A survey is only as good as the controls it sets

Lunches have been packed, sleep routines reset, and spelling words called out since students returned to classrooms across Georgia. Now parents, teachers, and students are reviewing progress reports and sizing up what happens during the next half of the grading period.

This point in the school year also gives school leaders an opportunity to review what is working and what might need to be adjusted. During a pandemic, the ability for schools to pivot on a pinhead may be the difference between lives saved and lost.

On the afternoon of Thursday, September 9, 2021, Washington County Public Schools sent out a survey using a Google platform tool asking for feedback from the school community. The survey tool is one I have used as both an executive director and board president of nonprofits.

The school system’s email with the link to the survey was sent to me by parents in the community. The form didn’t ask for any identifying information: no name, email, address, phone number. It did ask if the person responding is a school employee. It could be filled out by anyone anywhere  who had the link. I filled it out and submitted it. Twice.

Friday morning when I returned to the link it said I had already submitted my answer. Fair enough. After poking around with it some during the second of many cups of coffee, I got this:

Washington County Public Schools survey
September 10, 2021

The survey showed my email address, but Google’s software told me it wasn’t collecting anything from my account.

This isn’t the first time the schools have sent out a survey without parameters set on who could fill out the survey, or requiring any identifying information, in order to submit the survey. Last school year I picked up the phone and ended up talking with Dr. Rickey Edmond, who assured me that they were able to collect identifying data even though none was require to submit answers. I told him having seen the backside of these surveys via my Google business account, I’d sure like to know how they were managing that, because it might help me in the future. All I got was, “We can.”

With the broad questions asked in last week’s survey, what can Dr. Edmond  the Board of Education, and school principals really take away beyond how smooth car pick up and drop off are, and general satisfaction with instruction? Is a blind survey the only way for school leaders to know how parents and employees gauge the school year to date? How confident can school leaders, parents, teachers, and students be that the survey sent out on Thursday has the controls and parameters to collect accurate information?

It will be interesting to see what Dr. Edmond and the Board of Education members share with the community. Based on recent inquiries by myself and others concerned about the system’s Covid-19 record-keeping and reporting, my confidence in the quality of information collected and shared by the school system is low. Will the results of a survey available to anyone with email be used to guide judgement impacting not only the education of every student, but the health of the entire Washington County community?

I love a good Open Records Act request

With the return to classrooms across Georgia, I have been following the Covid-19 numbers in public schools in our state. Dismissing the recommended guidelines of the CDC, and the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, many superintendents and school boards are playing doctor with the health of their own communities. The outcome, with Georgia’s schools back in session for about a month, has resulted in schools opting to be online only, delaying the start of school, pausing all instruction after beginning the school year, and students, teachers, bus drivers, and bus monitors, dying of Covid-19.

Concerned families, school communities, medical providers, and epidemiologists wait on a weekly Friday report from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) for Covid-19 cases and trends in their county. Friday afternoon is also when most school systems release their Covid-19 information to their community. Some school leaders choose full transparency and share all the data they send to DPH for its weekly report. Their communities know the number of confirmed cases, how many people are quarantined, and clusters in each school.* Other schools provide a scant report that often leaves community members in the dark while confirmed cases continue to break records in Georgia.

This data is supposed to help school leaders decide how safe, and effective, it is to keep students in classrooms. Some schools have opted for virtual and printed materials for entire grades, entire schools, or the whole system as a result of data and historic trends.

On Thursday, August 27th, during what Washington County’s school superintendent described as a “fireside chat,” Dr. Rickey Edmond told almost 100 people attending the online event that only confirmed cases matter. He dismissed the number of students and staff quarantined as”fluid.” I agree that number could be considered fluid, because it can change every day. The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases can also change every day. DPH has already elevated Washington County schools to “substantial spread” and “increasing” in its weekly report.

Washington County, GA (map source Wikipedia)

With the state ratcheting up the level of concern for everyone in Washington County’s public schools, and having looked at reports posted by other systems across Georgia, I wondered exactly what DPH requires for its weekly school report. Seeing the reporting form was the best way to know.

A friend once told me, “I love a good Open Records Act request.” Like them,  I also love a good Georgia Open Records Act (GORA) request. On Monday, August 30th, I sent one to the Dr. Edmond, copying the Washington County Board of Education members. My request was, “The information I am requesting is for the information used for the Covid-19 information released to the public on August 13, 20, 27, 2021. I am requesting the Covid-19 reports and/or data Washington County public schools sent to the Georgia Department of Public Health for its weekly school report.” That’s a pretty straightforward request because DPH requires it, the school is supposed to compile and send it, so releasing all of it doesn’t require extra work.

