What, really, is District 214’s plan for reopening? Or are they making it up as they go along?

school bus
school bus, public domain, https://www.maxpixel.net/Bus-Vehicle-Education-Transport-School-Bus-School-4406479

It’s time for another update on the hyper-local issue of the School District 214 reopening plan!  (See my prior update for my comments on the district’s officially-announced metrics.)

There was a school board meeting last night, during which no actions were taken.  The superintendent gave a brief update at the beginning of the meeting which — in all honesty — I only heard parts of, having arrived just at the start of the meeting and missing some items due to making my way to the overflow room.  According to others that were there, these comments consisted of some cheerleading statements about a band concert, internships, test kits and N95 mask access, and some comments about a teacher who passed away suddenly.

Then, this morning, the Daily Herald published an article on the meeting citing the superintendent making more substantial announcements.  Were these also a part of the initial updates?  I can’t confirm or deny.  In fact, the district livestreamed the meeting but did not make a recording available.  And, likewise, there has been no update from the district on its website, nor in e-mails sent to families of students or to residents.  But here are the key pieces of that article:

About 125 students are in school buildings, Superintendent David Schuler said, including those in special education, and those in programs such as automotive, aviation, and practical architecture in construction.

This is odd to me, given that the District 214 twitter account is still sharing pictures of automotive teachers working remotely, having the students check the fluids in their parents’ cars.  In any case, the article also says:

The superintendent reiterated Cook County Department of Public Health guidance that anyone who has been in contact with someone testing positive for COVID-19 for 15 cumulative minutes over a two-day period — essentially a few hallway passing periods — would need to quarantine.

“If you have smaller numbers, you can really stagger the times for passing time and we just can’t do that with a school of 2,000,” Schuler said. “It makes it much more challenging.”

But Schuler did announce plans to incrementally welcome back more students — as much as half of the 11,000 enrollment. Whether in this stage or next, he said first priority would be to bring back students who don’t have reliable internet, those who need academic support, those taking lab-based classes and, eventually, all freshmen.

With respect to the issue of numbers, public-comment speakers pointed out that local private schools have re-opened — and not just small schools, but Loyola Academy, with an enrollment larger than all but one district high school.  In addition, other public high schools have reopened on a rotational basis, which is not officially the plan until Cook County reaches less than 70 cases per 100,000.

(My son says:  “this is why nobody should get tested unless they have symptoms — it just drives up the number of cases and the number of restrictions.”  The trouble is that in other respects, the governor is super-focused on positivity rates, and a low positivity rate requires substantial asymptomatic testing, or, if not, a significant cold-and-flu season to increase the number of people getting tested for covid-like symptoms who don’t actually have covid.)

But this last statement of Schuler’s really set off alarm bells for me.

In the first place, the “official” plan has four clearly-delineated stages:  all-remote for a severe outbreak, “special populations” only (that is, special ed and homeless kids), rotational, and “fully flexible” (option for students to come in every day).

Brining in students with lab-based classes “in this stage or next” is not a part of the official plan as posted on the website.  Personally, I think it’s a good idea and the right thing to do, but they should not post a plan which makes the opposite statement.  So far as I can tell, they don’t even have any weasel-words in that reopening plan.  At best, one can label this unprofessional.  In reality, that communicates:  “we’ll do what we want without regard for what statements we might make.”

But more concerningly, a plan to prioritize some groups is not the rotational plan they announced for reaching 70 cases per 100,000.  Other schools have one-quarter or one-half the student body in class on a given day.  If his plan is instead to fill up the “quota” of half the enrollment by priority group, with those with various sorts of special concerns (but who aren’t the Stage 2 “special ed” kids in self-contained classrooms) coming first and freshmen “eventually” later, this suggests that non-freshmen without a concern that gives them priority simply will not come to school until Pritzker’s Phase 5, which, Trump’s hyping of a vaccine notwithstanding, is likely not until the spring, at the earliest.

Now, it’s possible that the Herald reporter didn’t transcribe Schuler’s statements correctly and, again, I can’t independently verify them because there has been nothing announced publicly by the district administration; this is all we have to go on.  It’s possible that the “eventually” refers to “before fully implementing the rotational model”, so that Shuler really envisions a process of, first, self-contained classrooms; second, other sorts of special needs kids; third, freshmen rotationally; and, finally, all students, rotationally.  But the fact that I have to parse his paraphrased comments to try to come up with a way to make it fit within their prior framework, even when it doesn’t, really, is, to put it nicely, frustrating.

