An exit interview with founders of the COVID Tracking Project!

And a look at efforts to remove police from schools

Many of you reading this have probably heard of the remarkable COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer effort to collect information about the pandemic in the U.S. Even if you never heard of it, chances are many articles you’ve read or news broadcasts you’ve seen or podcasts you’ve listened to over the last year have relied on it, as it has grown to be one of the most trusted sources of information on the pandemic we have.

On March 7, the 1-year anniversary of its founding, the project is going to end its daily data compilation efforts. I had the opportunity to interview two of the project’s co-founders about what they’ve done, and whey they’re winding down at this moment. It was really interesting and hope you can check it out in GQ here.


I also have a story at The Appeal looking at efforts to remove police from schools, a movement that’s grown more energized since the 2020 racial justice protests. Last summer school boards in cities like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Denver and Portland, Maine, voted to end contracts with local police, and activists in Los Angeles pressed leaders to divest $25 million from the school police budget, and steer the funds to social workers and counselors. On the federal level, Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar and Sens. Chris Murphy and Elizabeth Warren introduced legislation to end federal funding for school cops, and new bills introduced this year in states like Connecticut and Oregon would also phase out police from public schools.

My story looks at the successful effort in Massachusetts last year to repeal its state mandate requiring all schools have police. Massachusetts passed its mandate in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. The only other two states to have state-level requirements are Maryland and Florida, both of which passed their laws in response to the Parkland shooting in 2018. I wrote about all three states, as well as ongoing efforts in other cities. You can read that here.

Thanks as always for reading, and subscribing! Have a great weekend.


Seattle Suburb Says It's Not NIMBY By Using Its Zoning Code to Force Homeless Individuals Out

And Biden's School Reopening Goal

Good morning!

I have two new stories to share this week.

The first, in The Appeal, was pretty disheartening to report. It’s a really classic example of how NIMBYism works in practice — where individuals insist they’re not being NIMBYs, that in fact they’re actually very inclusive and welcoming, but they’re just using their zoning code to make it harder for vulnerable people to live there. 🤷‍♀️

In states across the country — as part of a way to contain the spread of Covid-19 — counties moved homeless individuals out of congregate shelters (i.e. places where they slept in the same room) into vacant hotels, to reduce the likelihood of spread. Moving individuals into their own rooms ended up having a lot of other benefits beyond reducing transmission, researchers found, like improving their feelings of stability, health, and well-being, and increased rates of transition to permanent housing. 

Nonetheless, not all communities have been happy to host their homeless neighbors during a global public health emergency, and I looked at how the city of Renton, a suburb of Seattle, has been trying to get the 235 homeless people staying at a vacant Renton hotel out since April. First Renton leaders filed a formal code violation against the hotel and King County — saying they had exceeded the lawful uses of a “hotel” according to Renton’s zoning code. They spent the summer in legal proceedings.

By the fall Renton leaders moved to pass an “emergency ordinance” to “clarify” exactly under what terms a homeless services organization could operate in their city. While Renton says this is to ensure there can be homeless services safely operating in the future — that they’re not running away from the challenges of homelessness — homeless service providers say the new requirements in the zoning code will make it all but impossible for nonprofits to feasibly operate. And, the measure, which the City Council approved in December, would require more than half of those currently living at the hotel to leave by June 1. King County’s health commissioner begged Renton to not pass this amid the pandemic, but they did anyway.

You can read this story here. I think it’s important, and while it’s the most egregious form of legal resistance I’ve encountered to housing the homeless so far during the pandemic, it’s not the only example, and I’m sure it’s far from the last we’ll see if, as many experts hope, we are able to move more homeless people into non-congregate settings in the future.

The second story was published in Bloomberg Businessweek, and looks at Biden’s plan to reopen a majority of K-8 schools in his first 100 days. The short of it is that the goal itself is actually not too hard to meet, and may have already been met.

There’s no comprehensive federal list yet, but a private company called Burbio, which aggregates school and community calendars, has been keeping track of school re-openings and estimates 64 percent of elementary and middle school students are already seeing some in-person instruction, or have the option to.

