Pandemic Journal: My Latest reading

A grade 8 student gives her pitch for our new community development hub.

It was so nice to listen to the grade 8 students’ presentations on Friday. The proposals were focused on a name, logo, slogan and color design for our new community development container. We recently installed a 40-foot container near the soccer field to house industrial projects to aid community development. Already, students are recycling plastic and glass and producing honey. The time spent with the students also reminds me that you cannot replace face-to-face teaching and learning. The post-presentation discussions we had between the judges, classmates, grade 12 student observers was so valuable to the grade 8 students. You just can’t replicate that on Zoom.

Sherry Turkle, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has studied computer and digital technology’s impact on humans. In an interview with Dave Davies on NPR’s “Fresh Air” she reminded me that the value that schools really do give to students are strong and caring relationships with teachers that mentor students to be better human beings. Curriculum, ideas, knowledge, skills, attitudes, etc. are important to teach, but most importantly, it is what students learn in the relationships with each other and teachers.

Well, we’ve missed each other. We’ve missed that full embrace of the human because we’ve spent so much time on Zoom. When you’re on Zoom, you give the other person the impression of eye contact by staring at a green light when you’re really not seeing anything at all. So to give somebody the impression of empathy, you end up looking at nothing, and that’s pretend empathy and that’s not where real empathy is born. So I think we’ve missed – we’ve had an experience where we’ve really missed each other in a very profound way. And I think we can’t wait to get back to each other.

National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” March 11, 2021

The Association for the Advancement of International Education each week suggests COVID/Pandemic readings and they always stimulate my thinking. From the MIT Technology Review, Mia Sato reports on the challenges schools are facing in the USA “Why Reopening Schools in the US is so Complicated“. I read with interest about a school in Sharon, Massachusetts used pooled antigen testing. They combine between 5 and 25 students/teachers nose swabs into one sample. If the test comes back negative, all of them are cleared to enter school. The article also mentioned the B.1.1.7 variant that caused schools to close all over Europe, including many fellow member schools of our Central and Eastern European Schools Association. I am concerned about the variant reaching Tashkent and forcing us to close.

Carolyn Barber’s March 10, 2021 article “So What Can People Actually Do After Being Vaccinated?” is a comprehensive review of all of the questions researchers are looking at. My takeaway is the vaccines are amazing and they prevent vaccinated people from hospitalization and death. They also will dramatically reduce transmission. I think we will still be required to wear masks and be careful with large indoor gatherings, but we will be almost back to normal next school year, and probably earlier than later. I hope I am right.

My Latest Thinking About the Pandemic – March 8, 2021

“It’s sort of like getting into a cold pool,” said virologist Angela Rasmussen of the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security. “You go in and you get a little deeper, and you get a little deeper, and finally you’re in the pool and it feels normal.”

“The Short-term, middle-term, and long-term future of the coronavirus” March 4, 2021 Stat

Reporters Andrew Joseph and Helen Branswell discuss the future of the pandemic in an excellent piece in Stat, a media conmpany that focuses on health and medicine (The Short-term, middle-terms and long-term future of the coronavirus) in a March 4, 2021 article. It brings up the key points in predicting the course of coronavirus transmission. Because it is a global pandemic, the huge range of severity and timing of spikes in cases in different regions amazes me. I listened during an AAIE Zoom meeting last week to an international school director in Brazil say that his school is back to Virtual Learning and the country is in lockdown with the P1 variant transmitting like wildfire in his school community (10 staff members are currently in isolation). Here in Tashkent as you can see on the chart below, we had our big spike in July/August and a second spike in October and since then it has been quiet. Our last cases recorded in our faculty and staff are November 9 and December 9 with one case each instance.

World Health Organization Uzbekistan COVID-19 Situation Report 4 March 2021

Although I am concerned about the impact of variants when/if they reach Uzbekistan, my biggest current preoccupation is access to vaccines. There is no word yet from international authorities (embassies, WHO, TIC, etc.) of when foreign faculty and staff will be able to get one of the COVID vaccines. I fear that our employees will be delayed in returning to Tashkent next school year, awaiting a first or second vaccine inoculation. I would prefer to get everyone vaccinated before we leave for school holidays in June.

