Experts call for “meaningful, offline learning” instead of rush to EdTech

A coalition of more than 100 experts and advocacy organizations led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is calling for schools to avoid “making hasty purchases of EdTech” and rather to prioritize meaningful offline learning experiences, even in a time of widespread school closures.

This week the coalition issued the following statement:

We are approaching an educational crossroads, accelerated by the COVID-19 school closures and remote learning experiments of this spring. We cannot afford another year in which students become alienated from the learning process. Furthermore, the decisions and investments school districts make in the coming months will shape educational practices long after the pandemic ends.

The undersigned urge educators and policymakers to look beyond simplistic EdTech solutions, and find ways to limit children’s time on computers and digital devices during the coming school year and beyond. We recognize that there is significant uncertainty about what school will look like in the fall and that education across the United States will look vastly different from state to state and district to district. Nevertheless, whether school is in-person, remote, or some combination thereof, educators should ensure that their curricula and assignments center on offline, high-engagement components such as hands-on, project- and place-based learning.

Seizing an opportunity to capture a larger portion of the $10 trillion global education market,1 for-profit EdTech vendors are selling families and policymakers the false premise that EdTech products offer effective and budget-friendly ways to learn. In reality, the products are costly to purchase and maintain, and frequently crowd teachers and staff out of the budget. The products also ensnare students, whose data and brand loyalty are harvested, and who often become targets of relentless marketing efforts. These efforts include the insidious practice of upselling, through which students and their families are pushed to purchase premium versions, thereby exacerbating inequalities among students. Equally important, these programs reduce the roles played by creative, compassionate teachers in educating the whole child. Learning happens best in the context of human relationships and is lost when the balance is skewed toward online platforms.

The value of quality, teacher-driven instruction is well-supported by research.2 There is no credible research supporting industry claims that online, personalized learning programs improve academic outcomes.3,4 Test scores do not rise. Dropout rates do not fall. Graduation rates do not improve. In 2019, fewer than half of virtual and blended schools had “acceptable” state performance ratings, and only 30% of virtual schools associated with for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMO) managed to meet even that low bar.5 A study of millions of high school students in 36 countries by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that students who frequently used computers at school “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.”6

EdTech is destined to underdeliver because of how the human brain reacts to screen-based media. In short: the brain doesn’t like it. Reading text on paper increases comprehension, retention, and sheer satisfaction with reading as an activity.7 Writing by hand boosts idea generation as well as retention.8 Children between the ages of 8 and 11 who spend more than two hours per day on screens perform worse on memory, language, and thinking tests than those who spend less time.9 The sensorimotor stimuli that screens offer are paltry compared to real life stimuli, and developing brains are more severely impacted by this disparity.10

Prolonged time on screens impairs more than just cognition; it is also hard on the body. Working on screens for long periods leads to digital eye strain – with symptoms including dry eye, headaches, and blurry vision – and increases the risk of myopia.11,12 Research has clearly established a link between increased screen time and worsened sleep for children and teens.13 A wealth of research also links screen exposure to childhood obesity.14

Additionally, EdTech platforms collect sensitive student data and require substantial time online, putting our children’s personal safety at risk. A study of 150 EdTech apps and services found “widespread lack of transparency and inconsistent privacy and security practices for products intended for children and students.”15 After investigating a series of data breaches that allowed hackers to use sensitive student data to “contact, extort, and threaten students with physical violence and release of their personal information,” the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center warned in 2018 that EdTech poses threats to student privacy and safety, including “social engineering, bullying, identity theft, or other means for targeting children.”16 That warning proved prescient. This spring, the FBI issued an additional warning to parents,17 and The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 4 million reports of online sexual abuse – an increase of nearly 3 million from April 2019.18 In addition, sensitive student data, once processed into “de-identified data,” can be used for non-educational, profitable activities. Worse, de-identified data can be reconstituted as personally-identifiable data.19 Privacy laws have yet to catch up with technological know-how.

While EdTech is touted as a way to increase equity in schools, it falls short on that front as well. Ensuring that every family has free or low-cost internet access and all students who must learn from home have access to a device are critical and worthy goals, as the recent global pandemic has further revealed. There is no evidence, however, that 1:1 programs reduce the achievement gap between children from poor and wealthy families. Indeed, research has found that the introduction of internet access into low-income households actually results in lower academic achievement.20 Programs to give low-income families access during the pandemic must be accompanied by tech-intentional and low-tech pedagogies.

