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.