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.