I suspect that if they polled parents, at this point in time, with the question, yes or no, “do you believe that you child will attend in-person school this academic year?” most parents would say that, no, they don’t believe that.  The school district administration and school board have given parents no reason to believe they are working towards achieving this, and every reason to believe they are not.  And lacking confidence in a return-to-school will impact students, in ways such as academic progress, mental health, willingness to take “desirable” classes or participate in activities, and so on. Which means: this has got to stop, and the school board and administration must get serious about sharing information and plans, and about re-opening as soon as possible.

Don’t be fooled by “fair tax” ads!

https://media.defense.gov/2019/Feb/12/2002088973/-1/-1/0/181206-A-UM169-0001.JPG; https://www.dover.af.mil/News/Article/1755127/what-you-should-know-about-filing-2018-taxes/ (public domain/US gov)

Oh, the irony:  back in 2015, before Trumpism, long before the Illinois General Assembly placed on this November’s ballot a measure to enable a graduated income tax, I supported such a tax at my Patheos blog.  I called it “the Jane Tax Plan” and advocated for lots of tax brackets, with moderate increases from one to the next, so that there was never a point at which a jump from one bracket to the next felt punitive.  Separately, I wrote that, with respect to graduated income tax rates, ” is that it is most reasonable and appropriate to ask those who are most able to, to pay a disproportionate share of the total income tax burden.”

Which means that I might appear, were I to say, “vote no on the fair tax!” to be a hypocrite.

In reality, well, it’s a mess.

In principle, a graduated income tax is reasonable and appropriate, and, what’s more, it’s not appropriate for the state’s constitution to spell out what sorts of taxes are and aren’t permitted and, in particular, to mandate that any income tax be flat across all income levels.

In reality, I have serious doubts as to whether Illinois politicians can handle the responsibility that comes with this increased power.

It is, after all, well-established that states that succumb to temptation, end up with marginal tax rates on higher income levels so high that, first, they drive residents away, and, second, they are highly susceptible to swings in revenue, as the highest earners’ income fluctuates so much from year to year (bonuses, sales of stocks, etc.).  And the fact that the tax rates stay low(er) for low(er) earners creates a mindset that the possible tax revenue from higher earners is “free” money for the legislators’ spending wishes.

Of course, plenty of states manage to be responsible about their tax-rate-setting abilities.  But I simply don’t believe that Illinois is.

And with that in mind, let’s look at the message of the ads in support of this amendment, via the website “Vote Yes for Fairness.”

In the first place, of course, the label “fair tax” is so loaded as to be itself untrustworthy.  Why is a graduated income tax “fairer” than a flat tax?  As it happens, until Pritzker began his campaign, another group was using the “fair tax” moniker for a type of tax that Pritzker would surely label extremely unfair:  the swapping out of our existing national income tax and its replacement by a national consumption tax.  The website FairTax.org is still active, with the organization Americans for Fair Taxation, and the left-leaning Tax Policy Center, in 2015, wrote “The Trouble with the Fair Tax,” which rejects the tax because it would disproportionately impact lower-income workers.

But beyond that, here are that site’ promises, which are the same as in ads everywhere:

  • Bring our tax system up-to-date with the one used by a majority of states and the federal government
  • Lift the burden off of lower and middle-income Illinoisans by asking the wealthiest to pay their fair share
  • Require only individuals making over $250,000 a year to pay more
  • Ensure at least 97% of Illinoisans see their taxes cut or remain the same
  • Keep taxes the same or less for all small business owners making less than $250,000 a year in profit
  • Generate additional revenue to fund our schools and lower the property tax burden
  • Address Illinois’ structural budget deficit and put the state on the path toward fiscal sustainability
  • Make sure essential workers aren’t forced to pay the same tax rate as millionaires and billionaires

Are these claims legitimate?

In the last session of the General Assembly, they passed a law which sets new tax rates if the voters approve the graduated tax amendment.  These rates — which, incidentally, at the top level are not marginal tax rates at all but a jump to a new tax rate on all income — include a 0.05% drop in rate for taxpayers earning less than $100,000, allowing supporters to claim that their taxes will “drop” without acknowledging how little the drop will be.  Then, for those with incomes of $250,000 or over, rates increase from 4.95% to 7.75%, and then further to 7.9% for millionaires.  (Note that there is no differentiation between singles and couples.)

