As schools reopen, more quarantines are ordered

Plus, the cities facing a severe drop in revenue, July and August electricity bills will be whoppers, a shortage of low-cost computers, and more.

August 19, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

A couple of days into the new school year, two private schools in Jacksonville, Florida, sent students into quarantine when COVID-19 tests came back positive. Students at both schools attended large gatherings that produced positive tests, so everyone who attended is now in quarantine.

In Martin County, Florida, north of West Palm Beach, 103 high school students from 10 classrooms at two schools were sent home to quarantine. That is in addition to 30 more students in that county that were already in quarantine. Add to that 116 elementary school students in the same county who may have been exposed to the virus and were also sent home to quarantine. All of this one week into the school year.

At least 2,000 students and teachers nationwide are in quarantine. With each new school system that opens, the number grows.

A new analysis by the American Academy of Pediatrics produced new data that found there has been a 90% increase in COVID-19 cases among children in the United States over the last four weeks. But keep that percentage in context. The new data indicates:

On Aug. 13, the age distribution of reported COVID-19 cases was provided on the health department websites of 49 states, New York City, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam. While children represented only 9.1% of all cases in states reporting cases by age, over 406,000 children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic.

A smaller subset of states reported on hospitalizations and mortality by age, but the available data indicated that COVID-19-associated hospitalization and death is uncommon in children.

Glendale California’s Unified School District is trying something different. 20 of the district’s elementary schools will open some empty classrooms for remote learning without teachers. Instead, there will be a helper to assist with technology and logistics. The teacher will come into the classroom remotely. The district said it is trying to help working parents who have no child care alternatives.

Which cities are about to face a severe drop in revenue?

Economists from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, Georgia State University and the University of Wisconsin came up with an estimate of how much 150 individual cities will lose in tax revenue during this pandemic.

Bigger cities with diverse economies will survive better than cities that rely on tourism. Upstate New York cities like Rochester and Buffalo could see a 20% revenue drop ahead, a decline that would be impossible to make up without a catastrophic cut in city jobs and services.

The New York Times added red and blue colors to its chart to show which cities are represented by Democrat and Republican senators. A bill sitting in the Senate would send federal stimulus dollars to blunt the effect of the pandemic economy. The GOP does not want to bail out cities and states that it says are mismanaged. As you can see, some of the most affected cities are in states with GOP senators, too.

Estimates from The Fiscal Effects of The COVID-19 Pandemic on Cities: An Initial Assessment, National Tax Journal by Howard Chernick, David Copeland and Andrew Reschovsky (The New York Times)

One of the co-authors of the report, Andrew Reschovsky, said:

Unlike the federal government, state and local governments must balance their budgets annually, so revenue declines will lead directly to cuts in public safety, education, sanitation, public health, and other services provided by local governments. The authors argue that these cuts will inevitably have serious consequences for city residents and for local economies.

The chart shows the hazards of depending on sales tax and other tourist taxes. Compare that with Boston, for example, which relies heavily on property taxes. Property taxes aren’t as quickly affected by the pandemic but could be later if the economy turns soft for a prolonged period and property values decline.

The New York Times reported:

In Detroit, one-fifth of the municipal budget typically comes from casino revenue. And casinos have only just reopened, at reduced capacity. The city managed to save money when its recreation centers closed, and it hasn’t spent as much as usual managing downtown traffic. This coming year, the city will also mow the grass less often on vacant properties it owns.

With such moves, officials believe they will be able to get through fiscal year 2021 with a balanced budget. But after that the decisions will get harder, especially without federal help.

And here is an interesting local story for you to explore: Thanks to a 2018 court ruling, states now collect sales tax on things people buy on Amazon. The mayor of Colorado Springs, for example, said that is a big deal for his town. The state collected nearly a half-billion dollars more sales tax last year than in 2016, when Amazon began charging Colorado shoppers sales tax.

With so many people buying from Amazon to avoid going out to shop, find out how much Amazon tax revenue means to your community. As of Jan. 1, 2019, Amazon collects local sales tax for orders delivered to specific localities within the state. Your local tax assessor’s offices should know how much that means to your community, even if they do not say how much an individual retailer produces in tax revenue.

In Texas, internet sales taxes do not necessarily go to the town where the person who bought the item lives. That quirk means that some towns have actually seen sales tax revenue rise in the pandemic.

Just before the pandemic hit, Georgia enacted a so-called “third-party” tax rule that places sales taxes on internet sales. Some estimates said that would recognize at least $78 million, and local governments would see at least $65 million in the first year.

The Colorado Sun explained:

Amazon now collects sales tax in 46 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Last year, it collected and remitted nearly $9 billion in sales and use taxes to states and localities in the U.S. And its sales have increased during the pandemic: Revenues jumped 26% in the first quarter from a year earlier as consumers faced stay-at-home orders and hunted for toilet paper. Amazon now projects second-quarter sales at 18% to 28% more than the year-ago period.

Online retailers are now required to collect sales tax on purchases, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc. in 2018 that states may charge tax on purchases from out-of-state retailers.

