The Best Way to Resolve the Health Controversy Around School Reopening

6/24/2020 – 11:10 PM – This evening I was sent a link to yet another article claiming that it was safe to reopen our schools because of the positive experiences in Europe and elsewhere.  Upon diving into the article one discovers that there were entirely different implementation approaches in most of the countries mentioned and thus it was impossible to know what measures are truly effective and what may be overkill.

The article came from, of all places, Wired Magazine at https://www.wired.com/story/its-ridiculous-to-treat-schools-like-covid-hot-zones/.  Although Wired has many interesting and provocative technology articles, the last time I looked it was not considered a top medical journal.  After looking at more and more of these articles produced by journalists interviewing specific doctors, I finally had an epiphany (yes, I am a slow learner ;-).  I wrote the following response to the person who sent me the article, and have edited it somewhat for this blog article.


 

The more that I think about this problem, the more that it seems completely ridiculous for each school district to try to figure this out on their own.

We need to have, at least at the state or national level, a commission of medical and other experts who can objectively review the research studies and make an official pronouncement to the best of their abilities based on the current state of knowledge. Very few, if any, local school districts have the ability to assemble the expertise needed to make this decision.

The United States has many of the best research universities in the world, not to mention the treasure trove of expertise at the National Institutes of Health.  Even just within the state of California, we have some of the finest research institutions in the world.

I think the best course is for school districts to band together and put immediate pressure on both state and national governments to answer these questions through the work of expert commissions.

The people chosen as members of these committees need to be recognized experts and as free as possible from partisan politics.  They would be tasked with reviewing the current state of research and making recommendations about school reopening.  The current toxic partisan political environment complicates creating such a commission unfortunately, but the fate of the country’s children demands that we do our best.

In the absence of such a commission report, too many districts are relying upon information sources which they do not have the expertise to evaluate.  Wired Magazine would not be my go-to source for medical reporting, to be honest.  I have seen far too many journalist-written reports that leave me perplexed.

For example, lacking a mechanistic explanation of how children can carry the virus and yet still not infect adults really bothers me personally.  It borders on magic and just doesn’t make any scientific sense which is why it is hard for me to blindly accept these results.

I can imagine that different age groups might have somewhat different expressed versions of a protein receptor to which the virus binds before attacking a human cell. If the virus binds less tightly to the receptor version found in children that might explain why children’s infections are less severe.  This is just one hypothesis that comes to my mind; there are undoubtedly others.

However, I have read several reports of studies that say some kids have the same “viral load” as adults and yet don’t spread the virus??? This seems completely bizarre.

A lot of these studies reported in news articles are rapid, non-peer reviewed publications on preprint servers and just may not be worth the virtual paper on which they are written.  Most research communities know the major players in a specialty and they frequently interact via scientific conferences.  Not being in the field, I have zero knowledge of the reputations of the people producing the COVID-19 results, nor do most journalists have this knowledge.  Consequently I personally can not see relying on news reports to make a decision that could potentially cost someone their life.

Even though I have a Ph.D. in biochemistry and worked in top biophysics and cell biology labs for several years before joining a bioinformatics software company and getting in on the beginning of the Human Genome Project, COVID-19 is not my specific area of expertise.  I know enough science though to be skeptical of press reports.

We really need a commission of experts to step up to the plate and provide better guidance for such a consequential decision that has major impacts on school kids AND teachers in the U.S. and around the world.

In the absence of this kind of guidance, I can not blame local school districts for being cautious. These critical decisions can not be made on the basis of articles in the popular press authored by journalists or by amateurs trying to evaluate very technical research papers.


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Start Normal? Take a Closer Look…

This blog post and the previous blog post both stem from a discussion about San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) School Reopening on our local Nextdoor platform. The full Nextdoor discussion is accessible at https://nextdoor.com/news_feed/?post=151832244, but requires both a Nextdoor account to access and is also only geographically accessible from some neighborhoods in the SMUHSD.

I was the author of the notes that follow about the “Start Normal!” movement begun by entrepreneur David Binetti.

I had looked at Mr. Binetti’s work previously and had posted the following notes in my article SMUHSD Debating a Change to a Quarter System?.

(6/9) In another thread on Nextdoor at https://nextdoor.com/post/151144511, a series of videos on a site called https://www.startnormal.com has been discussed. They are made by a San Carlos resident.

