Tag Archives: coronavirus

Back To The Future At School

Can schools safely reopen though the pandemic shows little sign of waning and educators stumble towards the first day of school in the absence of a clear cut strategy?

The answer is uncertain.

In early July President Trump demanded that schools “open quickly, beautifully, in the fall” for normal, in-person instruction.

The CDC responded with guidelines instructing school districts to build supportive community infrastructures to counter the onslaught of COVID-19 as schools reopened. They urged school officials to implement hygiene and social distancing practices and develop ‘proactive’ plans with health departments, parents and caregivers to deal with potential outbreaks.

A snapshot of the ‘new normal’ for K-12 schools.

Keeping active kindergartners apart; keeping their masks on; fewer students on school buses; limited class sizes; keeping staff safe; sanitizing; PPE; social distancing; online SATs; remote learning; iPads or computers for all.

For many schools, adjusting to the new normal would be a complicated and expensive endeavor.

School systems which struggled with pandemic restrictions would face even greater logistical and financial burdens meeting the new CDC requirements, leaving them with no other option than to continue with virtual classes moving forward.

President Trump tweeted his displeasure at the “very tough and expensive guidelines for opening schools,” and, under pressure, the CDC retracted its message, effectively relinquishing the decision making to school administrators. At the behest of the White House, the CDC emphasized the “importance of reopening America’s schools this fall,” and warned that extended school closures would “be harmful to children.”

This mixed messaging starkly reflects the reality that the CDC’s mission to reopen schools is at odds with the Trump administration’s intent to open at all odds, said Dan Domenech, Executive Director of the School Superintendents Association (AASA).

The Cost of Reopening

What is certain however, is that a safe return to in-person school comes with a hefty price tag – a whopping 200 billion dollars or more, or about $490 per K-12 student. At a panel discussion on how to safely reopen schools hosted by Ethnic Media Services on July 31, Domenech explained that the costs would cover laptops for students and an array of preventive measures that include sanitizers, masks, PPE and safe busing, before schools could consider opening their doors to staff and students. The expense would place an unprecedented financial burden on overstretched school district budgets in the next academic year.

So, a safe reopening would need a huge injection of federal funds (that the Council of Chief State School Officers projected would cost between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion,) but the government is threatening to cut funds for schools that don’t fully reopen.

Many school districts cannot afford the expense, so policymakers at state and local levels are choosing to wait before making a decision on whether to reopen schools, based on assessments of COVID-19 threats in their region.

Is it safe to go back to school?

In a press briefing, the White House pushed the idea that the greater risk right now is to children’s learning, rather than to their health and wellbeing, announcing that, “We don’t think our children should be locked up at home with devastating consequences when it’s perfectly safe for them to go to school.”

Till recently, the common belief was that young children were not affected by COVID-19 and were unlikely to spread the virus. In fact the CDC reiterated that children pose no risks, stating that, “The best available evidence from countries that have opened schools indicates that COVID-19 poses low risks to school-aged children, at least in areas with low community transmission, and suggests that children are unlikely to be major drivers of the spread of the virus.”

However, new research from a pediatric hospital in Chicago that published its findings in JAMA, indicates that children carry high levels of the virus in their upper respiratory tracks and may efficiently spread infection by sneezing, coughing or shouting.

“In several countries where schools that have opened prematurely, such as Israel, we have seen a rise in cases,” said Pedro Noguera, Dean, USC Rossier School of Education.

As findings like these make parents and educators uncertain about reopening schools in a pandemic, it may be prudent for school districts to first assess the threat of COVID-19 infections in their area before making plans to send children back to school, suggested by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, in recent interviews with PBS and the Washington Post.

Inequities in K-12 Education

As schools juggle in-person classes versus online learning and hybrid models, some wealthy families are resolving their uncertainty by creating private learning pods or ‘micro-schools,’ with hired tutors to educate their children. It’s an arrangement that reflects the inequities experienced by less privileged students from special needs, disadvantaged and low income backgrounds. Without tutors or pods, and limited access to internet and laptops, these children are likely to fall further behind and “experience tremendous learning loss,” noted Noguera.

The current education crisis stems froma  lack of leadership, said Noguera, adding that “The real questions facing the US is when will leadership emerge that can provide the guidance that schools need on how to manage instruction…safely … and how to reopen appropriately, in a manner that does not place lives at risk.” He called on local and community leaders to step up in the interim. It will be up to local and community leaders to create innovative ways to deliver education and support children and families, in the short term, said Noguera.

Moving forward into the future will be challenging for schools because the scope of funding required to make changes is not forthcoming from the federal purse . Without adequate funding for health and safety measures in place, Noguera stated that school districts will have to contend with, for example, teacher unions who recently announced they will go on strike over unsafe conditions.

Eleven million children do not have the laptops they need for remote learning, said Domenech. So, even though technology offers valuable learning platforms, it can be a double edged sword, when teachers are ill prepared to use it effectively and students who have little or no access to technology lose out on their learning.

Schools will have to show teachers how to close the “digital divide,” advised Noguera, by training them “to use the technology to deliver meaningful instruction to kids.” But, whatever devices students use for learning, without access to reliable Internet and Wi-Fi, low income and disadvantaged students would face inequities of digital access, warned USC Professor Shaun R. Harper. In LA, school districts have invested in making screens and hotspots available within communities so children can access learning; but children in rural areas have even less connection and risk being left behind.

Noguera suggested that instead of trying to adapt curricula to cell phones, another option would be to go back to “old school approaches to education” using pencil and paper, adding that “they worked before technology, and could work again.”

“For now, whether our education looks like mini learning pods, pandemic pods, micro schools, or collaborative tutoring with college students….that’s still going to provide inequity in our educational system.” cautioned Eddie Valero, Supervisor for District 4, Tulare County Board of Supervisors. He was referring to economist Emily Oster’s prediction that clusters of home schooling families are going to happen everywhere regardless, and “that will create an economic divide.” 

Re-envisioning the future of schooling

Panelists offered several perspectives on when and how schools should reopen.

In working with school superintendents on reopening of schools based on CDC guidelines, said Domenech, the future could feature one of three options – the popular hybrid model, with students on weekly shifts between online learning and in-person classes seated 6 feet apart, total remote learning, or returning to school full-time as before.

However, the continuing rise in infections across the country means that most schools may open remotely. It may be possible for students to return to school only in areas where the rate of infection is below 5%, advised Noguera, suggesting that less risky, outdoor learning may be one way to address the problem. However, places experiencing a surge in cases such as the Imperial Valley in southern California, will have “to rely on community organizations like non-profits to support families and deliver education to children in concert with the school district,” he said.

