School District Relies on Questionable Expert Advice for Return to School Plan

Dr. Koliwad’s presentation to the SMUHSD Return to School Bell Schedule Committee on June 16, 2020

The following is an excerpt of a letter written to the SMUHSD School Board and Superintendent Kevin Skelly regarding the medical expert that the district chose to advise the Return to School Committee.

I would like to address the remarks Dr. Koliwad, an endocrinologist (diabetes doctor and researcher) from UCSF, made to the Bell Schedule Committee that the district has posted to their YouTube channel (Link to the YouTube video).  First, yes, I agree that wearing masks, social distancing, and daily health checks offer a very high level of safety.  However, following these constraints would create an in-person learning environment that is neither effective or sustainable.  I will not go into detail here because you heard many arguments about this at the last board meeting.  I must mention some very grave concerns I have about Dr. Koliwad’s comments.  

First, he suggests a comparison between a university hospital with highly trained medical professionals with a high school.  The comparison is absolutely preposterous.  It would make more sense to look at high schools in Europe and Japan and learn from their successes and setbacks.  Beyond that Mr. Koliwad discusses what UCSF has done to mitigate COVID infections while not admitting that their medical students are still currently taking classes online and all non-essential clinical hours have been cancelled.  According to the UCSF website, “Each degree program has offered guidance to teachers and learners on classes, clinics, lab research, other educational activities, co-curricular activities, and travel in the following three categories: 1. Non-essential and can be canceled or postponed, 2. Essential but can be moved online. 3. Essential and must be conducted in person.”  Further on this UCSF webpage, “Employees performing their duties remotely should continue to do so through January 18, 2021. This supports not only public health efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 but also limits use of common UCSF services and helps to facilitate physical distancing for those who must work on-site.”  In other words, the organization that Dr. Koliwad claims should be the model for our school district re-opening has not itself reopened for all on-site work and learning and won’t until at least 2021.

Beyond offering a flawed comparison, Dr. Koliwad provided misleading and inaccurate information.  At minute 11:37 of the video he claims, “The rate of asymptomatic people testing positive for COVID has been less than 1%.  In the Bay Area all nine surrounding counties we’re talking about somewhere in the order of .4 to .7%.”  He failed to clarify that people without symptoms have had very little access to tests in the Bay Area until very recently.  In fact the San Mateo County COVID-19 Variance Attestation form submitted to the California Department of Public Health states, “Testing capacity in San Mateo County exceeds 1,151 tests per day, which is 1.5 tests per 1,000 County residents. During Shelter In Place (SIP), testing volume did not match testing capacity throughout the state and the County because the SIP order prevented mild/moderately ill symptomatic residents, pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic residents from testing.”  Now that San Mateo County has lifted the Shelter in Place it can be expected that there will be more circulation of the virus and therefore more cases of symptomatic, asymptomatic, and presymptomatic COVID transmission.

He also claimed at minute 35:15 “We are now trying to get 20,000 plus contact tracers in San Mateo County…and we are well on the way to achieving this goal.”  This is not true.  Again, from the San Mateo County COVID-19 Variance Attestation form submitted to the California Department of Public Health, “ Our goal is to have at least 15 CDPH COVID-19 VARIANCE ATTESTATION FORM 10 contact tracers per 100,000 residents. For San Mateo’s 2019 estimated population of 767,000 (U.S. Census), we plan to identify capacity to scale up to a total of 115 FTE to meet the State standard. San Mateo Co. will meet this metric of 115 case and contact investigation staff by August 1, 2020.”  When SMUHSD Teachers’ Association president, Craig Childress at minute 56:00 of the video questioned Dr. Koliwad about this assertion, Dr. Koliwad doubled-down on his assertion and claimed that 20,000 was the goal and the county would be reaching that goal in a matter of weeks or months based on recruiting efforts.

I will assume that Dr. Koliwad is well-intentioned and was not able to prepare for these remarks as he might for a scientific conference.  He volunteered his time as a highly regarded scientist and for that I thank him.  However, he was just one of the experts that the return to school Bell Schedule committee needed to meet with.  It would have been very helpful for one of our many faculty tech. coordinators to talk to the committee about how we can leverage technology to offer students a stimulating and effective school experience while at the same time looking after their social and emotional welfare.  There are numerous possibilities and we have the staff with the knowledge and skills to lead us to the most efficient and safe way to start the school year.  I am hopeful that we can take advantage of this time to better integrate technology into our curriculum and the projects that students complete.  After this is all over, we will have stronger skills that will make our eventual in-person classes even more engaging and offer students amazing opportunities to use technology to demonstrate understanding and critical thinking.

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