But these rates are not locked into the amendment.  Once authorized, the legislature can make any changes it likes, so that making promises such as “only individuals making over $250,000 per year [would] pay more” is extremely misleading.

In addition, that a graduated tax system may be more common than a flat tax is one thing — but that’s only one characteristic of tax systems.  As the Illinois Policy Institute reports, of those states with graduated income tax rates, it is actually a more common approach to use the marginal tax rate structure to reduce taxes on the lowest-income taxpayers than it is to “as the wealthiest to pay their fair share,” as the pro-amendment ads say.  10 states’ highest tax rate is for income of $20,000 or less.  8 states’ highest rates are at “middle class” income levels, between $30,000 – $73,710.  Only 15 states’ highest tax brackets start at upper-middle income levels, ranging from Oregon’s $125,000 to New York’s $1,077,550 bracket.  And, of course, if you’ve done the math, that leaves 18 states with flat rates.

Which means that “bring our tax system up-to-date with the one used by a majority of states and the federal government” is not really true.  A tax system in which the “wealthy” pay higher rates than most others is, generously, used by only 30% of states, or only 22% if you discard the states with top brackets in the $100,000’s range (4 states).

What’s it boil down to?

It boils down to, really, the fact that the untrustworthiness of Gov. Pritzker, House Speaker Mike Madigan, and everyone promoting the graduated income tax using this rhetoric and these misleading claims, makes a proposal that would otherwise be reasonable and appropriate, highly suspect indeed.

“Malicious compliance” and the School District 214 return-to-school metrics

school bus, public domain, https://www.maxpixel.net/Bus-Vehicle-Education-Transport-School-Bus-School-4406479

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.

What’s the plan, District 214?

This morning, the Chicago Tribune published my op-ed on school closings.  But I have more to say, about my local circumstances:

My local high school district, Illinois District 214, was planning to offer parents the choice of in-person or remote instruction for their children; parents could choose fully-remote, fully-in-person, or a hybrid, accomplished by enabling each class to be streamed online so that its students could choose to attend remotely or in-person.

Last Wednesday, they abandoned that plan — without any sort of public vote.  In fact, a friend of a friend attended the school board meeting, which was not livestreamed and was announced at the last minute, and had the impression, at first, that there would be a vote forthcoming, but the school district has now published its full plan (see here and here) and I’m honestly a bit shocked that a school district can make this sort of decision without a public vote from the school board.

So here’s the entirety of the plan as publicly communicated:

First, immediate in-person instruction for “our most vulnerable students – those who are homeless or part of our special needs populations
or special programs” as well as for two classes which occur offsite, Practical Architectural and Construction and Aviation.

Second, “vocational students” as well as those with “dual credit lab-based classes.”

Third to come into the building will be ” small pods of students – between 10 to 15 per available space according to public health guidelines – to engage those who need reliable internet access or additional supports that can only be accommodated in-person.”

Fourth will be a hybrid model bringing in “a significantly greater number of our students to attend classes in person on a rotating basis.”

Only after all these four steps would the district implement the original plan, in which families could choose in-person learning.

Do you notice anything missing from this plan?

Yes, there is indeed no timeline or process outlined for evaluating the movement through these stages.

After all, this plan is not wholly unreasonable on its face.  Bring in a small group of students, gain confidence that face masks and other requirements are effective at preventing spread in classrooms, and with, say, a two-week spacing, bring in more kids, and then, with a further two-week spacing, bring in even more.  If at any stage, there is spread in the classrooms, then rethink how things are being handled — do kids who aren’t complying with the mask mandate need to be sent home more quickly?  Is the spacing insufficient?  Are the plans for lunchtime (which are the most challenging insofar as kids must remove masks to eat) insufficient?  Do passing periods need a re-do?

But there is nothing in this plan that suggests that they have any sort of process, metrics, or timeline towards getting to in-person instruction.

