A Journey Closer to the Hot Zone (C+66)

“Don’t forget your mask.”

I haven’t been in a place where people are actually expected to gather since March 6. I have so much to remember as I re-enter the world.

I have to remember to get all my keys. Where are all my keys? My car keys are on my dresser. One of my house keys is loose; it’s been off its ring since March because I take it with me when I go out running.

I haven’t been out running since the weather got hot. It’s routinely in the 80s, 90s, and even low 100s now. With humidity, it’s intolerable outside. The loose key has been sitting for weeks on a ledge by the front door, unused except for an occasional ill-conceived walk in the heat.

I gather up the keys. I pocket my phone. I get my face mask from the container in the kitchen. I say goodbye to Jodi. (“Don’t forget your mask!”)

My throat clutches a little.

I’m heading to a medical center, which is literally one of the last places I want to be right now. In the best of times, a medical building makes me twitch. During a pandemic, it makes my skin positively crawl.

The trip to my doctor, nestled in Dallas, in a county that has seen record-breaking rises in COVID-19 cases for weeks, is a journey to the edge of the hot zone. In my mind, I picture the majors hospitals of Dallas – Parkland, UT Southwestern, Baylor, Texas Presbyterian – as bright glowing red embers where the sickest of the sick flow in … and some never come out. Highway 75 weaves through most of these hospitals, and while I am going to a small medical center away from one of the main hospitals, I feel nervous heading into a county slowly being overrun by the infected.

Of course, my home county hasn’t been spared this pandemic. We have more cases every day, using the 7-day rolling average, than we ever had in April. It gets worse every week. We broke our own record today: 186 new cases in one day. (previous record: 140) The positive test rate is hovering around 10%, double what it was a month ago. Testing is slowly going up, but so are case numbers.

Going from Collin County to Dallas County is like going from the urgent care clinic to the emergency room: it will be more crowded and more people in your immediate vicinity are going to be sicker than where you came from.

My skin crawls.

It’s irrational. But the embers of infection in Dallas and fuel of my concerns are fed by the oxygen of incompetent leadership and bad public policy. When Texas abandoned its people to SARS-CoV-2 66 days ago, on “C-Day,” the current situation was obviously inevitable. Anyone with a basic working knowledge of the germ theory of disease and an appreciation for how poor human behavior gets when there is no guidance or expectations could see this coming. The epidemiologists certainly saw this coming, but any kid with 10th-grade biology and a measure of common sense could have figured out that taking the brakes off public health measures during pandemic will only make things worse.

As I drive down 75 to my appointment, my skin crawling, what is truly sad is that I am actually relieved to be doing this instead of what I had been doing: taking required online teacher training mandated by my university.

I’m not opposed to teacher training.

I’m not opposed to making a distinction between online and in-person teaching.

I’ve spent years exploring the balance of these very two things in my own teaching. What frustrates me is who has been forced to take this 20-hour online course: only faculty who opted to teach remotely in the fall.

Since June 1, there have been 32 cases of COVID-19 identified in people on my institution’s campus. And students aren’t even back on-campus yet.

Why doesn’t this mandated training make sense? Why does it frustrate me? Two reasons.

  1. Standards: Why is my institution only now requiring faculty to achieve some minimum level of certification? Never before has my university expected me to carry any teaching certification of any kind. Why aren’t ALL faculty required to do this?
  2. Inequity: Why are faculty who opt out of in-person teaching burdened with this responsibility? Faculty are only allowed to opt-out of in-person teaching at my institution if they have a legitimate medical concern aligned with CDC guidelines. At least, when I applied for this exception those were the rules. I was only granted this option because we are (a) in a pandemic and (b) there is a serious increased risk of death or severe consequences from SARS-CoV-2 in my household. Why, then, are the most vulnerable – or those whose loved ones are deserving of this protection – given an undue burden to prove their value and merit? Basically, the assumption has been made that faculty who need to teach remotely don’t know how to teach at all.

What really made me upset about this teacher training was its mix of technical instruction (valuable for the fall) with teaching theory (arguably deserving of a separate optional course). The two are actually separable, but are made inseparable in the course. You have to wade through 40 years of information about teaching theory just to get to the exercises and finally the quiz. The course spends a lot of ink trying to explain why requiring rote memorization in students is only testing the lowest level of learning – “knowledge”. But then the exams are all 25- or 50- question tests based on regurgitation of rote memorization. (true/false, fill-in-the-blank, and multiple answer – precisely the thing 40 years of teaching research are not the best ways to assess learning)

So instead of suffering my way through one more quiz testing whether or not I know when to use the word “student” or when to use the word “learner,” I was actually looking forward to going to a doctor’s office … in the hot zone.

