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What The ‘Schools Aren’t Superspreaders’ Argument Misses About COVID

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What The ‘Schools Aren’t Superspreaders’ Argument Misses About COVID

contributed by Sean McCauley

A popular Atlantic article on early data seems to show schools can safely reopen, but worrisome questions remain.

Econ. Prof. Emily Oster of Brown U. published an Oct. 9 Atlantic article, “Schools aren’t Super-Spreaders: Fears from the summer appear to have been overblown.” Prof. Oster is an expert number cruncher and enthusiastic advocate of fact-based reasoning, as may be inferred from her Twitter feed and books, “Expecting Better” and “Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool (The ParentData Series).” Both aim to help parents make informed decisions regarding the health and well-being of their children based on statistics from authoritative sources.

Oster told Time in April 2019, “One of my least favorite phrases is ‘studies say’ because you can always find a study that says whatever is the thing that you think already. And one of the things I try to do here is not what does a study say but what do all the studies say.”

This is precisely what one would expect from a respected researcher from a top-shelf school like Brown, but Oster’s “more direct than typical” article flatly denying school openings cause super-spreader events flies in the face of that precept. It does so in spite of new reports from the CDC noting that 90% of Americans live in counties falling into the two highest risk categories for reopening schools, and the American Academy of Pediatrics showing a rapid rise in pediatric COVID-19 cases over the last five months, not to mention an alarming 14% increase in children with COVID from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1 as schools begin to reopen.

The questionable exclusion of these studies becomes less surprising with a brief glance at Prof. Oster’s previous Atlantic articles. Oster questions distance learning and school closures from almost the beginning, publishing articles such as “Parents Can’t Wait Around Forever” July 2, and “The ‘Just Stay Home’ Message Will Backfire” May 14, just eight weeks after her home state of Rhode Island closed in-person education and entertainment venues.

Both articles also appear in Atlantic, which makes sense as her new “Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders” article currently ranks as the publication’s no.1 most popular piece.

However, while Oster’s fresh arguments come directly from authoritative data, they’re also startlingly brash conclusions in light of where the numbers come from, how many of them there are, and the disease’s plainly fatal potential.

Oster’s case-closing Atlantic article cites “data on almost 200,000 kids in 47 states from the last two weeks of September” which showed “an infection rate of 0.13 percent among students and 0.24 percent among staff.” That works out to about “1.3 infections over two weeks in a school of 1,000 kids,” and “2.2 infections over two weeks in a group of 1,000 staff.” She notes that “Even in high-risk areas of the country, the student rates were well under half a percent” and invites readers to “see all the data here.”

Schools Aren’t Superspreaders If You Leave Out the Teachers

Here’s the thing, though: while the data may be viewed on an online dashboard programmed by stats-software company Qualtrics under direction from Oster, it actually comes from “a group of educators from superintendents’ and principals’ associations who had access to schools.” In other words, it comes from administration officials from the principal upward, all of whom have every reason to want schools open ASAP.

President Trump has directly threatened the funding of schools operating under distance learning, saying relief funds will be conditionally available to physically open sites, putting further pressure on administrators already squeezed by dire budget constraints. This pressure comes from parents, too, whom the NY Times dubs “involuntary homeschoolers” of “students falling months behind.” These parents proudly sue their state governors for closing schools during the epidemic and hit the streets to protest closures even as COVID spikes in their areas.

That data would be better informed by including numbers from other sources such as teachers’ unions and associations, as evidenced by cases reported to newspapers by teachers in COVID-fraught districts where testing isn’t mandatory. This is the case with the New York City Department of Education, where parents might never have known about faculty infections except that teachers tested themselves and informed their union, who then went to journalists without involving admin officials.

There’s also a tracker run by the Natl. Education Assoc. created by a Kansas teacher which NPR reported on at the end of August. A simple run through just the first ten states alphabetically, Alabama through Georgia, tells a much different story than Oster’s dashboard. According to the NEA tracker as many as 21-41% report infected faculty in some states (GA, CT, AL, FL). In fact, of those ten states, districts saw an average infection rate of 19%, much higher than one would suspect with an infection rate of just a fifth of a percentage point.

Naturally, these amounts measure different things — the percentage of infected people vs. the percentage of infected districts. Even so, this rudimentary research shows a massive disparity between Oster’s sample and that provided by teachers, one which makes plenty of sense considering 45% of all UK cases stem from education settings according to Public Health England as reported by WSWS Oct 4. That’s even more bleak considering the US ranks as the global leader in infections while the UK comes in 12th.

