My Latest REflections on COVID – Exams and Emotions

AAIE Featured this Graphic in their Latest COVID Briefing

The Association for the Advancement of International Education in their latest COVID Briefing featured an article in The Economist titled, “The Pandemic has Prompted Questions About High-Stakes Exams: But other ways of assessing students creates new problems”. The article gives an overview on how the closure of schools last spring, wreaked havoc on summative assessments (final exams) all over the world. The annual International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme exams taken each May were cancelled for TIS students. Instead, the students received final grades based on pieces of work submitted through the 2-year programme (IA – internal assessments) and teacher predicted grades. Controversially, the IB also used historical averages from TIS and subject areas to determine final grades. This sparked outrage and the IB raised everyone’s marks instead of fighting the battle.

School systems all of over the world were affected by school closures. The disruption has education experts re-thinking the value of exams and what alternatives are out there. France for example is moving to 40% school work and 60% final exam or many American universities are waiving ACT and SAT (university admissions tests) scores as part of the admission process. The global trend is to put less emphasis on the final exams, but this puts pressure on teachers and last year’s results in England, show evidence of grade inflation. I don’t think the IB this May will cancel exams to avoid the rukus from families. They have shortened exams in some subject areas as a nod to reduced on-campus learning.

I personally think final exams are better than any alternative assessments of students. They motivate students to learn ideas, skills and content. It is an objective measure. I do see the problems of poor schools, rich parents paying for test preparation courses or some students not doing well under pressure. However, I feel it is better than anything else education has come up with yet.

AAIE also shared a Washington Post article and podcast “Remote School is Leaving Children Sad and Angry” describing the emotional toll Virtual Learning takes on some students. TIS has been fortunate to be able to re-open the campus and we just completed our seventh week of learning in person. We hope to continue. I would add that not only is there an emotional toll on students, but also a physical one. Students are less active at home than they are at school. I saw the physical deterioration of my three teenage children during our 88 days of online learning.

Finally, they recommend the book for parents, The Distance Learning Playbook for Parents K-12 by the Cultures of Dignity group.

LIberating Structures to Connect Community Members

Earlier this week I led the faculty through a workshop using Liberating Structures. The goal was to create connections between faculty by having them practice listening and giving advice to each other in small groups. The pandemic has made everyone a bit anxious and stressed and rifts may be starting to develop within the faculty and staff. The menu of Liberating Structures are excellent tools for getting people to talk to one another in a productive manner. I especially loved the Troika Consulting, in which two colleagues act as consultants for another colleague (client). An excellent side benefit is teachers can use the Liberating Structures techniques with students and Zoom enhances the experiences. I would like to thank the Association for the Advancement of International Education for introducing our leadership team to this useful resource!

How far Should we Be away from Each Other? My Latest Thinking on the Pandemic and Schools

WHO Tashkent Office Situation Report – August 31, 2020

Our leadership team continues to closely monitor the pandemic here in Uzbekistan. Above is the periodic situation report from our friends over at the UN-WHO office here in Tashkent. According to the official statistics, you can see that the number of cases is falling, with a total of 368 cases, 174 in Tashkent city and another 94 in the Tashkent region. There are almost 2400 people being treated in hospitals with 387 in serious condition. The Minister of Health is deploying sanitary experts to help schools open on September 14, and is quoted, “We have no right to turn educational institutions with more than 480,000 teachers and over 6.2 million students into a hotbed of the epidemic”.

AAIE pointed out an excellent medical research website called BMJ. I read with interest the studies of physical distancing. We debated about spacing in classrooms and settled on 1.5 meters distance between desks. There is limited research in the area, with one study showing that infection rates increase by 10.2% (12.8% from 2.6%) with at least a 1 meter distance between subjects. Other studies show that singing, panting from exercise and talking loudly can propel particles 7 to 8 meters. Much also depends on air circulation in a space. One Japanese study showed infections occur 18.7 times more indoors than outdoors. There are few instances of outbreaks on planes, the guess being people are not talking loudly. The article summarizing the research in this area featured the chart below. For schools, the second category “wearing face coverings, contact for prolonged time” is most of what we are working with. As I am seeing more and more, ventilation is key and will allow us to do more.

Covid Mental Health

I listened to Dr. Laura Murray, a psychologist at John Hopkins University discuss mental health issues caused by the pandemic (Covid Mental Health Q & A podcast). My big takeaway was the idea of humans processing the risk of contracting Covid-19 has moved from the acute stage (hurricane) to a chronic stage (car accidents). The mind perceives chronic risk differently that acute risk and we need to be aware of this. Most people when they get into a car do not think, X number of people die or are injured in vehicle accidents every year. For example, my family no longer wipes down all groceries before bringing them into the house. Other takeaways are as follows:

  • Use self-disclosure to ease students into talking about their feelings, or perhaps instead of using the word feelings, use “thoughts” instead.
  • Students are only being observed/interacting with their parents instead of a variety of adults like teachers and coaches.
  • Recent CDC surveys are showing a higher rates of mental health issues during the pandemic and this is natural in these uncertain and stressful times.

