July 22, 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.

Friends and readers have mentioned to me this repeatedly this week that they are exploring alternatives to an all-virtual school semester. One option is for families to pool resources to hire a tutor who could teach a small “pod” of students, likely in addition to the virtual classes the kids would take.

At the center of this idea is a Facebook Group called “Pandemic Pods and Microschools” formed in San Francisco in early July. The page has grown to nearly 10,000 members in the last two weeks and tries to link people interested in the idea by ZIP code. Parents who have children with disabilities were especially eager for answers about how to make the idea a reality.

My friend Bethany Swain, who teaches at the University of Maryland, asked on her Facebook page:

What if we form little teaching pods where a few families get together to hire a tutor, rotate through parents taking the lead to facilitate instruction, or even just have someone there to help a few kids with basic problem solving while the students follow along with virtual instruction?

What if families could find a way to be safe in a “double bubble” and not spend September to January completely alone with only the same members of their family?

What if families got together to figure out their own rules based on the small groups, rather than how the county was forced to make single plan for thousands of students?

What if we got insight from the brilliant minds who turned their preschools and daycares into essential childcare centers, and learn from what has worked in the systems?

The Washington Post said the teaching pod notion is a real “thing” now:

Across the country, families are gathering with strangers in Facebook groups and friends over text messages to make matches. Teachers are being recruited, sometimes furtively, to work with small clusters of children. A Facebook group dedicated to helping families connect and learn how to do this drew 3,400 members in nine days, with at least seven local groups already spun off.

“This is a thing now,” said Phil Higgins, a psychotherapist in Salem, Mass., who joined with two other families to hire a woman to create a “pseudo summer camp” for their four children this summer. They are now considering hiring this woman, who normally works as a school-based behavioral specialist, as a teacher for 40 hours per week during the school year. She would help the kids work through their school-offered remote learning.

“We wanted someone who could do a better job at home-schooling than any of us felt like we did,” Higgins said. He said the cost would be about $1,300 per child per month.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported:

There is more than one type of pod being discussed within the groups. Some parents are considering remote learning pods that supervise a group of students doing assigned work or attending virtual class, others are looking to share caregivers for babies and toddlers, and some pods are centered strictly around organizing regular playdates a few hours a day or week.

The trend that has drawn the most alarm among educators, however, is microschooling, where parents hire a private teacher or caregiver to teach a curriculum or tutor a group of children. Rates vary and seem to still be very much in flux, but some discussions suggest they may reach $80 an hour.

Fog City Explorers, a new outdoor microschool run by private preschool teacher Rachel Weiss, is charging $2,000 a month for six hours a day, five days a week, with instruction for up to 10 children ages four to six. Weiss converted the microschool from a summer day camp she held, in which sanitizing supplies were in stock but masks weren’t worn unless kids were passing by people on the sidewalk.

“The families who are reaching out are typically two working parents who have kids that are young,” Weiss said. “It’s not developmentally appropriate to have kids learn on a screen, especially for long periods of time, and expect them to perform well.”

Some parents are worried that this microschool movement could widen the gap between the have and have-not children whose parents cannot afford to even partially pay to hire a tutor.

Educators sue over COVID-19 reopenings. This is just the beginning.

The Florida Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over the state’s plans to reopen schools. As cases in Florida surged, the governor’s administration ordered schools to reopen five days a week. The lawsuit accuses the governor of violating a Florida law that requires schools to be “safe” and “secure.” It also asks a state court to ensure that local governments and health departments, and not the governor or other state departments, control school reopening plans.

Don’t be shocked if this is just the first of its kind.

In the next couple of weeks, look for teacher unions to file more lawsuits to keep classrooms closed, especially in COVID-19 hot spot states.

An opinion column by a political science professor from the City College of New York published in the Wall Street Journal said that teachers hold significantly more leverage than you might think:

The reopening of public schools poses an economic conundrum: If the schools aren’t open, many parents will lack childcare and be unable to return to work. If parents can’t work, the economy can’t recover. Teachers unions are thus in a position to hold the economy hostage.

And, the professor said, even if the teacher unions can move fall teaching to virtual instruction, unions will have a lot to say about how that unfolds, too.

Expect the unions to push back. Emboldened by successful strikes in 2018 and 2019, they appear to be in a strong position. Unions have shaped districts’ online instruction since the lockdown. They have sought to limit work hours and secure new protections for teachers.

Some unions have requested a new round of collective bargaining to deal with ground rules for video-conference teaching and to reimburse educators for the costs of working from home.

Teachers unions will seek to block any cuts, especially layoffs, salary freezes, and increased employee pension contributions. Unions are asking for additional funds to reopen schools on top of the $13.5 billion provided by the Cares Act.

On June 10, the (American Federation of Teachers) demanded an additional $117 billion in federal money. Without this, the union said, “school buildings will stay shuttered and America’s families will endure another academic year of at-home learning.”

EdWeek has a continually updated list of what school systems nationwide are planning. It is not an exhaustive list, but it is a broad snapshot. EdWeek said, “As of July 17, 4 of the 10 largest school districts are choosing remote learning only as their back-to-school instructional model.”

