May 18, 2021

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.

Cash benefits will go out to 39 million American families starting this summer as part of the coronavirus relief bill.

Starting July 15, families that qualify will get monthly payments of $300 per child under 6 and $250 per child 6 or older. For instance, let’s say a family has a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old. That family would see $550 every month until the year ends. It goes directly from the IRS to your bank account.

You don’t have to file anything to be eligible. The IRS will use prior-year tax returns to determine who qualifies for the higher credit. If you have not sent in a 2020 tax return (and it was due on Monday), the agency will rely on 2019 returns. The credit will begin to phase out for those earning more than $75,000 a year, or $150,000 for those married and filing jointly.

CNBC explains:

Single adults with up to $200,000 of income (and married joint filers earning $400,000 or less) got the credit’s full value. The amount fell by $50 for every $1,000 of income over those limits.

That structure remains in place.

But the American Rescue Plan offers a larger benefit to low and moderate earners, according to the Congressional Research Service. Higher-income families will generally get the same credit as under prior law.

You can use this calculator to see how much you are eligible to receive.

President Joe Biden has asked that this tax credit become permanent.

By the end of today, 60% of American adults have had one COVID-19 shot, but clusters of unvaccinated exist

Todd Dowd, foreground, waits in line to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Thursday, May 13, 2021, at a mobile vaccination site at the Greater Bethel Church in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Not long ago, the notion that America could vaccinate 70% of its adult population by July seemed unattainable. But today, there is some encouragement. This week, probably today, the U.S. will top 60% of adults who will have gotten at least one vaccine shot. At the current rate of vaccinations, 70% of the entire population, including children, may be fully vaccinated by the end of August.

New COVID-19 cases are at their lowest rate since July and deaths have fallen to the lowest level since September, right before the so-called second surge.

New Jersey, New York and Michigan, which had all seen a recent rise in new cases, now are seeing cases slow.

(The Washington Post)

Southern states lag significantly behind New England and West Coast states in the percentage of adults who have gotten COVID-19 vaccinations. Only a fourth of the adults in Mississippi and Alabama are fully vaccinated. Two-thirds of the population of Vermont and Massachusetts have gotten at least one shot of the vaccine.

(The Washington Post)

Lowest vaccination levels

(The Washington Post)

Is 60% enough to prevent a new outbreak? One country’s experience

Once again, our focus turns to the tiny island nation of Seychelles, which also has 60% of its population vaccinated. The country of 98,000 people has 2,700 active COVID-19 cases. What’s more, the ministry of health says a third of the active cases have occurred among people who were “fully vaccinated.”

The country, which depends on tourism, opened its borders to anybody who had a negative test. While there is not conclusive evidence that tourists brought the virus with them, it is a leading theory. It could also be that the virus was in-country already and as people let down their guard, it spread.

Data is starting to arrive about how much virtual learning cost students

There was never a question of whether virtual learning would deliver as much learning as in-person classes. But now data is emerging that shows us how much was lost. And the news is not good.

In Tampa Bay, the two largest school systems are finding that the biggest losses are in math classes not as much for reading as was feared. The Tampa Bay Times reports the results for Hillsborough County, but you can look locally to see what the data shows:

On average, passing rates were down 3 percentage points in reading, but down 5 points in math. In 18 Hillsborough elementary schools, fewer than 10 percent of students were ready to take and pass the spring state reading assessment. For math, 32 schools were in that situation.

Math teachers were not surprised by the slide, and they said it happened for a number of reasons.

The first one is pacing. Districts expect teachers to cover specific skills at certain times of the year. Even in normal years that can mean leaving some children behind, and there was nothing normal about 2020 and 2021.

The Tampa Bay figures are similar to what other national studies are showing. Generally, middle school students have fallen the furthest behind expectations.

A Georgia State University study found some students lost the equivalent of seven months or more in areas like reading and math. The report says:

On average, elementary students who returned to in-person instruction during fall 2020 experienced at least one-third greater learning growth than their peers who continued to learn remotely, according to the groundbreaking report by economist Tim Sass, the MAPLE faculty director who led the research. The study is one of just a few independent, multi-district studies to estimate the pandemic’s impact on student achievement in the United States.