Talking Education On Kun.UZ News

I would like to thank Alisher Ruziohunov a reporter for Kunuznews for giving me the opportunity to talk about education in the Uzbekistan media. It is nice not to focus dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and discuss best practices in education. Here is the transcript from the interview in Uzbek. (https://kun.uz/news/2020/08/23/oqituvchilarning-maoshi-zamonaviy-maktablar-va-pandemiya-toshkentdagi-xalqaro-maktab-direktori-bilan-suhbat)

NPR’s Advice for School Reopening Plans

National Public Radio had a comprehensive article for parents on evaluating the risk of sending their children back to school “How Safe Is Your School’s Reopening Plan? Here’s What To Look For.” It also helped clarify and prioritize my thinking on our mitigation of risks if we return to campus.

  1. Stay At Home If You Are Sick. We need to encourage students and employees to stay at home if they have any symptoms of Covid-19. The CDC does not recommend schools to screen people coming onto campus because it should be the job of the parents to do this. The article also reminds us if the parents are sick, the children should stay home as well. We also need to be more generous with our sick leave for employees. We are building new, air-conditioned entries with temperature-measuring cameras. I believe this is a good reminder for people to stay at home if you have symptoms.
  2. Masks These must be mandatory for both adults and children. Adults disperse air particles greater than children and studies show adults transmit more to children than vice-versa. CDC does not recommend face shields instead of masks, but does say they can be combined. Schools should schedule “mask-breaks” outside during the day.
  3. Physical Distancing Schools need to adapt their spaces to maintain a 6-foot (1.8 meters) and it is recommended to hold classes outside and keep cohorts small and in bubbles, isolated from other groups of students. Plexiglass barriers as recommended for reception and high-traffic areas. Their efficacy in the classroom is in doubt because of air flow around them.
  4. When a student or employee becomes ill. Schools need detailed protocols that include immediate isolation and testing if possible. With or without testing, people need to stay isolated for 10 days from the onset of symptoms. If someone does test positive, contact tracing needs to be done as soon as possible. Establishing stable cohorts or pods is vital to prevent a whole-school shutdown.
  5. Testing It would be ideal for weekly testing for everyone, but at the moment that is not possible. We can arrange for relatively big numbers of foreigners to be tested at the Tashkent International Clinic with results ready is about 24 hours.
  6. Air Circulation – Getting fresh air indoors is the solution here, or holding classes outdoors.
  7. Cafeteria – Staggered lunch times or in-classroom dining are the best practices.
  8. Outdoors is best. Frequent mask breaks and recess outdoors is the best practice. Non-contact and outdoor sports like cross-country running are advised, contact team sports are not recommended. It is OK to take off masks if athletes are breathing hard, as long as they are distanced and outdoors.
  9. Disinfecting Surfaces Hand hygiene is the key here, so lots of alcohol-disinfectant dispensers and sinks will be important. The benefit of harsh disinfectants over soap and water is up for debate.

“Schools should focus cleaning efforts on high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, bathroom doors and sink areas multiple times a day. And some opportunities for touching surfaces could be eliminated. “Classroom doors can be left open until class starts so that each student does not need to open the door,” Tan says. Cleaning desks is less of a worry, Miller says, because students don’t touch one another’s desks that often.

It’s important to thoroughly clean bathrooms that children routinely use, says Hewlett. These are high-touch areas and can get crowded. Miller says, “Bathrooms must have strong exhaust fans,” as airflow dilutes virus that may accumulate in the air.”

 

A Conversation with Siddharta Mukherjee About the Pandemic

Siddhartha Mukherjee is the author of

Siddhartha Mukherjee is a cancer physician, researcher and author spoke with Sam Harris about the Covid-19 Pandemic on August 13. The podcast helped me clarify my thinking about the virus and reopening school.