Incomplete Data Around COVID Continues To Be A Problem

Note, too, that while private schools haven’t been included in the above numbers because they don’t belong to public districts, they are included in the NEA’s tracker. This brings us to the next issue with Oster’s claim, her admittedly lacking sample from private schools. She writes of this:

“Private schools have little or no reporting requirements for coronavirus, but in many locations they are the only ones to open. These private schools are an opportunity to learn about what might happen when public schools open in these areas, but only if we have data.”

OK, but how much of the picture are we missing, then? Of Oster’s collected numbers, she cites a population of “400,000 children in more than 700 schools across 48 states, while the total K-12 population in the United States is about 56 million.” She says frankly of this, “So we have a way to go. About 123,000 of those children are in person on an average day, along with 47,000 staff members.”

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This amounts to a startlingly modest 1/140th of students in the US and apparently excludes the bulk of private schools. Those schools account for a whopping 25% of all US sites, 68% of which are religious institutions, the spiritual affiliations of which wouldn’t matter if churches weren’t constantly proving themselves undeserving of faith in their ability to keep COVID under control.

Prof. Oster downplays the importance of including these schools in her data, saying, “Private schools …  have lower infection rates, which seems to reflect, at least in part, their demographics and the fact that they do more mitigation.” And while it’s certainly true that COVID inordinately affects the poor, private students clearly need representation if her data is to represent the population.

Those students need representation much more than, say, schools with zero infections. Clean schools don’t tell us whether in-person education is a super-spreader event. They just water down the infection rate among all school-going persons. Nevertheless, 100% COVID-free schools are clearly included in her data.

Even if the data were as round as one might prefer, Oster’s project further entices administrators to take part by an understandable but potentially harmful non-disclosure promise that “identifying information on districts or schools will not be made public,” thus ensuring that parents of students in an infected school won’t learn about it from the Qualtrics dashboard.

Not to mention, Oster’s project is ‘largely volunteer,’ which means the moment the data show something contrary to one’s druthers, such a volunteer can up and quit, all but assuring that the hypothesis apparent in week six of data collection will remain supported by that data in week 18.

Making Better Decisions About School Openings And COVID

This seeming bias at the outset is hinted at by tweets from Oster such as her Oct. 8 “framework for making better decisions during the pandemic”:

1. Frame the question

2. Mitigate risk

3. Evaluate risk

4. Evaluate benefits

5. Decide

…which does a great job of not-so-subtly implying the benefits of opening schools outweigh the risks; as well as one-offs about students lucky enough to have in-person school, a passionate lamentation about students impacted by distance learning, and gifts from working moms grateful for her work on “school/daycare” data, all in the space of the last two weeks.

Still, Prof. Oster’s reputation is solid, her tireless enthusiasm for objective analysis verifiable all over the internet. And it’d be a silly mistake to say her ongoing project is without merit when she can produce such findings as “the relative frequency of coronavirus prevention policies (masks are the most common, while routine staff testing is very uncommon)” and “limiting group sizes to under 25 seems to be the mitigation practice that is linked most strongly with low infection rates.”

So while Oster’s assertion seems founded on hubris in early fall 2020, the careful skeptic shouldn’t be surprised if she comes to admit more comprehensive evidence trumps her premature claim in the end, if indeed that’s how it shakes out.

-S. McCauley

Sean K. McCauley is a freelance writer and public-school English teacher in So. Cal., as well as Sr. Editor at Octiive Music Distribution and the author of the Agnostic Bible.

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Education

What Is Edcamp? An Overview For Teachers

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What Is Edcamp? An Overview For Teachers

by TeachThought Staff

What is Edcamp? In summary, Edcamp is a low-cost, ‘bottom-up’ approach to teacher improvement where ‘conference’ participants gather, decide what’s going to be learned, then set out to teach one another in a laid-back, communal approach of sessions.

Obviously, the big idea is in the contrast to large conferences or formal professional development (which we also offer and believe has a role in education improvement) that is more ‘top down’ and pre-determined–that is, where a few people come and deliver content to a lot of people about a topic more or less out of their control. Edcamps are often called ‘unconferences’ and the video below explains why.