What I got back from Edmond was,  “Reasonable access provided with good faith:
1. In response to your request: Covid-19 information released to the public on August 13, 20, 27, 2021 is attached in a PDF Table.
2. We can’t provide you with “COVID-19 Reports and/or data sent to Georgia Department of Public Health because that information is submitted via electronic portal and the medical form used falls under 50-18-72(a). As a school entity, we must uphold HIPPA, FERPA, and privacy requirements.
3. We have provided you with additional information complied by DPH for your reference.”

Covid-19 data from Dr. Rickey Edmond, Superintendent, Washington County Public Schools, Sept 2, 2021, in response to GORA request

A complete and thorough GORA response should always be done “in good faith,” to use Dr. Edmond’s choice of words. The information sent to me isn’t what I asked for, and doesn’t comply with the GORA request. Dr. Edmond insisted that what they send has lots of confidential information in it. I asked that he redact any sensitive information and send me the form so I could see what the state requires for its weekly report on schools in our state. Additionally, saying that the form is completed online and cannot be released otherwise just doesn’t hold water in a school system with an IT department and virtual teaching capacity. Do they not save a copy of what they submit?

At this point, I was even more concerned about what the school system didn’t want to freely provide to the community. Case numbers matter, but so do the number of students and staff out for quarantine, and the number of clusters occurring in school settings. It is possible a school could have a low case load but a very high number of absences due to quarantine, resulting in dwindling classroom numbers.

What are they reporting that they aren’t telling us, and why is it so important to keep that information from us? As North Central Health District Director Michael Hokanson told me on the afternoon of August 27th, the reporting from schools relies on a good faith effort on the schools’ part.

If schools are sloppy with the parameters for collecting data, the data can’t, and shouldn’t, be trusted. If a school system isn’t carefully tracking why students are absent, for example a dental appointment, strep throat, or a death in the family, what you get at the end of the day is a number that tells you nothing about why those students were out of school. Kids and staff out due to quarantine are going to miss a significant number of consecutive school days. That impacts how they are learning, how teachers must adjust, demand for substitutes, and ultimately, if a system should use online resources to keep students up to speed, and everyone healthy.

Edmond told me to contact DPH to get the form that I ask for in my GORA request. Trying to find the right person at DPH, and actually reach them, is a circle of Hell Dante didn’t know about centuries ago. The staffers I did reach are frustrated and exhausted with how their agency is combatting Covid-19. One told me, “the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”

I left messages at schools, emailed schools, and filled out GORA requests via forms school boards provided on their web sites. One school superintendent called me back eager to share blank copies of the weekly form schools send to DPH  and volunteered to send the detailed form required for the district health office. I got the form from more than one system to verify I had the right one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What the report requires is the result of counting cases, quarantining of students and staff, and clusters.* This shouldn’t be a difficult thing to record on a daily basis and add up at the end of the week. The Georgia Department of Education created a video to guide school administrators on how to easily complete the form, using “Careful Recordkeeper” as the name of the school staffer filling it out. There is no sensitive or confidential data about anyone at the school required to complete this weekly report.

Dr. Nancy Kreiger at the Harvard School of Public Health recently said, “The answer to having not-good-enough data is to make it really public that it’s not good enough and to figure out, how do you make it better?” Kreiger went on to say about data, “You need good data to do proper planning, to understand what the risk is, how the risk is changing. And you need that to be real data that are publicly available and accessible.”

If a school isn’t committed to collecting accurate data, none of what they report can and should be trusted with full confidence by the state, or the people concerned about the health of every person in that school.

The responsibility of collecting good data falls on the Board of Education requiring it, and the schools led by Dr. Edmond following through.  Thousands of families in Washington County are making life and death decisions for their children and themselves during this pandemic.  For the Board of Education, Dr. Edmond, and school leaders to be satisfied with a refusal to collect good data and share it with families is not only a disservice to Washington County families. It shows a huge distain for the exhausted healthcare providers and DPH staffers working in the county and across our state.

*From GA DPH, “Laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 in two or more people [students or staff] with symptom onset/collection dates within a 14 day period who are epidemiologically linked, do not share a household, and were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during standard case investigation or contact tracing”).

