Reducing Risk Is Not the Same as Remote Learning

Image Credit: https://www.reddit.com/r/gifs/comments/5xmne2/cats_seem_to_go_on_the_principle_that_it_never/

It’s human nature to try and reduce things down to a binary – a yes/no, either/or – but reality tends to be more both/and with a bit of everything in between. It’s messy, it’s inefficient – about the only thing that rejecting binary thinking has going for it is that it’s accurate.

The conversation – or really, the non-conversation – in education circles about the response to Omicron offer a painful demonstration of how little people want to move beyond binary thinking. We have a nearly infinite supply of fallacies related to binary thinking, but for this post I will focus on one:

Mitigating risk is not the same as “closing schools.”

Because Covid has been a political nightmare as well as a health nightmare from the very outset, reactionary viewpoints have taken up a lot of space in the conversation. With Omicron, we face multiple realities, some more painful than others:

a. Omicron was going to hit hard no matter what we did. While the impact can be blunted, even the best case outcomes aren’t great;
b. Because of a, it’s easy for people to pick apart any mitigation strategy as ineffective. Even if the strategy did help people, the worst case scenario isn’t available as a point of comparison because it didn’t happen. In the case of a surge as devastating as Omicron, the only visible outcome is the one we have in front of us, which isn’t good. Basically, a better outcome in a bad situation still feels like a bad outcome, which leads to a lot of:
c. People making the argument that mitigation and risk reduction don’t work.

And when we are two years into a pandemic that is still ripping through us, any argument that lets us think we can do nothing and still be fine is very attractive. We’re all exhausted, and we want to be done, but we’re not.

When people started proposing sensible risk reduction strategies to help blunt the impact of Omicron, policymakers and pundits doubled down on the standard arguments they have been using for the last several months and longer – straw man arguments such as kids don’t get Covid, kids are safer in school, kids have already lost so much, etc, etc. The relative merits, or utter lack of merits, of all of these arguments can be left for another writer or another post because for where are now — January 6, 2022 — these arguments and their ilk are completely irrelevant.

These arguments are predicated on data from and responses to earlier variants, and mitigation strategies that take place over months or for a full school year.

The situation we want to address is this specific spike in cases, with acute mitigation over the next couple weeks.

No one is talking about switching to remote learning as a universal strategy for an undefined time. If the 2020-2021 school year taught us anything, it’s that the decision makers who spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on EdTech to support “anywhere anytime on demand learning” were fleeced by EdTech vendors (again, a topic that needs more attention in a different post).

What we are talking about are creative, focused solutions that help reduce risk for as many people as possible while minimizing the impact on people’s lives. Many teachers have kids under 5, and when they are required to work in unsafe conditions it places them and their family members at risk. The pressures on parents to stay employed is real, and these pressures are not evenly distributed – some parents can easily support a kid during the school day where others don’t have that level of privilege.

A balanced solution could include:

  • asking parents who can support their kids at home to keep them home for a couple days to reduce crowding in classrooms;
  • targeted use of teacher professional development days and/or snowdays to give teachers time to prepare to supports students who need to quarantine;
  • providing N95 masks for staff and students;
  • providing portable HEPA filters to improve air quality in indoor spaces;
  • break lunch and snack times into smaller groups, and only eat in spaces with good air flow and portable HEPA filters;
  • use outdoor space for class and meals when possible;
  • if case numbers are high enough where it’s necessary to temporarily pause in person learning for every kid, priorize access to in-person learning for students who need it the most (elementary age, students with learning differences, children of essential workers, students for whom remote learning isn’t possible or realistic, etc);
  • implement pooled testing to get an accurate sense of where clusters of positive case could be happening

None of these things need to done forever. None of these things are closing schools.

The goal of any intervention is a targeted, balanced response to blunt the impact of the current spike in cases: reduce risk; minimize disruption. We know that layered protections are essential. We need to move past binary thinking and use the full range of tools at our disposal.

Making Text from the Facebook Papers More Accessible

tl;dr

I’ve been working on extracting text from the released pdfs of the Facebook Papers. The cleaned pdfs, the extracted text and the code used to clean the text are all available on Github.

Original pdf on the left; processed pdf on the right

The script requires Python 3.6 or higher, and has only been tested on Linux. Enjoy!

The Details

Like many of us, I’ve been following the reporting on internal Facebook documents, and how these documents confirm and reinforce details that have been clear about Facebook for years, and how these documents illustrate exactly how well Facebook knew and didn’t act to solve the problems they created.

Also like many of us, I’ve been dying to see the original docs, so when the team at Gizmodo started releasing the docs I was pretty darn excited.

Pretty.

Darn.

Excited.

Seriously, the team at Gizmodo (Shoshana Wodinsky, Dell Cameron, Andrew Couts) have been doing stellar work reporting on these docs, and getting the core docs released publicly.

Due to the provenance of these documents, the “pdfs” released were actually worse than your normal PDF – and that’s saying something, because on the best of days PDFs are where information goes to die. These pdfs appear to be a collection of images taken of a computer screen stitched together into pdfs.

But the information in these pdfs is incredibly valuable, and we are lucky to have it.

Fortunately, from an old side project, I had some dirty, ugly, functional code lying around that cleaned up PDFs. I grabbed some of the early docs released by Gizmodo, did a test run, and lo and behold, it worked. It was ugly, but it worked.

Last night, I reworked my original (dirty, ugly) script into something cleaner, that generates better output. I generally don’t write code, except when I need to, so about the only thing I will ever say about code I write is that it solves a clearly defined problem for me at a point in time — which is a far cry from actually writing code that is good. In this improved version, I had some invaluable help from Smart People Who Know Things (I have asked permission to credit them here; I’ll update this post if/when I receive their consent

The resulting code is now up on Github, along with the text files and the cleaned pdfs. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I don’t bump into any repository size restrictions on Github anytime soon.

And: if there are any improvements you’d like to make or questions you have, let me know.

FunnyMonkey gets a technical facelift

Keeping even a simple web site up to date is work, and anything we can do to reduce the time required is a good thing. On this site, I’ve been carrying old posts going back to 2005, which is just plain silly.

In the interest of simplifying things, I made a couple decisions:

  1. All the old posts are archived as flat html; and
  2. FunnyMonkey.com is now running on WordPress.

I’ve used WordPress for a range of things over the years, and it’s a solid foundation. I’d be lying if I said I loved it, but I don’t hate it, and it doesn’t fill me with revulsion. In an ideal world, I’d be running something using flat files and markdown, and I’ll probably move in that directtion sooner rather than later, but until then, WordPress is a decent option.