OPINION: South Orange-Maplewood COVID-19 Dashboard Should Show Separate Virtual and Hybrid Cases

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[Editor’s note: the following letter was sent to South Orange-Maplewood School Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor, Asst. Superintendent of Special Services Dr. Melody Alegria, and the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education. Koleen McCrink also submitted it to Village Green as a letter to the editor. See this article for recent information on the SOMSD COVID-19 dashboard. See the dashboard here.]

Feb 7th, 2021

Dear Dr. Taylor, Dr. Alegria, and Board Members,

I wake up early every day, upset and concerned about the ongoing division in our community surrounding the reopening of schools, with ever-growing concern for the mental and physical health of all SOMSD stakeholders. I’m sure I am not alone in this, and you feel it keenly as well.

I want to thank you for starting the district dashboard to help track the presence of Covid-19 in our school district. It is literally the best non-facilities action you could have taken to ensure the trust of parents, students, and teachers as we move forward with in-person schooling.

I have a PhD in experimental psychology from Yale, received postdoctoral training at Harvard in implementing and analyzing experimental designs, am currently a tenured professor at Barnard-Columbia U, and act as a consultant on a DOD-funded project that uses large AI databases and experimental designs to help assess common sense and intelligence. The sole reason for me stating my qualifications is to highlight that I think about data, and how to interpret, visualize, and communicate data, on a daily basis as part of my profession. So I hope you hear this request with that in mind.

I write with two requests:

The first is to literally beg you, Drs. Taylor and Alegria, to update the recently-released dashboard to reflect the different populations in the data presented, breaking out separately a) teachers and students, and b) in-person learners and staff and virtual-only learners and staff. It is also imperative to gather the same types of data from the same groups. If mandatory reporting is necessary for in-person folks, it should be mandatory for virtual as well. Otherwise, the only reported cases will be from one group, or the other, and it will not be possible to compare the relative risk of attending school for teachers and students. In its current form, the dashboard is doing more harm than the intended good.

The second request is to urge the Board to not abdicate its responsibility to hold the SOMSD administration accountable when policies and procedures such as the dashboard have problematic consequences to which you are alerted.

Covid-19 is what we as psychologists call a “natural experiment”. Natural experiments are when something that no one would ever have wished to happen ends up happening anyways (such as natural disasters), and we study their impact by using experimental techniques. For the purposes of this dashboard, the personnel and students who are learning in-person are the experimental group (e.g., they have received the variable of being physically present in the building with students and teachers interacting), and the personnel who are virtual-only are the control group (e.g., they have not received the variable of having been physically present in the building with students and teachers interacting).

The key dependent variable – the one that teachers, students, and the community are most interested in – is that of transmission; when we see a case, is it being transmitted from student-to-teacher, teacher-to-student, or teacher-to-teacher? Given this design and these variables, it is critical that a) teachers and staff be reported separately, b) in-person and virtual be reported separately, and c) all cases (virtual or hybrid) be reported in the same way, in order for any informative or relevant conclusions to be made from this database.

Not doing so results in exchanges like this, on a January post on Facebook, in a group for families in a local elementary school:

“Let’s also keep in mind, this is just the in-person population. This is awful. I really am horrified that our teachers are in this position.”

Note that this misunderstanding is driven in part by what people are expecting from a dashboard about schools and Covid-19, so they aren’t looking carefully enough to realize that it contains both types of cases (in-person and hybrid). The relevant dataset for many people in our community is in-school transmission. But in order to correctly draw conclusions about the safety of our schools for staff and students, we need to be able to gauge the risk of in-person schooling relative to virtual schooling. For example, school has not been in session for two weeks, but the dashboard is reporting 7 new cases for this past week.

Sincerely, and with a lot of thanks in advance for your time and attention to this concern,

Koleen McCrink
Associate Professor of Psychology
Barnard College, Columbia University


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