In his first three videos, he tries to make a compelling case using research studies that COVID-19 will not spread in schools, but then has to backpedal in his fourth video when viewers presented him with two cases in which spread did happen. He concludes that we don’t yet know why it happened in those two cases, but the scores of other studies still say that school transmission is not likely. I am just passing this on in the interest of looking at all sides of the issue. He also is running a petition drive to reopen schools normally. If interested, I would encourage you to watch all four videos first before you make a decision to sign.

(6/10) I wrote the two paragraphs above yesterday evening.  Mr.Binetti overnight removed his previous four videos and his list of research references and on 6/10/2020 only has a single video designed to get people to sign his letter.  This change looks extremely bad in my opinion as he did this switcheroo AFTER receiving evidence countering his position.  This is intellectually dishonest and appears as simply an attempt to promote his petition drive!!

(6/15) Mr. Binetti has revamped his website once again and has restored the deleted videos mentioned immediately below.

The videos reappeared on 6/15, but less prominently positioned on a “Videos” tab accessed from a menu bar at the top of his home page.

Several days later I had time to look into the research that Mr. Binetti cited and then I composed the following note on Nextdoor.

First note that the data that he cites comes from a website with an odd name (“Don’t Forget the Bubbles” ???), but appears to be run by legitimate doctors from the U.K.’s National Health Service.  It was established to try to make sense of a flood of data of varying quality, much not peer-reviewed, and also from a variety of international locations, some of which may be subject to government censorship.

Please don’t forget that there is a reason that good scientific studies are published in respectable, peer-reviewed journals.  These are unusual times, and decisions need to be made faster than the traditional scientific research review system can handle.  This means that the level of uncertainty  in the research results is therefore much higher.

Secondly, I do not have the time nor the expertise to scan all of the medical literature on pediatric COVID-19.  I have limited the comments below to only the data that Mr. Binetti cites to make his case for “Start Normal!”


From my 6/21/2020 comment on  https://nextdoor.com/news_feed/?post=151832244 :

If you go to David Binetti’s website startnormal.com, you can hear his school reopening argument in the Videos tab.

I suggest that you listen to *all* of the videos under the Videos tab in order. There are links to a UK research site that flash briefly on the screen at various times in the videos.

The URL is https://dontforgetthebubbles.com/ and the study that Binetti specifically links to in video 3 is https://dontforgetthebubbles.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/COVID-data-3rd-June.pdf.

Numerous research studies are cited in that article and making sense of them is not easy. A lot of data comes from China, and one wonders how much of this data can be trusted because of possible government interference.

Nonetheless, Binetti makes very dramatic claims at the end of video 3 (update added on 6/22/20 in this blog – please watch the entire video 3, not just the end!) and then has to backpedal in his “Parents Response to #3” video. NOTE – He also then hid all of this information for several days after receiving this opposing information as I documented in my article at https://eduissues.com/2020/06/04/smuhsd-debating-a-change-to-a-quarter-system. You might want to look there first. (update added on 6/22/20 in this blog – my comments just referred are also presented at the beginning of this article.)

The article at https://dontforgetthebubbles.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/COVID-data-3rd-June.pdf states:

“The role of children in transmission is unclear, but consistent evidence is demonstrating a lower likelihood of acquiring infection, and lower rates of children bringing infections into households.”

This is much more qualified than the claims that Binetti makes at the end of video 3.

In another article on the site https://dontforgetthebubbles.com/the-missing-link-children-and-transmission-of-sars-cov-2/, the following conclusion is stated:

“We have seen above that children appear less likely to get infection, and that fewer children seem to have the infection in the community. There could be fewer cases just because there are fewer infected children. What we don’t know is how many infected children brought an infection into their home, but didn’t give it to anybody – as these cases would never be discovered (and won’t until we have sero-surveillance). Children may be less infectious or not, but we do not have any evidence for that at present.”

and also

“What about schools?

Specific evidence in regards to transmission in schools is lacking, due to rapid shutdown at the start of the pandemic. A systematic review of the impact of school closures on the transmission of SARS and COVID-19 found only equivocal evidence for their impact in controlling transmission.

