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Reopening US schools is complicated.

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Reopening US schools is complicated.


Across the country, schools are wrestling with the difficult choice of whether to reopen, and how to do it with reduced risk. In Kalamazoo, Michigan—not far from one the main sites where Pfizer is frantically manufacturing vaccines—they plan to stay virtual through the end of the school year. In Iowa, a state without a mask mandate, kids can now go back to in-person learning full time. Meanwhile, in a school district in San Mateo County, California, that borders Silicon Valley, there’s no clear decision—and low-income and affluent parents are clashing over what to do

It’s been a difficult journey. Since March 2020, when most schools closed, districts have been asked to adjust over and over—to new science about how the virus behaves, new policy recommendations, and the different needs of families, kids, teachers, and staff. 

Now, as President Biden forges ahead with his promise to reopen most schools within his first 100 days, the debates sound as complicated as ever—and offer a glimpse into many of the difficulties of reopening society at large. 

The limits of “guidance”

Schools across the country have looked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance on how to operate in the pandemic. In its latest recommendations, the CDC says a lot of the things we’ve heard all year: that everyone in a school building should wear masks, stay at least six feet apart, and wash their hands frequently. But schools have found that even when guidelines seem relatively straightforward on paper, they are often much harder—or downright impossible—to put into practice. 

“There’s a difference between public health mitigation policies when we think them through and when we write them down, and then when we try to implement them,” says Theresa Chapple, an epidemiologist in Washington, DC. “We see that there are barriers at play.”

Chapple points to a recent study by the CDC that looked at elementary schools in Georgia. After just 24 days of in-person learning, the researchers found nine clusters of covid-19 cases that could be linked back to the school. In all, about 45 students and teachers tested positive. How did that happen? Classroom layouts and class sizes meant physical distancing wasn’t possible, so students were less than three feet apart, separated only by plastic dividers. And though students and teachers mostly wore masks, students had to eat lunch in their classrooms. 

Researchers also note that teachers and students may have infected each other “during small group instruction sessions in which educators worked in close proximity to students.”

Following the CDC’s best practices might be inherently difficult, but it’s also complicated by the fact that they are just guidelines: states and other jurisdictions make the rules, and those often conflict with what the CDC says to do. Since February 15, Iowa schools have been required to offer fully in-person learning options that some school officials say make distancing impossible. Because the state no longer has a mask mandate, students aren’t required to wear masks in school.

Jurisdictions following all these different policies have one thing in common: although case totals have dipped since their peak in January, the vast majority of the US still has substantial or high community spread. A big takeaway from the CDC’s latest guidance is that high community transmission is linked to increased risk in schools. 

“If we are opening schools,” Chapple says, “we are saying that there’s an acceptable amount of spread that we will take in order for children to be educated.”

Meeting different needs

Some schools are trying alternative tactics that they hope will reduce the risks associated with in-person learning. 

In Sharon, a Massachusetts town just south of Boston where about 60% of public school students are still learning remotely, pods of students and staff are called down to a central location in their school building twice a week for voluntary covid-19 testing. One by one, children as young as five turn up, sanitize their hands, lower their mask, swab their own nostrils, and place their swab in a single test tube designated for their whole cohort. To make room for everyone, sometimes even the principal’s office becomes a testing site: one person in, one person out. The tubes are then sent to a lab for something called “pooled testing.”

After just 24 days of in-person learning, the researchers found nine clusters of covid-19 cases that could be linked back to the school. 

Pooled testing allows a small group of samples to be tested for covid all at once. In Sharon, each tube holds anywhere from 5 to 25 samples. If the test for that small group comes back negative, the whole group is cleared. If it’s positive, each group member is tested until the positive individual is found. Meg Dussault, the district’s acting superintendent, says each pool test costs the school between $5 and $50, and over a third of Sharon Public Schools students and staff participate. 

“I’ve seen the benefits of this,” she says “And I believe it’s essential.”

Because schools are funded unequally and largely through taxes, access to resources is a common theme in discussions of school reopening. The state paid for Sharon’s pilot period, but not every district or school has the money or staffing to mount large-scale programs—and Dussault says the district will need to foot the bill for any testing once this program ends in April. It will also need to keep relying on the goodwill of the parent volunteers who wrangle students and swabs for testing each week. 

In the seven weeks since pooled testing began, Dussault says, only one batch has come back positive. It’s given her peace of mind.

And even with mitigation measures in place, there are stark demographic differences in opinion on reopening. A recent Pew study found that Black, Asian, and Hispanic adults are more likely to support holding off until teachers have access to vaccines. Those groups are also more likely than white adults to say that the risk of covid-19 transmission “should be given a lot of consideration” when weighing reopening.