Experts are predicting a surge in cases next autumn but not the severe symptoms that were typical of previous waves. I think we will definitely have to continue wearing masks during the 2021-2022 school year, especially since adolescents and children will not likely to be vaccinated next year. This also will eliminate international student travel. What school will risk sending an unvaccinated soccer team or Model United Nations delegation to another country? I predict we will be able to hold larger, public gatherings (full faculty meetings, community events like UN Day, theatre and music productions) and hopefully, interscholastic sport matches with other schools from Tashkent. I also imagine that we would keep a database of who is vaccinated and when we do get a case, we’ll react less drastically if a large portion of the population is vaccinated. Vaccines are proving almost 100% effective against hospitalization and death, which is what we are trying to avoid.

How serious future outbreaks will be in terms of disease will be influenced by whether vaccines can continue to prevent severe outcomes, as well how many people are vaccinated, how long vaccine-derived immunity lasts, and how the virus evolves. Those factors will also shape how often people need vaccine booster shots and whether vaccines need to be adapted to better match a changing virus, a possibility that vaccine makers are already exploring.

“The Short-term, middle-term, and long-term future of the coronavirus” March 4, 2021 Stat

Media reports that there will be two vaccines widely available in Uzbekistan, the Russian Sputnik V and the Chinese/Uzbek joint produced ZF-UZ-VAC 2001. The Uzbek government claims the Chinese/Uzbek vaccine is 6x more effective than the Moderna vaccine against the new strains of COVID. Close to 7,000 people participated in the first trial of the ZF-UZ-VAC 2001 vaccine. I am not sure expatriates in Uzbekistan will have access to these vaccines and how many would volunteer to take them. As always, unpredictability is the theme of the future of the pandemic.

The Wonderful World of Owls

This screen shot is from the course. It shows the unique talons of an owls. Owls differ from other birds in having two talons face forward and two face backwards. Owls spread the back talons to enhance their grip on the unfortunate prey.

I am excited to learn about Owls through the Cornell University’s Wonderful World of Owls online course. I am joined by several grade 11 biology students and two science teachers. We are completing the course because our school’s sport mascot is the owl. The student council chose that name years ago when there were many owls roosting near the school. Today, sadly, they are no longer around and so we trying to see if we can lure them back and provide good habitat for them. I will be using this blog to highlight my learning and our group’s work.

Variety of Owls: The first two lessons were engaging. There are over 200 different species of owls. They are special birds in that their large, round eyes, small bill, thickly-feathered heads give them a human appearance. They also are the ultimate nocturnal aerial predators because of their exceptional hearing and sight and silent flight. The 234 species of owls show much variety in size, diet and behavior. My favorite owl is Blakiston’s Fish Owl, that is found in Japan and Russia. It is one of the largest owls and hunts exclusively fish and aquatic prey.

Anatomical Features: Owls have large eyes with a huge, rod-filled retina that makes them twice as sensitive to low light as other birds. The facial disk found on many owls helps their hearing by acting as a sound collector. Their ears are slightly off-set to give them precise, location hearing. Owls cannot turn their heads 360 degrees as some people think. Like other birds, they have 14-neck vertebrae that allow them to turn 270 degrees. This is similar to other birds, but with the thick feathers covering the neck, it looks like their head is on a swivel. Many owls have sensitive whiskers that allow them to “see” objects up close, because their vision is designed for long-distance, low-light conditions.

Latest Pandemic Reading through The lense of School Leadership

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published yesterday a comprehensive guide for reopening of school campuses. “Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Mitigation” lays out in detail a plan for schools to reopen. We opened in early October and I am pleased that all of what we implemented is in the report. The major areas are layered mitigation efforts aka “Swiss Cheese” such as mandatory masks, temperature checks, increasing air ventilation, separating students into “pods”, prioritizing in-class instruction over extracurricular activities, contact tracing and testing, etc.