For the safety, wellbeing, and academic potential of our children, reducing screen use during the pandemic has to be a priority – no matter the adopted reopening plan. Real, personalized learning can take place without overly relying on technology, especially algorithm-driven, computerized instruction. We urge educators to deepen learning for children during the pandemic with high-engagement, tech-intentional teaching and learning based on the following principles:

  • Limit screen time. Use technology only when necessary for communication, collaboration, research, or facilitating creative expressions of student learning. Algorithm-driven adaptive learning platforms, gamified learning, and similar apps that incorporate persuasive design to keep kids online should be avoided.
  • Embrace teachers and relationships over EdTech. Teachers engage learners better than EdTech, and learners engage better when learning is authentic. Remote learning, when needed, should be driven by human interactions and designed to maximize student engagement and agency through use of project- and place-based pedagogies and other self directed projects.
  • Maximize offline, hands-on learning. Students, particularly younger children and children with special needs, learn better offline and hands-on. Therefore, schools have an obligation to maximize offline, hands-on learning – even if students are at home – by encouraging structured activities such as reading actual books, writing by hand, art, movement, outdoor play, real-world math projects, and nature exploration. During remote learning, schools must find ways to support families by providing physical books and supplies, in recognition of the fact that not all families are in a position to provide these things.
  • Avoid hasty purchases and decisions during the pandemic that may lead to the overuse of EdTech for many years to follow. Instead, invest in educators.
  • Privacy matters. Schools must understand and mitigate any privacy risks before assigning a platform or service to students. Schools should avoid services that do not clearly delineate who will have access to students’ sensitive data and for what purpose. Schools should also not assign platforms or apps that contain advertising, including upselling students and their families on premium versions, thereby exacerbating inequalities among students.

The impulse to embrace EdTech during the initial months of the pandemic was understandable; but the continued centering of education around EdTech is neither desirable nor inevitable. Parents and educators now know this to be true.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to EdTech: trusting educators to work together and employ their intelligence and creativity to design and deliver curricula that keep all students engaged while deepening their learning, even in a pandemic. Our children and our nation deserve nothing less than safe schools and low-tech, child-centered, educator-driven learning.

You can find a list of signatories below:

SIGNATORIES

Organizations

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood

The Alliance for Early Childhood

Badass Teachers Association

Boston Teachers Union

Center for Digital Democracy

Center for Humane Technology

Class Size Matters

Collegiate Coaching Services

Defending the Early Years

DurableHuman.com

Everyschool

Illinois Families for Public Schools

Live Above the Noise Podcast

Massachusetts Association for Infant Mental Health: Birth to Six, Inc.

Massachusetts Teachers Association

MI Ed Justice

Nature Club Kids

Network for Public Education

New Mexico Pediatric Society

NoAppForLife.com

NYS Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE)

Obligation, Inc.

The Opt Out Florida Network

Parent Coaching Institute

Parent Coalition for Student Privacy

Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, MD

ParentsTogether

Peace Educators Allied for Children Everywhere (PEACE)

Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education

Roots & Sky Nature School

ScreenStrong

Southern Early Childhood Association

Turning Life On

United Church of Christ, OC Inc.

Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America (WECAN)

Washington Nature Preschool Association (WaNPA)

Individuals

Affiliations are for identification purposes only.

Matthew J. Bach, President, Andover Education Association

Nancy E. Bailey, Ph.D., @nancyebailey.com

Marsha Basloe, President, Child Care Services Association

Criscillia Benford, Ph.D., media theorist and co-author of “Sensory Metrics of Neuromechanical Trust”; member, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood Board; member, Children’s Screen Time Action Network Advisory Board

David C. Berliner, Regents’ Professor Emeritus, College of Education, Arizona State University; author, The Manufactured Crisis (with B. Biddle); 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools (with G. Glass)

Faith Boninger, Ph.D., National Education Policy Center, School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder

Laura Bowman, Child and Public Schools Advocate

Cynthia Boyd, M.D., M.P.H

Carol Burris, Ed.D., executive director, the Network for Public Education

Angela J. Campbell, Chairman of the Board of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Professor Emeritus, Georgetown Law

Patricia Cantor, Ed.D., Plymouth State University; co-author, Techwise Infant/Toddler Teachers: Making Sense of Screen Media for Children Under 3; member, Children’s Screen Time Action Network Advisory Board

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., Professor Emerita, Lesley University; co-founder, Defending the Early Years

Connie Casha, M.Ed., Early Childhood Specialist, Tennessee

Emily Cherkin, founder, The Screentime Consultant

Erika Christakis, M.P.H., M.Ed., early childhood educator and author, The Importance of Being Little

Joe Clement, co-author, Screen Schooled

Lisa Cline, Chair, Montgomery County Council of PTAs Safe Technology Committee

Mary Cornish, Professor of Early Childhood Education, Plymouth State University

Larry Cuban, Emeritus Professor of Education, Stanford University

Tracy Cutchlow, author, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science; member, Children’s Screen Time Action Network Advisory Board