Noguera’s view was echoed by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, USC Associate Professor at the Brain and Creativity Institute and Rossier School of Education, who suggested tapping into the “huge cohort of college-ready high school graduates” and using their skills as a resource for tutoring younger students. Engaging young people as a ‘brigade  of community tutors” could help solve the shortage of people in teaching and learning, and give them a sense of purpose,” said Yang.

Professor Harper, who leads the USC Race and Equity Center warned that ‘raceless’ reopening policies from school districts  would “yield racially disparate outcomes”. He suggested that more consultation with communities of color was needed to “racialize input” into the K-12 reopening strategy. That would involve considerations like providing proper PPE, testing and contact tracing for essential workers in schools who are more likely to be employees of color and are disproportionately exposed to infection, as well as trauma and grief support  for staff and students of color, who are more likely to have experienced loss of a family or community member to the virus.

The panelists called on the private sector, specifically high tech companies and philanthropists, to step up and help avert the crisis.

Big tech firms like Amazon said Noguera, which have accumulated huge profits during the pandemic, have a responsibility to assist.

Harper described this timeframe as an opportunity for philanthropists and foundations who want to close racial equity gaps by helping finance “accessibility to learning pods for poorer students who cannot afford it.” There is also a role, he suggested, for nonprofits, youth organizations and college access providers to add to their agendas and recreate pod-like experiences for disadvantaged youth during the pandemic.

Schools are relying on Congress to pass funding that will get K-12 education back on track safely, and Domenech predicts that the majority of schools in America will start the school year with remote learning because, ‘in order to bring any children into school, dollars will be required.”

Valero closed out the discussion by inviting policymakers to re-envision what school should look like for the future by thinking “in creative ways that disrupt our everyday normalcy for something different,” but he urged, “honestly it begins with access, opportunity and fairness for all students.”

“We need to model our classrooms with our most struggling students in mind.”

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents 

Image by Katherine Ab from Pixabay; Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay

STEAMPower Bridges the Digital Divide

The coronavirus pandemic has penetrated nearly every sphere of public life, including our educational system. While many students can afford the work-from-home setup, young people in rural or marginalized communities are bearing the consequences of our current digital divide. To learn more about how to support equitable education, I had a chat with Avighna Suresh, founder, and president of nonprofit STEAMPower, which offers virtual tutoring sessions to students all over the world.

What prompted you to start STEAMPower? Why is equitable education important to you? 

Growing up in a family that has always provided me with educational opportunities and having always gone to private schools, I lived in my own little bubble of educational privilege for most of my life. The first time I was really faced with the reality of educational inequity was when I worked at an afterschool program in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco called Up on Top. Seeing the vastly different opportunities these children had in contrast with the opportunities I had at their age changed my perspective on the issue completely. I quickly realized that sitting around and being complacent was not an option; I had the privilege and resources to do something, and I felt the responsibility to do it. 

Equitable education is incredibly important to me because it’s such an important asset for success and really shapes your attitude towards the world in many ways. The fact is that it isn’t enough for simply education to be a right; everyone deserves the right to quality education, and we are seeing that now more than ever. 

What is your teaching philosophy? How do you structure tutoring sessions, workshops, and curriculum?

Our teaching philosophy is centered around the student. A typical first tutoring session is preceded by contacting the student about what previous experience they have in the subject matter they want help in, asking for any resources they would like us to use, and then using those resources to craft personalized learning plans. Our other programs like STEAMChangers, our curriculums, and our videos are structured around demand: how much do students and parents want to see the topic, and how will it change the landscape of STEAM? 

All of our work is done online through Google Meetings or Zoom, and we are always open to communicate through text or email. The beauty of technology is that it widens our reach in ways that just wouldn’t be possible physically. Tutors in Brazil are able to tutor students in California. It’s a really unique and wonderful way to experience understanding of universal concepts regardless of where in the world you are.

What challenges did you face in founding STEAMPower? Do you find it difficult to establish regular clientele because you’re a high school student? What resources did you tap into to form the robust nonprofit you have today? 

Founding STEAMPower was one of the most challenging things I have ever done: from finding people to help me run and advance the initiative to spreading our reach to impact as many people as possible, there were definitely many bumps in the road to get where we are now. The first biggest challenge was finding a leadership team and tutors who were really passionate about what they were doing.

After finding a lot of students, the next challenge became organizing and matching students and tutors. I was able to do this through email and Google Calendar, which is a great way to visualize how many tutoring sessions are happening in a day, and notify students and tutors that there is a session coming up soon. Our largest challenge was scaling our initiative, and broadcasting it worldwide.

As a high school student, it was initially difficult to pitch my idea to local leaders and adults. I knew that they were the best way to get the word out about STEAMPower to communities that needed us most. I sent around 70 emails, and only got responses and help from around 5, but that was more than enough to get the support I needed. 

The main resources that helped me the most in establishing STEAMPower were: 

  1. Local leaders who spread the word and enabled us to establish local presence.
  2. Social media and Instagram that allowed us to go worldwide and help students from around the globe.
  3. A nonprofit and startup accelerator called Hack+ that helped us achieve 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit status and secure funding and sponsorships.

How did the coronavirus change the scope and purpose of your nonprofit? 

With school closures came a lot less support and resources for those who need it. Many students need structure and guidance to effectively learn, and the compromised conditions of school during COVID-19 made it difficult for a lot of students to continue studying. Due to the coronavirus, STEAMPower’s purpose shifted completely to supporting students with remote learning through virtual tutoring and free educational videos to help some of those hardest hit by the pandemic. 

Currently, you’re developing curriculums for students in India, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe. How do the curriculums differ along geographical boundaries? 

The primary differentiator for curriculums in different countries is the variance in classroom resources available to them to complete experiments and demonstrations that we weave into our curriculums, though we try to keep demonstrations largely accessible to everyone.

What is teaching students from different countries like? Do you face any linguistic and cultural barriers while teaching?

Having students and teachers from different countries is a great experience as it allows for a peek into the ways others live their lives, learn, and experience education. So far, there have been no linguistic barriers in tutoring. However, there are certain cultural differences as some countries and school systems may teach a certain formula that another doesn’t, or may have a different name from a concept. These small peeks into these subtle differences don’t inhibit the quality of learning or instruction, but it is interesting to acknowledge those differences.

What policies and programs do you think governments need to initiate to provide equitable education? 

It’s important that schools start providing unique, personalized support to students to help them succeed. We need to understand that students are diverse, and as a result have diverse needs. It’s not practical to assume that every student starts off at an even playing field. 

Schools need to stretch possibilities and challenge status quos that prevent certain students from achieving to the utmost of their ability. This begins primarily with teachers and faculty who are well-trained to address these issues and approach these problems with the intent to achieve the end goal of equity. There should also be specialized college access programs in schools/communities where there may be no access to college and further education opportunities otherwise. In addition, having diverse faculty to reflect a diverse student body is important. There are many steps schools can take, and while they may not eradicate the problem of educational inequity completely, any progress is a stride in the right direction.