And, instead, the concerns they cite suggest that those metrics do not, cannot exist.  They cite two students and one coach who tested positive at sports camps, requiring quarantines.  But the numbers of students who test positive is not the relevant factor — the question is to what extent they infect those around them, and here one presumes (by the lack of a mention to the contrary when it would bolster their justification of their decision) that theses were three individual instances.  They cite directions from the Cook County Department of Health as well as the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Public Health, which suggest that restrictions would make it difficult to function during the school day and that an entire school might be required to quarantine for a single case.  Finally, they raise the concern that students would need to be at home to act as caregivers for younger siblings (which was an option in the prior plan in any case — did the school district want to avoid resentful students by being the ones, rather than their parents, to make the choice?), which suggests that they don’t intend for virtual-only school to end before the elementary schools move to in-person.

(To what extent were these the drivers behind their decision, vs. union pressure or the need to conform to other school districts?  I have no idea.)

Is it reasonable to say, “the state will require us to quarantine an entire school when a case arises, so we might as well not have in-person school”?  If so, that’s an admission that, except for the special groups, there will be no in-person school until a vaccine is widely available, that is, the state’s Phase 5, which could be as long as a year from now.  On the other hand, is the school hoping that successful smaller steps would persuade the state/county to be more lenient?  Or on the third hand, were we all the victims of a failed negotiation?

And who exactly are the earlier waves of students?  Does the school truly envision that homeless students will attend otherwise-empty classrooms, just they and their teachers?  Does “special needs populations” mean, simply enough, those with intellectual disabilities who receive instruction in self-contained classrooms?  Who, then, are the step-three kids who need “additional supports” — is this a special, early return to school for immigrant or low-income kids, for instance?  Which classes will qualify for in-person meeting as “vocational” or “dual credit lab-based” – will vocational electives or science classes with labs be deemed to qualify, or only those older students with a specific pathway such as auto repair?

Finally, there are students who don’t fit into these “special” buckets but who are harmed by the social isolation they experience day after day.  Does everyone without a label or diagnosis have to wait until – what, Phase 5?

This lack of information is not acceptable — the school board (which has already failed in its responsibility to be accountable through a public vote) owes parents (and voters) far more specific information, that is, if we’re to believe there exists a true plan to move to in-person education.

Update:  one further issue in the school’s plan is this:  they express the intention to provide extracurricular activities to the extent feasible and allowable by state authorities.

There will be some version of co-curricular activities as school reopens. Which activities are available and what form they take will be determined by a multitude of factors, all based on the pandemic’s course and related safety guidelines from the state.

But their focus is on sports.  With respect to other activities, they say:

ISBE guidelines also note documented concerns about aerosol transmission of the virus through singing. In addition, instrumental music presents challenges for a variety of reasons, including aerosol transmission, which is more pronounced with some musical instruments than others. While in-person performances may be limited at this time, D214 is developing opportunities for students to perform in safe alternative experiences.

This is insufficient.

If the large majority of students are expected to receive their instruction remotely, and thus lose their opportunity for interaction with other students (and if the school wants to avoid students responding by hosting/attending parties which create more risk for themselves and their families), it is incumbent on the school district to redouble their efforts to provide opportunities for face-to-face interaction.

Don’t replace in-person all-band rehearsals with assignments to practice one’s instrument and record individually.  Replace then instead with small group meetings, even if it requires more work than sending out a zoom assignment.

If there’s no theater performances for which tech crew kids can build sets, open up the shop for extracurricular woodworking opportunities.

Increase opportunities to join a chess club, a D&D club, a Euro-style board game club — anything that can be done in small groups.  Move “pizza and politics” from lunchtime to after school.  Set as a goal the objective of having every kid, not just the athletes, engaged in some fashion in some in-person activity — because there will be a heck of a lot of kids who will struggle with being isolated who don’t fit into the buckets that deem them having “special needs” in the school district’s classifications.

Image:  public domain, https://www.maxpixel.net/Bus-Vehicle-Education-Transport-School-Bus-School-4406479

No Data To Guide Opening Schools? Not True – But We Need To Collect It

a daycare teacher in action; https://www.mountainhome.af.mil/News/Features/Article/311380/base-honors-child-care-provider-with-annual-award/ (public domain)

Can we safely open schools without placing students, teachers, and staff at risk?  What procedures can be followed to reduce the risk?  What restrictions can we reasonably expect students to comply with?  It all seems like a dizzying set of unknowns.  (Cue the Frozen 2 music.)