Libby Doggett, Ph.D., former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Policy and Early Learning, US Dept of Education

Lori Dorfman, Dr.P.H., Director, Berkeley Media Studies Group and Associate Adjunct Professor, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley

Diane Dreher, Ph.D., Professor of English, Santa Clara University; author, Your Personal Renaissance

Eleanor Duckworth, Professor Emerita, Harvard Graduate School of Education; author, The Having of Wonderful Ideas, and other essays on teaching and learning

George Dyson, author of Analogia, Turing’s Cathedral, and Darwin Among the Machines

Cindy Eckard, student health activist and ScreensandKids.us blogger

Seth Evans, Chair, Screens in Schools Work Group, Children’s Screen Time Action Network

Jean Ciborowski Fahey, Ph.D., author, Make Time for Reading

Betsy Fox, Fox Educational Consulting

Richard Freed, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Wired Child; member, Children’s Screen Time Action Network Advisory Board

Roberta M. Golinkoff, University of Delaware; author, Becoming Brilliant

Sheryl R. Gottwald, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, University of New Hampshire

Tristan Harris, co-founder and president, Center for Humane Technology

Mindy Holohan, M.A., CFLE, Family Science Faculty, Western Michigan University

Kay Johnson, M.P.H., Ed.M., President, Johnson Group Consulting, Inc.

Denisha Jones, Ph.D., J.D., Director of Art of Teaching, Sarah Lawrence College

Brett P. Kennedy, Psy.D.

Marla Kilfoyle, retired educator NY, NBCT

Alfie Kohn, author, The Schools Our Children Deserve

Catherine L’Ecuyer, Ph.D. in Education and Psychology; author, The Wonder Approach

Diane Levin, Ph.D., Applied Professor of Human Development, Boston University; author, Beyond Remote Control Childhood; founder, Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE)

Richard Levy, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science Emeritus

Susan Linn, Ed.D., Lecturer on Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School; author, The Case for Make Believe: Saving play in a commercialized world and Consuming Kids: The hostile takeover of childhood; member, Children’s Screen Time Action Network Advisory Board

Dr. Robert MacDougall, Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Curry College

Barbara Madeloni, former president, Massachusetts Teachers Association

Roxana Marachi, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Education, San José State University; member, Children’s Screen Time Action Network Advisory Board

Deborah Meier, retired teacher and founder of Central Park East schools in East Harlem and Mission Hill in Boston; author of The Power of Their Ideas

Matt Miles, co-author, Screen Schooled

Alex Molnar, Ph.D., Director, Commercialism in Education Research Unit, National Education Policy Center

Kathryn C. Montgomery Ph.D., Professor Emerita, School of Communication, American University

Daniel M. Mulcare, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Political Science, Salem State University

Dipesh Navsaria, M.P.H., M.S.L.I.S., M.D.; Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health; member, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood Board

Susan Ochshorn, founder, ECE PolicyWorks; author, Squandering America’s Future

Meghan Owenz, Ph.D., Assistant Teaching Professor, Penn State University

Rae Pica, author, What If We Taught the Way Children Learn?

Jenny Radesky, M.D., Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Michigan Medical School

Dr. Anthony Rao, psychologist; author, The Power of Agency & The Way of Boys

Diane Ravitch, Ph.D., NYU

Kimberly Redigan, M.A., high school teacher; nonviolence trainer; blogger, Write Time for Peace

Thomas Robinson, M.D., M.P.H., Irving Schulman, MD Endowed Professor in Child Health, Professor of Pediatrics and of Medicine, Stanford University; member, Children’s Screen Time Action Network Advisory Board

Douglas Rushkoff, Ph.D., Professor of Media Studies, CUNY/Queens; author, Team Human

Holly Seplocha, Ed.D., Professor of Early Childhood Education, William Paterson University

Brooke Shannon, founder and Executive Director of Wait Until 8th

Tiffany Shlain, author of 24/6The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week; founder, The Webby Awards; director, Let it Ripple Film Studio; member, Children’s Screen Time Action Network Advisory Board

Craig Slatin, Sc.D., M.P.H., Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetts Lowell

William Softky, Ph.D., Neuro/Data/Physical/Computational Scientist; co-author, “Sensory Metrics of Neuromechanical Trust”

Dr. Mari Swingle, Ph.D. Psych, M.A. Psych, M.A. Education, Clinical Researcher, Practicing Clinician/Psyhchoneurophysiology; author of i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., author, Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-fueled World

Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, MIT; author, Reclaiming Conversation; member, Children’s Screen Time Action Network Advisory Board

Kevin Welner, Ph.D., Professor of Education, University of Colorado Boulder; Director, National Education Policy Center


Mecklenburg County Manager to unilaterally reopen in-person Pre-K against wishes of majority of Pre-K teachers

Meck Pre-K will reopen its doors for in-person instruction beginning on September 1 despite community COVID infection rates that are keeping all K-12 Charlotte Mecklenburg schools closed for the foreseeable future.