Do you have any advice for students who want to help bridge the gap that plagues our education system today?  

My advice for students who want to bridge gaps in education is to take matters into their own hands. Whether it’s tutoring your siblings or neighbors, donating your old textbooks to those who can’t afford them, joining and supporting nonprofits and initiatives like STEAMPower, or reaching out to local representatives to propose solutions to problems you see, it’s important to turn dissatisfaction into action and do what you can, no matter how big or small. Though you may feel like you’re too young to make a difference, your voice is incredibly powerful.

With the coming academic year, schools are considering many possibilities in terms of teaching styles, attendance, etc. What are your thoughts on another year of distance learning? Should schools in the Bay Area open their doors? 

It really depends on the state of the pandemic and whether or not it is safe for students, teachers, and families. While another year of distance learning is not ideal, it may be what is necessary to protect lives and lessen the impact of the virus. In the meanwhile, it is imperative that schools ensure quality learning experiences for their students, whether it is virtually or in a hybrid environment. To me, quality learning means interactive instruction where students can get one-on-one help and clarify questions. In the meanwhile, STEAMPower is here to support anyone who needs us!

Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin California. Aside from being the Youth Editor of India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton.

If You Think Education Is Expensive, Try Ignorance

When Covid closed down Jaipur’s teeming streets, Harmendra Singh, like many other daily wage laborers, panicked. How would he feed his family of six? For Harmendra, a blacksmith who makes INR 300.00 per day and lives in Jaipur’s Dhoongri slum, the shutdown in India was particularly brutal–he needed his income for his family’s basic daily survival. The government took its time stepping in to fill the gap created by a cratering of daily wage incomes, and it was left to local charities to help desperate people like Harmender and his family. 

The charity that came to his rescue was Edu-GIRLS, whose school his daughter, Riya Kaur, and her younger sister were enrolled in. Like other charities across India, the suddenness of the    Corvid lockdown transformed Edu-GIRLS higher mission goals of educating and mentoring girls living in some of India’s poorest slums into more immediate, lifesaving ones.

We adapted fast,” says Anand Seth, who founded the non-profit in Washington DC, in 2012.  (Since then, it has expanded out of Jaipur and taken its successful model of educating slum children to three other locations–Bengaluru in India, Saraswati in Nepal and Kohat in Pakistan).

“From the first day of the lockdown we gathered basic rations and made packets of essentials which included atta, dal, rice, oil, salt, sugar, chai, etc. and distributed them. The girls were put in charge of identifying families in need, and they went around the slum delivering supplies. If there could be a silver lining to something as awful as Covid, it was the way the girls began to be viewed. They were the source of the family’s survival because of their enrollment in our school, and they’ve become a prime asset for their community. 

 As of May 2020, Edu-GIRLS has provided 600,000 meals to 1000 families.

Vimkuti Teachers conduct on-line learning on borrowed phones for 400 girls, 3 hours a day

“We haven’t slowed down,” says Shubhra Garg, the Secretary/Treasurer at Edu-GIRLS, and a hands-on volunteer who communicates regularly with Edu-GIRLS partner school, Vimukti, in Jaipur. “We’ve innovated.”

“In the beginning of the Pandemic we got the girls to make and distribute masks. They made over 4000, with donated cloth. After basic needs like food were provided for, our next emphasis was how to make sure educational time wasn’t lost. The girls had no access to laptops or computers at home and the staff had to innovate to provide virtual learning to them. A teach- by phone- program was initiated during the shutdown––students had to borrow their parents’ smartphones for three hours every day and teachers posted lessons and activities and homework which they were accountable for. This has been quite successful.”

Another consequence of the lockdown has been the urgency to push the digital learning program into high gear.  Edu-GIRLS had already partnered with Khan Academy and the digital education provider BYGU to bring online learning to its upper grades. It now aims to push for a faster evolution to digital teaching for its lower school as well and has begun a Facebook campaign to raise funds towards that goal.

Chatting with the team of Edu-GIRLS board members and volunteers in Washington DC, I see that they haven’t lost any of their pre-pandemic enthusiasm for continuing fundraising and expanding programs, even if they can’t make the supportive visits to the schools in India which used to be a regular feature before COVID. They have gone into high gear with virtual and paper mail alternatives for communicating with the Edu-GIRLS family, and are innovating new formats for fundraising drives.

We were not sure what to expect from our donors when faced with a highly unusual catastrophe like Covid. In fact, we’ve had a surge of interest from our donors—many new ones have stepped forward after seeing the havoc Covid is wrecking on the poor in India. I think the fact that we kept donors extremely well informed throughout of how we were continuing to serve the slum community and on how we had innovated during the Pandemic, contributed to their support.  We raised almost 30,000.00 immediately for Covid relief from 100 supporters,” says Anand. 

Edu-GIRLS goals for 2023 include educating 1450 girls with a 100% pass rate and placing at least 110 in jobs which will double their family’s income.

“We feel vested in these girls,” adds Sangeeta Agarwal, who contributes her skills as a filmmaker towards designing the organization’s media offerings 

We support them from primary school to higher education and, eventually, financial independence. What’s the point of all that education if the girl can’t become financially self-sufficient? So, it’s a particularly satisfying connection from a volunteer point of view because we follow the same children for their whole educational life and beyond.  We look at all the factors that might limit their access to education—transportation, family attitudes, even basic hygiene, etc.”

“Yes, even basic hygiene can be an obstacle to a girl’s education,” Sangeeta says in response to my surprised expression.

 “Many girls drop out of school when their periods start because they can’t afford sanitary pads and they’re ashamed.”

Edu-GIRLS has adopted a Ten-Mantra program that addresses all the invisible obstacles to a girl’s education like the monthly menstruation cycle and safe transportation to school.  There are 10 things they focus on as goals—these include a free, quality, English curriculum, with short school days and a long school year, safe transportation to and from school for the girls, nutrition health and hygiene training, community outreach, exposure to science and math, vocational and college scholarships and performance incentives.

Priti Jain, who organizes outdoor walkathons for fundraising, is currently working on the next one. “I was attracted to the charity by their focus on girls’ education,” says Priti, whose Facebook tagline says, ‘If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.’

 “At least walking is one fundraiser which will involve time away from a screen.  Since we must emphasize safety, we are looking into holding a virtual walk-a-thon. Participants walk on their own at an assigned time and post their miles and contributions online.”

The team is all really pleased with how the girls have risen to the crisis in their communities and have made masks and distributed food while mentoring and teaching the younger children, whether it’s proper COVID hygiene or other lessons.  

“They are the true heroes of their community,” Shubhra concludes. 

Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.


Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Image credit: EDU-GIRLS
Riya Kaur  (10) lives in the Jhalana Doongri slums, Jaipur. and is a class IV student.

