Decatur scientists implore school board to rethink reopening

Backlash against the districts reopening plans culminated in a letter to the board.

Backlash against the district’s reopening plans culminated in a letter to the board.

The following letter was posted on Facebook on Saturday, Sept. 26. It was subsequently removed. Later, it was published as a Google Form where community members could submit their name, including credentials, email address, and institutional affiliation. 

“Letter to Dr. Dude and the Board of Education

Dear Dr. Dude, Mr. Jones, Ms. White, Ms. Tell, Ms. Johnson-Davis, and Mr. Herndon,

In his September 18 email, Dr. Dude wrote that his office had created a “careful plan based on science and data.” We are a group of scientists, social scientists, science professionals, humanists, …,  from diverse intellectual, disciplinary, and professional backgrounds (Note: This will be filled in appropriately once we have a list of signatories). We are members of this community. Many of us are parents of current and former CSD students.

We believe the plan announced by Superintendent Dude does not meet the standards of careful science or data analysis. The most critical value in science is transparency. Dr. Dude’s plan is not transparent. What data analysis we observe does not exhibit the precision and clarity necessary for meaningful analysis. The plan is not careful. The phased return must be paused until a genuinely careful plan, guided by science and rigorous and transparent data analysis can be formulated. Here, we lay out specific, pointed concerns about Superintendent Dude’s process and resulting plan.

The keystone of Dr. Dude’s phased return plan is the framework for evaluating the risk of transmission, which is grounded in a chart downloaded from the CDC’s website. Dr. Dude claims that we are in the yellow region of the chart and that we should be in one of the green columns soon. When released to the public, it was unclear precisely how such conclusions were drawn. Superintendent Dude’s analysis, in other words, is not transparent, as it does not even include a complete statement of the methods he and his team used to draw the inferences they present. It is also unclear how or even whether Dr. Dude evaluated uncertainty associated with these claims. Statistics is the mathematics of uncertainty, and any basic statistical claim must include a statement about the confidence we can have about predictions being made. What we are left with is an evaluation and a prediction about an extremely important matter of health that is claimed to be made with 100% certainty and yet derived from an unknown methodology. We expect a comprehensive and scientifically valid statement of the methodology that has been used to arrive at the estimate of the risk level associated with returning to in-person education. Identifying the factors considered is not sufficient; this statement must include a complete description of how the factors are used to reach the conclusion.

Further exacerbating the lack of transparency, Superintendent Dude has clouded the data and information that are guiding his plans. On September 22, Dr. Dude sent a letter to all employees in which he revealed a “data dashboard” with figures depicting his analysis. As best as we can tell, Dr. Dude translated measures like the seven-day moving average of new COVID cases or a binary indicator of whether the school will use 5 mitigation strategies into a 5-point ordinal scale associated with the chart’s colors and purportedly measuring “risk of transmission.” He seems to have then averaged these scores on this scale to arrive at a predicted level of risk of transmission. This is not a sound measurement strategy. Of course, we can only speculate because we could not find the actual measurement plan and critically the dashboard was removed from the Internet sometime on September 23. It has been replaced with the following message.

“Questions have been raised regarding the reasonableness of using guidance provided by the CDC, such as the rubric this dashboard is based on. Given the politicization of public health in our current reality, we are going to err on the side of caution and discontinue presentation of these data until additional conversations can occur. Reviewing this is our highest priority as the outcome of the review could impact the timing of our announced plans. We will communicate with our stakeholders once all of this is resolved.”

Superintendent Dude himself has replaced objective information with vague and imprecise statements about his plans going forward. What conversations are planned? With whom? The possibility that the CDC guidelines do not reflect best practices on account of the possible political penetration of the agency is of course a valid concern. Even if we assume that the CDC framework is free from political influence, Dr. Dude must explain his analysis. If he uses a new framework, he must be similarly transparent.  

Unfortunately other elements of the plan lack transparency. One of the mitigation strategies to be used is called “social distancing to the extent possible.” What does that mean? Efforts to socially distance will not always be perfect, but clear goals can be set. For example, will there be maximum human densities established for school classrooms? If so, what are they? If not, and students and teachers will work together without clear limits, how can social distancing to the extent be considered a mitigation strategy? Most importantly, how can a family make a decision about whether to send a child to school if no clear standard is set? We expect that the superintendent of our school system would provide clear, precise statements of how the CDC standard is to be evaluated and which practices would be considered in compliances and which practices would be considered out of compliance.