In announcing the move, Meck Pre-K said the decision had been made “after extensive discussions with officials from Mecklenburg County, the NC Division of Public Health and the NCDHHS.”

It wasn’t made after discussions with Mecklenburg County Commissioners, though. Rather, this was a unilateral decision by County Manager Dena Diorio.

Diorio also moved unilaterally to drop the income cap which previously ensured the program would serve Mecklenburg County’s neediest children.

Meck Pre-K’s announcement says it “distributed surveys to families, teachers, and providers to gather feedback on the coming school year,” and that “across all groups, the majority of respondents expressed a desire for children to return to the classroom even in light of the ongoing public health situation.”

The announcement doesn’t mention the fact that only 11% of the teachers surveyed said they preferred to return to in-person instruction. 74% said remote would be a better option and 16% were neutral.

There is no question that virtual instruction pales in comparison to an in-person education, especially for our youngest students.

But whether or not it’s prudent to do that at a time when Mecklenburg County’s percent positive COVID test rate is hovering around 9% deserves transparent and robust discussion by our community and elected officials.

COVID fears of Union County educators fall on deaf ears at board meeting

Image credit WRAL

At Tuesday night’s meeting of the Union County Board of Education, local educators showed up to make the case that reopening for in-person instruction is too risky given the county’s high COVID infection rates.

Their comments fell on deaf ears.

Union County’s percent positive test rate is hovering around 10%, which is double the CDC Director’s recommended level for districts to consider opening for students.

Pam Carlton, president of Union County Association of Educators (UCAE), rose to present survey data she and her colleagues collected on employee comfort level with returning to in-person instruction. Ms. Carlton was cut off before she could finish–despite board policy which allows representatives of groups extended speaking time.

The data UCAE collected shows that more than 83% of Union County Public Schools employees would prefer opening schools in Plan C, fully remote instruction.

Of survey respondents, only 8.6% said they were comfortable with Union County’s current return to work plan.

Local educators Sophia Stephenson and Brittany Gendron also spoke on behalf of educators who are concerned about their own safety and that of their students.

Stephenson referred to the current plan as “Russian roulette.” Gendron told the board she was prepared during lockdowns to take a bullet for her students and that “COVID is a bullet we can see coming. It’s already here.”

Board chair Melissa Merrell and her colleagues were unmoved by the comments and showed no sign of budging on the district’s plan to open to students on August 17. Merrell noted that “it was a decision handed down by the governor for Plan B” but did not mention that Governor Cooper’s approach allows for communities hit hard by COVID to open in Plan C.

Over half of North Carolina’s 115 school districts have opted to open in some form of remote learning.

As Union County’s board meeting ended, Brittany Gendron was overcome with emotion and broke down, saying “83 percent of staff want Plan C. You won’t even consider it?”

The official Union County Public Schools livestream quickly cut off, but the moment was captured by a WBTV reporter:

NC Department of Public Instruction seeks State Board’s approval for in-person standardized testing during remote learning

image by Nan Fulcher

As North Carolina’s schools prepare to begin a year that will be anything but standard, Department of Public Instruction (DPI) staff will propose at Wednesday’s meeting of the State Board of Education that school districts be able to administer in-person standardized testing, even in cases where the district is operating in Plan C due to dangerously high levels of community COVID spread.

testing-presentation-SBE-Aug-5-5

DPI’s recommendation is that the State Board “approve for the 2020–21 school year that for the  beginning-of-grade 3, the end-of-grade and the end-of-course assessments, remote learning students will participate at an on-site location as determined by the public school unit.”

The proposal is being presented for Action on First Reading, with DPI staff noting that it would be “beneficial to approve prior to the beginning of the 2020–21 school year.”

The recommendation does say that districts may elect to delay testing until students return to school but emphasizes the importance of testing for informing stakeholders on student mastery of content and school performance.

You can view Wednesday’s presentation materials in their entirety below.

The meeting begins at 10 AM and will be livestreamed here.

testing-presentation-SBE-Aug-5

The disproportionate COVID toll on People of Color in Mecklenburg County

sources: mcmap.org/qol, mecknc.gov

As the public rhetoric over school reopening decisions heats up, it’s impossible to ignore that the loudest voices calling for schools to open for in-person instruction are those who are suffering least from the impacts of COVID: white people of means with school-age children.