 

11th Grader Starts Free Virtual Tutoring Service

From all over the Bay Area, students have stepped up to the plate to aid their communities amid the coronavirus outbreak. Here’s the story of a Mountain View student who decided to help the people he knew best – students. Kanav Mittal, a rising senior at the Saint Francis High School, started Free Virtual Tutoring. True to its name, this youth nonprofit organization provides Zoom classes to students of all ages. Since its humble beginnings, Free Virtual Tutoring has established a clientele of 40 students, with 20 math and computer science classes. We had a chat with Kanav to understand FVT’s unique journey over the past few months.

IC: What prompted you to start FVT? While there are a plethora of tutoring services in our area, few offer free classes. Why (and how) do you teach at no charge? 

K: A couple of weeks after schools shut down in response to COVID-19, I read some Nextdoor posts from parents who were frustrated at how the school district was handling their students’ learning. Elementary-schoolers seemed to be the worst affected, as it is quite difficult to transition to online learning at such a young age. Knowing that many elementary schoolers were struggling and falling behind, I wanted to help, so I contacted my friend with an idea for a free virtual tutoring service. Free Virtual Tutoring was born.

We teach at no charge because we want our service to be accessible to everyone during these times of crisis. We want any student struggling with the burden of school closures and catching up in schoolwork to be able to come to us and seek help, and we don’t believe that money should be a barrier to this. 

IC: What is your teaching philosophy? How do you structure classes and curriculum? 

K: Our teaching philosophy is to build relationships with the students and teach concepts in a fun, engaging, and interactive way that takes advantage of these relationships. Why do we focus so much on relationships? Partly because many students, including us high schoolers but especially elementary schoolers, may be feeling isolated during this time. We hope that through Free Virtual Tutoring, not only can we support students academically but we can also support them emotionally by just being there to help them and by trying to connect with them.

Our classes, which are one hour long, consist of presentations, lots of practice problems, and a fun Kahoot! to wrap it up and review. Throughout our classes, we always try to relate to the students, putting in funny memes or cracking jokes that get students excited about learning. Interactive discussions and practice times during the classes allow us to engage the students more deeply in the concepts.

While creating the curriculum, we look at our old workbooks and consult our younger siblings for advice, some of whom have just finished up elementary school. We can also draw on our own memories – elementary school was not that long ago! Our curriculum is based on reviewing concepts taught in school and introducing more advanced topics to prepare students for the next step in their academic careers.

IC: What challenges did you face in founding FVT? Was it easy to build a consistent clientele? 

K: At first, it was quite challenging to figure out a system for how we would offer classes. What times? How would they be structured? How would they be conducted? Nevertheless, these questions were naturally resolved as we went through our first few weeks and became more skilled at running classes.

Another major challenge that we faced was outreach. As our team is just high school students, many times people do not take us seriously. To compound this, when it’s free, people often don’t believe in the quality. Therefore, it has been difficult to conduct successful outreach efforts and tell more students about our service. However, after receiving excellent testimonials from parents, and after parents have told their friends about our service, we have received many more signups!

Speaking of outreach, it was not easy to build a consistent clientele at all! Again, people would often not take us seriously. However, through our unflagging dedication to students’ learning and wellbeing, we have been able to build a group of students who consistently come. Since we see these students every weekend, we have basically become friends with them! 

IC: Your group teaches students from different age groups and learning capacities. How do navigate this kind of diversity, and make the material accessible for all? 

K: In each class, we have a minimum of two tutors, so while one tutor is presenting, another tutor is available to answer any questions via Zoom chat from the students. If a student is having a hard time on a concept, they can chat with our other tutor, who can work with them individually. On the other hand, if a student finds a concept too easy, our tutors can provide them with challenge problems to keep their minds stimulated.

Our individual drop-in help time is a great time when any student of any age group in K-8 or any learning capacity can come in to seek help. Just like during meetings, we not only can help students who have trouble understanding concepts but also help students who are looking for more challenging work. 

We also share all our materials with the parents afterward so that they can work on it with their children. We create worksheets that have dozens of problems with varying difficulty so that students of different age groups and learning capacities can all practice their skills. 

IC: According to your website, your tutors primarily focus on subjects such as computer science and mathematics. Are you planning on branching out into more fields? If so, which subjects can we expect to see offered at FVT? 

K: Yes! We are planning on branching out into more fields. We soon plan to begin advanced math classes (problem solving i.e. competition math) and advanced CS classes (Python). Perhaps in the future, we are looking into adding world language classes (Spanish and Chinese) and public speaking classes. The world language classes would focus on conversational skills to prepare students for middle-school and high-school level world language. Finally, we are very open to suggestions for new classes from parents and students.

We also offer individual drop-in help time, when we can help in almost any subject. These subjects have ranged from Spanish and writing lessons to learning how to play the game Roblox!

IC: With the coming academic year, schools are considering many possibilities in terms of teaching styles, attendance, etc. What are your thoughts on another year of distance learning? Should schools in the Bay Area open their doors? 

K: Obviously, distance learning has its disadvantages. From personal experience, I preferred in-person learning much more than distance learning. In-person learning allows for a deeper understanding of concepts through the face-to-face interaction students have with teachers – something that is difficult to replicate in distance learning.

Nevertheless, I feel that distance learning can improve. Most of the systems put in place by school systems from March onwards are likely going to be improved during the summer, as officials discuss how to best structure another potential year of distance/hybrid learning. 

Schools in the Bay Area should only open their doors if it is safe to do so, whether through a fully in-person or hybrid model. We must prioritize the health of everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic.

IC: Do you have any advice for students who are trying to adjust to a virtual learning system? 

K: It is essential to stay organized. If your school does not have a designated schedule for classes, make one yourself, and do your work in the assigned time slots for each subject. 

One of the best things about in-person learning is the relationships you build with friends and classmates, so keep that going in a virtual learning system! Email or text them, or video call them to work on a project. It’s super important to stay in touch with your friends during virtual learning.

Finally, don’t be afraid to seek help. We’re living in crazy times, and virtual learning is no exception. So, if you need any assistance in your schoolwork or in life in general, don’t hesitate to ask your teacher or parent, or you can come to us by signing up at freevirtualtutoring.org!

Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. 

Tech Mahindra For A Safe Global Reopening

To be sure of the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 screening technology that he was considering for his employees, Tech Mahindra CEO CP Gurnani, suggested testing it on himself and his household members. That decision may have saved him and his family from having to be admitted to hospital —as actors Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan were last week. As it turned out, everyone in the house received a clean bill of health, except the two sons of his cook who were diagnosed as high risk.

As the Bachchans too must have done, Gurnani had had his domestic staff take all necessary precautions, remaining distant and wearing masks. His cook’s sons did not show any visible sign of infection, yet were potential Covid-19 carriers.

