June 17, 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.

7 million students in America attend special education classes that cater to their learning needs. But whether it was speech or physical therapy or modified instruction, teaching shut down for some when classes went virtual during the pandemic.

NPR explores this story, which deserves your attention. NPR reports:

Without the usual access to educators, therapists and in-person aides, these families, and many like them, say they watched their children slide backward, losing academic, social and physical skills. And now they’re demanding help, arguing to judges, state departments of education and even to the U.S. Department of Education that schools are legally required to do better by their students with disabilities. In complaints filed across the country, families say schools need to act now to make up for the vital services kids missed.

It is not just that students who need special education didn’t progress as fast as they might have, educators and parents fear they may have lost ground. NPR again:

In October 2020, RAND researchers asked a sample of K-12 principals to estimate how their students with disabilities would perform in fall 2020 compared with in fall 2019. A little more than two-thirds of those principals said their students with disabilities would perform somewhat or much lower than they had before the pandemic.

Will a fourth of all teachers really quit in the next year?

A new Rand survey says one in four teachers are considering quitting before the end of the next school year.

This may sound familiar since it is the same thing we heard a year ago. The latest figures do not show a significant increase in teacher resignations despite the dire predictions of the last year.

The newest survey — which was conducted earlier this year, before most schools reopened to students — found:

“Teacher stress was a concern prior to the pandemic and may have only become worse. The experiences of teachers who were considering leaving at the time of our survey were similar in many ways to those of teachers who left the profession because of the pandemic,” said Elizabeth Steiner, lead author of the report and a policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. “This raises the concern that more teachers may decide to quit this year than in past years if nothing is done to address challenging working conditions and support teacher well-being.”

Stressful working conditions included a mismatch between actual and preferred mode of instruction, lack of administrator and technical support, frequent technical issues with remote teaching, and lack of implementation of COVID-19 safety measures. Stressors relating to mode of instruction and health were ranked most highly by teachers surveyed.

About a third of the teachers in the survey not only were teaching other people’s kids remotely, but they had kids of their own at home at the same time.

Chalkbeat, an education website, reports:

While some news reports and polls triggered fears of a “massive wave” of teacher resignations going into this school year, that doesn’t seem to have happened.

But as the economy improves, and teachers have more options, will that change?

“If the economy accelerates with all the government spending, as I anticipate it will, outside-of-teaching opportunities are going to look pretty good, so we may well face some staffing challenges,” said Dan Goldhaber, a leading researcher on teacher quality issues at the University of Washington. But, he emphasized, such challenges likely won’t be felt across the board, but rather in subjects like special education and math and science, as well as in schools with more low-income students and more students of color.

Goldhaber, an economist, was always skeptical of a turnover spike amid the pandemic since people are less likely to quit their jobs during a recession, because it’s hard to find a better one.

There’s no complete national data yet — that will take years, if it ever comes. But some state and local data show modest declines, rather than increases, in teacher turnover.

Far from being a record year for teacher turnover, some school systems have held on to more teachers than usual. Again, Chalkbeat reports:

In Chicago, continuing a multiyear trend, fewer teachers have left this year. New York City also saw fewer teachers and principals leave last summer compared with summer 2019, school officials said during a recent city council hearing.

And, as a matter of perspective, teacher turnover is pretty high even in a typical year:

National data from 2012 found that while 13% of teachers in affluent schools left that year — either to switch schools or exit teaching — 22% of teachers at high-poverty schools departed. Turnover is also substantially higher among special education teachers and teachers of color.

This does not mean that your school system is not in a bind. Check it out and keep asking how high turnover rates affect learning. It is especially harmful if it happens mid-year or if a school loses experienced teachers in tough-to-replace areas like math and sciences.

When will the US-Canadian border reopen?

A car heads into the U.S. from Canada at the Peace Arch border crossing Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Blaine, Wash. The border has been closed to nonessential travel since March 2020. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

There were vague hopes that there would be an announcement this week about when the U.S. and Canadian governments might agree to reopen their shared border. But that is not in the cards, though it could happen next week.

The border has been closed since March 21, 2020, and it may not reopen until July, even though the current rules are set to expire June 21. The reopening has been delayed before and could be again.

The U.S. and Canada both still have strict limits on who can cross the 5,500-mile border. It is costing both plenty.

If you fly into Canada, you must land at one of four airports (Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto) and then pay for at least three nights at a designated “stopover” hotel (which could cost you $1,600, according to the U.S. government) and then you still have another 11 days of mandatory quarantine. People entering Canada must show their hotel reservation confirmation to prove they have a room in a quarantine hotel. Don’t even think about taking mass transit to the quarantine hotel and, if you want to drive there, you cannot stop along the way. During your three days in the quarantine hotel, you must stay in your room unless you have an escort. You cannot go to the gym or restaurant or pool.

The Bellingham Herald reports:

On June 9, Canadian Health Minister Patty Hajdu announced that fully vaccinated Canadian and permanent residents will no longer have to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days after crossing the border, opening the door for Canadians to travel more freely, according to a CTV News article.

But even travelers who have been vaccinated will still have to be tested for COVID-19 once they arrive in Canada and have a plan to isolate until those test results come back, CBC reported.

Even if Canada does not allow Americans who own property in Canada to enter the country without going through the quarantine protocols, some U.S. politicians are pushing to allow Canadians who own U.S. property, like a home or a boat, to come into the United States.

If you cross into Canada by land, you have to quarantine but do not have to stay at one of the expensive hotels. It is a rule designed for truckers who still cross the border moving freight.

