Education Reform Health Oklahoma Science

John Thompson: COVID and Schools in Oklahoma

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John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, is concerned about the lackadaisical responses of elected officials in his state and reliance on Big Data, not science.

The headlines could not be clearer; we’re headed for a disastrous surge in COVID-19. But many of the same public health experts who previously called for shutdowns and, recently, some top journalists are pushing the position that we should continue to reopen schools, even as they warn that community transmission of the virus continues. I am becoming more worried that some of those data-driven public health experts, who I respect, are stepping out of their lanes and giving advice to institutions, urban schools, that they may not understand, and the result could be disastrous.

The motivation is the sincere concern for children, especially the most vulnerable, who suffer from school closures.  A common meme in this debate, however, involves noneducators describing their children’s experiences while rarely indicating how affluent schools are very different than high-poverty urban schools. And I see little evidence that these researchers fully consider the harm that can be done by becoming less cautious.

I hope we are not seeing a repeat of the mess that was made so much worse by Big Data scholars who contributed to the data-driven, competition-driven school reform fiasco. While their skills with numbers were outstanding, they and the corporate school reformers who hired them, refused to listen to educators, and they added more evidence in support of the truism, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Due to their lack of curiosity about the complicated politics that drove education policy, then and (perhaps) now, the truism about metrics, “garbage in, garbage out” has been ignored.

A prime example of a researcher “going viral” when arguing that educators’ fears are “overblown” is Emily Oster. In May, Oster argued that “infection among kids is simply very unlikely.” Oster argued in October that:

Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19…. Our data on almost 200,000 kids in 47 states from the last two weeks of September revealed an infection rate of 0.13 percent among students and 0.24 percent among staff. That’s about 1.3 infections over two weeks in a school of 1,000 kids, or 2.2 infections over two weeks in a group of 1,000 staff.”

Oster even cited Florida and Texas as evidence that schools aren’t super spreaders, raising the question of why she would trust numbers published in those states. Moreover, a key to the first surge in those states was young people infecting members of their multigenerational homes. And as Rachel Cohen explained, Oster’s data “reflected an extremely small and unrepresentative sample of schools.” There was not a single urban traditional public school reporting data across 27 states in her dataset, including from Florida [and] Texas…”  Then, in November as more public health advocates pushed for more rapid reopenings, Texas became the first state to have a million infections.

I hope I’m wrong, but the data experts hired by the Billionaires Boys Club set out to prove that the reformers’ hypotheses about school improvement – which focused on classrooms, while ignoring the broader community – “can” work and transform schools. Now, data-driven analysis says that schools “can” be reopened more quickly. But in both cases, the question should have been about what “would” be the most likely results. Today, the evidence seems to say that a number of schools can be reopened safely, but the issue should be what would most likely happen in communities where public health recommendations are ignored.   

For instance, The New York Times published an analysis in early July with the theme, “We Have to Focus on Opening Schools, Not Bars.”  Since then, however, the focus was distorted by Trumpian ideology. For example, Oklahoma’s major metropolitan areas had taken a science-based, team approach to the coronavirus which kept infections down. But, the Trump-supporting Gov. Kevin Stitt pushed for a premature opening for businesses. On June 1, when the full reopening of public and private institutions began, the state only had 67 new infections.  On July 1, there was 355 new infections.  By August 1, daily infections jumped  to 1,000, and stayed around that level for three months. That number quickly doubled in November.

The Oklahoma City Public Schools had been professional when wrestling with the issue of reopening in-person classes. It started with pre-k and early elementary students, with the plan calling for the complete reopening of schools on Nov. 10. For reasons beyond the district’s control, it couldn’t have found itself in a worse situation, reopening at a time when all trends, national and local, seemed to foreshadow a tragedy. But the OKCPS was not only under pressure from ideology-driven Republicans, but it also faced a series of calls for reopening by many parents, and some journalists and medical professionals.

