Last Friday marked that end of the second week the kids of Illinois School District 214 were “in school” — virtually, that is, except for, apparently (it’s not entirely clear), homeless kids and special ed kids. And after countless parent pleas, the school district provided a set of metrics to chart the eventual return to school — at the end of the day/end of the workweek.
Ever heard of the expression “malicious compliance”? That’s what it felt like.
Here are the metrics:
The plan requires that the weekly cases per 100,000 for suburban Cook County drop from the current 112 to no greater than 70, to enable a hybrid learning option, in which students will be in buildings rotationally. That’s 10 cases per day, per 100,000. In order for the students to return to class “full time” (with the option remaining to attend remotely), cases must be at a rate less than 7 per 100,000 per week. In addition, if at any point, the testing positivity rate increases to over 3%, all students will be quarantined for 14 days. (This is not clearly defined — is this 3% of the student body or 3% of those students who happen to be tested at any point in time, by obtaining records from the state or requiring that families report all tests?) In addition, “outbreaks” will require 14 days remote.
So here are some questions:
Are these new metrics feasible?
Are they appropriate for their purpose?
And was the school honest in deciding on and communicating these metrics?
Are these rates feasible?
On the face of it, the 70-case requirement appears feasible — at least, according to the New York Times, a considerable number of states have rates lower than this, including Arizona (53 per 100,000), which was not took long ago the site of a substantial outbreak. What’s more, suburban Cook County was below this metric until the first week of August, when it jumped from 67 to 99 per 100,000 with a stable or increasing positivity rate that suggests that this is not a matter of increased testing. At the same time, there appears to be a significant drop in the “cluster %” — which is not defined except indirectly: “this metric helps explain large increases in cases.” What explains the suburban Cook increase? It’s well past the time that the protests, or the restaurant reopenings, could account for it, and the state’s warnings come without any explanations on their part — which means that there’s no way to understand whether the current cases per 100,000 rate is the result of a true increase in incidence or an artifact of measurement, an outbreak that’s localized to a particular area or group, whether partying young adults or long-term care facilities.
(One explanation is that of a collective burn-out and weariness with complying with restrictions. Does that really explain the suddenness of the jump? I had wondered whether the domino-falling cancellations of in-person school, including at colleges, have played a role, as resignation that mitigation makes a difference results in less compliance.)
And the 7 case requirement?
That isn’t remotely achievable — at least not without a vaccine, which won’t happen until sometime in 2021 at the earliest. Not even the state with the lowest incidence rate — Vermont — has a rate that low (it’s 8 cases per 100,000 there). Even in countries cited as the top role models we don’t generally see rates this low — in Germany (again according to the NYT) only the very rural, isolated former East German states have rates this low. In Canada, Ontario and Quebec are right at this cut-off.
The District 214 document also references “Northern Illinois Return to School Metrics,” published August 14, 2020, but it is not clear whether their incidence rates are per day or per week. If per day, they call for in-person learning when there are fewer than 49 cases per 100,000 per week and hybrid learning with fewer than 98 cases per week — a looser requirement. If per week, the numbers are 7 and 14, far stricter.
In any event, their metrics appear to come from another document, from the Harvard Global Health Institute, which sets forth four categories, red, orange, yellow, and green, each with weekly case rates which match those of the district. But, again, do they offer feasible metrics, or was this developed in an Ivory Tower? The document, after all, begins with the statement, “The single best policy to support school re-opening prior to the development of a vaccine or treatment is suppression of COVID to near zero case incidence via Testing, Tracing and Supported Isolation (TTSI).” And the reason for keeping high school students virtual until the “yellow” or even “green” case rates are achieved, in the Harvard model, appears to be that the high schools’ classroom space would be used for providing elementary and middle-school kids with classroom space with sufficient social distancing: “if sufficient pandemic resilient learning space is available AFTER allocation to K-8, grades 9-12 open on a hybrid schedule.” This is clearly not relevant in the case that elementary and secondary districts are separate entities.
(In any case, this seems to be a bit odd — are they assuming that enough extra teachers will be hired to enable smaller class sizes, so that elementary students will require more classrooms? That any school district will have a limited number of suitably-ventilated classrooms? That an elementary/middle school teacher with students rotating in will have separate classrooms for the Monday/Tuesday vs. the Wedenesday/Thursday groups?)
And “near zero”? This requirement sounds absurd.
Are these metrics reasonable and appropriate for the district?
There are two problems with these metrics: first, that they are based on the entirety of Cook County, and second, that they have nothing to do with school-specific issues.
