The Lesson From Israel: Do Not Be Deluded by Low COVID Case Counts

August 4, 2020 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTImes article by Isabel and Pam Belluck details Israel’s management of the pandemic and the impact of one fateful and adverse decision: the reopening of public schools. The title of the article describes the result of that decision:

The government of Israel took the coronavirus serious from the very beginning, shutting down EVERYTHING:

The country of nine million quickly closed its borders, shuttered schools in mid-March and introduced remote learning for its two million students. In April, Passover and Ramadan were celebrated under lockdown.

The cases dropped precipitously and by mid-May their newly elected Prime Minister encouraged people to return to life as normal, reopening schools along with bars, businesses, and life in general. But from the very beginning, things did not go well… and some in Israel see the reopening of schools as one of the major reasons the COVID came back with a vengeance… and as we look at the possibility of reopening our schools in September we might learn from Israel’s experience:

The lesson, experts say, is that even communities that have gotten the spread of the virus under control need to take strict precautions when reopening schools. Smaller classes, mask wearing, keeping desks six feet apart and providing adequate ventilation, they say, are likely to be crucial until a vaccine is available.

“If there is a low number of cases, there is an illusion that the disease is over,” said Dr. Hagai Levine, a professor of epidemiology and chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. “But it’s a complete illusion.”

“The mistake in Israel,” he said, “is that you can open the education system, but you have to do it gradually, with certain limits, and you have to do it in a very careful way.”

This reinforces my notion that the default should be that ALL schools in ALL states should be closed and exceptions to the closure be made based on some kind of national standard. The urgency to open schools is, it seems to me, being driven by politics. The first, and worst, political decision was to delegate decisions on pandemic management to States who, in turn, have delegated decisions on reopening to individual communities and school districts. Instead of having a national or statewide set of standards for reopening, we have at least 50 sets of guidelines that 13,000 school districts may or may not choose to follow.

Israel illustrates that even in a democracy where citizens trusted science and the national leadership, the desire to “get things back to normal” sidelined rational thinking and caution. Because our country believes in conspiracy theories and lacks national leadership we are about to embark on a grim experiment where some of the lessons Israel might teach us will be ignored.

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Second Wave of Bad Economic News for States and Schools is Inevitable

August 3, 2020 Leave a comment

NPR has aggregated information on state revenues for the second quarter of the year… at it isn’t a pretty picture! On average state revenues are down 29% and several states have already started to make cuts and announce layoffs in anticipation of even worse news in the future. Meanwhile Congress remains at an impasse with the GOP and the President dead set against “bailing out” the state and local governments while propping up private corporations who are losing revenue because of the pandemic.

Huge Gap in Reopening Decisions for the Rich vs Minorities

August 3, 2020 Leave a comment

I read two articles this morning that underscore the vast difference between the rich and minorities… and I feel a knot in my stomach even now as I write this analysis.

Hardy Murphy, a retired superintendent who now teaches at IUPUI, wrote an op ed for The National Interest describes the condition of the schools minority students will attend should their parents decide to send them… and it is unsurprisingly appalling. He writes:

Local, state and federal officials wrangle over how to make schools safe, with concern over how to sufficiently disinfect and ventilate schools. But for low-income students, their teachers and families, returning to school is a more risky proposition due to the age and condition of the buildings to which they would return.

In a 2018 report to Congress, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that “low income students and students of color are often relegated to low-quality school facilities” that lack “physical maintenance.” This can “negatively impact a student’s health,” the commission concluded.

Mr. Hardy describes why this is so, and his conclusions will be no surprise to readers of this blog: insufficient funding for school repairs; unequal distribution of those scarce funds with most going to school districts who can afford the local match required to complete construction projects; and the need to spend scarce dollars for public education in needy districts on staff and instructional supplies before spending it on buildings. He concludes his essay with this:

The Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954 sent Black children into hostile environments as the nation struggled with its moral compass. It appears that Black and low-income students of color might soon be sent into school buildings, some of which date from before that decision. This time, whether it is happening with their best interests in mind is at best debatable.

But for minority parents, the “debate” is limited to whether or not they should send their child to a dilapidated school or keep them home where there are limited if any educational resources at which point they may have to lose their employment.

An article by Alex Williams in today’s NYTimes describes the choices affluent “New York parents of means” are taking as they seek “...less congested classrooms near their second — third? — homes.” While these “parents of means” likely live within walking distance of the dilapidated schools described by Mr. Hardy in his article, they are weighing whether to send their children to schools in the districts where their second homes are located: the Hamptons and Upstate towns along the Hudson River. Or they might do like Nora Morales who:

…recently decided not to plunk down a small fortune for their children’s private school, Lycée Francais de New York, this fall.

Instead, they moved up to their weekend house on 176 rustic acres near Elizaville, N.Y. in the Hudson Valley and plan to home-school their children, using a portion of the money they saved on private school for a part-time private tutor to help out.

The discrepancy between the decisions minority and poverty stricken parents face as compared to those faced by “parents of means” is not lost on Mr. Williams:

The exodus of wealthy families from the city comes at a moment that is fraught socially and politically. The rich have access to multiple educational options, including at-home “pandemic pods”with private tutors, or in the case of Avenues, personal mentors and instruction in 50 languages, including Punjabi and Swahili. Children from low-income homes, meanwhile, sometimes lack laptops and internet access needed for remote learning, and may get less funding as the children of affluent parents abandon the public school system.

To pretend that we live in a nation where everyone gets an equal opportunity for success today is delusional. To believe that things will be better if states and local governments do not get more federal funding is even crazier. And to not use the opportunity presented by the pandemic funds to upgrade dilapidated schools is a monumental oversight.