One challenge for TIS is monitoring rates of community transmission as the CDC recommends. As you can see from the chart below, we had two large spikes that peaked in early August and again in late September. However, the actual numbers of cases is unknown because many people do not go in for testing among many factors. We use not only the official reports from the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization, but we also reach out to local doctors, other international schools and embassies to get a clearer picture of transmission, hospital occupancy rates, positive test percentages, etc.

The World Health Organization Tashkent Office report from February 11 shows a 7-day average of 31 new COVID cases per day in the city of Tashkent. With a population of roughly 3 million, that would be 1.03 cases per 100,000. The government reports officially, 79,303 total cases and 622 deaths in a country of approximately 30 million people.

The two areas our COVID Response Team is focusing on are obtaining vaccines for faculty and staff and developing rapid-antigen testing protocols. Of course, the only sure way out of the pandemic is widespread vaccine inoculation. I am concerned, especially for our foreign employees that they will fall through the cracks of the system because they are not Uzbek citizens and maybe not eligible for vaccines here, and they are not living in their passport countries and would not be prioritized for vaccination there. Rapid antigen testing can be utilized around break-outs to quickly identify cases and isolate them. This will come in handy if we experience another spike, especially with the more contagious variant.

In this week’s AAIE (Association for the Advancement of International Education) newsletter, they ask school leaders to read two Harvard Business Review articles. The first “Beyond Burned Out” by Jennifer Moss details how the pandemic caused widespread emotional fatigue. She gives instructions on how leaders can combat burnout of themselves and colleagues.

  • Unsustainable workload
  • Perceived lack of control
  • Insufficient rewards for effort
  • Lack of a supportive community
  • Lack of fairness
  • Mismatched values and skills

Moss and her colleagues did extensive surveys measuring burnout and had the following results:

  • 89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse.
  • 85% said their well-being had declined.
  • 56% said their job demands had increased.
  • 62% of the people who were struggling to manage their workloads had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” in the previous three months.
  • 57% of employees felt that the pandemic had a “large effect on” or “completely dominated” their work.
  • 55% of all respondents didn’t feel that they had been able to balance their home and work life — with 53% specifically citing homeschooling.
  • 25% felt unable to maintain a strong connection with family, 39% with colleagues, and 50% with friends.
  • Only 21% rated their well-being as “good,” and a mere 2% rated it as “excellent.”

Moss prescribes the following ways to combat burnout:

  • Feeling a sense of purpose.
  • Having a manageable workload. (focusing on eliminating unnecessary meetings)
  • Feeling that you can discuss mental health at work.
  • Having an empathetic manager.
  • Having a strong sense of connection to family and friends.

The second article is from 2006 and warns organizations to prepare for future pandemics. “Preparing for a Pandemic” was written during the Avian Flu crisis.

The final article I read, “Do the math: Vaccines along won’t get us out of the pandemic” by Lain McLeod is about the challenges reaching herd immunity through vaccination. It was interesting to note that the Pfizer vaccine can be administered to people ages 16 and up. That would help cover much of our high school, who are the biggest asymptomatic spreaders.

COVID Reading: January 31, 2021

Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention published an opinion piece in the online medical journal JAMA on January 26, 2021. They argue that the risk mitigation measures some PK-12 schools are implementing around the world are working and schools do not significantly contribute to community transmission. “Data and Policy to Guide Opening Schools Safely to Limit the Spread of SARS-CoV-2 Infection” cites many studies in schools that demonstrate schools can safely offer on-campus teaching and learning, especially Early Childhood and Elementary School programs. Sadly for someone like me that loves interscholastic sports competitions, they do not recommend holding events with other schools. Atlantic writer Derek Thompson comments on CDC report in the article, “The Truth about Kids, School, and COVID-19“.