According to edcampnepa.org, in an Edcamp event, educators simply gather to learn:

EdCamps are ‘unconference’ events with a focus on education and learning. Most professional learning is done where participants listen to one person who shares their presentation with the audience. EdCamps on the other hand are meant to encourage conversation and participation among the attendees. Participants determine the topics for the day and take an active role in setting the direction of the conference. In the first hour of EdCamp NEPA, attendees will meet and interact over coffee and a light breakfast. An empty session board will be available for everyone to post session titles. From that, a session board will be constructed that will provide the schedule for the day.

Common Elements Of ‘An Edcamp’

A session board for day-of session planning

Participant-driven ‘PD’

Teacher collaboration

Food and ‘swag’

Sponsors (cheap doesn’t mean zero-cost)

Short 30-60 minute sessions

Use of social media to share learning and connect with teachers inside and beyond the Edcamp event using twitter and hashtags like #edcamp and #edcampusa, for example

Teacher-driven ‘promotion’ of Edcamp event that often includes blogs, digital/social ‘groups,’ and larger sign-up tools like Eventbrite

Why Edcamp?

In a previous post on TeachThought from 2014, Dawn Casey-Rowe offered her view on Edcamp:

EdCamp is the essence of collaboration–melding and sharing of ideas in the spirit of excitement. How many school professional development days have seen faculty disappointed that there wasn’t enough slots to do all the interesting professional development?

Now, imagine this. Imagine that your faculty meeting had no agenda. Imagine that there was simply a grid in the front of the room with a certain amount of empty spaces with corresponding rooms and participants could put “I’m going to present this!” Some rooms might have (academic) standards, others might have co-teaching, still others could have “physical fitness and student/teacher wellness.” It could be anything. People vote with their feet–the sessions that were the most helpful for people would be the ones that fill up. It might be that there were a couple of mandatory sessions. It might be the entire day could be up to the participants. But to really do it right, you’d have a nice table full of coffee and treats, and just let the day flow.

Consider having an Edcamp or Edcamp-style PD event at your school and getting your rock star faculty to take ownership of the subject material. You’ll save money, give respect to your on-staff experts, and have a day full of community building and interesting collaboration. Set up a twitter board and tweet between sessions. I give a guarantee this will be a PD format you’ll want to continue.

The Background Of Edcamp

According to their About Us, the story of how Edcamp got started is fairly simple: Educators got together to improve independent of a conference, local requirement, or large-scale training. They just gathered and grew.

The first Edcamp was organized in 2010 by a group of teachers in Philadelphia who met up for a computer science “un-conference.” At BarCamp, they collaborated with others to create discussion sessions based on the interests of the people in the room. There was no presenter; no boring slideshow. The entire day was personalized and learner driven with those in the room sharing their experience and expertise. At the end of the day, the teachers decided this model was too good to contain! They exchanged contact information, and within the next few months they used the “unconference” model of BarCamp to target educators.

We’ll have more on Edcamps soon. In the meantime, if you want to search for Edcamps near you, here you go.

If you’d like to see what they look like ‘ in real life,’ here are some pictures of previous Edcamps shared by participants.

What Is Edcamp? An Overview For Teachers

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Education

Actors Theater Announces New Voices Young Playwrights Festival For Students

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From a press release

LOUISVILLE, KYActors Theatre of Louisville is proud to announce the return of the New Voices Young Playwrights Festival. This year’s lineup will feature eight new plays by local high school students. The 15th annual festival will be sponsored by the LG&E and KU Energy Foundation. The New Voices Festival will run from April 27-29, 2020.

This year, 833 students submitted plays in consideration for the New Voices Festival. This includes students from 31 schools in 6 counties in Kentucky and Indiana. Selected plays for the festival were chosen by a group of 37 readers, made up of Actors Theatre staff and volunteers. The winning playwrights represent seven different high schools.

This year’s festival marks the first time a winner has been chosen from Central High School.

The festival is produced by the Learning & Creative Engagement team at Actors Theatre. Each piece is assigned a director, dramaturg, design team, and group of actors from the Professional Training Company (PTC), who work in conjunction with the playwrights to bring these pieces to life. Together, each team participates in workshops, production meetings, and a full rehearsal process before the festival in April. Each year, the plays produced in the festival are also published in the New Voices Young Playwrights Anthology.

To reserve tickets to review, to request images or for any other press inquiries, please contact Elizabeth Greenfield, Director of Communications, [email protected].

Actors Theatre’s Professional Training Company is generously supported by a significant grant from The Roy Cockrum Foundation. The $1.2 million award supports grants over a ten-year period for each apprentice during the nine-month program, and enables year-round employment for the program’s leadership. Founded by Roy Cockrum, the Foundation supports world-class performing arts projects in not-for-profit professional theatres throughout the United States. The Foundation considers grants by invitation only and is dedicated to helping non-profit theatres reach beyond their normal scope of activities and undertake ambitious and creative productions. 