The fact is that the testing techniques in common use are inadequate, and social distancing isn’t always possible. RT-PCR (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction) tests have ‘false negative’ rates of 20-67%, depending on when they are taken. Also, temperature screening and contact tracing fail to identify the presymptomatic spreaders who, according to mathematical modeling, could be responsible for half of the infections. When Delhi health minister Satyendar Jain showed symptoms, his first RT-PCR results came back negative. But they were positive the very next day.

The technology and techniques I had persuaded Gurnani and Tech Mahindra to pilot — and that I had a hand in developing — are based on understanding an individual’s risk and performing monthly testing. The reality is that even though Covid-19 can be devastating for a few, not everyone who gets infected will have serious symptoms. We can identify the people at high risk with reasonable accuracy based on studies from around the world and data from India. And we can give them special treatment.

For example, it is well established that men above 65, whose health is chronically compromised by diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity, are at higher risk of severe outcomes. Further, severity can be predicted by a number of tests, including those for hypertension, diabetes, and obesity, and measures of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) and D-dimer.

Businesses in the US have considered offering these types of tests. But the costs and logistics of doing so are usually prohibitive, with the most basic tests costing more than $100 apiece, and requiring the shipment of samples to labs. A single comprehensive screening for an individual could cost over $1,000, and is usually not covered by insurance plans. It can take days to get basic test results.

This is where India has an advantage over the West: it has developed screening devices, such as HealthCube, which can conduct a range of biochemical and physiological tests for a tiny fraction of the US cost. These include 12-lead electrocardiograms (ECG), tests for blood pressure, oxygen saturation, blood glucose, hemoglobin and cholesterol, and rapid diagnostic tests for infectious diseases.

With HealthCube, an entire regimen of tests, including a test for Covid-19 antibodies and severity markers, can be performed for less than Rs1,000 within minutes. The technology has received Europe’s CE certification.

The Covid-19 risk screening program underway at Tech Mahindra on the HealthCube platform uses patient risk factors — age, gender, medical conditions, potential exposure, recent travel or being in a crowded place, public health data, aggregations from previous screenings, patient symptoms, etc — to compute a risk score for patients. Those at high risk are checked for markers, such as D-dimer and troponin, which are elevated in those who develop the severe disease (which indicate heart ailments). These tests are followed up by teleconsultations and further testing, as appropriate.

With more data and testing, the artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms become increasingly accurate, and people are given an individualized screening and testing protocol based on their risk factors, rather than being treated like machines that need temperature checks.

Antibody tests have been controversial largely because the first generation of tests performed worldwide were mostly from China and were low quality and defective. There have also been doubts about whether all Covid-19 patients develop antibodies and, even if they do, how long the immunity lasts.

The newer generations of tests, made outside China, are highly accurate. Swiss pharma giant Roche, for example, claims that 14 days after infection, its test can detect antibodies with 99.8% specificity and 100% sensitivity. HealthCube claims that its India-made tests have 98% specificity and 96% sensitivity. These are both a huge leap from the 5.4% accuracy of the tests that China first sold to India.

There is substantial evidence that within 19 days after symptom onset, 100% of patients test positive for Covid-19 antibodies. And as Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch explained in the New York Times, ‘After being infected with SARS-CoV-2, most individuals will have an immune response, some better than others. That response, it may be assumed, will offer some protection over the medium term — at least a year — and then its effectiveness might decline.’ Even half a year will buy us time to understand and develop better approaches to prevention and treatment — and administer vaccines to those at high risk.

Gurnani told me that his personal experience, and the testing Tech Mahindra has conducted on a few hundred employees, have convinced him to offer the full health screening to the entire India Tech Mahindra employee base — including third-party employees, who typically can’t afford the test and are the most vulnerable because they stay in crowded places. He says that he puts his employees’ health above any business needs and cannot allow even one person to be at unnecessary risk.

Gurnani’s ambition is to show India — and the world — how to safely and sensibly open businesses and economies.

Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow and professor, Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering, Silicon Valley.


This article was republished with permission from the author and can be originally found here.

Imperial County: Infecting the Hand That Feeds You

Shrouded by divisive thought and taunts, no issue remains non-partisan. Blame is placed on political parties, denying accountability on either end. 

“This entire country was not prepared to deal with a pandemic. The political divisions, the lack of political will to address and invest in the inequities that have been long characterized, for many years, by academics..and experts have gone ignored”

Community activist, Luis Olmedo of Comite Civico Del Valle, Inc., comes into the July 10th Ethnic Media Services briefing full throttle. His frustrations are apparent as he speaks about the disenfranchised Latinx population in Imperial County. 

Imperial County is currently the hot spot of COVID-19 in California. Imperial is 88% Latinx, many undocumented, with a heavy hand in California’s agricultural production. Imperial County is the 10th largest food producer in the state, with their yield being domestically exported to Hawaii and California and internationally exported to Japan, Mexico, South Korea, China and Canada

The county has 2,835 cases per 100,000 people versus 491 cases per 100,000 statewide and only two hospitals bearing the brunt of this massacre.

Yes, a massacre. Of the same people who are working to provide us food and other essential services. Latinx families are being confronted with the nightmare of the pandemic. The worst America has to offer – which is nothing at all. 

Letters and calls to action were sent to growers, contractors, and packing facilities when the pandemic began. “All those letters and calls went unheeded,” says Armando Elenes of the United Farm Workers, “they continued their operations as normal.” 

Stock Photo (not representative of Imperial County)

Employers are not communicating with their predominantly Spanish speaking populations and choosing to forego the use of the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act. H2A workers or temporary agricultural workers, are having to carpool together, work together, and live together and are unable to take sick leave when they develop symptoms. Inevitably, this leads to an increase in infection and mortality. 

Employers have absolved themselves of any responsibility, taking advantage of the desperate situation their low-wage workers are in and in poor taste, victim-blaming those that have contracted COVID. 

CDC has provided data that suggests cases of COVID increased in Latinx communities while all other demographics showed a decrease. Using this data, Edward Flores and Ana Padilla of the UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center have found positive links between low wage work and COVID positivity.

They further defined and found a positive link between a term called worker distress and COVID positivity. Worker distress is characterized by wage (above or below the state average) and the size of the household. In Imperial County, 38.5% of workers have high worker distress. Correlations between worker distress and industry were made. High worker distress was seen in food service, transportation, farm work, warehouse work, and retail. 

A matter far removed from political factions, we turn to inward reflection. It is our habits, practices, and behaviors that have led to the exploitation of an entire population.

Reduced food cost, low wage outsourced labor work, privatized healthcare, inaccessible housing, exported food for profit…

Luis Olmedo said it best at the beginning, we have ignored all the signs for our own convenience. But the turn around for a profit has come back to infect us all. As the infection spreads in Imperial County, the risk of infection domestically and globally increases. 