“The results clearly show the pandemic has had significant negative effects on students’ lives, including their academic achievement, with some students being more severely affected than others,” Sass said. “The good news is that our district partners are actively using these results and recommendations to inform long-term response plans.”

The Georgia State study recommends three ways schools can respond:

High-dosage tutoring for students who have suffered the largest reductions in student achievement growth. These programs would include at least three 30- to 60-minute sessions per week that are aligned with classroom content and that do not exceed three students per tutor.

Longer school days during the regular academic year that are individualized — with a group size of 20 or fewer students — and aligned with standard curriculum.

Between 70 and 130 hours of academically-oriented programs during the summer or other school breaks that have strong incentives for participation.

Summer instruction is getting an unprecedented amount of funding and attention this year. The National Summer Learning Association is a resource for story ideas and expertise. The NSLA produced this graphic:


Maskless graduations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new mask guidance will be on full display at graduations coast to coast. Some, especially those held outdoors, are making the decision to allow graduates to go maskless. Others require them to keep their face covered.

Either way, the changes in guidance in the last few weeks seem to have salvaged graduation ceremonies even though some will limit crowds.

There are always entrepreneurs who see opportunity in confusion. Some are selling masks with graduation logos on them. Maybe they will be keepsakes.

Vaccine trials for little kids are underway

It is unlikely that the Food and Drug Administration and CDC will be ready to approve vaccines for the youngest children before school begins this fall. NPR reports the latest:

Pfizer is planning to apply to the Food and Drug Administration in September for emergency authorization of the vaccine for children aged 2 to 11. Moderna is also conducting clinical trials in small kids for its vaccine.

Currently there are a lot more families willing to volunteer in trials than spaces available in the trials. Historically it’s much easier to recruit kids for studies during active disease outbreaks. COVID-19 has killed more than 300 kids across the country.

“That actually represents one of the top 10 causes of death in children right now,” says Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Stanford Medicine who is leading the trial. “And there have been thousands of children hospitalized.”

Disney loosens mask rules and crowd sizes

Guests wear face masks while riding the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train attraction at Walt Disney World Resort’s Magic Kingdom on Thursday, August 13, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

For a lot of us, the nation and global shutdown got real when three things happened a year ago. Tom Hanks got infected, the NCAA basketball tournament was canceled, and Disney closed. Now, Disney says it is not requiring masks outdoors and it is lifting its attendance capacity. We still do not know exactly how much they are reopening. The theme parks are also recalling about 80% of the employees.

Working a 55-hour week is ‘hazardous’ to your health

A new study published by the World Health Organization says working 55 hours or more is a serious health hazard. Agence France-Presse summarizes:

The study concluded that working 55 hours or more per week was associated with an estimated 35 percent increase in the risk of suffering a stroke, and a 17 percent rise in the risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35 to 40 hours.

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths due to heart disease linked to long working hours increased by 42 percent, while the figure for strokes went up by 19 percent.

Most of the recorded deaths were among people aged 60 to 79, who had worked 55 hours or more per week when they were between 45 and 74 years old.

“With working long hours now known to be responsible for about one-third of the total estimated work-related burden of disease, it is established as the risk factor with the largest occupational disease burden,” the WHO said.

Did you forget how to drive and park during the pandemic?

The Washington Post says a year of sticking close to home may have allowed our driving and parking skills to rust:

Unfortunately, rusty drivers will be returning to roadways that have become more dangerous since the onset of the pandemic. The traffic fatality rate per mile jumped by 24 percent in 2020, according to the National Safety Council — despite a drop in miles driven.

In the early days of the pandemic, Texas transportation researcher Robert Wunderlich imagined that, with fewer drivers on the road, the state might log its first day without a traffic fatality in two decades. But that hasn’t been the case. People are driving faster and more carelessly than they did in the past, he said.

“People learned how to drive differently,” said Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Speed is one of the biggest factors in car crashes, and he theorizes that during the pandemic, when traffic was lighter, drivers felt liberated to accelerate. He’s not confident that behavior will shift post-pandemic, which means the roads could remain more dangerous than they once were, at least for the foreseeable future.

I don’t think I have lost any driving skills. But after traveling nearly every week for years, I do have some lack of confidence in my ability to navigate airports like a pro again.

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

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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,…
Al Tompkins

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