The German weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel interviewed virologist Christian Drosten “I Am Quite Apprehensive about What Might Otherwise Happen in Spring and Summer“. Dr. Drosten’s concern about the spring stems from the fact that with many elderly being vaccinated, pressure will mount to open daily life and the number of cases will rise again, causing pressure on the health system. Drosten confirms the lethality of COVID, stating that the mortality rate is 1.1% in Germany, which is 10x greater than influenza.

For subscribers, The Economist article “How fast can vaccination against covid-19 make a difference?” demonstrates that in Israel where abundant vaccination has already taken place, the number of elderly COVID patients seeking critically ill care dropped significantly.

Finally, the Uzbekistan news outlet, Gazeta, reported yesterday that the British COVID variant was detected on January 23. I have lots of questions about the report and will be looking into it with local experts.

My Latest thinking on the pandemic

Dr. David Willows, the Advancement Director at the International School of Brussels writes in this week’s AAIE (Association for the Advancement of International Education) that the pandemic may have dramatically shifted what families are looking for in schools. This 2-year, once-in-a-century crisis has made us reevaluate what is important in our lives. That includes K-12 schooling. Parents and students are asking themselves are the long hours, stress and work that typically define a “high-powered” international school worth it. Of course, much of what K-12 schools and especially secondary schools do is driven by the expectations and admission requirements of universities. However, I sense, like Dr. Willows does, that the pandemic has pushed the discussion further to schools moving away from traditional subjects, individualizing education and for schools to make the learning experiences more relevant to our daily lives. With the individualization comes a focus on well-being and helping young people find their niche in our school communities and the global community.

This graphic from the McKinsey Report shows executives see a muted long-term recovery (A1)

Willows refers to the June 2020 McKinsey Report analyzing the global economy and national economies. My takeaway from reading the summary of the report is that it will be a long road to recovery and for international schools, it may mean that it will take longer to get back to enrollment figures from the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

Former TIS Director Kevin Glass, now head of the Atlanta International School was featured in this week’s AAIE briefing. He broke down the latest CDC Report “COVID Trends Among Persons Aged 0-24 Years in the USA from March to December, 2020“. The report shows the following:

  • The highest risk group to get infected are 18-24 year olds, 15% higher than even adults. That does not bode well for in-person, university study.
  • Children 17 years old and younger are less susceptible than adults. High School students are 78% less likely to get infected than adults. Middle School students 55% of the risk of adults and Elementary School students 40% of the risk of adults.
  • Community transmission is the same or even less in communities with on-campus learning versus virtual learning. This sounds counterintuitive but the hygiene discipline schools teach, lowers transmission rates. The CDC recommends closure of K-12 on-campus learning to be one of the last mitigation efforts to be implemented and schools reopening to be one of the first actions when lessening restrictions.
  • CDC strongly recommends elementary and middle schools to be open to on-campus learning, high schools with very strong protocols and universities to stay virtual.
  • The report of course highlights the limitations of the research and no studies were done with incident rates of school faculty and staff.
The latest figures from the WHO Tashkent Office

As you can see from the chart above published by the World Health Organization Tashkent office, the number of COVID cases in Uzbekistan and Tashkent remains low according to the official government statistics. Of course, no country is accurate with their statistics because not all cases are reported to hospitals or clinics. However, I think the relative trends are accurate with two spikes in July and September and a downward trend since then. TIS first reopened campus on October 5 and we stayed open through December 18 and into Winter Break. We are coming back to campus on Monday, January 25. I am busy with recruiting new teachers for next year and most of the people were are talking to are on Virtual Learning and/or lockdown in their countries. We are fortunate that the pandemic is quiet in Uzbekistan for the time being.

In reading news and research about COVID, many scientists and doctors are concerned about the variants of coronavirus that are appearing around the world. Early research shows some variants are more infectious (UK 2x as infectious) and research is focusing on the vaccines effectiveness against these variants. In Dr. Fauci’s first press conference as the lead advisor to the new Biden administration, he sounded optimistic that the vaccines do offer adequate protection against the variants and pharmaceutical companies are able to adjust vaccines as necessary to protect against new variants.

