Latinos in Georgia and more COVID school thoughts

Hi everyone,

I haven’t written since right before the election, but I’ve definitely been working to digest and think about the results — and I hope to share some thoughts later on here. I’m not rushing to issue any hot takes and my advice is to be pretty skeptical of anyone out there right now telling you with confidence what happened, and what it means. Especially if it conveniently reinforces the policy agenda they were advocating one month ago :)

One area liberal analysts have been wringing their hands over is the Latino vote. Trump made inroads with Latinos in Florida and Texas, that many Democratic operatives weren’t expecting, but Latino turnout was also strong for Democrats in states like Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and New Jersey. I think some panic among the political class would be relatively good, since even though Democrats turned out Latino voters, there’s no question that many party leaders tend to treat them as a monolith and fail to really engage with their communities. We had four years of panic about courting the white working class. I’d certainly welcome some of that attention directed to Latinos.

On that note, I’ve been reading Inventing Latinos: A New Story of American Racism, a book that was published earlier this year by Laura Gómez, a law, sociology, and Chicano studies professor at UCLA. It’s really great and agitating so far. I’ve been learning a lot, and reflecting on how much I didn’t know, and why that is.

I also have a new story to share in The Intercept on Latino voters in Georgia, how organizers are working to turn them out for the upcoming U.S Senate runoffs, and how political parties have inadequately engaged them in the past. I hope you read the piece. One thing I want to lift up that I’m not sure everyone knows: one of the top issues to Latino voters, both in Georgia, and nationally, is COVID relief aid. Latinos have been getting sick and dying at disproportionate rates from the coronavirus, in part because they’re more likely to be working in front-line jobs, and the federal government has failed to prioritize enforcing any real semblance of workplace safety. Also: the federal government denied stimulus checks to any household where at least one member is undocumented. That alone affected 488,000 Georgia residents living in so-called mixed-status families, including 176,000 children and spouses who are U.S citizens or green card holders.

(The HEROES Act which the Democratic-controlled House passed in May would give stimulus checks to all taxpayers, regardless of immigration status, and provide a retroactive payment for those who didn’t get a check under the CARES Act. But as we know, negotiations with the Senate have gone nowhere for six months.)

I want to also recommend this Twitter thread by Bill Spriggs. He’s the chief economist for the AFL-CIO and an economics professor at Howard University. Click here or the below picture to read the full thing, which makes clear some points about COVID and racial disparities that I think have really been getting lost in the discourse.

The rest of my newsletter today is a little postscript on my schools + coronavirus story for those who are interested. It’s been almost 3 weeks since it’s come out, and I thought I’d mention a few other things I’ve seen in that time.

Unfortunately many outlets have continued to mischaracterize, downplay, and otherwise ignore evidence about coronavirus in schools that complicates the massively simplistic narrative that “schools are not spreaders.” It’s been confusing and bumming me out, to say the least.

Anyway. In early November the New York Times published a story about how San Francisco public schools were still closed, even though its community transmission rate was not very high. I thought this was a particularly revealing passage from the story. As the saying goes, it “says the quiet part out loud.”

Put differently, many people who have been urging schools to open while community transmission rates are relatively low, know that rates are expected to go back up, and it would be harder to convince people schools are safe then (because they would, in fact, be less safe.) I think there’s also a correct recognition that the decision to close schools once you reopen them is much harder, so many advocates want to get them open while the political window still appears viable. Note: that story was published on November 1. Exactly two weeks later, yesterday, San Francisco re-entered the “red stage” for COVID-19 transmission.

There’s just generally been a lot of magical thinking about how a contagious airborne virus could spread among groups in all other buildings but not in schools. I think some of it also comes from people who don’t really understand how people behave in schools? Including getting to schools.

Last week, for example, more than 9,000 Mississippi students and 800 teachers had to quarantine for COVID-19 exposure.

“The schools have become one of the bigger issues this week,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said during an online conversation Friday hosted by the Mississippi State Medical Association…. While students and staff are generally safe during learning time in classrooms, infections are occurring during other hours, like when people are participating in after school activities, gathering for lunch or socializing in school hallways, Byers said.

In Montreal, the president of the Association des médecins microbiologistes-infectiologues du Québec said earlier this month that schools were the driver of their second wave.

…[The] Montreal Gazette has obtained data from the public health department and educational system revealing that the city’s mostly poorly ventilated and crowded schools are now reporting more infectious clusters than in the workplace and health-care institutions combined.

