9 points about school decision-making during COVID from a data expert

School district leaders must consider COVID realities and risks involved in decisions they make, communicate clearly and remain flexible—which includes being ready to pivot as the situation evolves.
By: | December 16, 2020
Getty Images, SEAN GLADWELLGetty Images, SEAN GLADWELL

Sheldon H. Jacobson doesn’t mince words about the lack of a coordinated effort to collect reliable data about COVID. “Data collection has been a disaster during this pandemic,” says Jacobson, a Founder Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois and a leader at INFORMS, an association for operations research and analytics professionals. “For someone who uses data and analyzes data, it took me months to get info from the CDC.”

Sheldon H. Jacobson, University of Illinois

Sheldon H. Jacobson, University of Illinois

Here are nine points about COVID data and school district leader decision-making during this time from Jacobson—who chose to teach in-person for the fall semester because, as he explains, “this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to teach during a pandemic.”

1. COVID is indeed a big problem that’s getting bigger.

“One of the things we know as we look at the situation now,” he says, “is that we are at around 250,000 cases per day. It’s very hard to get tested in most states. For every positive case, there are probably between two and four others who are also positive but can’t get tested or are asymptomatic. “The asymptomatics are really driving the wildfire right now,” says Jacobson.

By the time President-Elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, he believes we’ll see well over 20 million confirmed cases in the U.S., which he estimates is about 80 million infected. “We’re talking about big numbers right now,” he notes. “We’re starting to see vaccinations, but by the time the general population gets it in April, most of the carnage has been done.” He thinks we’ll be looking at 30 million confirmed cases by the end of summer.

On the testing front, the U.S. is averaging 1.5 million per day. “My estimate is that we need 30 to 40 million tests per day. We’re only 5% of where we need to be.”

2. School leaders must make informed decisions about risk.

Some districts shut everything down with a single case in a single school, while elsewhere there may be 10 cases within a school and the spread is being managed. “The data has to be a little finer,” Jacobson says. “You have to look at some important factors to inform decisions.”

Consider, he says, that “we’re not seeing these massive outbreaks in schools” and that socialization is part of the education process and kids are missing out.

However, looking at COVID age data, he says that people aged 50 to 64 have “a fair amount of risk but not enough to get attention. A lot of teachers fall into the age group. Often they don’t die but they get very sick and have long-term effects. This is kind of a forgotten group right now.”

Another key factor is weather. “It’s the coldest time of the year in the Northeast and in much of the Midwest,” he says. Everything being indoors may be creating a perfect storm.

“You have to look at the risks but you have to look at the benefits of reopening, too,” he says.

3. Employees should be treated as family.

And when employees are humanized in this way, it becomes clear that a district can’t force teachers to teach in a classroom. “I think in this particular case you have to give the power of choice to the teachers,” he says. “You get much more done when you view an organization as a family unit, when you focus on the ‘we’ rather than the ‘me.’”

While he acknowledges that giving teachers a choice of whether or not to teach in schools may only exasperate the teacher shortage problem, Jacobson reminds education leaders that they can be inspiring teachers to remain in the job at this time. “It’s been a great opportunity to rethink how we deliver education. These models of personalized education are very attractive, blending technology with human interaction,” he says. “I’m optimistic that the situation we’re in will put that more front and center. This is an opportunity to empower people to have opportunities.”

4. Decisions should be localized.

“There’s no one size fits all,” Jacobson says. “I’m not a big fan of statewide shutdowns. It’s so diverse within a state. How can you treat rural and urban the same? These things have to come from the grassroots up.”

To him, that means superintendents working closely with each principal. Some schools may need to go completely online as cases come up, while others will not. “It really depends on their footprint of space and how they use their space is absolutely critical,” he says, adding, “I get very uncomfortable when people have a blunt, ‘here’s what we’re all going to do’ approach.”

5. An exception is the concept of COVID testing in schools.

“This can’t be a school district-level decision,” Jacobson says. “This has to come from the highest level, ideally the federal government or at least at the state level.” Statewide programs are necessary for wide availability of testing.

6. K12 leaders should look to higher ed leaders as models.

One factor is that higher ed is embracing testing more. “It really does work, in allowing you to identify the asymptomatics quickly,” he says. “However, testing is not the solution. We can’t test ourselves out of the crisis in this country. It has to be used judiciously.”

Colleges and universities overall did a really good job getting through the fall semester. Besides surveillance testing with rapid turnarounds, many colleges got students to rally around the sense of community responsibility.

The higher ed institutions whose leaders have engaged in partnerships with all stakeholders have “done better than those who have played the blame game,” he says.

7. Communication helps people accept a situation in which they aren’t getting what they want.

“K12 can do so much better by communicating more clearly,” he says, adding that those who disagree at least understand what went into a decision. “Nobody is right or wrong. This is a pandemic.”

And school leaders should not just “communicate only the good stuff,” he says. “Communicate everything. If a superintendent hides, it’s only going to be worse. Tell the truth and people are willing to accept what is happening as opposed to what you may be hiding.”

“K12 can do much better by communicating clearly. But don't communicate only the good stuff. If a superintendent hides, it’s only going to be worse. Tell the truth and people are willing to accept what's happening.' —Data expert Sheldon JacobsonClick To Tweet

8. Decisions must fall on the superintendent.

“I believe the school boards have to provide input, but ultimately you need a single decision-maker,” Jacobson says. “This is new terrain, but the smart superintendent will engage all the stakeholders. And every superintendent is going to have conflicting information. They still have to make a decision, and they are ultimately responsible for it.”

In other words, superintendents must be transparent about their reasoning.

9. January 2021 doesn’t have to look like September 2020, nor does it have to look like June 2021.

“The way you start school in January may need to be different from how you end it in June,” Jacobson says. “You really have to adapt to the situation.”

That means remaining flexible. “Some parents will say they don’t want their kids to be in school,” he says. “No one is forcing people to come or not to come.”

Will educators and school leaders make it to the end of the school year? “I’m very confident we will get through this,” he says. “We’re a country that has battled many things. And the posse is on the way.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.