Chapple worries that these parents’ concerns will be overlooked, or that funds for remote learning will dwindle because some districts decide to move to in-person learning.

She says: “School districts need to keep in mind that if they’re reopening but a small percentage of their minority students are coming back, what does that look like in terms of equity?” 

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How a tiny media company is helping people get vaccinated

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How a tiny media company is helping people get vaccinated


More than 132 million people in the US have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine, and as of this week, all Americans over 16 are eligible.

But while the US has vaccinated more people than any other country in the world, vulnerable people are still falling through the cracks. Those most affected include people who don’t speak English, people who aren’t internet-savvy, and shift workers who don’t have the time or computer access to book their own slots. In many places, community leaders, volunteers, and even news outlets have stepped in to help.

One of those groups is Epicenter-NYC, a media company that was founded during the pandemic to help neighbors navigate covid-19. Based in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, which was particularly hard hit by the virus, the organization publishes a newsletter on education, business, and other local news. 

S. Mitra Kalita, publisher of Epicenter-NYC

But Epicenter-NYC has gone further and actually booked more than 4,600 vaccine appointments for people in New York and beyond. People who want to get vaccinated can contact the organization—either through an intake form, a hotline, a text, or an email—for help setting up an appointment.

Throughout the vaccine rollout, the group has also been documenting and sharing what it has learned about the process with a large audience of newsletter readers. 

We spoke with S. Mitra Kalita, the publisher of Epicenter-NYC, who was previously a senior vice president at CNN Digital and is also the cofounder and CEO of URL Media, a network for news outlets covering communities of color. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: How did you start setting people up with vaccine appointments? 

A: It began with two areas of outreach. First, when I had to register my own parents for a vaccine and found the process to be pretty confusing, I immediately wondered how well elderly residents, their friends and neighbors, manage this process. I just started messaging them.

The second was when a restaurant [from our small business spotlight program] reached out and said, “Do you guys know how to get vaccines for our restaurant workers?” Because I had been navigating some of this for the elderly, I started to help the restaurant workers. There started to be a similar network effect. One of the workers at this restaurant has a boyfriend who is a taxi driver; when I helped her, she asked if I could help her boyfriend; then the boyfriend texted me with some of his friends; and it kept spreading in that way. 

Q: How is Epicenter-NYC filling gaps in vaccine distribution right now? What is your process like, and who are you helping?

“There’s a lot of matchmaking going on. We can sort through a list of about 7,500 to 8,000 people who said they need help, and then find places in proximity.”

S. Mitra Kalita

A: We’ve had between 200 and 250 people reach out to volunteer. The outreach efforts range from putting up fliers, doing translations, and calling people to literally booking the appointments. 

I don’t care if you’re a Bangladeshi taxi driver in Queens and your cousin is in New Jersey. We’re going to help both of you. A woman on the Upper East Side who’s 102 years old who is homebound and needs a visit is absolutely going to get Epicenter’s help. 

What we’re doing now is continuing the route of connecting people to each other and opportunities. There’s a lot of matchmaking going on. We can sort through a list of about 7,500 to 8,000 people who said they need help, and then find places in proximity. We’ve become this wonderful marriage—a centralized operation that also embraces decentralized solutions.

Q: We know that vaccination rates lag in many communities that were hit the hardest. Why is that? What issues and barriers are people experiencing? 

A: Just before the latest Johnson & Johnson pause announcement, I said, “We’re at a point where everybody remaining is a special case.”

I think we’ve leapfrogged to vaccine hesitancy without solving for vaccine access. We don’t see a lot of hesitancy, but we do see a lot of concerns over some issues. Number one would be scheduling. We’re dealing with populations that are working two, maybe three jobs, and when they say “I have this window on Sunday at 3 p.m. until maybe 6 p.m., when my next shift starts,” they really mean that’s the only window.

Q: People have been asked to prove who they are, where they work, and where they live in order to qualify for a vaccine. This was especially true when eligibility was more limited. How did you help people face barriers around getting the documents they needed? 

A: New York State has been explicit in saying you can still get a vaccine even if you are undocumented. But that messaging doesn’t really match the on-the-ground reality. 

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Police in Ogden, Utah and small cities around the US are using these surveillance technologies

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Police in Ogden, Utah and small cities around the US are using these surveillance technologies


One afternoon, I accompanied Heather West, the detective who’d been perusing gray pickups in the license-plate database, and Josh Terry, the analyst who’d spotted the kidnapper with the Cowboys jacket, to fly a drone over a park abutting a city-owned golf course on the edge of town. West was at the controls; Terry followed the drone’s path in the sky and maintained “situational awareness” for the crew; another detective focused on the iPad showing what the drone was seeing, as opposed to where and how it was flying. 