When medically necessary and consistent with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance, testing to diagnose COVID-19 will be available for students, staff and faculty…

From the institution’s fall reopening plan

I arrive at the doctor’s office and remain in my car. I call to check in. I am told to wear a mask inside and someone will meet me at the office door. I am ushered through reception and into a room. A quick patient intake is done. The main exam is delayed about 10 minutes while the doctor finishes up with other patients. When the doctor arrives, it’s a quick inspection and a brief conversation. I tell them just to guide me through what they want; I tell them I haven’t really been in a public place since March 6. We get on the conversation of how school’s like mine reopening in the fall. The doctor starts going on about “as long as they have lots of testing to catch cases before they get out of control…” I tell them no such plan is in place – rather, my university will only allow people to get tests for whom it’s “medically necessary” – no snapshot testing.

Since June 1, there have been 32 cases of COVID-19 identified in people on my institution’s campus. And students aren’t even back on-campus yet.

The doctor doesn’t really know what to say to that. We seem to agree that the plan in place for now is going to simply lead to outbreaks and then having to shut down in-person teaching.

The delivery of high-quality, on-campus classroom instruction will continue … providing our students with valuable in-person interaction with faculty members and with each other. Additionally, high-quality remote instruction – often in tandem with in-person classroom instruction – will provide the University with the flexibility necessary to support social distancing while encouraging the use of innovative and creative technologies.  

From my institution’s reopening plan.

And what then? When all those faculty who opted to teach in-person (because it’s necessary for their class, or perhaps because they don’t want to take a 20-hour online teacher training course just to be allowed to teach remotely) are forced to go online because the campus closes under the strain of rampant SARS-CoV-2 spreading… will they have to take this course? Of course not! Who will have time in the fall … in the middle of an unfolding pandemic on campus?

Of course, who has time in the summer? I am paid in the summer to do research. June and July, my salary is paid by the American taxpayer via the U.S. Department of Energy. This is so I can be devoted to basic research with the potential to transform human knowledge. The taxpayer is NOT paying for me to take a 20-hour online teacher training course. I technically shouldn’t be required to take such a course until August, when I would normally prep for fall teaching anyway.

Many college faculty are not as lucky as me, especially lecturers and adjuncts: they are only paid when they teach; no teaching, no pay. Expecting those faculty to conduct university business when they are not paid in the summer is somewhere in the land of unethical… I’m just not sure where exactly. It make my skin crawl.

All of us who were granted remote teaching have to complete the training by July 31. So, I am forced to either take the class at night, on my personal time (uncompensated by my university), or take time away from vacation to do the course. I opted for the latter. I’m on vacation right now. I haven’t had a break since December, but I nonetheless burned two of my vacation days taking this teacher training.

We are looking forward to delivering the unique academic experience that defines [our institution], and to rekindling the energy our students bring to campus.

A message from our university leadership in April, 2020 and updated June 29, 2020.

This is faculty life right now. Like many college faculty, I am being told that I am expected to be on campus in the fall to “preserve the on-campus experience”. We know how to provide an education, regardless of the setting, so why pick the most dangerous setting?

Coronavirus doesn’t give a fuck about the on-campus experience, except in-so-far as 18-22-year-olds crammed into the same dorm assignments as before (seriously … not making that up) and not practicing the necessary social distancing and mask wearing will provide a perfect means to spread the virus. And while 18-22 year-old students don’t tend to suffer the worst consequences of the virus, people 40 and older do… those, of course, are the faculty and staff.

The University will open with standard housing occupancy driven by student choice.

From my institution’s fall reopening plan.

So to preserve the on-campus experience (the COVID-spreading experience), we will expose the most vulnerable to a large population of the most-effective spreaders.

Let that sink in. Higher education administration, folks.

Since June 1, there have been 32 cases of COVID-19 identified in people on my institution’s campus. And students aren’t even back on-campus yet.

But to avoid this nonsense and teach online, I have to take a course when, at no previous point in my decade here, has anyone ever cared this much about how I teach. To avoid the disease, I have to prove something no in-person university teacher is asked to prove. To be honest, I am not sure what makes me more mad: the lack of teacher certification at the college level, or the inequity of this policy in the middle of a pandemic.

Take your pick. Heck… pick both.

I tried not to touch anything in the medical center. I got into the hot car, roasting in the midday Texas sun in an open-air parking lot, and popped off the mask. I sanitized my hands again. I started the car. I went home. There, I took a full Silkwood shower and sanitized my mobile phone.

