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Whitewater School Board Meeting, 9.23.20: 5 Points

The particular path of the pandemic – involving in Whitewater countless thousands of daily interactions between people – is understandably difficult to predict. Nine days after deciding unanimously to resume face-to-face instruction beginning 9.28.20, Whitewater’s school board decided to begin face-to-face instruction on 9.28.20 only for elementary school students, with a hybrid model of instruction for secondary school students beginning on October 12th.

(Secondary school students who are now in a district-directed program would continue in that method until October 12th. Secondary students who have selected a virtual model would continue with their instruction, unless they chose to return to district-directed instruction.) The approved motion included a board review of these instructional plans on October 26th (with revisions, if any) to be implemented on November 2nd.

The board approval of this course of action, on a 4-3 vote, establishes classroom-specific and school-specific metrics for monitoring or responding to COVID-19 cases within the public school system. The effect of this decision was to set aside a case-incidence measurement with series of color-coded tiers for determining school closures or instructional plans.

In this way, the Whitewater Schools have moved from relying primarily on measures of COVID-19 cases in the community to relying on the actual presence of COVID-19 within the schools for determining school closures or instructional plans. (In all of this, Whitewater’s school board could meet again and lawfully revise timelines or closure protocols.)

A few remarks —

 1. Uncertainty.  Once the novel coronavirus became widespread in communities across America, specific predictions about particular institutions’ ability to carry on were destined to be unreliable. The level of overconfidence about particular outcomes was always ridiculously unsound.

Far too many laypeople in Whitewater have played at amateur epidemiologist – and for it all, the community still needs (understandably) revisions to its plans.

Amateur epidemiology is something like alchemy or astrology – it’s only reasonable to the unreasonable. 

An obvious point: if this administration and this board – professionals all of them – discuss their consulting epidemiologist’s use of data, they should be speaking on the record with him or reviewing an opinion letter from him. One doesn’t question his analysis, but then one can’t even review his analysis if it is not presented in his own words (in this case, his analysis on disaggregation). There is not a single professional in this district or on this board who would have presented a thesis or dissertation without review. The district should have, at least, offered at the meeting an opinion letter from the epidemiologist for review.

 2. Sound Assumptions. From an earlier post on the 9.14.20 board meeting: “There are, however, two sound assumptions that require no training at all: parents will be unforgiving about injuries to their children and the true test of all past and current estimates begins now that school returns to session (for K12 and for the local college campus).”

 3. What Happens Next. It’s what happens when many are back that matters most. So much talk, and yet so little actual experience in the classroom…

 4. Getting Parents Back to the District. Over 200 students have enrolled in other districts, and there is a hope that they will return to Whitewater when face-to-face instruction (even as a hybrid model) begins. One of the board members mentioned the importance of reversing this outbound trend, and no doubt it weighs on others’ minds, too.

And yet, and yet — the cultural evolution of the communities within the district has made it less likely each year that all these families would remain in the district. Even without the pandemic, the diverging cultural and social paths of Whitewater and the smaller towns that comprise the rest of the district will lead to more departures. It’s not that others want these families to leave — it’s that some parents, themselves, will want to leave.

Economically, the district benefits from many families, but the present boundaries of the district no longer represent communities so alike that they want to follow with all others “every day…in a unified way.”

No culturally insightful person drawing the boundaries of the district today would have chosen to group Whitewater and these several smaller communities together. The present boundaries look like a 19th century Englishman’s idea of drawing lines across Africa without regard to indigenous cultures. 

This grouping may seem like a permanent economic necessity, but a nearly-inexorable, slow drifting in different directions will work its will over the next decade or two. Even if the district remains unified formally, it will become less so in practice.

This will be a hard subject locally, but some trends are impossible to ignore.

 5. Asides.

PowerPoint slides that list options should have titles so different from each other that there’s no doubt for residents about which options are being considered. No one should be asking what ‘Option A,’ for example, means. Taking notes during the meeting avoids this problem, but a presentation should be plain enough that notes are not necessary for residents.

Board members’ anecdotal accounts of instructional methods during the pandemic are interesting but so limited that they account for only a tiny portion of the overall daily instructional experience.

Accounts of being swayed by heartfelt letters, with no details about the letters’ content, are unpersuasive as a basis for sound policy. It matters more for a board member to reason well than to make an emotional appeal (see point 2, above). The decisions are hard, yet it’s not an emotional bond between board members or administrators and parents but a practical outcome that matters.

Parents’ feelings for their own children will, understandably, obscure any feelings they might have for officials.

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anonymous
25 days ago

This is right that no one knows what will happen next in Oct/Nov. Really funny hit on amateurs playing with stats. Embarrassing to say the least. Also touches the third rail on the future of the district at least on social side. It is not unified anymore. Easy to see you are on the “city side” of the issue but it’s honest to acknowledge trends regardless.

Attendee
25 days ago

How much do you think cost of families enrolling out mattered?

Karl
25 days ago

you know these guys are going to blame each other if anything hits the fan.