The main point, I think, is that Biden meeting this goal, is unlikely to feel very “mission accomplished” for most families. “Reopened schools” can be ones where the majority of families are still learning virtually, or where students come into classrooms just one or two days per week to ensure social distancing. Reopened schools can, and often do, close again if a certain number of cases are detected in a school building, or if community rates rise to a certain point. What metrics should trigger closures is a big point of debate nationwide. And how the B.1.1.7 variant is going to affect transmission in late March/April is a big question mark everyone is rightfully thinking about. You can read that story here.

Thanks as always for reading, and supporting this work.


Utility shutoffs, utility debt

And a look at how conservative groups are capitalizing on Covid-19 school frustrations

Today I have a new story out at CityLab that looks at two things: what are we going to do about utility disconnections for the remainder of the pandemic? And then what are we going to do about the mounting debt people have from unpaid heat, water, and broadband bills when the pandemic ends?

I reported some on this issue back in October, but we’re in a different spot now for a few reasons. One, Joe Biden is president, and Democrats have control over the Senate. That means the idea of a national utility shutoff moratorium — which passed the House last year but never got a vote in the Senate — has more of a shot. Though so far, Biden has only endorsed a national eviction moratorium, not one for utility shutoffs. The public health arguments for utility shutoffs are no less relevant today than they were six months ago; in fact, today we have more evidence than we did then that the patchwork of state moratoriums on utility shutoffs contributed a decrease in Covid-19 related infections and deaths. (Keeping heat on, water running, and Internet connected helps people actually stay home, stay clean, and avoid crowding with friends + relatives.)

But even for those people who have avoided utility shutoffs due to emergency public health orders, what about all the mounting unpaid utility bills? When and how will those arrearages be paid off? And how much debt are we actually talking about? You can learn about the issue and read the CityLab story here.

* * *

Yesterday I had a story published in The Intercept looking at the ways in which conservative groups are seeking to capitalize on the profound frustration many parents have with school closures during the pandemic. For example, Chicago teachers might go on strike soon, and a group of parents, represented pro-bono by the Liberty Justice Center, has threatened to sue the union if they do. The Liberty Justice Center is the same conservative public interest law firm that brought the Janus v. AFSCME case to the U.S Supreme Court in 2018, successfully challenging public-sector union agency fees. Other conservative groups are trying to use this moment to push through aggressive private school voucher bills (over 15 states have introduced bills this year) and as I reported back in July, advocates have been hoping to use Covid-19 to secure more subsidies for homeschooling. I talked with folks who track school privatization efforts about how school closures have offered new opportunities to groups that have long sought to weaken unions and traditional public schools.

Now, lest this be confused, does this mean parents who are trying to get their children back to schools quickly are all right-wing, or share the same goals as all these conservative institutions? No, of course not. I take at face value parents who say their objective right now is just to do right by their kids. What I don’t take at face value—and neither should you—is that a conservative law firm with a long history of waging anti-union litigation, is representing these parents pro-bono and doing high-profile media blitzes about why the Chicago Teachers Union is selfish — simply because they want to help children return to the classroom. We can understand that there are such things as self-interested third parties in politics.

Moreover, there are additional lawsuits against school districts, school boards, and state governments right now around school re-openings, not litigated by conservative organizations. But you can appreciate how if you are in a community angry at your school district for not re-opening schools, you might be less likely to oppose a private school voucher bill at your state legislature this year. You might even support the bill this year for the first time. So all of these things can be potentially mobilized, and groups are thinking about that.

I will add though, despite all the frustration that has existed this year, and continued reluctance around returning to school buildings amid the pandemic — support for public schools remains high and polls suggest the vast majority of families have no intention of pivoting to permanent virtual schooling, or homeschooling after the pandemic.

A new EdChoice/Morning Consult poll of U.S. parents released yesterday found most don’t think it will be safe to return for a few months. (Though there was a slight uptick in comfort among parents since December.)