But at the same time, Illinois has permitted daycares to open ever since Phase 3 — under a significant set of restrictions to be sure, but open nonetheless.  This ought to be a treasure trove of data on exactly these questions of risk.

The problem is, we don’t have the data.  There’s no tracking of daycare outbreaks in the same way as for long-term care facilities.  And here’s the reply I received to a query I sent to the Illinois Department of Health COVID-19 e-mailbox:

At this time we have not been provided with data in regards to childcare centers. We don’t know if that information will be gathered and analyzed.

Which means that, absent more extensive investigative reporting, all that’s available is a smattering of news reports, both here in Illinois and elsewhere (where procedures and guidelines vary).

At The Center Square, July 7, 2020:

The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 12 outbreaks at daycares, affecting 247 people, including 32 children.

News Channel 20, July 8, 2020, reported a daycare in which a single employee tested positive, but no other workers and no children.

In Texas, as of July 9, Texas Health and Human Services reported 1,799 positive tests — 1,207 staff and 592 children — at 1,131 child care centers.  There are 12,222 centers open in the state, so this means that about 10% of centers had at least one case.  How many of these are instances of an “outbreak” in which covid was passed from one child to another or from a child to an employee?  That’s not clear from these numbers, but certainly many, and perhaps most of these cases were of a single person.  As KVUE reports, citing the Texas Tribune, the state has been unwilling to provide more data, citing “protected health information.”  And in any case, the state also relaxed, then tightened its requirements for daycares, so their covid prevalence is not a helpful statistic without knowing under what specific circumstances it was transmitted among staff or children.  After all, if their employees did not wear masks, and Illinois’ do, that matters, too.

In Connecticut, NBC Connecticut reported on July 3:

About 1,552 daycares have remained open since the beginning of the pandemic. So how many COVID-19 cases have they experienced?

“I’ve heard of 20 to 30 at the most throughout the state while there have been 1,500 programs open over the past three months,” Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye said.

And on June 24, NPR reported

The Y says that during the lockdowns it cared for up to 40,000 children between the ages of 1 and 14 at 1,100 separate sites, often in partnership with local and state governments. And in New York City, the pandemic’s national epicenter in March and April, the city’s Department of Education reports that it cared for more than 10,000 children at 170 sites.

Working in early days, and on very short notice, these two organizations followed safety guidance that closely resembles what’s now been officially put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Y says a few staff members and parents at sites around the country did test positive, but there are no records of having more than one case at a site. This, among a population of essential workers.

In a separate, unscientific survey of child care centers, Brown University economist Emily Oster found that, as of Tuesday afternoon, among 916 centers serving more than 20,000 children, just over 1% of staff and 0.16% of children were confirmed infected with the coronavirus.

Of course, daycare centers and schools are not the same.  But schools ought to be safer than daycare centers in most respects.  Schoolchildren can be expected to wear a mask in the same manner as they are expected to comply with other school rules — that is, as long as we’re willing to enforce that demand and provide alternate schooling arrangements for students who won’t (and in cases where parents won’t reinforce that requirement).  Schoolchildren don’t need to play with toys, don’t chew on toys, don’t need the same level of direct contact with teachers.  And so on.

But, again, what will work and what won’t, in classrooms, depends on learning from what has and what hasn’t worked, in daycare rooms.  And we can’t learn from that if we don’t have information.

Contact Tracing is an Urgent Task. So Why Is the State Failing at It?

Illinois state capitol; public domain

Back a month ago, I wrote a commentary in the Chicago Tribune in which I criticized the governor’s complete lack of communication (and seeming lack of plans) regarding contact tracing, despite the mandate that to move to Phase 3 contact tracing must be implemented, and to move to Phase 4, contact tracing must be fully scaled-up (90% of new diagnoses).

In the meantime, the governor has shifted to statements that contact tracing is already underway at local Departments of Public Health, and has shifted to speaking of a 60% objective (e.g., on May 18 and May 29) as well as a doublespeak rewriting of objectives as reaching 90% of the 60% target (I can no longer find this cite), and relabeling the entire project as “‘a goal’ rather than a requirement” (according to a May 26 Tribune report).  However, the Restore Illinois official requirement remains unchanged.

I’ve become resigned to the fact that this is how politics works, that rather than announcing a change that involves an admission of failure and invites demands for other changes, it’s simply memory-holed.  And my anger has shifted from the lack of communication to the lack of urgency in the actions of the governor, the mayor, and the Cook County Board President.