Distance interrogating: COVID-19 changes police investigations

The Marshall Project and USA Today surveyed police chiefs and investigators nationwide and discovered that the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way police interrogate people.

Detectives in Philadelphia, Miami and elsewhere said they are increasingly conducting interviews of suspects, witnesses and victims out in the street and six feet apart, instead of indoors. In Clearwater, Florida, for instance, they’re often doing so in the parking lot outside of their station.

And when officers do bring people back to the precinct, many have started questioning people from another room, via Zoom or Skype — or at least from the other end of a large conference table.

This is frustrating to some police who say they rely on physical proximity to intimidate suspects into telling the truth, or to read their facial expressions and eye contact for clues as to whether they are lying. The fact that masks are now largely required during interrogations, some say, is also obstructing this sort of nonverbal information-gathering.

The Marshall Project said that some police departments are foregoing face-to-face interrogations altogether:

As early as mid-March, officers in Miami were weighing the health risks of every potential interrogation, according to Armando R. Aguilar, assistant chief of the Miami Police Department. They are now only bringing suspects inside — into their squad cars and offices — in the most serious cases, including murders, rapes and armed robberies.

“If it’s something like a single auto theft, and we already have the evidence we need, we’re foregoing a formal interview,” Aguilar said.

USA Today pointed out how the changes might affect policing:

More outdoor interrogations could mean more bystanders’ eyes on what the interrogators say and do — in other words, more civilian oversight of police. Similarly, more interviews conducted by videoconference between the rooms of a police station should leave little legal excuse for cops not to record the footage, in turn allowing judges and juries to see whether a confession was fairly obtained. Remote questioning also allows a department’s best interviewer to conduct the interrogation even if he or she can’t be there in person.

Walmart will close on Thanksgiving. Pandemic Black Friday will likely be a big change.

This is just an alert to get your cranberry sauce early. Walmart said it is closing stores Thanksgiving Day and will give workers a $300 bonus. So far this year, Walmart’s online sales are up 74%, in-store sales are up 10% and, in the first quarter of the year, which included the beginning of the pandemic, profits hit $3.99 billion.

Some analysts are saying that the Walmart plan is the first wave in what will be a whole new way of thinking about Black Friday and holiday sales in 2020. Cyber Monday-type sales may be more important than in-store sales in a pandemic.

Air travel plunges and now is stuck

By the end of the week, we will have a clear idea of how in the dumps airlines are as they report their quarterly earnings. United Airlines reported yesterday while American and Southwest Airlines will report Thursday morning.

But we do not have to wait to know that summer travel has not rebounded. The Transportation Security Administration already provided the data:


Don’t think of this just as an airline story. The ripple effect touches parts suppliers and airplane makers, mechanics, flight attendants, pilots, reservation and desk agents, cleaning crews, ground workers, baggage handlers, fuel suppliers, airport workers, travel agents, airport retail workers and more. Add, too, all of the other industries related to travel including hotels and car rental and rideshare companies, and it goes on and on.

Economists said the ripples will continue for years.

Just look at one city, New York. The city estimated it has lost around 65 million tourists because of the pandemic. The New York Times looked at how that affects three places: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is struggling financially; Yankee Stadium, which is missing 40,000 fans every game day; and Broadway theaters, closed since mid-March through the end of the year.

You could do something similar. Show the ripple of the travel economy where you are by looking at how it affects people and businesses, both at the airport and way beyond.

Is mask acne a real thing?

Now that President Trump says wearing a mask is “patriotic,” there is another problem. Social media writers call it “maskne,” or mask acne. Self.com quoted a dermatologist who said, “Masks also provide the perfect humid environment for bacteria to grow in our skin, which can lead to a breakout.”

The Cleveland Clinic published a column that said:

“It has always been an issue in professions where you have to wear a mask regularly,” says dermatologist, Amy Kassouf, MD. “But now that the general public has to wear masks, the incidence of it has certainly increased.”

Dr. Kassouf explains that stress from the pandemic, as well as the local irritation from your mask, can make maskne more likely.

When you breathe or talk, your mask tends to trap in a lot of hot air. Besides being annoying, this air creates a warm, humid environment — and an ideal setting for yeast, bacteria and other flora, such as demodex (types of skin mites that naturally live on our skin), to grow.

According to Dr. Kassouf, a good foaming cleanser will help keep your skin clean and calm. If your skin is more acne-prone, she recommends looking for something with salicylic acid.

Occasionally washing your face with a dandruff shampoo that has ketoconazole or selenium sulfide in it can also be calming for the skin and help remove excess yeast buildup – especially around the nose and mouth.

It’s common for people to treat their maskne with products that contain benzoyl peroxide. If you go this route, just be aware that benzoyl peroxide may bleach or stain the fabric of your mask.

So, wash your face, wash your mask, and if you have a maskne breakout, get a bigger mask and nobody will know.

Disney is wise to you

There is always a wise guy trying to play an angle, but Disney is on to it this time. Disney World said it has noticed some people not wearing masks while walking around the park holding food or drinks in their hands to avoid pulling a mask on. So Disney said guests must stay stationary while eating and drinking.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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