The most recently published county data shows 29.2% of reported COVID cases in Mecklenburg are Hispanic residents–despite the fact that they comprise only 13.8% of the population.

Earlier this month, figures from the Center for Disease Control, obtained only after the New York Times sued for their release, showed those troubling trends extend nationwide. Latino and African American residents are three times as likely as white people to become infected with COVID-19 and twice as likely to die.

As for the why, People of Color are more likely to live in close quarters and to work in service and production jobs that can’t be done remotely. They are also less likely to have health insurance, and while insurance policies can be purchased on the open marketplace by those who don’t qualify for Medicaid, those policies come with huge deductibles and copays that effectively discourage people from seeking treatment when they need it.

Medical facilities that serve mostly low-income patients are less likely to have the resources for effective COVID treatment, because their profit margins are small and they have to write off unpaid bills as charity.

According to statistics on racial health disparities, treatment in hospitals often breaks down along racial lines as well. Emergency rooms assign patients numbers to indicate their level of medical attention urgency. Black patients are 7% less likely than white patients to receive high urgency rankings, and Black and Hispanic patients are 10% less likely to be approved for a transition from emergency room to intensive care.

Mark Jerrell serves as Mecklenburg County Commissioner for District 4, the area of Mecklenburg County that is experiencing some of the most severe impacts of COVID. Jerrell says, “COVID19 speaks to a larger problem in our society, particularly as it relates to People of Color. And that is the legacy of systemic institutional racism that has created barriers of inequity that we already knew existed. So the challenge remains: What are we going to do about it to provide a level playing field for all of our residents and particularly for People of Color?”

As we continue to engage in important conversations about the best way to proceed on K-12 education during a pandemic, let’s be sure to remember who this virus is hitting the hardest and make decisions with those facts in mind.

CDC Director calls for schools to remain closed if positive tests exceed 5%. Mecklenburg is more than double that.

Mecklenburg County percent positive COVID rates through July 22. Source: MeckNC.gov

In a Friday phone call about new guidelines around school reopening, Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Robert Redfield told reporters that “hot spots” of COVID infection where schools should stay closed should be defined as communities where “the percent positivity rate within the community is greater than 5%.”

Over the last seven days of available data, Mecklenburg County has averaged 10.97%.

Redfield’s comments came a day after the CDC released updated guidelines for schools that are trying to figure out how to safely educate K-12 children in the midst of the COVID pandemic.

The CDC guidelines say, “It is important to consider community transmission risk as schools reopen. Evidence from schools internationally suggests that school re-openings are safe in communities with low SARS-CoV-2 transmission rates.”

President Trump conceded shortly before the guidelines were released that “cities or states that are current hot spots” may need to stay closed. It was a major about face for a man who just two weeks ago was threatening to withhold federal funding from schools that don’t reopen.

In the Friday phone call with reporters, Director Redfield was asked what metric was used to define a “hot spot”:

You mentioned a few times that in hot spots, that there may be, you may need to keep schools closed for a time. My question is how much of the country right now would you consider to be a hot spot? Because a lot of times we look at this and we see a large swatch of the country across the Southeast with hot spots. Are those considered hot spots?

Here’s how Redfield responded:

When you look at the hot spots, I think most of us right now are looking where the percent positivity rate within the community is greater than 5%. And a lot of times the maps you see aren’t granular area to let you see rather than light up a whole state, it may be really several counties that meet that criteria. And it is quite dynamic. It is changing. You know, a number of counties now are substantially improving. There are several counties getting where there is an increase in percent positive. That’s why it’s so important for the local education boards and local health departments to look exactly at the data in their environment at this moment in time.

The 5% positive metric mentioned by Dr. Redfield is the same benchmark being used by Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York, where schools are permitted to reopen when regional infection rates are 5% or lower over a 14 day average.

Yesterday New York registered its lowest number of COVID hospitalizations since mid March.

Candidate for state superintendent Jen Mangrum calls for increased transparency at the Department of Public Instruction

by Dr. Jennifer Mangrum, candidate for the office of NC state superintendent

Transparency is obviously an important feature of democratic institutions like the Department of Public Instruction and our schools. A functioning democracy rests on providing voters and policymakers with the information they need to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, too many politicians claim they value transparency while running for office only to backtrack once assuming office. I firmly believe that a dedication to transparency will do more than just better inform the public. If implemented wisely, a dedication to transparency will also strengthen our policy-making process. 

There are many ways in which the Superintendent can advance the various aspects of transparency. 