The selections for this year’s 15th Annual New Voices Young Playwrights Festival

Once Upon a Breakroom
by Alexandra Rapp (Mercy High School)

The Bow and Its Arrow
by Jocelynn Pry (Brown High School)

Posthumous Mishaps
by J.C. Hyde (Floyd Central High School)

His Lesson
by Lita Van (Atherton High School)

Sister Shook
by Skylar Wooden (Central High School)

Waffle Angel
by Aiden Kash (St. Francis High School)

Immaculata
by Katie Dobson (Ballard High School)

Postmodern Dad
by Ethan Bower (Salem High School)

Honorable Mentions:
A Bite of Strange Fruit
by Olivia Benford (Moore High School)

Primaries
by Islan F (Brooklawn)    


Listing Information

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15th New Voices Young Playwrights Festival
An Evening of New Work
Written by local high school students
Sponsored by the LG&E and KU Energy Foundation.
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 W. Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Bingham Theatre

Press Opening
Tuesday, April 27
7:00 p.m.
Bingham Theatre

April 27, 28, 29 at 7:00 p.m.
Tickets are $5.
Tickets will be available starting in April.

Call the Box Office at 502.584.1205 or visit ActorsTheatre.org.

To reserve tickets to review, to request images or for any other press inquiries, please contact Elizabeth Greenfield, Director of Communications, [email protected]About Learning & Creative Engagement at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Erica Denise, Director of Learning & Creative Engagement
Janelle Renee Dunn, Learning & Creative Engagement Associate 
Abigail Miskowiec, Learning & Creative Engagement Associate

As the home of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville is world-renowned for developing new work by playwrights with varying styles, interests, opinions and innovative approaches to making plays. Learning & Creative Engagement shares this energy and passion for playmaking by venturing into classrooms and teaching the art and craft of playwriting in fun, collaborative and differentiated ways.

By harnessing the wildly creative resources under its roof, the Learning & Creative Engagement department at Actors Theatre of Louisville aims to create outstanding artistic and learning experiences, where young people of all backgrounds, from elementary school to college, are invited to see plays and make theatre happen.

About the New Voices Playwriting Residency

Since its inception in 2003, the New Voices Playwriting Residency has introduced thousands of students from around the region to the basics of playwriting. Over the course of nine sessions, character development, conflict, dramatic structure and stakes are explored, as every student completes a ten-minute play. The Residency has inspired an annual New Voices Play Contest, a New Voices Young Playwrights Festival—fully produced by Learning & Creative Engagement and the Professional Training Company—and published New Voices anthologies of student-written work.

About the Professional Training Company
Jonathan Ruiz, Professional Training Company Producer

Now in its 48thyear, the Professional Training Company (PTC) is the cornerstone of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s commitment to education. One of the nation’s oldest pre-professional training programs, the PTC is a one-of-a-kind immersive program designed to elevate early-career practitioners in the American theatre industry by teaching the business and art of being a theatre professional. Members of the Company work directly with Actors Theatre artistic, administrative and production staff leaders as well as visiting guest artists, to receive hands-on training in their respective fields. The PTC is a diverse ensemble comprised of 39 talented individuals who are the next generation of American theatre. 

About Actors Theatre of Louisville
Robert Barry Fleming, Artistic Director

Now in its 56th Season, Actors Theatre of Louisville, the State Theatre of Kentucky, is the flagship arts organization in the Louisville community. Actors Theatre serves to unlock human potential, build community, and enrich quality of life by engaging people in theatre that reflects the wonder and complexity of our time.

Actors Theatre presents almost 350 performances annually and delivers a broad range of programming, including classics and contemporary work through the Brown-Forman Series, holiday plays, a series of theatrical events produced by the Professional Training Company, and the Humana Festival of New American Plays—the premier new play festival in the nation, which has introduced more than 450 plays into the American theatre repertoire over the past 43 years. In addition, Actors Theatre provides over 15,000 arts experiences each year to students across the region through its Learning & Creative Engagement Department, and boasts one of the nation’s most prestigious continuing pre-professional resident training companies, now in its 48th year.