And then I spent another 90 minutes finishing the online teacher training course. Afterward, I was angrier and sadder and more frustrated than I have been in a long time.

Since June 1, there have been 32 cases of COVID-19 identified in people on my institution’s campus. And students aren’t even back on-campus yet.

Coda

Many clear-thinking universities have accepted the reality of the pandemic recently. University of Southern California reversed course a few days ago and decided to abandon their in-person fall teaching model for online-only instruction, even if a fraction of students return to campus. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton just announced the same basic plan: online instruction even with a determined but modest population of students on-campus.

We wait for a sensible decision to be made on our own campus.

References

  1. https://blog.smu.edu/coronavirus-covid-19/smu-cases/ – cases on-campus.
  2. https://www.smu.edu/News/2020/COVID-19/Plans-for-fall-semester-2020
  3. https://blog.smu.edu/coronavirus-covid-19/2020/04/30/we-intend-to-be-open-in-fall-2020/
  4. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/07/harvard-to-bring-up-to-40-of-undergrads-to-campus-this-fall/
  5. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/06/fas-dean-confirms-teaching-to-remain-online-for-2020-21/
  6. https://yalecollege.yale.edu/get-know-yale-college/office-dean/messages-dean/plans-fall-2020-yale-college-courses-june-22
  7. https://www.princeton.edu/news/2020/07/06/princeton-announces-plan-fall-2020-guidelines-undergraduates-returning-campus
  8. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-07-02/usc-will-move-most-undergraduate-classes-online-cancels-reopening

Où est Lafayette?

For want of a photo-op for the President, the U.S. Attorney General ordered the forceful clearing of Lafayette Square last night ahead of curfew. This was all apparently so the President could awkwardly clutch a Bible and stand in front of a church. [1] Setting aside all the obvious things that are wrong with this (which have been well-covered in today’s commentary), I have been reflecting on the sickness of doing this in Lafayette Square.

Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, Gilbert du Motier, the square honors this foreign hero of the American Revolution. Lafayette commanded troops in the Revolutionary War, was wounded at least once and nonetheless managed an orderly evacuation of his troops, and became fast and lifelong friends with the founders of this nation, including George Washington. He had a rich and complex life, one which became interwoven with some of the most famous American abolitionists; the subtle disgrace of the atrocity committed in his square last evening was to affront his legacy on the liberation of slaves.

Lafayette opposed slavery. For example, in addition to speaking to the new Congress on the subject, he personally encouraged Washington (without strong effect, it seems) to find models in his own life, and for the nation, that allowed the new Republic to abandon slave-holding as a practice. Part of me wonders, if they had found a courageous way to follow his wisdom so early in the Republic, if the systemic horrors inherent in policing (with its clear and ingrained biases against people of color[2]) might be very different today. But history is too complicated for such simple wishes.

Nonetheless, last evening’s gassing and assaulting of peaceful citizens gathered in Lafayette Square, at a church, in protest to the horrors of systemic racism is disgraceful. It disrespects the disenfranchised Americans protesting an unjust system. It disrespects the right of citizenry to gather in public and peaceably demonstrate. And in addition to all these awful things, it is disrespectful to the memory and progressive vision of Lafayette himself, who would not live to see the Civil War, nor the real beginning of the emancipation he so eagerly and vocally encouraged.

21:02 June 2, 2020: This post was updated to indicate that U.S. Attorney General William Barr is reported [3] to have personally ordered the clearing of Lafayette Square. That said, I am a firm believer in the addage “The buck stops here,” referring to the office of the President… even if the President does not.

References

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/inside-the-push-to-tear-gas-protesters-ahead-of-a-trump-photo-op/2020/06/01/4b0f7b50-a46c-11ea-bb20-ebf0921f3bbd_story.html

[2] For a single example, one of countless, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/minneapolis-struggled-with-police-violence-and-adopted-reforms-and-yet-george-floyd-is-still-dead/2020/05/29/fe3ba110-a1e0-11ea-9590-1858a893bd59_story.html and especially note the ACLU study that found that African Americans, despite making up a fifth of the population of Minneapolis, were 8.7 times more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses.

[3] https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/500736-barr-personally-ordered-law-enforcement-to-push-back-lafayette-square

Eating the Seed Corn: Science Policy Links for the week of April 9-14, 2017

Signs and portents abound in rhetoric from the current executive branch of the United States. Science, the only known way of establishing reliable information about the natural world, should be essential as a part of policy decision making. I try to highlight places where science and science-related agencies in the US have abandoned policy making based on the most reliable information available about the natural world. This is for just the week of April 9-14, 2017.