A study from an outbreak around a French secondary school has received some attention, as they found 40% of pupils and staff became infected with no difference between the two groups. What is important in this study, is that almost all the students in the study were aged 15-17 years of age, who appear to have similar disease characteristics to adults. Of the children 14 and under, a very small proportion got infected (it’s not clear how many were students and how many were family contacts). We cannot derive useful information from this study about younger children at present.

Another study from New South Wales in Australia demonstrated very low rates of infection in school children and low rates of spread, however, the absolute numbers are low (18 cases total, 12 secondary and six primary) so again it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from this study regarding spread in schools, despite the data being reassuring.”

and finally the qualified conclusion

“It is not clear how likely an infected child is to pass on the infection compared to an infected adult, but there is no evidence that they are any more infectious”

Sadly I can not tell when the last time this article was updated.

The bottom line though seems to be that the older the student is, the greater the risk of transmission from students to others may be which is clearly relevant to high schools as opposed to K-5.

Given the uncertainty, it is completely understandable that teachers do not want to be experimental subjects in a situation where their lives may be at risk.

I am completely sympathetic to that concern.

I just wish that there was likewise some concern regarding the point that I have been “noisily” making for years, namely that the education system should be equally cautious when using our kids as subjects in their education experiments:

https://eduissues.com/2018/01/29/never-believe-educational-experts-or-me

Make no doubt about it – all of these abrupt changes are once again moving us into uncharted territory, but in this case, we don’t have a lot of options.

SMUHSD Board of Trustees Science Curriculum Agenda Item on Thursday, March 7th

After a wait of almost a year, the Next Generation Science Standards agenda item will finally be discussed at this coming Thursday’s (3/7/19) Board of Trustees meeting.  A link to the entire meeting agenda is here.  I have been told that the NGSS item will come up around 8:00 PM, but this timing is only approximate.  The District will give the following PowerPoint presentation, and I have been granted six minutes to respond.

I just sent the following email to the SMUHSD administration and the Board of Trustees in preparation for this event:

Dear Board Members,
I am pleased that we will finally address the NGSS agenda item this coming Thursday, March 7th.  I have reviewed Dr. Kempkey’s and Mr. Simmons’ presentation.  Dr. Skelly has informed me that I will have six minutes to reply following it.  I have specific comments that I will make in regards to the District’s presentation, but also request that you all be aware of the following.
Since the SMUHSD science curriculum is of paramount importance, since it has been over two months since I posted the following article summarizing my concerns, and since I have waited for almost a year to the day for this forum to occur, I sincerely hope that you will do me the courtesy of rereading ahead of the meeting this article from my blog and also the Education Week article that is referenced therein.
As I noted near the end of my article, I am NOT seeking the quixotic goal of overturning the District’s adoption of the NGSS standards, but I do have serious reservations about the adoption process and want to implement better public notification in the future before such major changes are adopted.  Please refer to my meeting objectives stated at the end of my article starting with the text “Despite looking into this for a year now, it is not clear to me how involved the Board of Trustees really was in the NGSS adoption decision, and I hope the meeting sheds some light on that question.”
Thank you.  I’m looking forward to seeing you Thursday evening.
Sincerely,
Dr. David Kristofferson

Ohio: Stephen Dyer and Bill Phillis Explain Why the State Wants to Take Over the State Board of Education

A couple of days ago I reblogged Diane Ravitch’s article highlighting how the California State Board of Education was taken over by charter proponents. Now here is an article about how Ohio’s School Board is under attack by politicians associated with an online learning company accused of fraud.

Diane Ravitch's blog

Stephen Dyer, a former legislator and currently a fellow at think tank Innovation Ohio, wonders why the state of Ohio is considering legislation to have the state dissolve the state board of education. He wonders if the move is payback for meddling with the fraudulent practices of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which rewarded legislators for favoring ECOT and ignoring its inflated enrollments. Is it mere coincidence that five of the eight sponsors of the legislation received generous gifts from the owner of ECOT?

Be sure to read Dyer’s testimony to the legislature on HB 512 and why it should be dropped.

Bill Phillis, founder of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy, writes that HB 512 is an outrage and is unconstitutional.

“HB 512 is an affront to the Ohio Constitution-a change in governance of the State Education agency must be submitted to Ohioans on a statewide ballot

“HB…

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