An advocate from IV Equity & Justice Coalition, Luis Flores, states that “county backing for accountability is needed.” As a resident of Imperial Valley, Flores is able to address the needs of the residents and convey them at the county-state level. He and his coalition are hoping for economic stability, public health structures, clear mechanisms for accountability, mitigating housing precarity (city-level eviction moratorium), accessibility to equity, and data to support the narrative they see. 

A huge thank you to all the activists that are on the ground advocating for minority rights and educating community journalists! Consider donating to United Farm Workers or Comite Civico Del Valle, Inc. and aid their efforts to gain traction for the marginalized Latinx communities in California.

Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

Can COVID Tracing Apps Help Fight The Pandemic?

My 18-year-old daughter, Caroline, responded quickly when I told her that she’d soon be able to download an app to alert her when she had been in risky proximity to someone with COVID-19, and that public health officials hoped to fight the pandemic with such apps.

“Yeah, but nobody will use them,” she replied.

My young smartphone addict’s dismissal sums up a burning question facing technologists around the country as they seek to develop and roll out apps to track the newly resurgent pandemic.

The app developers, and the public health experts who are watching closely, worry that if they do not engage enough people, the apps will fail to catch a significant number of infections and people at risk of infection. Their success relies on levels of compliance and public health competence that have been sorely lacking in the U.S. during the COVID crisis.

“We can’t even get people to wear masks in this country,” said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego. “How are we going to get them to be diligent about using their phones to help with contact tracing?”

The tracking apps, a handful of which have already been launched in the U.S., enable cellphones to send signals to one another when they are nearby — and if they are equipped with the same app, or a compatible one. The devices keep a record of all their digital encounters, and later on, they alert users when someone with whom they were in physical proximity tests positive for the virus.

For an app to stop an outbreak in a given community, 60% of the population would have to use it, although a lower rate of participation could still reduce the number of cases and deaths, according to one recent study. Some say an adoption rate as low as 10% could provide benefits.

In many places where apps have been implemented so far, adoption has failed to reach even that lower threshold. In France, less than 3% of the population had activated the government-endorsed app, StopCovid, as of late June. Italy’s app had attracted about 6% of the population. The percentage of residents who have downloaded the app endorsed by North and South Dakota, Care19, is in the low single digits.

One exception is Germany, where more than 14% of the population downloaded the new Corona Warn App in the first week after its launch.

COVID-19 apps are generally intended to supplement the work of human contact tracers, who follow up with people who’ve tested positive for the virus, asking them where they’ve been and with whom they’ve been in contact. The tracers then contact those potentially exposed individuals and advise them on the next steps, such as testing or self-quarantine.

Human contact tracing, slow and laborious in the best of times, has been a notable failure in the United States so far: An insufficient number of sometimes inadequately trained people have been deployed, and the infected people they’ve contacted often won’t cooperate.

The prospects for digital tracing appear no better. “Ideally, we’d have a digital way to supplement the human contact tracing,” said Topol. But “there hasn’t been any place yet globally where there’s proof that it goes from a clever idea to really helping people.”

Close to 20 tracing apps are in use or under development in the U.S.

A growing number of U.S. app developers are targeting state health agencies because Google, the maker of Android cellphone software, and iPhone maker Apple won’t enable an app to use their joint platform without a state’s endorsement. The Google-Apple technology, despite very limited use so far, is considered by many the most promising platform.

However, many states are lukewarm to the Google-Apple technology — and to digital contact tracing more broadly. In a Business Insider survey published in June, only three states said they had committed to the Google-Apple model, while 19 — including California — were noncommittal. Seventeen states had no plans for a smartphone-based tracking system. The remaining 11 didn’t respond or gave unclear plans.

In April, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said his office was working with Apple and Google to make their technology a part of the state’s plan for easing out of the stay-at-home order. Two months later, the Golden State seems to have backed off the idea.

Instead, it is training 20,000 human contact tracers with the hope they will hit the ground running this month. The state’s Department of Public Health told California Healthline in an email that most contact tracing “can be done by phone, text, email and chat.”

Trust Is Important

The multiple obstacles to successful use of digital tracing apps include indifference or outright hostility to anti-COVID measures. Some people won’t even wear masks or are leery of other public health efforts.

Moreover, to the extent that people do adopt phone-based tracing, it might miss potential outbreaks among the hardest-hit populations — seniors and low-income people, who are less likely than others to engage with smartphones.

“If adoption is high among 20-year-olds and low among seniors and in nursing homes, we probably don’t want the result to be that seniors and nursing homes don’t get the attention they should get through contact-tracing efforts,” said Greg Nojeim, director of the Freedom, Security and Technology Project at the Center for Technology and Democracy in Washington, D.C.

Unresolved technical challenges could also hamper the effectiveness of the apps.

To capture risky close encounters between users, some apps employ GPS to track their location. Others use Bluetooth, which gauges the proximity of two cellphones to each other without revealing their whereabouts.

Neither approach is perfect at measuring distance, and either might incorrectly assess a COVID threat to users. GPS can tell if two people are at the same address, but not if they are on different floors of a building. Bluetooth determines distance based on the strength of a phone’s signal. But signal strength can be distorted if a phone is in somebody’s purse or pocket, and metal objects can also interfere with it.

The biggest barrier to public buy-in is the privacy question. Advocates of the Google-Apple system, which uses Bluetooth, say the two companies enhanced the prospects for wide adoption by addressing fundamental privacy concerns

Google-Apple won’t allow apps to track the locations of smartphone users, and it ensures that all contacts traced are stored on the phones of individuals, not on a centralized database that would give public health authorities greater access to the information.

That means every decision based on the tracking data is up to the smartphone users. They decide whether to notify other app users if they contract the virus or whether to follow the advice — to self-quarantine and contact public health authorities — that would accompany an alert of possible exposure.

The Google-Apple system makes it easy for apps that use it to communicate with one another, which could be particularly important in multistate regions — the Washington metropolitan area, for example — where each state might have a different app and people frequently travel back and forth across state lines.

But developers of apps that don’t use the Google-Apple platform will struggle to sync with it, especially if their apps track locations or use a centralized server. Those include the Care19 app in the Dakotas and Healthy Together, Utah’s app, which both use GPS and Wi-Fi to track locations. Healthy Together also allows public health officials to see people’s names, phone numbers and location history.

These models are anathema to privacy-first app proponents, which might limit their uptake. In fact, North Dakota has announced it is planning a second app based on the Google-Apple technology.

Some public health experts, however, warn that the strong privacy focus of Google-Apple, to the exclusion of other important factors, may limit the value of the apps in tackling the pandemic.