Given the national super spread, it’s likely that each city faced its own challenges, but here’s what drove community transmission in Oklahoma City: public gatherings ranging from the Tulsa Trump rally to the Weedstock festival to back-to-college parties; the complete reopening of most public school systems; the reopening of universities; high school and college football; the failure to enforce masks and social distancing policies or limit bars and indoor dining; holiday get-togethers; and then an unexpected blast of ice and rain which shut down electricity for hundreds of thousands of households for up to two weeks.  This sent thousands of households to stay in hotels, with family members, and hurriedly-made public spaces to escape the freezing weather.

On the weekend before the promised reopening of the OKCPS, a daily high of 4,507 new cases was reported. Granted, some of those numbers were due to delays in reporting due to ice. But the state’s three-day average was over 3,000 and since then the numbers have consistently been over 2,000.  (For comparisons sake, Oklahoma’s population is about 1.2% of the nation’s.) The worst increase was in Oklahoma County where according to the latest New York Times database, the seven day increase reached 58.8 per 100,000. And since the biggest public school dangers were in secondary schools, it was noteworthy that more than 5% of the state’s active cases were in the seven zip codes where all but three of the OKCPS middle and high schools were located.

At the Nov. 9 School Board meeting, when the state’s seven day average daily increase was 2,197, the American Federation of Teachers and other educators voiced their concerns about the reopening. After all, the White House Coronavirus Task Force put the metro area and Oklahoma County in the Red Zone. But, believe it or not, a state rating of Orange was used as the rationale for reopening all schools and extracurricular activities.

Moreover, some argue that schools don’t contribute as much as bars or indoor dining to the spread, but that misses the point. The question is whether school policies make conditions better or worse.   

Understanding the pressures that administrators and board members were under, when we got our electricity back, I sought to quietly urge caution, as opposed to writing about the need to close schools so they do not add to the spread which will get worse over Thanksgiving and that will make Christmas more dangerous.

I’d planned to send an email to OKCPS decision-makers with the link to the New York Times’ Are School Reopenings Over? School leaders may have felt trapped by political pressure from multiple sides, and this might encourage them to resist the pressure. But then I got my weekly email, The Grade,  from Alexander Russo, who has repeatedly attacked educators for failing to go back to in-person instruction. As in previous weeks, it included a series of journalists’ criticisms of supposedly over-cautious educators. At that, I knew I had to write a post to help counter that sort of public pressure.

But, guess what? As I went through the painful process of writing a piece explaining why we shouldn’t dare reopen the OKCPS at this time, it was announced that the district would pause the return to in-person instruction after four days! The Oklahoman reported that on Monday, the OKCPS will return to remote learning for the rest of the semester. It explained, “Rates of COVID-19 infections reached record highs this week while hospital space is at an all-time low for the pandemic. Other school districts in the metro area, which have taught in person for months, report hundreds of positive tests and quarantines every week among students and staff.”

 So, Superintendent Sean McDaniel reported that Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) indicates that “cases per 100,000 for Oklahoma County are 67.3 for this week, as compared to 30.4 last week.” He explained:

As the number of COVID-19 cases has steadily risen over the last several weeks, we reached a significant turning point for Oklahoma County…The increase in positive cases for Oklahoma County has moved us into the OSDE’s (Oklahoma State Department of Education’s) Red Alert Level.

… Although our health officials have continuously supported our Return to Campus plan, they now recommend that we transition to Red Alert Level protocols.I would add that during the four days of in-person instruction, the state’s seven day average daily infections increased by 15%.
But, focusing on the positive, several suburban schools are following the OKCPS and returning to virtual learning.

The public health evidence regarding this fall’s debate about school closures is just as persuasive as it was this March when Oklahoma City schools quickly shut down. But, as Oklahoma and the nation face an even greater surge of Covid-19 infections, today’s complicated politics make it so much harder to engage in evidence-based decisions.

I know many or most Oklahomans will recoil from our governor ducking responsibility, refusing to even order masks, while saying the key is personal responsibility. But, I also understand that many parents will be upset by the return to online instruction only. And plenty of educators are frustrated by researchers like Oster who seem to have a simplistic view of the challenges faced by high-poverty schools, as opposed to the affluent classrooms that their children attend.

But we should remember that the OKCPS, like systems across the nation, was under great pressure to keep schools open. So, we need to stand up for our districts when they make these painful but necessary choices.

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