2021 CEESA Conference Announcement

Teacher professional development around the world is still mostly online and in our Central & Eastern Europe Schools Association region is not an exception. Below is the announcement of the 2021 CEESA Virtual Conference that is hosted by the American International School of Budapest from March 11-13, 2021. Harnessing the Power of Disruption is the theme. The pandemic certainly has disrupted everything that schools do. This major disruption has given all of us carte blanche to remake teaching and learning.

COVID News & Opinion

Kishore Nath holds a vaccination card provided to residents who have been given the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Viamonte, a retirement community in Walnut Creek, Calif., on December 30, 2020. Credit: Carlos Avila Gonzalez Getty Images

Covid-19 patients who recovered from the disease still have robust immunity from the coronavirus eight months after infection, according to a new study. The result is an encouraging sign that the authors interpret to mean immunity to the virus probably lasts for many years, and it should alleviate fears that the covid-19 vaccine would require repeated booster shots to protect against the disease and finally get the pandemic under control.

Patel, Neel V. MIT Technology Review January 6, 2021

It is encouraging news coming out of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in California. The study of 185 recovered patients from COVID show after 8 months, they still have immunity. The research led by Dr. Shane Crotty was published January 6, 2021 in the journal Science.

More good news coming from a survey featured in Scientific American that shows that 63% Americans want to take the vaccine. We need to get 60-90% of the population vaccinated to put the pandemic behind us. There are certain groups that are vaccine skeptical, but I would think most of the TIS community would take the vaccine.

I continue to read reports of COVID cases increasing all over the world. In my home country of the USA, there were more than 4,000 deaths on Thursday. Tokyo, Shijiazhuang, United Kingdom, and other cities and countries are on lockdown because of the spike in cases. I am concerned about if/when the next wave will come to Uzbekistan.

Finally, New Yorker contributor and author, Lawrence Wright was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air program on Thursday. He discusses his lengthy piece in a January issue of The New Yorker. The TIS library subscribes to The New Yorker. Below are links to articles I refer to in this blog post.

My Latest Thinking on COVID

The CDC announced last month “acceptable alternatives” to shorten the 14-day quarantine they recommend for all close contacts.

  • Alternative #1 – Contacts can reenter the community after Day 10 if no symptoms. The residual post-quarantine risk is estimated to be 1% with an upper limit of 10%.
  • Alternative #2 – Contacts can reenter the community after Day 7 if no symptoms and they test negative. The test must be within 48 hours before the planned return (Day 5 or Day 6). The residual post-quarantine risk is estimated to be 5% with an upper limit of 12%.
  • Note – With both alternatives, continued symptom monitoring, masking, etc. must take place through Day 14.

I am pleased the CDC reduced the 14-day quarantine because it was quite the burden on families and our school. The increased risks with the two alternatives are low enough in my opinion for us to implement these alternatives as policy. Of course in the case of a major outbreak, we would stick with the 14-day quarantine, but with low transmission in community as it is currently, we could implement the alternatives. I also see this note near the end of the report about people waiving quarantine protocols by showing a high antibody count. The TIS COVID Response Team will seek advice from our medical experts to see if we will implement the new protocols.

Serologic testing: The utility of serologic testing to provide evidence of prior infection that would permit exclusion from quarantine has not been established and is not recommended for this purpose at this time

“Options to Reduce Quarantine for Contacts of Persons with SARS-CoV-2 Infection Using Symptom Monitoring and Diagnostic Testing” December 2, 2020 CDC link

I am concerned about reports from the UK and USA about the new coronavirus mutation. Thankfully, the mutant virus strain is not more lethal, but it may be much more highly infectious, perhaps up to 50-70% more. There are no reports of the strain in Uzbekistan but I would guess genome typing is rare or do not exist here. With more people being infected, more people will die. “The Mutated Virus is a Ticking Time Bomb: There is much we don’t know about the new COVID-19 variant—but everything we know so far suggests a huge danger” by Zeynep Tufekci in The Atlantic discusses the new variant the rollout of vaccines. We will be monitoring the rate of infection closely to see how it impacts our school community.

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.