“Apple-Google in their partnership have pretty narrowly defined what is acceptable,” said Jeffrey Kahn, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Berman Institute of Bioethics. “If these things are going to work as everyone hopes, we have to have a fuller and more soup-to-nuts discussion about all the parts that matter.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

A Conversation With Children’s Advocate Mayra Alvarez

School lunch programs, which fed nearly half of American’s schoolchildren before the Coronavirus, have turned into a lifeline for families hit by unemployment and rising food prices during the pandemic.

Many of those programs are now going broke, and their very existence over the next decade depends on the population numbers being gathered by the U.S. Census in communities that are considered “hard to count,”  says Mayra E. Alvarez, President of The Children’s Partnership, a nonprofit which advocates for underserved children.

When asked about the impact of the U.S. Census, which is conducted every ten years and has been delayed and disrupted (but NOT canceled) by the pandemic, Alvarez mentions this program first, although it’s hardly the only one that would be affected if there is a severe undercount of children and low income families.

In the past three months, school lunch programs have lost at least $1 billion during lockdowns and school closures that eliminated the revenue from families who were able to pay for the meals.

At the same time, costs have outstripped federal reimbursements for the emergency meals. Relief bills passed by Congress have helped, but the long-term survival of the programs depend on data from the 2020 Census.

For populations concerned with survival, filling out or responding to the 2020 Census may seem a distant priority.

But nothing is more important for vulnerable families than an accurate count, says Alvarez.

For starters, the biggest, most impactful federal and state programs that serve the health and well-being of children and families depend on formulas driven by census data.

The more people that are counted, particularly in those communities that need a variety of programs, the more money is allocated to serve them.

“We can point to Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), two fundamental programs for health care, which are partly based on census numbers,” said Alvarez.

“The programs that rely on census data are the ones the majority of people rely one, like Medicaid, food stamps, cash assistance”.

Medicaid, for example, is “part of a formula that distributes money to states, based on population and income; the states put money in and the federal government matches it.”

Experts estimate that the federal government provides between $1,700 and $2,000 for each person counted in the census.

For a minimum wage earner who’s a single mother of two, being counted or not counted in the census “can make a whole world of difference,” Alvarez says.

“If there is no adequate reflection of people like her in the census data, she may not be able to qualify for food stamps or enroll her children in child care because there won’t be enough slots”, Alvarez explains.

”She may also lose out on health coverage for her children, not find space in a neighborhood school and have to bus her children to another school. She might have to go farther away to find a hospital if the child gets sick because the hospital wasn’t built in her community since the population count did not reflect her presence,” she continues.

“This could be a very dire situation if the undercount is severe.”

“It is so much more important to be accurate right now because so many families are struggling,” Alvarez says. “These programs pretty much impact every aspect of their lives”.

Going back to school lunches, Alvarez says, an undercount of children and families could mean more hunger at a time when it’s unclear how soon will schools be able to go back to some kind of “normality”

“If families that have kids that depend on free and reduced lunch are undercounted, there will not be as many resources to make sure they are eating when they go to school”, Alvarez says. “These are kids that may not be able to eat at home or bring money for lunch”.

Who Gets Healthcare In The Pandemic?

“Where do you go for healthcare?” I asked a group of African American participants whom a local pastor had gathered together at a neighborhood church in inner city Dayton.

The year was 1990 and I was running community focus groups for a Wright State University School of Medicine pilot initiative to identify the healthcare needs and barriers among the city’s indigent population.

An elderly woman turned to me. “Honey,” she said, “I get into a tub of hot water and pray.”

I’m reminded of her response whenever the current healthcare crisis lays bare the inequities that continue to haunt the American healthcare system for communities of color.

The individuals in those community health focus groups of thirty years ago had no health care at all, a sobering fact that one participant drily summed up, saying, “You must be very dense to ask people in this community to describe their healthcare status.”

Many people in those inner-city communities, like the woman who sought relief in prayer, spoke of turning to religion, herbal teas or home remedies to find healing. When these failed, they went to local emergency rooms or trauma centers to find medical help.

It was clear from those conversations that those focus groups were the face of underserved minority communities who had little or no access to healthcare systems or providers. An unforgiving mix of financial insecurity and limited or no health insurance gave few if any, a chance at the healthcare services to which more privileged members of society had easier access.

But what quickly became evident, was that the community did not trust the healthcare system because they perceived the cultural bias within it.

“Everything boils down to economics,” said a participant. “Where the dollars are, is where the healthcare providers are.”

It appears that little has changed since then.

That cultural bias exists, said Dr. Tung Nguyen at an EMS media briefing on June 19, because, the ‘default position’ in the American healthcare system is that healthcare is designed to give medical attention to average, ‘default’ patients who happen to be primarily “white, English-speaking, employed and well educated.”

So, as a result of “building a public healthcare system that is based on a racist principle of what works for white people,” said Dr. Nguyen, minorities have paid a terrible price in the coronavirus crisis.

The pandemic has upended the health and lives of people everywhere, but in the US it has unmasked systemic inequities in the medical infrastructure that undermine how communities of color access their healthcare. Data  from the COVID-19 crisis is revealing the chasm between those who do and don’t get healthcare, and how race and ethnicity affects who survives or succumbs to the coronavirus.

Racial and ethnic disparities are “even more marked” in data examining COVID deaths, said Dr. Nguyen, a Professor of Medicine at the University of California (San Francisco). He was referring to a  Brookings Institute report which showed that Black and Hispanic/Latino people are experiencing some of the highest fatality rates from COVID-19, compared to white people.

Dr. Nguyen pointed out that in the age group 35 to 44,  “the risk of dying is ten times more for blacks and 8 times more for Latinx compared to non-Hispanic whites. For ages 75 to 84,  the risk is 4 times more for black and 2 times more for Latinx.”

The Brookings data also showed that among those aged 45-54, Black and Hispanic/Latino death rates are at least six times higher than for whites. In April, 70% of Louisiana’s COVID-19 fatalities were African American while in Michigan, Detroit’s primarily black tri-county area accounted for nearly 85% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

That trend was also confirmed by a recent CDC report showing that the coronavirus hurts racial and ethnic minority groups at higher rates across every age group.  The data shows that African Americans and Latinos are at increased risk of getting infected, being hospitalized, or dying from COVID-19. African Americans are 5 times more at risk, and Hispanic or Latino persons are 4  times more at risk from COVID19, than white persons.

The numbers don’t lie. Minority communities are getting hit hard and it’s time to reset the ‘default position’ in American healthcare.

America has approached public health the wrong way for years, argues Dr. Nguyen.  The healthcare infrastructure is wasteful.  Despite flaunting the most expensive healthcare system on the planet, a Commonwealth Fund study put the US at the bottom of 11 developed countries ranked on healthcare.

A John Hopkins report found that Americans spent more money ($9,892 per person) on healthcare but received a lower standard of care compared to other developed nations; ($ 7,919 per person in Switzerland) in 2016.