“The number of cases started to go up 14 days after the French-language schools opened and 14 days after the English ones opened in Montreal. Schools are certainly a driver,” said Dr. Karl Weiss, president of the Association des médecins microbiologistes-infectiologues du Québec. “It’s true for any respiratory virus,” Weiss added. “It’s true for the flu. It starts in schools, kids will bring the virus back home and infect the parents, and parents will get sick. Eventually the parents will infect their co-workers and it will spread to the community.”

Meanwhile, a lot of people have asked, well why are we keeping bars, restaurants and other retail stores open while schools in some areas are closed? Especially when European countries have done largely the opposite.

I very much believe we should be paying those workers to stay home as much as possible. Europe has done this more than we have. And closing other institutions could help keep reduce community transmission rates, which could then help schools stay open longer because there would be less probability of infected people coming into schools. We should prioritize and invest in making schools as safe as possible for as long as possible.

But I think, because we’re entering a period of the pandemic where community transmission is not expected to be low really anywhere, people are instead reaching for untrue ideas, like that schools are not higher risk even in those scenarios, or that outbreaks don’t happen in schools. Does that mean no schools should open? No, not necessarily; a lot of it I think depends on what kind of financial resources a community has to make a school safer, what the population in the school and broader community is like, what other policies are in place. There’s broad variability around things like air quality, testing, PPE. A friend of mine has been teaching in-person at a private school in the Northeast; educators at her school get weekly PCR testing. Public school teachers who demand the same thing get laughed out of the room. A recent study found two-thirds of elementary school classrooms in Philadelphia don’t even meet minimum industry standards for ventilation. Could someone, perhaps some education philanthropists, help pay to upgrade those old buildings? Sure they could. Will they?

Last week the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia recommended all schools in the region go virtual to reduce transmission, warning of a “catastrophic situation”. The director of the PolicyLab said he thought transmission “has reached the magnitude” where the governor should order school closures again like he did in the spring.

One thing I also believe has gotten lost in the “why don’t we just close bars and restaurants and open schools??!!” conversation is the complicated reality that options are a lot more limited without Congress stepping in, and there are major ramifications to sending people home without paying them. It’s been strange to see the number of people acting nonplussed about sending workers home with no financial assistance and potentially no job. This is a tweet from a journalist that I think gets at something relatively under-discussed about all these tradeoffs with the lack of federal aid.

Anyway, again, I think we should pay workers to stay home, especially since we’re having great news recently on the vaccine front, and it might only have to be through the winter. But for those who act like this is a super easy thing for cities to do with no federal support, well it’s not. We need another COVID bill. In more encouraging news, a new COVID-19 adviser to Joe Biden seems to agree on a lot of this.

I’m going end this here. Thanks so much for reading. I welcome any thoughts in the comments and if you want to support more of this, please consider sharing and/or becoming a paying subscriber. Stay safe!

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Why reopening schools has become the most fraught debate of the pandemic

I share this one gingerly, because I know it’s an issue that people have really strong feelings about. For months I have been following debates, protests, plans and research around school re-openings. People desperately want science and data to clarify these decisions for us, but there are no easy answers right now.

The risks for children of being out of school are massive, and we know most children don’t get severely ill from COVID-19, like adults. But we do know they catch and transmit the virus, but we don’t have a good grasp on how much. This is one of the most pressing and ethically vexing questions of the pandemic, and not all communities bear the same risks and resources to navigate this.

I hope you’ll give this American Prospect story a read, and that it clarifies why this has been so difficult.


Utility shutoffs, the politics of care work, and school police on the ballot

Good morning! I can’t believe we’re nine days out from the election, but here we are.

I have three new stories that I wanted to share.

1. One crisis that has gotten fairly overshadowed during the pandemic is that of utility shutoffs — meaning people losing their water, electricity, and gas services due to nonpayment. At the start of the pandemic roughly half the states implemented mandatory utility shutoff bans, but today 33 states have either let those COVID-19 bans expire, or never passed them at all. Another seven states have shutoff bans set to expire in early November. This is despite the economy still in shambles, people out of work, and basic necessities like hand-washing recognized as crucial acts to curbing the spread of the virus.

I wrote about state and federal organizing for new and extended bans on utility shutoffs. Activists in New Jersey had real success this month, where the governor, Phil Murphy, announced he would be imposing a mandatory ban on utility shutoffs in his state until March. Activists in Illinois are trying to do the same thing, though their governor, JB Pritzker, has been resistant. Utility companies hate mandatory bans.