But when you hear people talking about resistance to returning to in-person learning after schools have re-opened, I think it’s important to recognize the distinction that the resistance is returning to reopened schools during the pandemic, not after. (At least according to the best available evidence we have now.) I have another piece coming soon on Biden’s 100-Day-Goal to reopen schools, which I’ll send when it’s out.

You can read my Intercept story here.

Thanks so much for reading, and supporting independent journalism. Please consider becoming a paying-subscriber and/or sharing this newsletter with a friend!

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New FCC chair is good news for students! And a preview of coming climate change politics

And a bit more on school re-openings

Happy Thursday,

I have two new Intercept stories to share.

The first is on factions within the Democratic climate coalition. I’ve been interested in the dynamics between enviro groups and labor unions for a while, and I think this piece does a decent job of outlining where some of those politics stand headed into the Biden era. The story is hinged on the fact that the BlueGreen Alliance is staffing up big, recently advertising for 11 new jobs, including the 15-year-old-group’s first field organizers and federal campaign manager.

There is certainly a ton of overlap among climate groups, but there exist some significant policy differences too, differences that have been relatively muffled during the 2020 campaign season and with GOP control. While so far climate groups across the left-liberal spectrum have had high praise for the openness of the Biden campaign and transition team, and for his climate-oriented administration picks, groups recognize the rubber will eventually meet the road when it comes to legislation, and I tried to give a preview of what to expect. You can read that story here.

The second story is a piece on why Biden’s new Acting FCC Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, is good news for people hoping to address the digital divide, and particularly those interested in providing relief to students struggling to access internet at home during the pandemic. There’s a federal program known as “E-Rate”, and at $4.15 billion per year, it’s the largest federal subsidy helping public schools and school libraries get connected to the internet. Sen. Ed Markey authored the program way back in 1996.

There’s a restriction on the program though, that says the money can only go towards financing tech + wiFi in physical school classrooms and libraries. Meaning during this pandemic, schools have been unable to redirect their E-Rate money to help kids afford hotspots and tech devices at home. Some districts have found other ways to get this done, some philanthropists have gotten involved, but it’s been really uneven, unequal, and millions still lack reliable home internet. (Plus E-Rate purchases also come with substantial discounts.) Democrats in Congress, education groups, and Rosenworcel herself have been urging FCC Chair Ajit Pai, a Republican, to use his emergency powers during the pandemic to lift this restriction, so schools could redirect their E-Rate funds to help students get connected at home. He refused, but now with Trump out, Pai is out too. Rosenworcel, who coined the term “the homework gap” a few years back, is now the new chair. You can read more about that here.

The rest of this will be a few thoughts on school re-openings, so if that’s not your cup of tea, can duck out now :) But it’s been an eventful, sometimes headache-inducing few weeks for the school reopening conversation. Among other things, there’s been a lot of heavy-handed implications in the media that the public is turning against teacher unions for slowing down a return to in-person learning. This coverage often fails to reflect polling on who wants to return, and I want to point out that a recent survey of parents found no real difference between those who reported negative views of teacher unions now compared to before the pandemic. If anything they found an increase in support, especially among parents of color. From this summary:

The demographic found most likely to have a “strongly negative” view of teacher unions were white parents in the highest income quartile.

The other thing I want to note, because perhaps you got alerts on your phone or saw headlines this week claiming “Breaking: The CDC says it’s safe to go back to school as long as there’s masking and distancing.”

There was no new CDC guidance on schools. New guidance is coming, Biden signed an executive order on his second day in office directing HHS and the Education Department to write some, but this is not that. If you want to read my thoughts on the CDC article, you can click on the thread below. I’ll say here a major and unresolved debate at this point is what level of community transmission is OK to reopen schools.

Another persistent challenge in the U.S remains that our contact tracing is very weak, and we still are not testing often, especially asymptomatic cases. This hasn’t changed, and so when people say “we have very little evidence to show in-school infection” people rightly ask what would it take to meet that evidence threshold? Are we deploying the kind of tests that could reveal it?

I think there are many who believe regular testing is a “nice but not essential” feature, and all we really need for safety is social distancing and masks. I also think many of these people do not realize that plenty of the private schools they’ve praised for being open have long had more robust testing arrangements. The Biden admin, to its credit, seems very interested in expanding school testing.