When schools think it is ok for a drunk to drive the school bus

Watching the schools prepare to reopen in rural Washington County Georgia is like watching someone pour gasoline on top of an already burning fire. As Covid-19 rates soar in a county that stubbornly refused to access tested and proven vaccines when a state-run vaccination site was set up in the county, the Board of Education is choosing the path of least resistance on healthy safety requirements.

The highly contagious Delta variant will find multiple classrooms ripe for explosive spread. The risk of exposure could be easily reduced if school leaders were willing to take one necessary step to protect those who cannot be vaccinated and those who refuse to be vaccinated-require masks in all indoor situations.

How bad is it in Sandersville and other communities in the county? Bad. Very bad.

Covid-19 risk of exposure, CDC tracking map

The CDC rates the risk of transmission as high. According to the CDC, the percentage of people in the county fully vaccinated is a dismal 7.7 percent despite the easy access to the vaccine provided by the state in the spring when eligibility was expanded. School age students between 12-18 years old are fully vaccinated at a rate of 9 percent. If teachers and staff are in the age group of 18-65, only 9.4 percent of that age cohort have chosen to be fully vaccinated before  returning to the classroom, cafeterias, hallways, and buses.

Yesterday the school system superintendent responded to an email I sent stating that they are following Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) recommendations. Choosing the Education link on the state’s site takes users directly to the CDC’s site, which recommends masking for all people in schools regardless of vaccination status or age.

Still,  Superintendent Rickey Edmond and the Board of Education are confident that letting 1405 students in the primary and elementary schools, 760 in the middle school, and 880 in the high school, sit in classrooms and move through hallways without a mask on is OK (because let’s be honest, it will not be possible to keep every child in a hallway distanced or properly masked).  There is a Virtual School option only offered to grades 5-12, with limited capacity and criteria for acceptance, that will have 20 students.

The reported cases of Covid-19 in the seven days preceding August 2 are up 161.54 percent. The percent of tests that are positive has climbed by  15.63 percent. Local hospital admissions are up a full 200 percent. Schools haven’t had the first student in a classroom and the caseload is soaring in a county with great doctors but limited hospital services.

Washington County GA school bus

Late yesterday, a news report posted on Georgia Public Radio’s site summed it for me. Amber Schmidtke, PhD., a microbiologist tracking and explaining Covid data for mere mortals like me, said, and I am adding emphasis to her statement”So when this starts to happen [children becoming sick and requiring hospitalization] in a bigger way in Georgia and kids who were previously healthy are on ventilators, I don’t want school superintendents to claim that there was no way this could have been predicted,” Schmidtke said. “We have plenty of warning that the situation in 2021 is more dangerous than a year ago for children. Willingly choosing to endanger children by not doing the bare minimum of disease control and prevention should be treated the same way as knowingly allowing someone drunk to drive a school bus and organizations that do so should be held to account.”

Teachers and staff are preparing now for open houses in Washington County schools, with classes starting Friday. In a community with a rising case load, doubled Covid hospitalizations, low vaccination rates, and school leaders willing to, as Dr. Schmidtke suggests, let a drunk drive the school bus, they are providing the ideal breeding ground for very sick children,  families, teachers, and staff.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Pulling the bandaids off in rural America

What rural communities lack in infrastructure is becoming very clear to elected leaders at all levels. The question that must be answered is whether those needs will be addressed and when.

The lack of fast affordable internet service in rural communities is now holding back teachers, students, and parents. Teachers don’t have access to broadband in order to log on and hold sessions with students. Students often don’t have internet access or a computer.

If you are looking for some good stocks to consider, this might be a good time to invest in the paper industry. Schools are making printed packets of work for families because online education in rural America isn’t an option.

Rural communities don’t have the luxury of Instacart and similar shopping and delivery services. There is no option to have groceries delivered to your front door. If driving to a store is the only option for rural households, the urge to stock up beyond a week’s worth of groceries is understandable when frequently used items are on store shelves.

Businesses trying to shift to online work face the same challenges as schools. A technology company I have relied on emailed customers two weeks ago offering not only online platforms for remote work, but refurbished laptops for employees to use while they work from home. The question remains whether there is internet access at the employee’s home.

While social media and news outlets fill space with ideas for streaming movies and television programs, rural America remains on the sidelines. There is no streaming of entertainment options without high speed internet. Libraries are closed and ball fields are vacant. Choices are so limited now.