Electric bills in a pandemic

When we stay home, we use more electricity. That means your July and August bills will be whoppers. NPR said:

Electric consumption offers a window into how families and businesses are weathering the pandemic. In ordinary times, home electricity use perks up in the morning as people wake up and start the coffee, then drops during the workday, when people leave for school, work and other activities. But the coronavirus has upended that predictable pattern.

NPR quoted an expert who said we may be sleeping later and staying awake later these days.

The pandemic has also blurred the usual distinction between weekday and weekend consumption patterns.

So far, the spike in home electricity use has not made up for the drop in commercial and industrial demand, so total consumption of electricity has declined. But Cicala says the gap is likely to narrow during the summer months, because of the demand for home air conditioning.

There’s a shortage of low-cost computers for schools

The latest pandemic shortage is low-cost laptops for kids who will be going to school virtually over the next few weeks.

Axios included these points:

“Sales have been up 20%-40% every single week,” said Stephen Baker, a consumer tech analyst with The NPD Group. “Some of the education channel sales got pulled forward into March and April, but there’s been no overall slowdown.”

“Not even close.” That was the response from Gregg Prendergast, Acer America president, when asked if there will be enough Chromebooks to satisfy remote learning needs at the time of reopening. He adds that demand is “historic,” and that just last week Acer received requests for hundreds of thousands of new devices from government officials in both California and Nevada.

Best Buy’s website shows 28 models of Chromebooks priced under $400. As of Friday morning, 24 of those models were sold out.

This is what you see when you try to order one:

(Screenshot)

There are estimates that 700,000 students will need laptops in California alone.

Learning pods — nice if you are rich

We all saw this one coming a month ago when “learning pods” became part of our COVID-19 lexicon. As expected, pods that hire private teachers to teach small cohorts of kids are a nice idea if you can afford it.

What about the masses who can’t? Chalkbeat looked at some problem solvers who are finding solutions in a community north of Denver:

Administrators in the district of 39,000 students, where about 40% of children are eligible for subsidized meals, were initially overwhelmed at the thought of creating pods akin to those formed by wealthy families to handle remote learning and home schooling during the pandemic, said Tara Peña, the district’s executive director of middle schools.

“We kind of all sat there a little dumbfounded for 24 hours, like, ‘How the heck are we going to do this?’” she said.

Since then, district officials have worked around the clock to coordinate the logistics and now say they hope to have two to three pods per grade level at all 41 elementary, middle, and K-8 schools. The pods will include up to 10 students at the elementary level and 15 at the middle school level, and will be staffed by teacher aides, substitutes, and other adults paid by the district.

“It’s not “Can we do this?’ Peña said. “It’s, ‘we need to do this.’”

Chalkbeat described efforts around the country in Memphis, Tennessee; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Indianapolis, Indiana, where schools districts and charities are knitting together solutions.

In Indianapolis, where classes will begin remotely later this month, officials are creating learning “hubs” where homeless students can complete their remote schoolwork. The district also plans to offer some therapies and interventions in person. And it has also started working with community partners to create a “student support network” where other students can do virtual work with supervision.

Special education students are losing more than class time

The Washington Post reported on how kids with special needs will lose more than learning when schools go virtual. They lose access to key human interactions:

In the conversations about whether to reopen school buildings — or even how to shape virtual learning — parents of special education students fear that the unique needs of their children are not being urgently considered. Their children are often in self-contained classrooms with just six students, and the parents believe there are ways to safely educate them offline, even if the entire student population isn’t ready to go back.

It’s a predicament that highlights just how complicated it will be to return to classrooms. Teachers — whose unions have been protesting the return to in-person classes — say this is the population of students who require the most hugs and comforting back rubs and who could struggle to follow social distancing and mask rules meant to limit the spread of the virus.

In classrooms, there are often assistants who help students with special needs to perform tasks like holding crayons or walking up or down steps. Speech therapy and occupational therapy also get lost in a virtual learning environment.

Journalists would do a great service by exploring how the school systems are trying to serve the complex needs these students and their families face.

What is Roblox? Ask your kid

Times of uncertainty create winners and losers. Roblox is a winner. Never heard of it? Let The New York Times clue you in on this gaming app with some fairly stunning numbers.

Since February, the number of active players on Roblox has jumped about 35% to reach 164 million in July, according to RTrack, a site that tracks Roblox data. About three quarters of American children ages 9 to 12 are now on the platform, according to Roblox. And players spent 3 billion hours on the site and app in July, twice as much as they did in February, the company said.

Roblox is not one game, it is a gateway to millions of games.

The times in which we live

The most searched term on Google after former first lady Michelle Obama’s speech was from people trying to buy a necklace like hers. CNN noted:

The gold charm letters on Obama’s necklace spelled the word “VOTE.” The necklace was custom-commissioned by Obama from Los Angeles-based jeweler BYCHARI, a source with knowledge of the necklace purchase tells CNN. BYCHARI was started in 2012 by designer Chari Cuthbert, who notes the brand’s support of various social justice causes as part of its messaging via a page on the company’s website.

The necklace goes for $295.

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.