Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) | Issue 125 | Philosophy Now
I anticipated Texas Hold Em.

Blaise Pascal, the noted French mathematician and theologian, once made a famous wager considering eternal life and Christian theology.

In short, Pascal opined that you have to make a bet regarding eternal life based upon whether you believe God exists or not. If God exists, then you might receive eternal bliss (for believing in God’s existence) or eternal misery (damnation for not believing.) If God does not exist, then it does not matter either way; death is the end.

Rational belief would demand that one believe in God because the worst outcome of such belief is the best outcome for not believing: death is the end. But by believing, one gains a chance of obtaining the best outcome, eternal bliss, and avoiding the possibility of the worst outcome, eternal suffering.

What would it look like if we applied Pascal’s wager to the debate about opening school buildings in a few days (mostly southern states) or in September (mostly northern states)?

Using a typical two-way frequency table, we would get something like this:

Covid spread in schoolCovid actually spreadsCovid does not spread
Wager to stay closedEveryone stays healthyEveryone stays healthy
Wager to openSickness and deathEveryone stays healthy
The odds seem better than playing Powerball.

But, you object, that ignores the learning loss children are suffering.

Covid spread in schoolCovid actually spreadsCovid does not spread
Wager to stay closedLearning takes place over the internet, but vulnerable students are at riskLearning takes place over the internet, but vulnerable students are at risk
Wager to openLearning is disrupted; trauma results from students who bring the virus homeLearning takes place in the classroom; nobody falls through the cracks
We have some issues.

Given the first table, a rational person would conclude that schools should remain closed as the worst outcome is equivalent to the best outcome if schools open. The second table is more ambiguous yet the implication is apparent; the outcomes under closure are equal, but worse than the best outcome under opening and better than the worst outcome from opening.

So the wager is clear as far as the health of children and staff, but some ambiguity as far as learning outcomes from allowing children to come to the building versus going all remote.

At this point, given IDEA and the need for public schools to provide a FAPE, that is, a free and appropriate public education, the wager fractures*:

Covid spread in schoolCovid spreadsCovid does not spread
Wager for full closureIDEA students are at risk of not receiving needed servicesIDEA students are at risk of not receiving needed services
Wager for closure, but with extra services for IDEA studentsIDEA students receive needed services at home or in restricted settingsIDEA students receive needed services at home or in restricted settings
Wager to openIDEA students receive services until the system is disruptedIDEA students receive services in their school
Assuming the school system has the resources to expand its homebound services or to bring a limited number of students to its building for the supports they need.

Perhaps the last way (for this piece, anyway) we could look at Pascal’s wager is to think about children ‘falling behind’ as the hysteria rages about a day of learning lost equates to thousands of dollars of wages lost over a lifetime–as if children have no resiliency and cannot make up for lost time later. (Spoiler alert: learning is not an assembly line process. It is true that if General Motors suffers a stoppage on the assembly line, the lost production can never be regained. But education is not an assembly line process.)

Honestly, Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) could go on a long rant about something he read in which the author asserted that kindergarten-age students could miss out on essential job training that will diminish their lifetime earnings. [Editorial note: insert a vomit emoji.]

Resilient childrenNon-resilient children
Wager for closureLearning missed out during the 2020-2021 school year is made up during subsequent yearsLearning missed during the 2020-2021 school year will be gained in future years depending upon need and interest
Wager to openNo gap in the learning timeline, but the risk of health-damaging infection must be consideredHave a harder time dealing with academic challenges, so gaps will occur anyway, the health risk must be considered, but yes, will engage in future learning depending upon need and interest
Go to it, Pascal, it’s not as tidy as considering one’s eternal salvation, is it?

You may wish to quarrel with GOT’s table entries as to what each box should say. That’s a good thing because this piece is meant to spark thinking about which course is wise: to open or not to open (apologies to Shakespeare.) GOT does not regard himself as some sage sitting on a mountaintop waiting for you to climb up for his wisdom. He doesn’t have all the answers nor is he always right.

This piece is meant to help sort out our thinking from our emotions. But it is not complete without revisiting that link above that explains Pascal’s wager understanding that Pascal was a mathematician as well as a theologian. In analyzing the categories, we have to determine probabilities for each outcome which, in the end, will affect our conclusions.

What is more probable, that Covid will spread in school buildings or not? We must update our March 2020 understanding with new studies that have been reported over the summer.

If children do not show severe symptoms, is it probable that their health will be unaffected after they recover? We must update our March 2020 understanding with new studies that indicate that even for the young, Covid leaves behind lung lesions and heart muscle damage, as well as increasing the risk of stroke at a young age.

Is it probable that our youth can never recover the learning they missed out on if we keep schools closed? Is it probable that our IDEA students will never be able to make up for lost time? Or do we interpret the wager that we will keep schools closed until a vaccine is widely administered as our best course of action because we can then utilize the vast resources available in this nation to assist our IDEA students and others who need help to recover.

Finally, teachers will take GOT to task if he doesn’t do a table for them:

Covid spread in schoolCovid spreadsCovid does not spread
Wager to closeAt home, teachers teach and live for future school yearsAt home, teachers teach and live for future school years
Wager to openExposed to the disease, many teachers join the statistics of cases, hospitalizations, and deathsTeachers feel a bit silly that they were concerned about their health and lives
In the end, Maslow wants the final word. Survival needs trump those of esteem.

*This table specifies IDEA students, but could be used for any student deemed at risk for other reasons.

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