Over the past half-century, Actors Theatre has also emerged as one of America’s most consistently innovative professional theatre companies, with an annual attendance of 140,000. Actors Theatre has been the recipient of some of the most prestigious awards bestowed on a regional theatre, including a Tony Award for Distinguished Achievement, the James N. Vaughan Memorial Award for Exceptional Achievement and Contribution to the Development of Professional Theatre, and the Margo Jones Award for the Encouragement of New Plays. Actors Theatre has toured to 29 cities and 15 countries worldwide, totaling more than 1,400 appearances internationally.

Currently, there are more than 50 published books of plays and criticism from Actors Theatre in circulation—including anthologies of Humana Festival plays, volumes of ten-minute plays, monologues, essays, scripts, and lectures from the Brown-Forman Classics in Context Festival. Numerous plays first produced at Actors Theatre have also been published as individual acting editions, and have been printed in many other anthologies, magazines, and journals—making an enduring contribution to American dramatic literature.

You can find more information at ActorsTheatre.org.

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Education

Survey: High School Students Are Tired, Bored, And Stressed

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image attribution flickr user Tulane Public Relations

by TeachThought Staff

Researchers from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Yale Child Study Center surveyed 21,678 American high school students and found that nearly 75% of the students’ emotions about school were negative.

Yale News published recently the results from the survey–with co-author and research scientist Zorana Ivcevic admitting that the percentage was surprising.

“It was higher than we expected,” Ivcevic explained. “We know from talking to students that they are feeling tired, stressed, and bored, but were surprised by how overwhelming it was.”

The article continued to break down the gist: High school students are tried–and not just tired, but stressed and bored:

“They are on the positive side of zero,” Ivcevic said, “but they are not energized or enthusiastic.” Feeling “interested” or “curious,” she noted, would reveal a high level of engagement that is predictive of deeper and more enduring learning.”

It continued, “In the open-ended responses, the most common emotion students reported was tired (58%). The next most-reported emotions — all just under 50% — were stressed, bored, calm, and happy. The ratings scale supported the findings, with students reporting feeling stressed (79.83%) and bored (69.51%) the most. When those feelings are examined with more granularity, said Ivcevic, they reveal something interesting. The most-cited positive descriptions–calm and happy–are vague.”

We investigated students’ feelings at high school in a nation-wide survey of 21,678 US students (study 1), and in a four-week study using experience sampling methodology (ESM) with 472 students across 5 high schools (study 2).

Abstract Excerpt

Study Highlights

75% of all feelings students reported in their open-ended responses were negative.

Feeling tired was the most prominent feeling, across measures and samples.

Negative feelings about school prevailed across all demographic groups.

Survey Takeaways

We’ve explored emotion as a cause and effect of learning for years–even going as far as to suggest that emotion is more important than understanding. when Terry Heick explained, “While you look for your students’ attention and try to cause engagement, it’s their emotion you need to skillfully identify, navigate and masterfully manipulate.”

In general, the survey is data that reports what most teachers already know: Students are tired and, mostly, bored. And stressed. The conclusions we take away from this data are more critical–and we might consider answering some of the following questions:

Why exactly are students bored? Content? Learning models? Pacing? Their expectations? Pressure? Agency and ownership (or lack thereof)? The survey looked at demographic data. Are there any co-relations with learning models, teacher experience, content areas, letter grades, and said boredom/tiredness/stress?

What are the primary causes of the ‘tiredness’? Mental health? Engagemet? Sleep quality? Sleep duration? (The former could be psychological while the latter more behaviorial.)

What is the impact of negative emotions not just on academic performance but the long-term quality of life for ‘students’ (i.e., young human beings)?

And maybe most critically and broadly, in the face of this data, how should we respond?

Abstract

“We investigated students’ feelings at high school in a nation-wide survey of 21,678 US students (study 1), and in a four-week study using experience sampling methodology (ESM) with 472 students across 5 high schools (study 2). Both studies combined mixed methods, including open-ended questions and rating scales (e.g., PANAS). In study 1, seventy-five percent of the feelings students reported in their responses to open-ended questions were negative. The three most frequently mentioned feelings were tired, stressed, and bored. Similar findings emerged with rated items, The prevalence of negative feelings was largely similar across demographic groups. Study 2 largely corroborated the findings from study 1. Although the retrospective measures showed similar results to study 1, the in-the-moment measures also showed frequent positive feelings. We discuss the findings in light of the ‘sleep deprivation epidemic,’ the achievement motivation literature, and implications for the validity of state- and trait measures of academic emotions.”

To analyze the data and methodology, you can download the full survey results here.

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