DOE ‘Return to Learn’ numbers don’t add up

Special to Hawaii Tech

Amy Perusso

The state has finally given us metrics that anyone can use to determine when and how schools can implement in-person learning. And they say they are based on metrics used in other states, and point to guidance from the CDC.

However, the CDC thresholds are very different from those set by our state. And they unnecessarily shift risk levels up.

This is the DOE’s metric graphic for their “return to learn” plan, listed as the “Metric Key” for “Hawaii Metrics for School Reopening.”

The key is based on “cases per 10,000” people. Just at a first glance, this looked extremely high. Looking for the source of these numbers, we find this document, “COVID-19 Guidance for Schools,” updated Sept. 16, 2020.

On page six, section II, the DOE provides “Considerations for Schools” and cites the CDC’s guidelines for schools. Under “Reopening: Decision-Making Indicators,” the CDC writes, “Measures of spread in communities can help with decisions about reopening schools.

And under the heading “Schools and Child Care,” we find this page, providing a “Table of Indicators.”

CDC indicators and thresholds for risk of introduction and transmission of COVID-19 in schools
CDC indicators and thresholds for risk of introduction and transmission of COVID-19 in schools

The first issue to emerge is the scale. If we look at the “Number of new cases per” section, the CDC’s chart uses a scale of 100,000. This makes sense for the continent and large cities. Our DOE/DOH chart uses a scale of 10,000, as evidenced in their example:

This makes sense. We have a smaller population than many other states in the U.S.

We would still expect that the scale adopted by our Department of Education would follow a structure similar to that of the CDC’s recommendations. But this is where the math doesn’t add up.

If we adjust for the factor of population from 100K to 10K (10% of the CDC’s recommendation), we get:

Likewise, if we take our numbers from our Hawai’i example chart above and scale them to the 100K of the CDC by multiplying by 10, we get:

This means that within a 14-day period, if we fall in the “Blended” (yellow) area of the Hawaii metric model, we would actually be operating schools that could very well exceed the CDC’s recommendation for the highest risk of spreading COVID-19.

By the time we get to full distance learning, we’ll be so far in the red (at the highest risk level) that we will definitely overburden our healthcare system and will guarantee more sickness, death, and the slowing of the economic growth of the state.  

The Department of Education sought to put concerns at ease by telling us that they’re following CDC recommendations. But apart from the colors and tiers, they’re distressingly different. This current approach, under this DOE plan, will put everyone at high risk.

It’s true that straight numbers that can be objectively used to gauge our progress on containing COVID-19, and the ability to return to in-person schooling are important. But the numbers need to make sense, and we do not believe these do. The Department of Education must revisit these milestones, and bring them into closer alignment with the guidelines they say they followed.

About the Author

Amy Perruso is currently serving as the Hawaii State House Representative for District 46. As a former DOE teacher and HSTA leader, she has taken a keen interest in DOE approaches to addressing the pandemic.

Hawaii Tech editor Ryan Ozawa contributed to this article.

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