporting businesses that are defying the loosened restrictions. It comes across as a performative machismo coated in ignorance, that just seems gross.

In our community, you see people trying to be responsible to an extent. People out walking or biking may not be wearing masks but seem to be trying to keep an appropriate physical distance. However when you go to a store or another public place, you see nearly everyone wearing a mask – now mostly by mandate, but before those dropped I would say 85% of people work a mask during my weekly grocery store run.

Our own neighborhood has been interesting. You see more and more kids out co-mingling, mostly in small groups, but you get this sense of the social bubble expanding as people are now having tertiary social connections through their expanded encounters. I can’t help but still feel a sense of nervousness when I see it.

Our own kids have been back at in-home daycare for over two weeks now, and we’ve felt that was a pretty big expansion of our social connections (going from our own family to now having connections with four other families). The girls are also playing with another neighborhood friend, as well. At this point, that’s been the limit to expanding our bubble, through small baby steps.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that these lines and bubbles are all relative. Colorado now has people able to go back into office settings at 50% capacity, and I’m seeing some of my friends on social media back in those settings (albeit with masks and trying to maintain the social distancing). Then it’s important to remember that we have essential workers that have been in the thick of it all along in the form of grocery workers, delivery drivers, and workers in other services that never shut down and have been living in this tension for months on end.

Everyone has their own backstory, their own circumstances, their own risk assessment, their own way of dealing with it. Right now it’s too easy to pass judgment on people without having the full story. We’re seeing a lot of public shaming going on in social media, with people jumping to conclusions. Sometimes it is warranted, but it does seem that much of it is uncalled for. The reality is that everyone is trying to do what they can to get by and figure out the new normal – or at least the new normal for now.

You’re Doing Video Wrong

When a pandemic hits society and forces everyone to retreat into their homes, video technology has transformed from a novelty to a necessity. For the last two months, people are relying on video conferencing, broadcasting, and live-streaming to replace their face-to-face interaction.

In my 20+ year career working in the technology sector, spending the majority of it working in global remote teams, I’ve spent countless hours in teleconferences (and video conferences) and tried many different technologies and methods to collaborate. Watching those around me try to grapple with the same problems at a larger scale has me offering some suggestions about how to approach video in your daily life.

Your video conference likely unnecessary

There’s a dirty secret about video conferencing, especially for work meetings: 95% of them are unnecessary, usually creating more problems than they solve.

I get that many are trying to fill the void left by abruptly ending face-to-face interaction, and video can help, but only to a very short extent. When sitting around a table in a conference room, you’re not looking at everyone in the face simultaneously, yet that’s the experience that a gallery-view video meeting. This backfires on concentration efforts, where participants become far more concerned with their own appearance, surroundings, and demeanor, rather than focusing on the content of the meeting. This is especially true for larger meetings.

Unless it’s critical that you get non-verbal feedback to your meeting content, keep the camera switched off. While the risk exists that there may be more multi-tasking (which is a fancy term for “not listening”), it’s part of the reality of remote meetings. You’ll also be grateful that meeting attendees can manage their distractions on mute, especially if you have parents with their kids at home. As a presenter, you do get a sense that you’re yelling into an empty cavern without much feedback, but it will feel better over time.

The other important consideration for video is bandwidth usage. With many working from home right now, household bandwidth usage has grown significantly. Your video conference may be clogging the internet pipes in your own house, as well as in your community. Especially if you’re challenged for bandwidth, you may be better off just keeping that camera turned off when you can.

Use a headset if possible

If you’re going to be home for the foreseeable future, invest in a USB headset if you can, or if you’re doing a lot of one-way video lectures, a decent USB mic would do as well.

Having a headset will not only make the audio better on your end (blocking out background noise), but it also improves your listening experience as well. When I was on teleconferences in a crowded office I bought this gaming headset that completely covered my ears, eliminating the background noise.

You might get some comments about looking goofy on video, but your coworkers will secretly thank you for the decent audio, and may even be secretly jealous.

If you’re a musician and looking to do live-streaming, the best thing you could do to stand out has decent audio, especially if you’re going to be playing something louder than an acoustic guitar. If you happen to already have a Shure SM-58 (or another vocal mic), investing in an audio interface would take the inputs from your microphones and port them to your computer, giving a superior audio experience.

Lights and your camera

If you’re lucky enough to have an abundance of sunlight and windows where you work, be mindful of where they’re positioned in relation to you and your camera. Avoid having the windows and sunlight to your back, as the lights are going to wash you out. Ideally, you want the light source to be behind the camera, or lighting you from off to the side so that your face can be the brightest object on the screen. It may be necessary to turn off your background lights as well.

There are the fancy LED rings and studio lights (which are in short supply right now), but the reality is that even a desk lamp placed correctly would be sufficient for most people.

Streaming vs Hosting – it’s not either/or

I’ve seen a lot of people doing live streams on Facebook, from musicians to fitness classes, to public institutions. Facebook does make it easy to Livestream, especially if you’re using a mobile device, and it also rewards you by prominently showcasing your video in everyone’s feed. As nice a job Facebook is about live streaming, it’s awful about rebroadcasting and archiving your video. If you have a fitness class, for example, their interface makes it pretty hard to find the video, burying it deep in your page.

Facebook is also the most draconian about copyright claims. If you are playing music in the background of your video, YouTube will try to identify copyright holders and get them compensated. Worst case, you won’t be able to monetize your own video. With Facebook, however, that same music will get your video taken down, as they aren’t equipped to compensate copyright holders.

The fix is easy: if you Livestream on Facebook, great – but be sure to download the video and upload it to your YouTube channel as well. I would condition people to also go over to YouTube as well. YouTube will reward you (socially and maybe even monetarily) far more than YouTube will, plus you have a place you can refer people to outside of Facebook. If you’re doing something where you’re trying to build an audience, use an email list service like Mailchimp to correspond with them.


Ultimately it’s important to remember that each situation is different and it is easy to go overboard depending on what you’re looking to do. If you’re looking to dip into live streaming or giving long-form video lectures, your level of investment may be more than someone who is just doing a weekly video checkpoint for school. While streaming video is an incredible tool, it’s also most effective when used sparingly.

Do you have any video tips? I’d love to hear them in the comments!