With respect to the last of these, an article on June 11 at the Chicago Tribune was the first reporting on the Cook County Department of Public Health’s actions —  even when I looked just a few days prior there was no information available on the DPH website; now, the website announces that

CCDPH anticipates starting our first group of contact tracers by early August. Contact tracers will be brought on in groups of 50-100. CCDPH will have a full team by the fall.

Again, remember that this is supposed to be in place in order to move to Phase 4, which is otherwise being targeted for just two weeks from now.

Why is this taking so long?

In part, it appears to be the fault of the Illinois Department of Public Health taking nearly three months to allocate funding from the CARES Act, which passed in March.  But it appears, from the Tribune reporting of Preckwinkle’s statements, that the delay is because the county simply does not recognize the urgency of getting the program in place as soon as possible, and is instead using the program to promote social justice objectives even at the cost of delayed implementation.

Preckwinkle said the efforts, funded with a grant from the Illinois Department of Public Health, would focus extensively on disproportionately affected groups that have “experienced systemic racism,” including African Americans and Latinos, both in terms of tracing and hiring of new contact tracers. The program also will be bilingual so hundreds of thousands of Spanish-speaking residents are not left out.

“This grant is so important for those who have been most impacted by COVID-19,” said Dr. Kiran Joshi, one of two senior medical officers running the county Department of Public Health, who said blacks in the county have been affected at three times the rate of whites and Latinos at four times the rate. “We intend to hire suburban Cook County residents for these jobs who are culturally competent, multilingual and have great communication skills.”

The county, however, will take several months to ramp up the program, even though many social-distancing restrictions have been lifted by the state and there’s concern that a future surge could occur soon because of recent crowded conditions during protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

Now, I well understand the importance of hiring tracers who can gain the trust of the tracees, because a program in which individuals are contacted but refuse assistance to enable them to isolate and refuse to provide information about their contacts because they don’t trust the tracer and can’t be persuaded that the greater good of their community warrants these actions, is fairly useless.  But Preckwinkle’s statement goes beyond this acknowledgement to a desire to use the program to advance broader social goals.  And that’s wrong — the top priority should be speed, regardless of whether goals of equal opportunity or extra assistance to underrepresented groups must be sacrificed.

In fact, like it or not, it is likely that a focus should be on disproportionately less affected communities, as the low-hanging fruit, with far more payoff in terms of the effectiveness of the effort.  It seems to me even more the case state-wide, that nipping in the bud an incipient outbreak in a community that’s otherwise been uneffected would be more successful than the greater challenge of dense urban areas with a pre-existing substantial prevalence.

And it’s not just suburban Cook County — in Chicago itself, the process of hiring contact tracers is set to take much longer than it should, due to a process of first identifying an organization with which to contract out the primary organization of the effort, and then distributing funds to

at least 30 neighborhood-based organizations located within, or primarily serving residents of, communities of high economic hardship

which would work at

recruiting, hiring and supporting a workforce of 600 contact tracers, supervisors and referral coordinators to support an operation that has the capacity to trace 4,500 new contacts per day

with an objective of hiring 150 by August 1, and 300 by September 15.

And, again, quite apart from the appropriateness of prioritizing workers from low-income communities for city jobs, in general, contact tracing is not just a city jobs program.  It is an urgent task.  The work of hiring tracers should have been started months ago, not months in the future.

What’s more, even this plan is being criticized by Chicago activists, who want the hiring to be done within the Chicago Department of Public Health itself, rather than being outsourced, and who are treating this as a matter of shoring up governmental institutions.

Also joining the group were current and former union officials who have an interest in seeing the ranks of public workers expand. They included Tony Johnston, president of the Cook County College Teachers Union, who said city community colleges should be training new contact tracers, and Matt Brandon, former secretary-treasurer of International Service Employees Union Local 73 and current president of Communities Organized to Win.

Contact tracing is not a jobs program.  It is not a stimulus program.  It is not an economic rebuilding program for poor communities.  It is certainly not a program for building up a unionized workforce.  And city, county, and state government officials who treat it as such, rather than ramping up tracing as quickly as possible, during this limited window of opportunity of lowered infection rates due to lockdowns and warmer weather, are failing the people they serve.