For the press, transparency means quick access to accurate information. They would like Freedom of Information Act requests fulfilled in a timely manner. Under the current Superintendent, turnaround times for these requests have taken far too long. 

For researchers, a dedication to transparency means making school data more readily available and usable. Historically, the agency has done a good job of making data publicly available on its website. However, a recent website redesign disappeared some previously available data and reports. I would change the presentation of that data to make it easier for researchers to identify how data has changed over time. 

For lawmakers interested in the proper stewardship of state funds, transparency under my watch will mean adherence to state procurement and contracting processes. Under my watch, these efforts will follow the advice of experts. I will not intervene, as my predecessor has, to direct contracts to cronies or illegally divert school district money to buy unneeded iPads. 

For advocates and community members, I think we can do a better job of making state and district budget and spending data more accessible. Additionally, I have pledged to establish an internal office of equity that will help identify areas where we’re failing to provide students with the opportunity to flourish. 

Transparency has always been about more than just providing additional access to information. One of the more important ways I’ll advance transparency is by giving educators a voice in our policymaking process. For the past four years, policymaking has too often been “done” to our educators. I know we need a different approach. We make smarter decisions when we harness educators’ on-the-ground expertise. Whether via surveys or the establishment of elected advisory boards, I’m continuing to explore options to provide educators with an authentic voice in the policymaking process. 

Finally, transparent also means “free from pretense or deceit.” My opponent has had some difficulty adhering to this concept. On June 25 th , EdNC asked us to explain how we would work with the Governor and General Assembly. As part of her response, my opponent falsely claimed she worked, “to pass the largest single teacher pay raise in North Carolina history” while working as Pat McCrory’s education advisor in 2016. This is not anywhere close to true. My records only go back 27 years, but over that period there were 11 other teacher pay raises that were larger than the plan she worked on. 

This deceit is part of a pattern. As part of the McCrory administration, my opponent overstated the size of her boss’s budget proposal, understated the extent to which teacher turnover rose under Republican rule, and most famously tried to claim that the budget she worked on was going to take average teacher salaries north of $50,000. 

It’s clear that we have a tremendous opportunity to once again make transparency – in all of its aspects – a priority at DPI. By being open, inclusive, and, most importantly, honest, we will do a better job of identifying the barriers to flourishing faced by our students and teachers while making smarter decisions about the policies that affect their success.

“I am petrified”: CMS educators set the record straight on their feelings about teaching in person during the COVID pandemic

image credit: Nan Fulcher

Recent comments about Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools employee survey data by a member of the Board of Education who is pushing for a reopening of schools are not sitting well with local educators.  

Many of those educators are weighing in on a new informal survey created by education advocates to gauge employee sentiment about a potential return to in-person instruction during the COVID pandemic.  The results of that survey will be shared at Tuesday’s board meeting, where educators plan to address the board to share their personal stories and feelings about the topic.

On July 7, employees of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools received a non-binding Intent to Return survey designed to inform district plans around staffing for school year 2020-21.  

The survey allowed employees to indicate their preference between the following options:

Remain in current school assignment and report in-person to work as directed by my principal or supervisor

Resign

Retire

I have applied or intend to apply for a leave of absence related to COVID-19

I am requesting an alternative work arrangement, e.g. working remotely, if available for my position, for reasons related to COVID-19

The “alternative work arrangement” option was available only to employees who qualified as high risk:

High-risk categories include individuals 65 years or older or those with underlying medical conditions such as the following:

• People with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
• People who have serious heart conditions or who are immunocompromised
• People with diabetes, chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis or renal failure or liver disease
• People with severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher)

It’s worth noting that ‘pregnant or planning to become pregnant’ is absent from the high-risk list, despite increasing indications that pregnant women are more likely to suffer severe cases of COVID than other women their age and evidence that the virus can be passed in utero.

For educators like myself who took this survey, the choices essentially boiled down to “have a job” or “not be able to feed your kids.”  

Indeed, of the 12,073 responses registered on the survey, 10,651 selected Remain in current school assignment and report in-person to work as directed by my principal or supervisor.

Board members were informed of the Intent to Return survey results the morning of July 15, the same day an emergency meeting was scheduled where the board planned to vote on whether to open schools under moderate social distancing guidelines (Plan B) or fully remote (Plan C).  (The board would vote 7-1 at that meeting in favor of a slightly different model in which students and staff would report to school for two weeks of socially distant in-person onboarding before returning to remote instruction.  Only District 6 board member Sean Strain voted against the plan, arguing that students needed to be in school.)