The bandaids offered to rural America have been pulled off. Lessons are being taught about how we can better serve rural communities across our country. If the lack of resources in rural America are not addressed when we are able to paddle less frantically, the failure of elected leaders to respond nimbly and effectively should direct every voter’s choices.

How We Have Failed Since September 11, Redux

First posted here on September 10, 2014

How We Have Failed since September 11

Tonight President Obama will address the nation about ISIS and any actions that we may take in response to the horrific murders of Americans and innocent civilians at the hands of terrorists.

Tomorrow there will be an observance in my community, and many others, to honor the thousands of lives lost to hate and terrorism, and to support the families and friends who knew someone they loved would never return home again.

Since September 11, 2001 we as a country have talked a lot about being kinder to one another and being a better country. Yet 13 years later this is what consumes us as a country:

  • fighting about allowing two consenting adults of the same-sex to legally marry each
  • failing to take care of the thousands of veterans who have defended our country, many of whom returned with horrible wounds from the Middle East since September 2001
  • allowing private corporations to decided which forms of legal birth control they will cover for employees through company based health insurance because some corporations should have the same privileges as churches
  • granting corporations the same rights as citizens so businesses can pour money into elections and our representatives’ pockets
  • making it harder for citizens to exercise their right to vote
  • subsidizing corporations with huge tax breaks while their employees working full-time never earn enough to break the poverty barrier
  • denying the hard facts of science because profits should come before cleaning up the mess we’ve made of the entire planet
  • deporting children
  • complaining about failing schools while slashing teacher pay and testing our children to death
  • sitting by silently while racism and sexism are displayed proudly
  • being sure we can take our assault rifles into the grocery store
  • we pay for and support violence on playing fields, in the movies we watch, video games we buy, music we listen to, and television shows we watch, but we react with horror when students are sprayed with bullets in their classrooms, women are drug from elevators by their hair, students are bullied, children and women are raped as well as being forced into prostitution
  • too many among us are convinced that their brand of faith should be followed above all others, and if necessary the rights of other citizens should be denied because they choose to worship differently, or not at all

We absolutely should remember and honor the victims of September 11th’s violence. I’m just not convinced we are a country that is a better reflection of the democratic values and freedoms which terrorists intended to destroy 13 years ago.

 

The new generation of leaders

The Friday Photo

Decatur High School, Decatur, GA

Students walked out or took a knee on Wednesday because #enoughisenough. I stood with them and for them.

How we have failed since September 11, 2001

Tonight President Obama will address the nation about ISIS and any actions that we may take in response to the horrific murders of Americans and innocent civilians at the hands of terrorists.

Tomorrow there will be an observance in my community, and many others, to honor the thousands of lives lost to hate and terrorism, and to support the families and friends who knew someone they loved would never return home again.

Since September 11, 2001 we as a country have talked a lot about being kinder to one another and being a better country. Yet 13 years later this is what consumes us as a country:

  • fighting about allowing two consenting adults of the same-sex to legally marry each
  • failing to take care of the thousands of veterans who have defended our country, many of whom returned with horrible wounds from the Middle East since September 2001
  • allowing private corporations to decided which forms of legal birth control they will cover for employees through company based health insurance because some corporations should have the same privileges as churches
  • granting corporations the same rights as citizens so businesses can pour money into elections and our representatives’ pockets
  • making it harder for citizens to exercise their right to vote
  • subsidizing corporations with huge tax breaks while their employees working full-time never earn enough to break the poverty barrier
  • denying the hard facts of science because profits should come before cleaning up the mess we’ve made of the entire planet
  • deporting children
  • complaining about failing schools while slashing teacher pay and testing our children to death
  • sitting by silently while racism and sexism are displayed proudly
  • being sure we can take our assault rifles into the grocery store
  • we pay for and support violence on playing fields, in the movies we watch, video games we buy, music we listen to, and television shows we watch, but we react with horror when students are sprayed with bullets in their classrooms, women are drug from elevators by their hair, students are bullied, children and women are raped as well as being forced into prostitution
  • too many among us are convinced that their brand of faith should be followed above all others, and if necessary the rights of other citizens should be denied because they choose to worship differently, or not at all

We absolutely should remember and honor the victims of September 11th’s violence. I’m just not convinced we are a country that is a better reflection of the democratic values and freedoms which terrorists intended to destroy 13 years ago.