Public schools are stonewalling their communities on Covid-19

Earlier this week the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s article Families press schools to show  virus data  proved me wrong in thinking that I am the only person bothered by the lack of information being provided to parents, teachers, students, and taxpayers from their local school boards. The lead feature coverage focused on a rural county not too far from Washington County, Georgia, where I am invested in the success of the public schools as a taxpayer and grandparent.

Last month I emailed the Washington County School Board members and Superintendent about where they are providing updates to the community on exposure to the Coronavirus and any confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the schools. To date, all the board office has said is that they have “fluid” benchmarks and are working with the state’s Department of Community Health.

Among their responses to my questions about informing the community about virus exposure, the Board Chair, Chris Hutchings, asked if I might be able to identify and help secure funding for internet connectivity in the rural areas of the county. Currently the system is sending out buses with internet connectivity to serve as hot spots in rural parts of the county lacking broadband service.

Hutchings wasn’t aware of the state’s assessment of internet access published in June of this year. Thirty-seven (37) percent of Washington County residents do not have broadband access to the internet. Many areas in the county lack decent cell phone service, making the use of hot spots for access also unreliable.

I told Hutchings that while I am not well-connected to groups focused on education, I would think about where funding might be available. Having been connected to foundations through nonprofit healthcare and environmental justice work, I do know some funders who might consider a well-crafted request.

The following day I sent these questions to the Board and the Superintendent, Dr. Rickey Edmond, so that I would know where to start and best help. Options B and C encompass online learning options for families.

In making an ask, I think you need to have at hand:

    • Number of students total, and per school
    • Number of students learning remotely- Option B and Option C
    • Number of students who chose option
    • Number of students in class because they don’t have internet access
    • Number of students without internet who are doing options B or C
    • Number of students with internet
    • Number of teachers without internet
    • Number of computers loaned to students
    • Number of computers loaned to teachers
    • Number of students who didn’t turn in final packets in the spring
    • Number of students who simply disappeared in the spring

I received this reply from Dr. Edmond:

Hi.

We have this data and monitor it yearly to assess functional levels, operations, and effectiveness. We are one-to-one with our devices for our students. We have a great IT Team and support staff to address parents’ needs when there is an issue with connectivity. I recommend you and your organization take on the task of helping the rural schools get state and federal funding for connectivity in rural America.

Thank you for sharing,

RE

So to recap, the Superintendent, whose Board chair asked for my help to  secure badly needed funding for internet access, gave me and my “organization” marching orders to secure what they said they need, but without any data. I belong to some environmental groups, and a homeowner’s association, but those aren’t the organizations that are going to pony up to help a rural school system provide web connectivity for the schools.

All of this data should be easily at hand if the system has such a solid grasp on all of its IT needs. I sent my questions to a journalist  beyond the confines of Washington County who has covered issues in the area, and access to school data in other Georgia school systems, to see if they had difficulty securing information. My hunch was right-this data should be easy to compile and readily available.

A few weeks ago I sent a Georgia Open Records Act (GORA) with the same questions I had raised when I was asked to help, with data points from August 7, 2020, the first day of in-class instruction, and September 8, 2020 for comparison. If they wouldn’t voluntarily provide the data Edmond has assured me they have at hand since the pandemic began, I could press the issue with a GORA request.

Edmond replied, “The cost will be an hourly rate of $46.33, minus the first quarter hour. It will take 16 hours to complete all the requested task and total cost will be $729.70. We are requesting the payment be made in advance before the retrieval process is activated because the total amount will exceed $500.”

Do the custodial staff, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals, and teachers make anything close to $46.33 an hour, even with benefits? And why would it take 16 hours to put this information together if they are consistently monitoring these things?

I’m steadily losing confidence in what the Washington County School Board knows about how their students are learning, how teachers can support students and parents if/when the schools have to be closed this year, and how they are going to ensure that students receive the materials and instruction they need to stay or exceed their grade level.

My property tax bill is on my desk now, $737.34 of which goes directly to the school system’s maintenance and operations funds. The data I am requesting should guide the system’s budgeting and expectations of taxpayers’ dollar. The system should be making a case for their funding by sharing the data without reservation.

Van Jones put his finger on it last night

Last Thursday I drove to Hendersonville, North Carolina for an annual event called Life Is A Verb Camp. On the way home Sunday afternoon I opted for less interstate and more two lane roads.

In addition to the fall-colored leaves I saw lots of Trump/Pence signs, which really didn’t surprise me as a fellow Southern rural citizen. What had been floating around in the back of mind for a long time began to move more to the front of my thoughts; how are the polls capturing the rural voter? Are they getting to us at all? Am I underestimating the urban turnout?

Last week Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight polling and punditry kept setting aside the poll numbers at a certain point in his figuring, which dogged me about who people say they will vote for and what they will do in the privacy of the voting booth.

Last night Van Jones put his finger on what I was thinking: white-lash. It has been a large and unspoken element in the room on top of the anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Semitic, anti-woman, my version of Christianity is the only one, anti-choice, denying access to affordable health care, putting profits before our natural resources, loosening gun control laws, and the list goes on and on.

I live among the voters who showed up in force at the polls and elected Donald Trump and Mike Pence; white rural Americans.

It should not be a surprise to readers of Rural and Progressive that I write from a perspective that there are two Americas, an urban and a rural America. Many rural Americans harbor some level of racism. I’ve heard it and seen it. For some people that has been the unspoken driver behind opposition to all-things Obama. And it brought people out in force to elect a TV personality whose favorite line is, “You’re fired.”

Yesterday white rural America told Donald Trump and Mike Pence, “You’re hired.”

I may live in rural America, but the not so subtle racism and divisive values espoused by Trump and Pence are not my values. And they aren’t the values of every rural American.

I’m no less proud of being a Hillary supporter today than I was yesterday, because I believe in a country where diversity is valued and celebrated. That’s the country I will continue to help build.

Who else is looking at WCRMC?

To give my urban readers a glimpse of rural life, the legal organ in Washington County, and the one that people mean when they ask, “Did you see this week’s paper?” is The Sandersville Progress. The Progress is published weekly, and has no online presence. They have been doing some really good coverage of the issues that have surfaced about Washington County Regional Medical Center.

One of the two local radio stations, Waco 100, includes local news coverage as part of their programming. Last week they posted a breakdown of the travel expenses incurred by Washington County’s hospital consultant Alan Richman, at InnoVative Capital.

As pointed out by the Progress and Waco 100, former County Administrator Chris Hutchings reminded Richman that he was requesting reimbursements without providing receipts.

I submitted two more Open Records Act requests last week. The more I learn, the more questions I have.

When TV is on the Internet

I posted this on my Facebook page and some interesting comments followed. I’m reposting my original post here:

In case you wonder why I keep posting about the importance of making high-speed internet access available in rural America, think about it this way: last night not one network (except for PBS) got an award for their programming. All the awards went to online formats like Amazon Prime and Netflix. And ESPN is adding some type of streaming option this year as well.

What this means is that rural folks can’t participate in things that begin to be a cultural/educational part of American life. I’d love to watch “Transparent,” and would pay for an Amazon Prime subscription to do it. Or “Orange is the New Black.” Or “House of Cards.”

Sure, its “only TV,” but when you can’t begin to be part of the conversation due to a lack of technology infrastructure, it is more than that.