Our COVID-19 public education ‘Lesson Plan’ is badly flawed, and our instructional delivery system is equally ineffective.

As every principal who has observed a sizable number of classroom lessons knows, it is impossible for a teacher to “nail” a lesson if the conceptual and behavioral objectives are a set of ‘moving targets.’ The challenge of educating the public about a presently existing, highly infecting harmful microorganism, going through its natural seeking-to-live life cycles, e.g., advantageous adaptation and opportunistic reproduction, is not like teaching a lesson on World War II. Not only will the information change rapidly and often seemingly contradictorily; e.g., some vaccinated people will still get infected, but do amazingly better recovery-wise than the unvaccinated who get infected. Further, this public health lesson is not like some abstract pedagogical exercise; indeed, COVID-19 is negatively (in one way or another) affecting all of us student-citizens daily. Also, we scream at people that they should “listen to the science,” but that implies; and I am not proud to say this, that those of us in the K-12 public education community have adequately provided the majority of our citizens with the tools to effectively apply science knowledge and methodology to all of the real-science or pseudo-science information being thrown at them every day (just count the number of “likes” and “commentary endorsements” for the strong-but-wrong assertions of the many “Facebook and Twitter Scientist”; people who would not recognize the ‘Scientific Method’ if it sat down next to them at their breakfast table!).

We started this COVID-19 public education process wrong from the start. To add to this problem, we are (not learning from our mistakes) continuing down that not appreciating the rules-of-education path to this present day. Here in the US and in other places like Brazil and India, the public education problem was exacerbated by the ‘bad luck’ of having the worst possible leader at the initial moments when we faced one of the worse public health crises in our national history. Bad leaders make bad situations much worse. When I first began as a superintendent, I had to stop some principals in mid-explanatory sentences when they started with: “Well, we are outperforming such-n-such schools…”— Me (channeling the Motown Supremes: Stop! In the name of educating children): “Don’t even try it!”, I responded, “the performance of schools x, y or z are not the measuring criteria by which I am evaluating your school leadership capabilities!” For sure, Donald Trump did a lot of damage to our Covid-19 response and recovery efforts; but this is where we are. It follows then that Mr. Biden must do much better and go beyond “just not being Trump” I’m sorry, I like Mr. Biden, but that Trump-leadership-bar-standard is way, way too low!

I get that people are in love with the idea of bipartisanism (well, at least the Democrats are). Still, we need to face the reality that we are fighting both a highly-efficient virus and a high-powered and well-organized, pro-virus spreading elected and public leadership movement in our country…
In an email to two of my dear friends (Medical Drs. Sweeney & Walker), I recently proclaimed that the ‘mask mandates’ and ‘healthy social distancing’ battle is lost and over; they both sadly agreed. Unfortunately, the right-wing “business or bust” cynical Darwinian forces have succeeded in convincing a lot of people in the world (i.e., Germany, France, America) that there is some ‘natural’ or constitutional right to expose oneself or to potentially expose others to a deadly viral disease. In England, they marketed their largest-to-date COVID-19 exposure and spreading moment in the worst possible phraseological way: “Freedom Day!”
One British conservative commentator said in a PBS interview (I paraphrase here): “We can survive the small number of global deaths due to COVID-19, but the economic destruction and dislocation will be more devastating and long-lasting if we don’t fully open up now!” … I guess it’s good when you and your family have privileged person options! Perhaps, we should share his ‘uplifting message’ with “the small number” of the dead, dying and destined to die in the future, millions of people who live in those parts of the world where they don’t have access to COVID-19 vaccines or adequate medical treatment and facilities.

Republicans may not believe in science, but it does not mean they don’t believe in arithmetic!
Even though we now see some Republican elected leaders backtracking on vaccinations as they watch ‘their voters’ (the politically hardcore unvaccinated) bear the brunt of new deadly accelerated infections. But this vaccination epiphany they are displaying is not based on any principles of religion or human compassion; instead, they have come to realize the mathematical reality that a lot of GOP unvaccinated voters could very likely die before the 2022 or 2024 election cycle, thus possibly nullifying any expected advantage gained by the massive Black voter suppression laws they are putting in place nationally. If a politician can only do one thing, that one thing is count voters, or sadly, in this case, dead voters. The problem, however, is that they have taken their followers so far down the “ignorant-and-loving-it” path, I am not sure that these millions of people who think that Mr. Biden stole the election can now turn it around and believe that the COVID-19 virus is devastatingly real and not some “story” that was invented by the “deep liberal state.”