Dr. Dude’s plan calls for all faculty and staff to return to their buildings October 12. Other than using the teachers to test out adult-to-adult spread in a fully staffed building prior to the arrival of children, what is the rationale for this decision? And as with parents, without a maximum density standard, how can a teacher make a decision about whether it is safe to return to work? What standards have been adopted for determining whether or when the rate of infection in the school has become high enough to justify closing the doors again? What contingency plans are being made to deal with a spread of covid-19 among teachers, before the November return of students? 

Related, we find striking the absence of any discussion by Superintendent Dude in his communication with the community about CSD’s plans for a testing regime and contact tracing. How many tests has CSD acquired? What kind of regular testing will be conducted? What is the protocol for testing symptomatic and asymptomatic students and teachers? What kinds of quarantine or isolation requirements will be imposed on teachers or students who are suspected to have been infected or exposed to an infected person? When a student is known to be infected, how will the rest of the class be treated? Will siblings of infected students be permitted to attend school? What precautions will be taken in the event a teacher becomes infected? In short, how will CSD respond to the inevitable infection of a person in the school buildings?

Dr. Dude’s plan lacks transparency about pedagogy as well. He is moving forward with a hybrid-flexible model of instruction in which a single teacher will instruct in-person and virtual students simultaneously. Research on this model in higher education suggests that it should be avoided unless a school has levels of training, technology and staff support, which CSD does not have. So far as we know, there is no research on this model at the elementary school level. Dr. Dude claims that he has spoken to teachers in other districts who are using this method and that they claim that it can “work.” This is not a valid, science-based reason for such a decision. Why has the district rejected a model in which there is a core of separate in-person and virtual instructors? What evidence is there other than anecdote that the hybrid-flexible model will provide high quality instruction for either the in-person or virtual cohorts in the context of CSD classrooms?

In Superintendent Dude’s email to CSD staff on the evening of September 22, he indicated “that decisions should be made on the facts–not feelings” but then went on to write that few parents “feel that virtual learning is as valuable as in-person learning.” What precisely is the methodology for weighing pedagogical risks against health risks? How does Superintendent Dude’s methodology quantify the pedagogical costs of virtual learning and what is the standard for knowing when the health risks outweigh the pedagogical costs? It is plain from Superintendent Dude’s email that he has made a calculation about the relative tradeoff, and he should share how it was done.

Dr. Dude claims that the community is conflicted over what to do next. He draws this conclusion from survey responses to the following question: “We should transition to a hybrid or full in-person learning environment within the next month or two, if virus levels remain at current levels or below.” This question has six barrels. Obviously, it has far too many meanings. Items like this result in noise. Simply put, these survey questions are designed to capture many dimensions of opinion within each question, which makes interpreting variation in survey responses complex, if not impossible. How were these survey questions developed and why were the questions so multi-dimensional? Did Superintendent Dude consult any experts in the design of opinion surveys? Were any tests done to assess the validity of the survey? Can we be sure the survey is measuring what Superintendent Dude wants it to measure?

We understand that a group of experts helped guide this process, the so-called “Team Science.”  We applaud Dr. Dude’s effort to put together a team of experts to guide the district through this difficult time, but even this process has been cloaked from public view. Dr. Dude should put together such a team, but it should be done transparently. Superintendent Dude should immediately release a roster of the scientific advisory committee and a summary of the selection process, so the public can have confidence that what is being done in the name of science is benefitting from experts who can credibly claim to be employing scientific methodology.

A proper team of scientists would draw broadly from our community of scientists, social scientists, computer scientists, statisticians, and ethicists among many others. It must also include representatives from the CSD teaching core. Our teachers and paraprofessionals are, after all, the people charged with delivering instruction in our buildings. They have a wealth of experience on which a real team science would naturally draw. We believe that one of the most important assets that CSD has is the confidence and engagement of the local community. At moments such as this which are of critical importance, we believe it is appropriate to draw on that resource.

Such a team would be trivial to construct in a matter of days. This is Decatur. We do science! All of us. You only need to use a little care in the construction of the team.”