If you violate the rules, look at what you could face:

Violating any instructions provided to you when entering Canada is an offence under the Quarantine Act. It could lead to one or both of the following:

  • a fine of up to $750,000
  • up to 6 months in prison

If a person breaks mandatory quarantine or isolation requirements, and causes the death of or serious bodily harm to another person, they could face one or both of the following:

  • a fine of up to $1,000,000
  • up to 3 years in prison

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has even higher goals than President Joe Biden, saying he wants at least 75% of Canadians to be at least partially vaccinated and a fifth of the population to be fully vaccinated before he lifts the restrictions. About 60% of Canadians have gotten at least one shot and about 7% are fully vaccinated. Canada has spaced out the time between the first and second shots in part to get more vaccines to more people faster.

The Atlantic points out that Canada is missing out on summertime vacationers, while people living along borders have other issues. On the U.S. side, tourism spots are hurting, too.

Republicans have complained that while Canadians can cross the border to be vaccinated in the United States, Americans who own homes in Canada can’t access them. A bipartisan coalition of New England governors has also written to Biden and Trudeau asking that they be allowed to give excess vaccine supply to Canadian provinces to facilitate the speedier reopening of the border. Trudeau has said he won’t be rushed. “We’ll make our decisions based on the interests of Canadians and not based on what other countries want,” he told reporters last month.

Africa sees a rise in COVID-19 cases

COVID-19 cases are dropping all over the globe, except for Africa.

African countries have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the world and they may be heading for a new pandemic peak. The World Health Organization says across the continent, weekly cases jumped 44% to 95,000 while fatalities rose 20% to 1,400 over the previous week.

A fourth of registered vehicles are 16 years old

We just hit a new record for the percentage of vehicles registered in the U.S. that are 16 years old or older. Fully one-fourth of the cars on the road now are pre-2005 vehicles. The average age is now 11.9 years. The data comes from IHS Markit, a company that tracks registration data.

There are several reasons for this trend. One is that the cars and trucks of today last longer than a generation ago. A second reason is that new and used vehicles are really expensive right now.

CNBC reports:

“A lot of it has to do with quality of the vehicles on the road,” said Todd Campau, after-market specialist with IHS Markit. “They are comfortable keeping that vehicle longer than they would in the past.”

2020 is the fourth straight year the average vehicle age in the U.S. increased, extending a trend over the last two decades during which Americans hang on to their cars and trucks longer. A decade ago, the average age of a vehicle in the U.S. was 10.6 years according to IHS Markit. In 2002, the average age was 9.6 years.

“In the mid-’90s, 100,000 miles was about all you would get out of a vehicle. Now, at a 100,000 miles a vehicle is just getting broken in,” said Campau.

With the economy struggling due to Covid-19, prompting companies to lay off millions of Americans, the age of vehicles in the U.S. is likely to rise. It may even climb at a faster rate, according to IHS Markit.

There is also an oddity in the newest data. CarScoops reports the U.S. is scrapping more cars than usual:

The number of vehicles exiting the active population climbed dramatically as scrappage “saw its highest volume in two decades at over 15 million units.” While an increase in scrappage would normally be accompanied by a decline in average vehicle age, 2020 wasn’t a normal year by any stretch of the imagination. Last year saw the first decline in vehicles in operation since 2012 as roughly two million were taken off the road.

CarScoops also reports that it appears people who buy electric vehicles are holding on to them longer than people who buy gas-powered cars.

Church, synagogue attendance is rising, but not nearly to pre-pandemic levels

Churches and synagogues say people are coming back … but there is an uneasy feeling that something may have shifted and will not shift back just because the doors are open.

New Gallup polling shows attendance rising, but attendance is the lowest it has been in eight decades, as long as Gallup has been polling on this question.

(Gallup)

(Gallup)

Gallup says younger and older people have mostly returned to church services at pre-pandemic levels. But 35- to 54-year-olds have dropped out in double-digit percentages compared to 2019.

Plastic shields may not be worth the expense

Sophomore Edwin Perez-Grandos studies surrounded by plastic barriers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on the first day of in-person learning at Wyandotte County High School in Kansas City, Kan. Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Bloomberg and others have been pressing for answers to whether we spend too much time on “hygiene theatre” that costs money and doesn’t do much good. Take, for example, the plastic shields that stores and offices erected to protect workers from the virus. Bloomberg reports that, collectively, we may have spent something approaching a billion dollars on shields that don’t do much good.

Not a single study has shown that plastic barriers in places like schools and offices actually control the virus, said Joseph Allen of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We spent a lot of time and money focused on hygiene theater,” said Allen, an indoor air researcher. “The danger is that we didn’t deploy the resources to address the real threat, which was airborne transmission — both real dollars, but also time and attention.”

“The tide has turned,” he said. “The problem is it took a year.” For the first months of COVID-19, top health authorities pointed to larger droplets as the key transmission culprits despite a chorus of protests from researchers like Allen.

Tinier floating droplets can also spread the virus, they warned, meaning plastic shields can’t stop them. Not until last month did the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fully affirm airborne transmission.

That meant plastic shielding had created “a false sense of security,” said building scientist Marwa Zaatari, a pandemic task force member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers.

Some stores are keeping those plexiglass shields. But experts tell The New York Times the barriers may not make much sense for workspace cubicles:

But the smallest, lightest particles can simply float over and around them. These barriers “may not provide enough benefit to justify their costs,” said Martin Bazant, a chemical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They may even raise the risk of disease transmission, by encouraging riskier behavior or impeding air flow.

There are some environments in which these kinds of barriers may still make sense. “It can be a really good idea for people who would otherwise have very close face-to-face contact, like grocery store workers at cash registers,” Dr. Farmer said. “But past that, in offices where you’re sitting for a lengthy period of time, there is no benefit to putting yourself in a plexiglass cage.”

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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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