An effective response to an extraordinary public crisis requires extra-ordinary, unorthodox, and working outside of bureaucratic boundaries types of actions. (what those highly effective principals of successful Title-1 schools do every day!)…
Living in a nation with massive numbers of COVID-19 disease and vaccination deniers, the countless number of social media medical “experts” dispensing vaccination advice without conducting or bothering to reference peer-reviewed clinical trials data. And when you throw in the vast number of “don’t tread on my right and freedom to be covid-19 infected and to infect others!” folks, we can see how our present situation might look a little bleak. However, this challenging health crisis place we now find ourselves I believe logically presents us with the best and perhaps only viable option in fighting this COVID-19 viral siege; and that is to create the highest number of vaccinated citizens in the fastest, most efficient way possible; that objective should drive our pedagogy and all of our efforts.
Operational logistics aside (actually the easiest part), this extraordinary effort sounds to me to be, in large parts, like a major educational initiative. And, of course, professional education provides many models for achieving the greatest success in this type of mass teaching and learning effort.
(#1: “Know when your lesson plan isn’t working for some or all of your students!”) One of the attributes of a master teacher is having the ability to ‘decenter,’ assess student comprehension by observing student body-facial language and utilizing good questioning techniques during a lesson. Clearly, for reasons previously mentioned, our current vaccination information/convincing plan is not working. If too many states and localities like Alabama (34% vaccinated) have below 50% of their population vaccinated, then we are in for some challenging and troubling national health times ahead. And then there are also those citizens who are resisting taking the vaccine who live in those states and communities with higher general numbers of those vaccinated, e.g., Vermont 80% vaccinated; and yet, these vaccine resisters may be traveling locally or nationally, and therefore can serve as human petri-dishes of virus spreading. It seems to me that a national ‘one-size-fits-all’ vaccination education strategy won’t work here, and even worse, our present approach misallocates resources, people, time, and money.
Therefore, we need (#2: A differentiated methodological reaching people and teaching people process). This problem-solving methodology must include a standards-based, rubrics defined, pacing calendar vaccine education curriculum based on local infection and vaccination rates, geography, history, social and political science, anthropology (local customs), social-psychology, and demographical researched data. This qualitative/quantitative data-driven approach might sound ‘too technical’ to non-professional education readers, but it’s something the best educators do every day by putting efficacious scaffolding and supports in place for different cohorts of children (meeting them at the place of their learning need), and thus placing them in the best conditions and in the best possible positions to succeed educationally.

Part of this differentiated analysis is to separate those Americans who have legitimate concerns about vaccines in general and/or the COVID-19 vaccines in particular from those who are motivated by political anti-vaccine movements. Distinguishing between unvaccinated citizens who make great prophylactic lifestyle efforts not to get infected and not infect others and those immorally reckless citizens who are unvaccinated and don’t care if they get infected and if they infect other people. People who believe that some billionaire or the ‘government’ is inserting software data into the body of everyone who is vaccinated should not be blended (in the same Q & A information sessions) with people who in many situations are simply afraid, confused, and overwhelmed by an overabundance of both good and bad information.
And to be fair on the topic of providing information, the well-meaning, well-informed, and science-driven ‘explainers’ have not always been clear, unified, and ‘on-the-same-talking-points-message’ positions concerning the explanations of the ‘behaviors’ of microbiological organisms, infectious diseases specifically, covid-19 infection prevention protocols, and crucially, the pro-vaccine taking encouragement campaign. Another public information/communications problem: Pharmaceutical firms should be part of the “conversation,” but they should not frame and lead the conversation due to financial conflicts of interest. In my humble opinion, the natural leaders of this national health crisis response team, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), needs to ‘step up’ stronger and in a more (better expressed) transparently focused and definitive way, provide good and practical “laywoman-layman-friendly” information in all of their pronouncements and recommended actions!
And my message for the CDC I take from my principal and superintendent years; there are times when you just can’t ‘hedge or hint’ around a problematic issue. These are those moments when you must just tell folks the truth (as sensitively and gently as the situation allows), even if it’s a truth they don’t want to hear.

Time is not on our side…
We also need to keep in mind that ‘time’ is not an innocent bystander in a pandemic. So, how should we focus our vaccination educational efforts and resources? Should we first invest a lot of time on those whose hesitancy could be more easily removed by having access to small sessions with an excellent local information provider in their homes, a community-based organization center/site, or meetings in their affiliated religious institutions? A place where they can feel safe and comfortable in raising difficult questions and concerns.