  • Scott Pruitt, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, continues to march forward with a governing philosophy based on achieving a specific political outcome, independent of the facts about how human behavior impacts the environment – specifically, the entire climate of planet Earth:
    • Fact Checker: Pruitt’s claim that China and India have ‘no obligations’ until 2030 under Paris Accord“. Glenn Kessler. April 14, 2017.  The Washington Post. Scott Pruitt tries to build a case for abandoning the Paris Accord based on his complete misunderstanding of national obligations in the treaty. The Washington Post investigates.
    • Trump’s EPA chief Scott Pruitt calls for an ‘exit’ to the Paris climate agreement“.  Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis. The Washington Post. April 14, 2017. Pruitt makes the case for “exiting” the Paris Accord. Rather than embracing the economic opportunities that diminishing the old way of fueling economies might bring, he instead abandons the power of the free market in a misguided attempt to prop up the worst parts of the fossil fuel energy industry. He makes the case based on a complete falsehood that will appeal to some desperate sectors of America (e.g. places affects by the closure of coal mines due to competition with natural gas) but which has nothing to do with reality.
  • National Academies Releases Sweeping Review of Research Misconduct and ‘Detrimental’ Practices“. American Institute of Physics FYI Bulletin. April 12, 2017. Science is a process for establishing reliable information, and each stage of the process is flawed but together, and repeated over and over, they work to ferret out unreliable information. The NAS have released a report recommended ways the current way of implementing science in the US could be improved. Science is about improving by identifying flaws and errors. Finding them doesn’t make science weaker; in fact, that makes science even stronger as a way of knowing. Other systems, like political thought, that don’t admit error and instead shift blame are permanently flawed.
  • Obama’s ‘clean coal’ investments are now helping Trump officials push fossil fuels“. Chris Mooney. The Washington Post. April 13, 2017. Ironically, the push to develop coal power plants that sequester much of their carbon output was provided by the Obama administration, and now Trump and his administration constantly tout “clean coal” – but they forget to tell the American public it will cost them about 4x more for clean coal than standard coal, and so they hide the economic reality behind an equivocation that sounds good and means nothing. And the push to mine more coal is NOT with the intend to burn it cleanly, nor price the cost of mining it (e.g. health effects on miners) into the cost to consumers. In fact, right-pricing coal this way would only boost the economics of alternatives to fossil fuel and for cleaner burning, easier-produced non-coal fossil fuels like natural gas. And, after all, it was natural gas that already cost the coal industry the very most jobs over the past 10 years.
  • …Why Americans Increasingly Reject Expertise“. Diane Rehm. “On My Mind”, a podcast. April 14, 2017. Her guest, Tom Nichols, discusses his work entitled “The Death Of Expertise: The Campaign against established knowledge and Why it Matters.” Authority and expertise are NOT the same thing, though Americans often confuse them. A person can speak from authority but have no expertise in what they claim. Think a businessperson making claims about vaccine safety. How is it that Americans started to reject expertise? Diane and her guest-host explore this with Nichols. Nichols himself brings an interesting perspective on this issue, as he is professor of national security affairs in the National Security Decision Making Department at the US Naval War College.

Signs and Portents: Starving the Limb

President Trump addresses the U.S. Congress on Feb. 28, 2017. His scripted speech focused on a vision of a flourishing America, including science, while reducing the expenditures and scope of the federal government, the primary source of basic science funding.

On Tuesday, February 28, President Donald Trump gave his first address to a bicameral meeting of Congress. While not a “State of the Union” address – a President in office only 5 weeks is in no shape to discuss the state of the union over which they preside – this marks a moment when the President can lay out more specifics about their vision for legislating and leading in the United States. President Trump’s heavily scripted speech, a departure from his more typical off-the-cuff style of speaking, lasted about one hour. I read it with an eye toward focusing on issues related to science and science policy. The speech, in some ways, contrasts with the coming actions on science policy and science funding. While Trump laid out grand themes about the kinds of technology and medicine that might be possible in the future, reflecting on the nation’s first centennial for inspiration, his government’s actions behind-the-scenes and… soon, I expect… in the light of day seem to contrast markedly with that vision. Let’s have a look at some of the contradictions of words and actions, typical of the 6-week-old Trump presidency and the campaign that preceded it, on matters related to science and science policy.

Continue reading “Signs and Portents: Starving the Limb”