In informing board members about the survey data, Human Resources Director Christine Pejot cautioned there could be what she termed “false positives” among responses indicating employees intended to report on-site.  She advised board members to be aware that intentions could change based on a number of factors including increases in COVID cases in Mecklenburg County.

In a July 18 WFAE story, Sean Strain was quoted as having said in a text message “Kids are being kept from their best educational environment because 10% of the teachers are afraid to work in the schools,” ostensibly referring to the relatively high percentage of staff who had indicated they would remain in their current school assignment on the Intent to Return survey.

Many CMS educators were not happy with having their survey responses characterized that way, noting that the questionnaire didn’t ask anyone about their feelings. 

Veteran West Charlotte High School teacher Erlene Lyde said, “I am petrified at the thought of entering a school building with students and other  adults. Being in a space where I know the viral load is increasing exponentially by the second makes me anxious, worried and afraid. No question on that intent form was designed to capture that fear.” 

Melissa Easley, a teacher at McClintock Middle School, added, “No one should have to choose between their job and the safety of themselves and their families.”

In response to social media outrage, Strain initially posted “I have NEVER said that 12% are afraid to return” and referred to claims to the contrary as “a false narrative.”  He later said he didn’t recall having sent the text before eventually acknowledging that he had–and that WFAE reporter Steve Harrison had represented it accurately.

A group of local education advocates has now created a survey to collect some actual data on the feelings of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools employees about the prospect of returning to in-person classes.  The survey results will be presented during the public comments portion of Tuesday evening’s meeting of the Board of Education.  

At the time of this writing, with over 3,000 responses, only 21.6% indicated they felt “confident” about returning to the school building for Plan B (moderate social distancing), with more than 78% saying they were either “hesitant” or “not confident.”

Those numbers closely mirror Senator Natasha Marcus’s recent data collection, which found that 76.7% of public school employees thought schools should do remote instruction only until COVID numbers improved.

You can tune in to tonight’s school board meeting on Facebook Live at 6 pm here.

Plan C is the right choice for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools

Today the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education will vote on whether to reopen schools (Plan B) or to continue with remote instruction for the time being (Plan C). It’s a decision with huge ramifications for nearly 150,000 students and 20,000 employees.

The board will enter closed session at 3:30 and is scheduled to begin a public meeting at 4:30 where a vote will be held. You can view the meeting on Facebook Live here.

Reopening schools would have 1/3 of students rotate through at a time while the other 2/3 learn at home or at a daycare facility with other children.

Under Plan B, parents would also have the option of choosing full remote if they are not comfortable with the risk of sending their children to school. Although there would likely be a limited number of “alternative assignment” remote teaching positions available to people who fit certain high risk categories, thousands of CMS employees would not have a choice but to return to full time face-to-face work.

COVID is still largely a mystery to medical experts, and while we can say that health and safety are our number one priorities, we have to admit that none of us has a real handle on how much danger we’re facing right now or how much risk we’d be taking on by opening our buildings to in-person learning. We don’t know if this virus can be contracted twice, we don’t know how much children spread it, and we don’t know what the permanent damage to the bodies of those who survive COVID-19 might be.

In fact, about the only things we know for sure is that this virus is highly contagious, potentially deadly and that it is disproportionately impacting families of color. We also know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your safest way to not get it is to avoid crowds of people.

I think every educator agrees that the best place for our students is in school. We feel that in the very fabric of who we are, and it’s the reason that we stay in this often underpaid and under-respected profession, because we know that our schools can open doors of opportunity for our students and provide for so many of their needs.

With all of that said, as we weigh the risks and benefits of each approach we have to look at the data and the facts. Yesterday North Carolina set new records in single day deaths from COVID and new hospitalizations, and COVID infection rates in Mecklenburg County are much higher than they are anywhere else in NC.

If the Governor’s offering of an optional plan C for any county that needs it was the right choice for any county it would be Mecklenburg.

That’s why the most prudent choice for our board today is Plan C. I would like to see our board work with local and state health officials and take a systematic, data-driven approach to this problem by setting a benchmark infection rate goal for our community to achieve before the risk is low enough to justify reopening schools. A decision of this kind of importance should be made through that kind of careful consideration of facts and data and not through emotions.

I wish our local officials the best as they grapple with how to best guide our community through this difficult time.

A warning for Governor Cooper: the burden of COVID-19 in NC is far higher than in countries that struggled with school outbreaks after reopening

co authored by Nan Fulcher and Justin Parmenter

Governor Roy Cooper is expected to announce today whether North Carolina’s schools will fully reopen, reopen to reduced numbers of students, or remain closed and continue with remote learning when the 2020-21 school year begins on August 17.