Professional educators don’t see questions as the enemy…
True professional educators want more, not less ‘asking for clarification’ questions from students. And what educators really don’t want is for students to sit quietly in (and eventually walk out of) a classroom without fully understanding the lesson’s objectives or finding out that the students have carried their lesson ‘misunderstandings’ into the standardized testing exam room. As I have warned principals as a superintendent, a staff person raising a ‘difficult’ but fair question or requesting clarification on an initiative should not automatically be interpreted as someone who is in hostile opposition. We need (for time and limited resources reasons) to separate the unclear, questioning, reluctant vaccine taker from the unrepentant pro-covid-19 disease spreader. Understanding the underlying motivations for a concern is the leader’s responsibility, not necessarily those who are raising the concern; that’s the teaching/mentoring part of leadership. For example, Black Americans can’t be mistaken to have concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine based on their love of or faith in right-wing or Republican propaganda (even as these negative actors having extensive news media access are not helping the Black infection rate situation); rather, their mistrusting of America ‘operating-in-their-best-interest’ with a vaccine or anything else, is framed by centuries and up to the present days of horrible racial mistreatment, abuse, discrimination and denial (think of those Republican voter suppression folks trying to “clean-up” the voting process). I would go further in saying that as far as not trusting White America institutionally to do the right, just, and fair thing as it applies to the lives of Black people in America, is, in my view, perhaps a sign of a healthy Black psychological profile. And so, any pro-vaccine-taking educational approach with Black Americans should respectfully start from that understanding. Therefore, (#3: “Get the right instructional practitioners in front of the students who need them the most!”) Black Americans will, in my hypothetical view, only respond positively to those Black American pro-vaccine advocates (not just any black face presently in a prominent place), who they
genuinely trust to represent their best interest and well-being. Why not invest federal outreach funding in organizations and institutions like: The National Medical Association, National Black Nurses Association; Meharry, Morehouse, and Howard University medical/nursing/allied/public health schools to do a massive national on-the-ground (literally door-to-door, block-by-block, religious institutions-to-religious institutions) COVID-19 information campaign in Black communities across this nation? Employing an anti-rightwing/anti-vexers message or debate is less effective with Black Americans since they are already profoundly suspicious and cautious of any GOP (Trump-like or Trump-lite) motives. We need to stop sending the wrong messages to people and start sending the right messages to the right people.
For example, please, news media, stop ‘ambushing’ random professional athletes and celebrity entertainers and asking them if they’ve been vaccinated; beyond this not being any of our business, it’s not helping. Instead, let those self-selecting, highly influential celebrities, who choose as a service-to-humanity to publicly share their vaccination story, be part of an organized information campaign where their messages are vetted, professionally managed, and filmed/recorded in a strategically smart targeted way to specific audiences.

This targeted differentiated COVID-19 teaching method could also work for many other cohorts of Americans who live in places where I have spent a lot of time, places like Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Now don’t get me wrong, I have a profound respect for Dr. Anthony Fauci, and I think that future historians will designate him as one of our great national science-medicine heroes for this historical period. But the truth is that in places like Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, for a large segment of the population in those states, Dr. Fauci’s “approval ratings” (believability-credibility ratings) are in the same ‘statistical neighborhood’ as Hillary Clinton’s favorable ratings. This means his message, no matter how well articulated, scientifically sound, or life-savingly clear, won’t be heard. These are the places where we need a new and different set of instructional personnel to take the lead in the vaccine ‘message delivering mission’; people like famous NASCAR drivers, college Football and Basketball coaches, country & western music stars, etc. In fact, I suspect that Nick Saban, Alabama University’s famous football team coach, if given a major state-wide professional PR, print, radio, TV, and social media communications campaign platform, could single-handedly significantly raise the vaccination rate numbers in the state of Alabama! (My apologies to Auburn fans—sorry everyone else, this is an inside Alabama conversation:-)

The right tools for the job and the right professionals for the job…
Finally, if you need electrical work done in your house, you don’t call a plumber; in need of a new roof, you probably won’t hire a brick mason. If America is going to embark (and it must) on a major vaccine-trusting-taking educational project; which I now believe is our only getting-out-of-this with the least amount of people dying option, then there must be a recognition that the word “education” is the center and centering objective and activity of such a campaign. Then why are we not utilizing professional educators as primary, not peripheral planners in this national COVID-19 response and recovery effort?… Just asking for a lot of very brilliant PreK-12 professional educators in this nation.

Michael A. Johnson is a former teacher, principal, and school district superintendent. He led the design, development, and building of two Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—Career Technical Education (S.T.E.M.—C.T.E.) high schools: Science Skills Center High School, N.Y.C. and Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School, Washington DC. An author of a book on school leadership: Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership. He has served as an adjunct professor of science education in the St. John’s University School of Education. Mr. Johnson is presently completing his second book on school administration and leadership: Report From The Principal’s Office (Fall/2021).