Of all the gadgets under the hood at the real time crime center, drones may well be the most tightly regulated, subject to safety (but not privacy) regulations and review by the Federal Aviation Administration. In Ogden, neighbor to a large Air Force base, these rules are compounded by flight restrictions covering most of the city. The police department had to obtain waivers to get its drones off the ground; it took two years to develop policies and get the necessary approvals to start making flights. 

Joshua Terry, an analyst who does much of the real time crime center’s mapping work, with a drone.

NIKI CHAN WYLIE

The police department purchased its drones with a mind to managing large public events or complex incidents like hostage situations. But, as Dave Weloth soon found, “the more we use our drones, the more use cases we find.” At the real time crime center, Terry, who has a master’s in geographic information technology, had given me a tour of the city with images gathered on recent drone flights, clicking through to cloud-shaped splotches, assembled from the drone’s composite photographs, that dotted the map of Ogden. 

Above 21st Street and Washington, he zoomed in on the site of a fatal crash caused by a motorcycle running a red light. A bloody sheet covered the driver’s body, legs splayed on the pavement, surrounded by a ring of fire trucks. Within minutes, the drone’s cameras had scanned the scene and created a 3D model accurate to a centimeter, replacing the complex choreography of place markers and fixed cameras on the ground that sometimes leave major intersections closed for hours after a deadly collision.

No one seemed to give much thought to the fact that quietly, people who were homeless had become the sight most frequently captured by the police department’s drone program.

When the region was hit by a powerful windstorm last September, Terry flew a drone over massive piles of downed trees and brush collected by the city. When county officials saw the resulting volumetric analysis—12,938 cubic yards—that would be submitted as part of a claim to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they asked the police department to perform the same service for two neighboring towns. Ogden drones have also been used to pinpoint hot spots after wildland fires, locate missing persons, and fly “overwatch” for SWAT team raids.

This flight was more routine. When I pulled into the parking lot, two officers from Ogden’s community policing unit looked on as West steered the craft over a dense stand of Gambel oak and then hovered over a triangular log fort on a hillside a couple of hundred yards away. Though they’d never encountered people on drone sweeps through the area, trash and makeshift structures were commonplace. Once the RTCC pinpointed the location of any encampments, the community service officers would go in on foot to get a closer look. “We get a lot of positive feedback from runners, hikers,” one officer explained. After one recent visit to a camp near a pond on 21st Street, he and the county social service workers who accompanied him found housing for two people they’d met there. When clearing camps, police also “try and connect [people] with services they need,” Weloth said. The department recently hired a full-time homeless outreach coordinator to help. “We can’t police ourselves out of this problem,” he said, comparing the department’s efforts to keep new camps from springing up to “pushing water uphill.”

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NASA has flown its Ingenuity drone helicopter on Mars for the first time

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NASA has flown its Ingenuity drone helicopter on Mars for the first time


The news: NASA has flown an aircraft on another planet for the first time. On Monday, April 19, Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram drone helicopter, took off from the surface of Mars, flew up about three meters, then swiveled and hovered for 40 seconds. The historic moment was livestreamed on YouTube, and Ingenuity captured the photo above with one of its two cameras. “We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at a press conference. “We, together, flew at Mars, and we, together, now have our Wright brothers moment,” she added, referring to the first powered airplane flight on Earth in 1903.

In fact, Ingenuity carries a tribute to that famous flight: a postage-stamp-size piece of material from the Wright brothers’ plane tucked beneath its solar panel. (The Apollo crew also took a splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer, as it was named, to the moon in 1969.)

The details: The flight was a significant technical challenge, thanks to Mars’s bone-chilling temperatures (nights can drop down to -130 °F/-90 °C) and its incredibly thin atmosphere—just 1% the density of Earth’s. That meant Ingenuity had to be light, with rotor blades that were bigger and faster than would be needed to achieve liftoff on Earth (although the gravity on Mars, which is only about one-third of Earth’s, worked in its favor). The flight had originally been scheduled to take place on April 11 but was delayed by software issues. 

Why it’s significant: Beyond being a significant milestone for Mars exploration, the flight will also pave the way for engineers to think about new ways to explore other planets. Future drone helicopters could help rovers or even astronauts by scoping out locations, exploring inaccessible areas, and capturing images. Ingenuity will also help inform the design of Dragonfly, a car-size drone that NASA is planning to send to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027. 

What’s next: In the next few weeks, Ingenuity will conduct four more flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds. Each one is designed to further push the limits of Ingenuity’s capabilities. Ingenuity is only designed to last for 30 Martian days, and is expected to stop functioning around May 4. Its final resting place will be in the Jezero Crater as NASA moves on to the main focus of its mission: getting the Perseverance rover to study Mars for evidence of life.

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