On Saturday we wrote about the COVID-19 data that North Carolina school officials are mulling over. In analyzing the specific points presented by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) to the NC State Board of Education, we noted the scarcity of information on COVID-19 spread in schools, and the potential for misinterpreting the few studies that do exist.

In our article, we only addressed the studies cited by the NCDHHS that supported the statement “schools do not appear to have played a major role in COVID-19 transmission.”

We did not address the fact that the NCDHHS failed to include other data in their report — information about countries that had already reopened their schools prior to the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

To shed more light on reopened schools, we now highlight a recent New York Times (NYT) article, which was published the same day as our last blog article.

The NYT outlines critical considerations for reopening U.S. schools, citing much of the same research we analyzed — and identifying the same flaws.

In addition, the authors discuss what happened when countries reopened their schools following initial closure due to the first COVID-19 cases. Information about reopened schools was absent from the NCDHHS’s literature review. This data could have greatly helped to inform discussion about North Carolina’s plan for the upcoming school year.

The NYT article cites the report entitled “Summary of School Re-Opening Models and Implementation Approaches During the COVID 19 Pandemic, which was distributed by the University of Washington Department of Global Health (updated 7-6-2020). 

To set the stage for analyzing the UW report, we generated some values that reflect the COVID-19 burden in each country at the time they reopened their schools. Because the studies had different methods for determining transmission rates, direct comparison of each country’s infection data was not possible.

Therefore, to illustrate the prevalence of COVID-19 in each country, we determined the number of new daily cases expressed as a fraction of the country’s total population. (For example, Denmark had 198 new reported cases the day schools reopened; that value divided by the total population of 5.8 million equals 0.34 cases/10,000 people) [source of data for new daily cases and cumulative cases]

Table 1. COVID-19 infection data from six countries on the date that schools reopened.

In the UW report, the authors considered Denmark and Norway to be among the European countries with low community transmission, while Germany was considered to be “higher”. This conclusion doesn’t track with our calculations, but high variability among the number of new daily case reports at the time could account for the discrepancy.

As for the outcome of reopening schools, the UW report presented the following results: [*NOTE: each country employed different mitigation measures and different strategies for grouping students and determining which ages returned to school.] 

Denmark and Norway – These two countries reopened schools gradually, starting with preschool and then all students six weeks later. This approach did not result in an increased rate of growth of COVID-19 cases in either country.

Germany – The return of older students later in the reopening process was accompanied by increased transmission among students; staff infection rates were equivalent to that of the general population. Individual schools were closed for quarantine as outbreaks occurred. Recently, Germany closed a small number of schools preemptively in response to local community outbreaks.

Israel – Schools adopted fewer social distancing measures due to crowding. After reopening schools, over 300 children and staff were infected within a month, with over 130 cases at a single school. Around 200 schools out of 5,200 were closed for quarantine during June, others remaining open through the end of the month. 

South Korea – Soon after reopening, schools near a warehouse facility outbreak were closed and other schools postponed reopening. Other closings have occurred in response to other small community clusters. No reports of school-related infections have been reported to date.

France – There were no publications on the outcome, but news accounts indicate that, despite a small number of cases (70 per 1.2 million students) after gradual opening in mid-May, cases have subsided and schools have fully reopened with no additional outbreaks.

The overall conclusion from UW was that reopening schools in countries where community transmission was low did not increase overall spread, but opening schools in countries where community transmission was higher correlated with school outbreaks and subsequent school closures. 

To consider how reopening U.S. schools will compare to the other countries’ experiences, we looked at the current data for new daily cases for the entire country and for North Carolina (Table 2). 

Table 2. Current COVID-19 infection data (7-11-2020) for the United States and North Carolina.

It’s clear that none of the countries that reopened schools in late spring had anywhere near the extent of COVID-19 that’s present in the U.S

Further, the value for new daily cases from each country that reopened schools (with the exception of Israel) continued to decline after school was back in session. 

With transmission rates continuing to rise in the U.S. and in North Carolina, the number of daily new cases in both places could double by the time school starts on August 17th.

If the experience of other countries holds true — that COVID-19 spread in reopened schools reflects the prevalence of the infection in the community — reopening schools where the number of active cases is high would present an enormous risk for students and staff in those areas. 

Even if children don’t pass along SARS-CoV-2 as easily as adults, there could still be a significant increase in spread among students and their families in communities hardest hit by COVID-19.

NC school officials urgently need to consider the lessons from other countries’ school reopening experiences, and look at the pace at which the virus is spreading right now … and where it’s predicted to be this fall and beyond.

Nan Fulcher earned her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of North Carolina, specializing in infectious disease research. She’s involved in science and outdoor education programming for children and does freelance graphic design.