In the first place, using a metric for all of suburban Cook County fails to acknowledge the vast geographical difference that the county spans — it is effectively two separate areas, divided by O’Hare Airport. And that’s not merely a matter of saying that “our” part of suburban Cook is “better” — more middle-class, more compliant with the rules. A county-wide metric means everything is out of our control. For our students to wear face masks and steer clear of parties won’t make a difference if outbreaks elsewhere are driving the increase, so there’s no incentive to cooperate.
Even the Harvard document says:
For schools, the first reference point should be district and county, and decision-makers should consider both the rates in their own districts and counties and the rates in the districts and counties with which they share a border.
Of course, some school districts can form the larger portion of a county, but ours clearly does not.
(How does the county compare with our corner of it? Over the past month, the cases per 100,000 week average was about 60 for the towns in which our high schools are located. That’s considerably less than the 92 cases, averaging the past 4 weeks, though — watch this space — I’m missing data that I will try to track more carefully over the next week.)
What’s more, these metrics have nothing to do with whether schools can deliver instruction safely. What matters is whether in-person instruction is causing the prevalence of covid to increase or not. A more reasonable approach would be to gradually bring students in and identify whether there are outbreaks traceable to in-person instruction. If outbreaks are the result of students attending parties outside of school, but facemasks and other precautionary measures mean there are no outbreaks at school, then school is being closed needlessly — and it may be that school closures are increasing outbreaks, if students are more likely to party in larger groups when they lack the ability to interact with each other at school.
Was the school honest in deciding on and communicating these metrics?
When the school district announced that students would not be able to learn in-person, they blamed overly-burdensome state requirements. In fact, here’s what the school district still says:
While the latest plan called for groups of students, including special education and homeless students, to be educated in-person beginning August 24, new guidance from the Illinois Board of Education — including that nurses wear specific masks we currently do not have — means that may not happen.
We still hope to get small groups of students back into buildings as soon as is practical, but it is imperative that we follow the guidance from ISBE, the Illinois Department of Public Health and other entities.
The new plan, with county-wide incidence metrics, has nothing to do with the Illinois DPH requirements. They complained that nurses would be obliged to wear specific masks (to be clear, only when treating a student suspected of being infected) — but the new metrics have nothing in them about availability of specific types of PPE. The school superintendent further objects to county quarantine requirements, but their metrics don’t address this (except indirectly — that is, if no one ever comes on campus, no one will be kicked off campus for quarantine). They’ve even changed the plan’s stages, which previously included the intention (however vaguely stated), “to bring in vocational students and dual credit lab-based classes” as an intermediate step after the special ed kids are in but before the general rotational classes begin. Now this is gone (and a friend reports that “fabrication” class students are getting personal “woodworking” kits instead).
Another concerning item is the newly fleshed-out policy regarding face masks (page 21 of the document); where they’d previously said students will be required to wear face masks, full stop, they now list a series of steps taken for noncompliance, in which they will include staff for “problem-solving” and only after a long list of steps will a student be excluded from school. This is not a serious policy — this is not the work of someone who believes “we need to do everything we can to get kids into classrooms as soon as possible”; it’s someone following a script on disciplinary procedures without any greater sense of urgency than, say, a kid who vapes in the bathroom. (Likewise, a noncompliant staff member is afforded the full benefit of the “progressive discipline” of their union agreement.)
What’s it mean?
Was this all nothing more than BS, than an arbitrary set of excuses? Is the new set of metrics essentially a form of malicious compliance, giving a middle finger to parents who had pleaded for a specific path forward, by giving them metrics that are useless? In fact, their new plan provides no particular reasoning for why they have chosen the benchmarks they have, which lends credence to the cynical assumption my son and his friends have made: “no in-person school this year.”
I am even tempted to take it a step further: at the last school board meeting, the school board did not simply vote to authorize the superintendent to make whatever decisions he chose. They voted to authorize a specific plan, one that included bringing vocational/dual credit kids on-site as an intermediate step, one that pledged to get everyone else on-site as soon as possible, one that promised that the reason for the delay was state/county roadblocks which they would work to resolve. This new plan, with these metrics, is not the plan the school board approved.
Of course, it doesn’t matter. Watching this play out, reading through past meetings’ minutes and seeing that the school board appears to rubber-stamp administration decisions (or perhaps work out a consensus out of view of the public) makes it clear that there is no accountability, except to the degree to which residents vote these board members out of office when their terms expire.
So can parents and residents actually have a voice? Can we call on the school district to revise their metrics? Would they even listen to us if we did? To be perfectly honest, I just don’t know.