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Lessons From Tornadoes Help a Community Combat Covid

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This article is part of our latest Learning special report, which focuses on ways that remote learning will shape the future.

To grasp the mind-set in rural Lawrence County, Tenn., consider this: After facing two tornadoes in February without warnings from the National Weather Service, residents in May installed their own Doppler radar atop a 75-foot pedestal at the local radio station.

Now, they feed data to the weather service. More critically, said Ben Luna, meteorologist and station manager at WLX Radio in Lawrenceburg (pop. 10,986), who is leading the fund-raising effort to finish paying the $360,000 cost, school officials and residents now get hyperlocal warnings of severe weather approaching the area’s rolling fields and cluster of city streets. Early warning, Mr. Luna said, “increases the likelihood of saving lives.”

The four-foot domed radar is useless against the storm no one can see: Covid-19. But the same resourcefulness, hunger for pinpoint data and communal spirit that spurred it are giving Lawrence County schools a shot at navigating this wild academic year.

As the pandemic has spread, much has been made of the disparity in resources between urban and rural communities, but a recent visit to Lawrence County showed what can be done.

There is nothing flashy here. In this county, where school board meetings begin with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, Michael Adkins, director of the Lawrence County School System, whose 6,500 students live across 618 square miles, focused planning — and public health practices — on getting as much in-person learning as possible.

In Tennessee, the governor declined to mandate wearing masks. The Lawrence County executive followed suit. But Mr. Adkins was clear: Students, teachers and staff must wear them. “It is part of our dress code,” he said. “My No. 1 goal is to have kids in school, so we will be wearing masks.”

Mr. Adkins made “M.D.S.,” for “Masks, Distancing, Sanitizing” the guide to reopening, and Mr. Luna created public service announcements that ran 10 times a day in July so families knew what to expect.

ImageStudents, teachers and staff at Lawrenceburg Public School in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., are required to wear masks. “It is part of our dress code,” the county school system’s director said.
Credit…Laura Pappano

Inside school buildings, social distancing markers dot shining waxed floors. Hand sanitizer is ubiquitous; masked elementary school students reflexively extended palms for a squirt during a library visit. (No browsing the shelves; students use their Chromebooks to search the catalog for books the librarian then retrieves.)

At the high schools, custodians wipe down door knobs between passing periods and sanitize buildings on Sunday and Wednesday afternoons. One-way hallways now often route students outdoors, then back inside to reach the next class.

School bus drivers keep seating charts (only family members may sit together) to aid in contact tracing. At the bus depot, drivers liked to gather for coffee in the morning, but “we had to cut that out,” said Josh Rogers, the transportation supervisor. He fears losing drivers or mechanics to Covid exposure in a district where buses are critical, with many students relying on them for 45-minute rides each way.

And there is a focus on data. Every day at 2 p.m. Jenny Golden, the district’s health coordinator, emails or walks from her office across a parking lot to Mr. Adkins’s office with the latest Covid counts at each of the 13 schools (the Lawrence County Health Department offers free weekday testing). Plus, the numbers of students and teachers in quarantine.

Credit…Brett Carlsen for The New York Times

The district has struggled to find ways to provide internet access in areas that barely have cellphone service, let alone broadband, which is critical for online learning. (Data from Broadband Now, a consumer research site, show that just 53 percent of residents have high-speed internet.)

The schools have been working on the problem since March, said Kenneth Hobbs, the district’s director of technology. “We had some ideas in the back of our minds, watching what was happening,” he said.

Teachers now download videos and assignments onto thumb drives (the schools bought 1,000). The district also put weatherproof internet hot spots at schools. But that can be a long drive.

Which is why it recently also fit 10 buses with Wi-Fi antennae, then found locations with electricity (like outdoor pavilions). Loretto Telecom (with CARES Act funding) is running cable so buses can drive up, connect and provide students internet access — should the district need to go completely remote.

School started on Aug. 10 cautiously, with 16 percent of students remote; others had been given a Monday-Tuesday or a Thursday-Friday in-person schedule, with off-days remote.

Through the first month, Covid cases were low. But as school was opening, Mr. Adkins said, “teachers being teachers, all hopped in a car to eat somewhere” after a meeting. The next day, one reported Covid symptoms, forcing all to quarantine.

“We lost five English teachers for close contact,” he said. When two students on the middle school volleyball team tested positive, the team was quarantined.

Nonetheless, the district stuck with its plan. In early September, at Lawrenceburg Public School, a first-grade teacher, Amanda Moore, masked up, led a live phonics lesson for eight students, wearing masks and sitting two to a table.

They bent over individual white boards, grasping markers bearing their names (there is no more sharing) and taking dictation. “How do I spell get?” asked Ms. Moore. “Sometimes in the South we say, ‘g-i-tt,’” she hinted. “So, you have to be careful because it is ‘guh-Eh-tt.’ ”

But the hybrid schedule is hard on teachers. “The first couple weeks were rough,” said Amanda Land, who teaches Algebra I at Lawrence County High School. She posts assignments online and, like many, also makes videos explaining lessons. (When I visited, she had just made one on solving inequalities.)

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As a Thursday-Friday student, Jacob Hughes, a Summertown High School senior, arrived late in the week, eager for class. But teachers seemed, he said, “a bit tired out and rightly so.” His classmate Kareena Mahaffey liked that the schedule let her work more hours as a personal shopper at the Kroger’s supermarket. Plus, three days of remote class let her “work at my own pace and not worry about being caught up with the other kids.”

While Mr. Adkins appreciated the public health benefit of the hybrid model, he feared it was not enough to keep younger students on track.

On Sept. 14, after a survey found that 74 percent of teachers favored an expanded schedule, the district changed course and began phasing in a four-day week. A planned Fair Day holiday (even though there is no fair this year) and fall break from Oct. 2 through Oct. 12 offered additional social distancing.

“If we go full speed and it doesn’t work, we won’t visit it again,” Mr. Adkins said.

As students started the four-day schedule, schools had fewer than 10 cases, but numbers in the county were rising. “They have a fair amount of community transmission,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, checking a Covid tracker on Sept. 22. “It is going to be challenging.”

Tight monitoring and the fall vacation may help, but Mr. Adkins knows they may have to go completely remote. Which is a huge challenge in places like Lawrence County.

In urban areas, families without high-speed internet can be handed a hot spot. But, those require a cell signal, which some “out in the boonies,” as one Summertown High School senior student put it, don’t even have. This has complicated the year for families like Jonathan Bradley’s.

Having his son, in second grade, and his daughter, in seventh, attend remotely “was actually the easiest decision.” His son had a heart transplant and is on immunosuppression drugs.

What’s tough is living in an area so rural that he is “grateful for the one to two bars on my cellphone.” Now, he and his wife shuttle their children to his father-in-law’s home, which has internet, to do schoolwork.

Credit…Laura Pappano

There is no doubt: This is going to be an on-again, off-again school year. Ms. Moore, the first-grade teacher, initially worried about students returning. She has asthma and recently lost her grandfather to Covid. But she also saw students without a lot of family support falling behind.

“I could see that gap growing, and I was beginning to panic about how we were going to make up so much lost time,” she said.

In late September, she had 19 in her classroom. There were no mask breaks; she barred students from touching things like the pencil sharpener. She kept her class separate from others, even on the playground. “I cannot let my guard down,” she said.

Students willingly complied. “They seem so happy just to be back, and in a routine,” said Ms. Moore. “Pray, clean, teach, repeat. That’s my motto right now.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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