I thought this story from Mother Jones reporter Kara Voght last month was fascinating and had some interesting overlaps with school reopening debates. She reported how restaurant trade groups have been filing lawsuits against indoor dining restrictions, arguing that politicians haven’t been able to sufficiently prove their eateries are driving spread.

Here’s one section from the piece:

Another suit brought by an investment company against San Diego’s takeout-only restrictions succeeded last week because the judge ruled the county had failed to prove that restaurants contributed to the recent surge. Indeed, only 9 percent of San Diego County residents who tested positive for the virus reported going to a restaurant in the two weeks prior to their diagnosis, according to the county’s contract tracing records. (California’s current shelter-in-place orders—which ban in-person dining, period—mean dining, whether indoors or outdoors, still has not resumed.)

Some have pushed back against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent decision to shut down indoor dining in New York City on similar grounds. Contract tracing data attributed only 1.4 percent of new cases from September through November to people going to restaurants and bars—a paltry percentage compared to the 74 percent of new cases that arose from at-home social gatherings. But Ranney said the study simply pointed out the limitations of contract tracing: It only covered 20 percent of cases from that timeframe because the other 80 percent of people didn’t know or wouldn’t disclose the source of their infection. “Of course people are going to know if they caught COVID from a household contact,” she explained.

The only science the National Restaurant Association considers sufficient for closing indoor dining is “data clearly linking sustained virus transmission to dining in restaurants,” a spokesperson said. “To date, there is none.” But the experts I spoke to stressed that, given all of the known factors of transmission and the urgent need to halt the spread, these public health decisions can’t wait for the data the lobbying groups demand. “In a world where you need iron-clad evidence in order to enact public health measures, we’d never be able to take any action,” Lipsitch, the Harvard epidemiologist, says.

Ok I could go on but should get to work. Thanks for reading. If you want to support more of this reporting in the future, do consider becoming a paying- subscriber. But either way, I hope you all are hanging in there and staying safe.


A D.C. dispatch ahead of inauguration

Hi, all. Today I worked with a group of freelance reporters and photojournalists recruited by to help cover D.C — which really no one knew what it was going to be like. Wednesday’s inauguration frankly feels like a very long time from now, so I can’t even really tell you what’s going to happen later tonight, let alone Tuesday or Wednesday.

But what I did know was that prior to January 6, and prior to Facebook and Twitter and all the other big tech companies shutting down right-wing social media organizing, today, Sunday January 17, was planned to be a big day of protest by Trump supporters. There were calls on Parler for Jan 17. to be a “Million Militia March” and the New York Times had reported that the extremist Boogaloo movement was also planning rallies for today. Earlier this week there were reports of an internal FBI bulletin warning of armed protests at all state capitals and in D.C ahead of the inauguration, and last night a new Department of Homeland Security memo was leaked warning of “heightened potential for violence” in D.C based on “observable indicators.”

And yet no one really knew what the day would bring! Partly, leaders admitted, because they had shut down some of the easiest social media platforms to track extremist communications.

I spent some time today talking with sellers at a local farmers market not far from downtown about if they considered staying home given all the potential for chaos. It was fairly crowded, and several told me their sales were actually higher than normal. You can read my dispatch for Insider here. (With professional photographs taken by freelancer, Alan Chin!)

Of course things can change on a dime, and there was at least one arrest made at the Capitol today (a 22-year-old Trump supporter who was armed), but for the most part, our heavily policed city was quiet. And it appears it was largely quiet at statehouses across the country, too. Here’s to hoping we can get through the next few days without a civil war.


On a different note, I was interviewed on WYNC’s On the Media program about how the school transmission conversation became so muddled. I admit it’s much easier to be doing the interviews than to be interviewed, but I overall enjoyed the opportunity. (Note: we talked for 50 minutes but our conversation was edited down to 17. But I do think they did a great editing job and captured the central points well.) If you want to hear some of my thoughts on the arc of the last year with schools and COVID, you can check out the segment.

Thanks for reading, and more soon! Stay safe.

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