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Stein column: To beat pandemic, policymakers need to define goals

Rob Stein

Authors Dan and Chip Heath, who have written several bestselling books about success in business, offer some good advice about achieving goals: they must be reachable and specific. Goals, they explain, are not just resolutions; goals are measurable, resolutions are aspirational. For example, losing weight is resolution; losing fifteen pounds in the next three months is a goal. Contrasting to great goals that have been pursued with relentless purpose–for example, President Kennedy’s proclamation that the U.S. “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”–we seem to be winding our way through this current pandemic without clear direction or a means of measuring success.

With some notable exceptions, such as the clarity with which the federal administration is pursuing a vaccine to combat the coronavirus, state and national leaders have been slow to articulate measurable objectives or map out a comprehensive strategy. While we are waiting for the vaccine, which might just be the moonshot that helps return us to normal, what might be reasonable goals, and how might we measure progress, as we navigate this pandemic?

Earlier this summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with three of the country’s largest educator associations, proclaimed, “Educators and pediatricians share the goal of children returning safely to school this fall.” They touted the known benefits of in-person learning: not just academics, but social and emotional learning, healthy meals, mental health services, school lunches, and other vital services. Many people have seized on this, and other similar statements, as the clarion cry for returning to school. The problem is, returning to school safely is a resolution but not a real goal unless it is defined with specific measures.

A less often quoted passage from the American Academy of Pediatrics reads, “Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.” What, precisely, does that science tell us?

Enter Meira Levinson, Muge Cevik, and Marc Lipsitch, whose New England Journal of Medicine article also makes the case for reopening primary schools. They, too, lay out the moral imperative of opening schools as soon as possible but, based on research from around the world, identify three specific conditions necessary to reopening schools: first, lowering infection rates to acceptable levels; second, firmly establishing public health measures such as testing and contact tracing; and third, universal application of protective measures. Now that sounds like a strategy.

Defining acceptable levels is a moving target, but that’s partly because understanding of the disease is constantly evolving, and treatment methods are improving. The Harvard Global Health Institute and the World Health Organization recommended two indicators for determining when infection rates are low enough to start reopening schools: an incidence rate of fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days; and a positivity rate of fewer than five percent of people tested coming back as having the disease over the same period.

About a month ago, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment distributed a draft set of metrics using almost the same thresholds. Last week, the CDPHE produced a final draft of statewide metrics for tracking the spread of the virus. They increased the number of acceptable cases from 25 to 75 per 100,000 people because, “Clinical management of COVID-19 has improved significantly over the past few months.” Now, more than six months into the pandemic, policymakers have given us the means to monitor a goal.

It’s no wonder that the return to in-person learning has been so controversial in Colorado. Lacking a statewide strategy and clear metrics, each of the state’s 64 county public health departments and 181 school districts have been charged with feeling their way through the crisis. But the science is there, and the Roaring Fork Schools have decided to follow it.

That doesn’t mean our interpretation of the science is infallible. The science of the coronavirus is not like the science of Newton’s laws of motion; it is constantly shifting and there are still points of disagreement among experts. We stay in constant communication with three county public health departments, regularly consult local medical providers, and are willing to change our tactics as we learn more.

Everybody is frustrated that kids aren’t back in school, and the stakes are high. On one hand, students are missing out on valuable learning and life experiences, and their parents are saddled with the burdens of childcare which inhibit their ability to work. On the other hand, many more lives have been lost in the U.S. due to an incoherent strategy and an unwillingness to abide by the precautions that keep us all safe.

The American Academy of Pediatrics statement observes, “For our country to truly value children, elected leaders must come together to appropriately support schools.” A scientific strategy for fighting the pandemic, adequate resources for teachers and schools, and less political rhetoric about universal precautions against the disease would help.

Rob Stein is superintendent of the Roaring Fork Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt and writes a monthly column for the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.


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