  • Covid-19 is unusual in that asymptomatic people can spread the disease. The only other disease I can think that is like this is HIV. Because of this, testing plays a vital role in controlling the spread of the virus.
  • All organizations (governments, CDC, WHO, businesses, etc.) made many mistakes throughout this pandemic. From the WHO recommending not to wear masks, to the CDC producing tests very late, to Chinese officials withholding information, to the US government applying a travel ban within 24 hours from Europe, driving many Americans together at crowded airports, etc. We have learned much in the past six months are learning more about this now, not-so novel coronavirus.
  • A key statistic is the number of deaths, which are not dependent on the amount of reliable testing in a country.
  • The overall case fatality rate (number of people with Covid-19 who die) is 0.7% and this rate is pretty steady around the world. Rates are higher for susceptible populations, including elderly and co-morbidity conditions.The good news is 99.3% of people that contract Covid-19 survive, the bad news it is 7x more deadly than a regular influenza.
  • The immunology of this coronavirus is not normal. One study shows up to 1/3 of people generate antibodies against coronavirus, but doctors are not sure if they are totally immune and how long it lasts. Another study shows 40% of people tested, naturally have T-cells that recognize Covid-19. These are not antibody producing cells like B Cells and it is a mystery as they have never experienced this virus before. A final peculiar trait is the reaction of the innate part of the human immune system. Some people do not produce interferons to signal the immune system to kick in, and they do not do well with the virus. Other people’s innate system produces too many weapons against the virus that also causes a severe reaction.
  • Another factor of this disease, is we are not sure of the long-term effects of contracting coronavirus. So even though most people will have a mild form of the disease, there may be long-term effects, including vascular damage, changes in the microsystems of the brain, etc. So we cannot say that this is just a version of influenza that is a little stronger. For example, patients may develop vascular problems 10-20 years in the future. We just don’t know at this time.
  • He believes a vaccine can be developed and he trusts authorities (FDA,others) that it will be safe. Protecting the vulnerable people will be the first priority when a vaccine is produced.
  • His advice on school reopenings…he is not convinced that schools can reopen safely, especially in the USA with lax enforcement of hygiene and distance measures.

International school Head Tenures

The “globe” logo for Littleford & Associates

Remember the Patterns and Statistics – Based on Littleford & Associates’ experience, board turnover, chair turnover and the loss of institutional memory account for 60% of the cases of heads being “fired”. Another important and related statistic is that is the third or fourth chair who fires the head 80% of the time. However, about 30% of the time heads are fired because they make too many changes that are threatening to faculty too quickly before they build that reservoir of political capital. That results often in teachers making an end run to the parents or board members directly to complain about the head. Missteps made early on are often impossible to correct. With the virus driving feelings, passions and decisions, all heads are at risk but new heads are especially vulnerable, and if they do not survive, there will be a new expensive search, another transition, and a loss of at least two to three years of momentum and progress. 

Littleford & Associates “Keeping in the Loop” newsletter, June 25, 2020

I am completing my first year as director of the Tashkent International School and really enjoyed the experience, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Moving to a new school is tricky and learning the school culture, 150 employees, 500+ students, and 300+ families is a lot to take on. Added to this is a new country and government system which in Uzbekistan, being a new country, is rapidly changing. I attended several John Littleford’s webinars during the pandemic thanks to AAIE. John always gives his blunt, sometimes provocative opinion, but he always backs it up with data. Everyone of his periodic newsletters has insightful tidbits for international school leaders. The average tenure of an international school head is 3.7 years, which in my opinion is too short. I feel to really make a difference in a school, a leader needs at least 5 years.

“don’t worry about surfaces” Covid-19 Interview with Dr. Osterholm

I referred to Dr. Michael Osterholm’s 2005 article in a previous post that helped my thinking about this pandemic. National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program featured an interview with him. Osterholm’s publishing company is putting out a new version of his 2017 book, “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs“. He is the director of a disease research center at the University of Minnesota. From the interview, I learned the following key points.

  • The public is confused about this coronavirus and what is safe and what is not safe. Dr. Osterholm looks at decades of research of influenza transmission via surfaces and states that “clearly surfaces play very little role in the transmission of viruses”. We have gone overboard with disinfection. The transmission “is really all about air, and breathing someone’s air borne virus.
  • No one needs to be frightened of their environment, it is the air that they are breathing. He does not worry any more about food, packages, doorknobs, railings, than he would during the regular cold & flu season. He still recommends washing hands regularly. “It is the air that we share with each other that is critical.”
  • He also doesn’t think the antibody tests are worth doing because they are very poor.
  • Science does not understand the causes of influenza pandemic waves. Why they occur, why they stop, why a second wave comes.
  • Only 5-7 % of the USA population has been infected with this coronavirus. This virus will not stop transmitted until it reaches 60-70% of the population and we develop immunity. Think about the disruption and pain the past 4 months. We have a long way to go.
  • The big question is the race to get a vaccine which is the other way to end this epidemic. Recent polls show however, that 30% of Americans would not take the vaccine, which is part of the anti-vaccine movement.
  • Pandemic fatigue worldwide has set in. However, influenza pandemics last for many months and even years, and it will be difficult to keep physically distancing while a vaccine is being developed. He also reminds us that an 18-month lockdown would bring devastation on many fronts. He says we need to balance reopening with distancing and hygiene measures.
  • I am sadly not surprised at the number of death threats Dr. Osterholm has received by the public. This is part of the anti-science drive in American culture.
  • Being outside greatly reduces the risk of transmission. Wind dissipates the virus rapidly.

Dr. Osterholm runs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Their Covid-19 webpage has lots of good information.