As John Howat, a senior energy analyst at the National Consumer Law Center put it to me, utility shutoffs are “a pernicious way to harm people. It’s one of the most subtle and least obvious threats that poses the most immediate risk to people’s pandemic safety.” A national ban on utility shutoffs was included in the HEROES bill passed by the House of Representatives, and there’s a companion bill in the Senate, but it hasn’t been voted on yet. Read the full story in The Intercept.

2. I looked at the evolving politics around passing care policies like universal childcare, paid sick leave, and long-term care for seniors. Why, given that these policies are so widespread across the world, and would do so much to help American families, do we not have them? Why have politicians historically avoided going to bat for them? I looked at where things are at politically, especially in the midst of this pandemic. You can read that story in The American Prospect. It’s part of a larger series on care work they published this month, and the whole package is really worth checking out.

3. Lastly, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing this past spring, communities across the nation began a new reckoning over policing, including police in schools. Over the summer school boards in places like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Denver actually voted to end their contracts with local law enforcement agencies.

But people aren’t all in agreement on what to do, and armed school police are on the ballot in some upcoming school board elections. I looked at how it’s playing out in the school board election for Prince George’s County, Maryland, which is a majority-Black suburb of D.C. You can read that story in The Appeal.

Thanks for reading and supporting this work,

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Voluntary national service is really popular. Can it be part of the COVID recovery?

It was a key part of FDR's plan during the Great Depression

During the Great Depression, FDR put over 250,000 young unemployed men to work through the Civilian Conservation Corps, a newly created national service program focused on environmental investment. In the 1960s under JFK, the U.S created the Peace Corps, which sends Americans to do volunteer work internationally. In 1993 under Bill Clinton, the U.S established AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, voluntary national service programs that place people around the country with nonprofits and community organizations. And after 9/11 under George W. Bush, the country expanded these national service opportunities, with a 50 percent increase in AmeriCorps, hundreds of thousands of new positions for Senior Corps, and bringing Peace Corps volunteers to their highest levels in decades.

But that was the last time Congress has actually put more money forward to expand national service. And this is despite polls consistently showing strong support among Republicans, Democrats and independents for the idea, and research showing that national service can be really cost-effective investments for governments to make.

So at a time of horrible economic devastation with millions out of work and layoffs increasingly looking permanent, why doesn’t the federal government help expand national service opportunities, funding jobs like tutoring, contact tracing, environmental repair, food preparation, caregiving and more?

For Bloomberg Businessweek I looked at this question and reported on where things stand in D.C, why some advocates are feeling very optimistic about this moment, and what the barriers have been over the last 15 years. The story is not too long, and I think you’ll find it interesting. You can read it here!

DC Worker's Comp + Trouble for Alaska's GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan

Hi everyone,

It’s been a little while but sometimes with freelancing a bunch of different projects come out all in short order, and that’s looking increasingly likely for October. (So a few more to come, soon!)

Today in The Intercept I have a story on an environmental scandal unfolding for Alaska’s GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan — who is running for reelection in a competitive race against Al Gross. (Al Gross is an independent but running as a Democrat, and he’s considered key to helping tilt the Senate away from Republicans next year). The scandal centers around Pebble Mine, a highly controversial mining project that, if approved, could wreak devastation on the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, among other things.

Most Alaskans oppose the project, but politicians have been quietly shepherding it through the permitting process, and its corporate backers have been hoping to get it green-lit by the end of the year. Leaked recordings published in September with the Pebble Mine executives reveal them talking with actors pretending to be investors about how Sullivan will stay quiet through the election, and offer criticisms of Pebble Mine without outright opposing it. You can read more about that here.


And last week in Washington City Paper I had feature story about some big disparities for injured public-sector workers in D.C. compared to those injured on the job in the private-sector. The decimation of worker’s comp isn’t only a local D.C story, and I talk about that, but the main focus is on what’s happened in my city and the politics around addressing some of those inequalities. Worker’s comp is generally an overlooked issue partly because there’s still a lot of unfortunate stigma around collecting the benefits (as opposed to other labor issues like misclassification and wage theft) and unions don’t often negotiate over it. But there’s a rare local hearing on it at the end of this week, and I’ll be covering that too.

To write this story I was fortunate to have the support of a new, exciting group called SpotlightDC, which is helping to fund local investigative reporting. They just launched this past summer, and I hope other cities copy the idea :-)

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