The US has the worst life expectancy among comparable countries. For example,, the United States ranks 29th in infant mortality and 26th for life expectancy, with an average life expectancy of 79 years among 35 OECD countries.

“The reason is that we spend money on the wrong things, and we are wasting money for the outcomes we get,” explains Dr. Nguyen.

Public health should focus instead on factors that contribute the most to low life expectancy, such as “ income equality, low levels of education, exposure to violence, along with other key determinants like employment, housing and food security, and climate change.”

“These are the proper topics for public health to work on in the future” he suggests.

Going back to normal after the pandemic will depend on making effective structural changes to the patchwork  US healthcare system. It will be a Herculean task to reinvent the healthcare infrastructure after the COVID19 crisis, but the future of American public health must ensure that race and ethnic disparities inform its outcomes.

By 2045, non-Hispanic whites will no longer be the majority, so spending money on the ‘wrong things’ and looking at health disparities as an afterthought “will not work as a path to the future,” Dr. Nguyen advised.

“My slogan for this is that there is no health quality without equality.” He recommends addressing the disparities in the healthcare system first to raise the quality of care.

He pointed out for example, that metrics for healthcare quality which look at disparities, only work when the metrics are broken down by race and ethnicity.

“So, if an average healthcare metric like “the number of people with hypertension who have blood pressure control,” is not broken down by race and ethnicity, it becomes meaningless because it only represents an average for everybody. In the future, national measures for quality will need to report it by race and ethnicity to have value.

The pandemic has exposed how racial and socio-economic disparities affect access to healthcare in 2020. If advances in medicine and healthcare practices in the last thirty years remain out of reach for every American, just as in1990, then the fragmented healthcare system is unfair and outdated. It’s certainly unworthy of the hefty price tag attached to it. The future health of Americans is in jeopardy unless we build a public healthcare system that switches the ‘default position’ of who gets healthcare, from white, to one that reflects the changing face of multi-ethnic America.

“As the saying goes, we shouldn’t waste a good crisis,” urges Dr. Nguyen. “Some good needs to come out of the pandemic.”

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents


Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash

 

 

Using Patient Stories To Mentally Survive As A COVID-19 Clinician

Dr. Christopher Travis, an intern in obstetrics-gynecology, has cared for patients with COVID-19 and performed surgery on women suspected of having the coronavirus. But the patient who arrived for a routine prenatal visit in two masks and gloves had a problem that wasn’t physiological.

“She told me, ‘I’m terrified I’m going to get this virus that’s spreading all over the world,’” and worried it would hurt her baby, he said of the March encounter.

Travis, who practices at the Los Angeles County + University of Southern California Medical Center, told the woman he knew she was scared and tried to assure her she was safe and could trust him.

Asking many questions and carefully listening to the answers, Travis was exercising the craft of narrative medicine, a discipline in which clinicians use the principles of art and literature to better understand and incorporate patients’ stories into their practices.

“How do we do that really difficult work during the pandemic without it consuming us so we can come out ‘whole’ on the other end?” Travis said. Narrative medicine, which he studied at Columbia University, has helped him be aware of his own feelings, reflect more before reacting, and view challenging situations calmly, he said.

The first graduate program in narrative medicine was created at Columbia University in 2009 by Dr. Rita Charon, and the practice has gained wide influence since, as evidenced by the dozens of narrative medicine essays published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and its sister journals.

Learning to be storytellers also helps clinicians communicate better with non-professionals, said writer and geriatrician Dr. Louise Aronson, who directs the medical humanities program at the University of California-San Francisco. It may be useful to reassure patients — or to motivate them to follow public health recommendations. “Tell them a story about having to intubate a previously healthy 22-year-old who’s going to die and leave behind his first child and new wife, and then you have their attention.”

“At the same time, telling that story can help the health professional process their own trauma and get the support they need to keep going,” she said.

Teaching Storytelling To Doctors

This fall, Keck School of Medicine of USC will offer the country’s second master’s program in narrative medicine, and the subject also will be part of the curriculum in the new Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine in Pasadena, which opens its doors July 27 with its first class of 48 students. (KHN, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

Narrative medicine trains physicians to care about patients’ singular, lived experiences — how illness is really affecting them, said Dr. Deepthiman Gowda, assistant dean for medical education at the new Kaiser Permanente school. The training may entail a close group reading of creative works such as poetry or literature, or watching dance or a film, or listening to music.

He said there’s also “real, intrinsic value” for patients because a doctor isn’t only being trained to care about the body and medications.

“Literature in its nature is a dive into the experience of living — the triumphs, the joys, the suffering, the anxieties, the tragedies, the confusions, the guilt, the ecstasies of being human, of being alive,” Gowda said. “This is the training our students need if they wish to care for persons and not diseases.”

Dr. Andre Lijoi, a geriatrician at WellSpan York Hospital in Pennsylvania, recently led a virtual session for 20 front-line nurse practitioners who work in nursing homes. Two volunteers recited Mary Oliver’s 1986 poem “Wild Geese,” which reads, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.”

Sharing the poet’s words helped the nurses relieve their pent-up tensions, enabling them to express their feelings about life and work under COVID-19, Lijoi said.

One participant wrote, “As the world goes on around me I mourn seeing my aging parents, planning my daughter’s wedding, and missing my great niece’s baptism. I wonder, when will life be ‘normal’ again?”

Processing Fear To Provide Better Care

Dr. Naomi Rosenberg, an emergency room physician at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, studied narrative medicine at Columbia and teaches it at Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine. The discipline helps her “metabolize” what she takes in while caring for COVID-19 patients, including the fear that comes with having to enter patients’ rooms alone in protective gear, she said.

The training helped her counsel a worried woman who couldn’t visit her sister because the hospital, like others around the country, wasn’t allowing relatives to visit COVID-19-infected patients.

“I’d read stories of Baldwin, Hemingway and Steinbeck about what it feels like to be afraid for someone you love, and recalling those helped me communicate with her with more clarity and compassion,” Rosenberg said. (After a four-day crisis, the sister recovered.)

Dr. Pamela Schaff (right) discusses narrative medicine in the Hoyt Gallery at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, as Chioma Moneme, a student in the class of 2020, looks on. (Credit: Chris Shinn)

Close readings can also help students understand the various ways metaphor is used in the medical profession, for good or ill, said Dr. Pamela Schaff, who directs the Keck School’s new master’s program in narrative medicine.

Recently, Schaff led third-year medical students through a critical examination of a journal article that described medicine as a battlefield. The analysis helped student Andrew Tran understand that describing physicians as “warriors” could “promote unrealistic expectations and even depersonalization of us as human beings,” he said.

Something similar happens in the militarized language used to describe cancer, he added: “We say, ‘You’ve got to fight,’ which implies that if you die, you’re somehow a failure.”

In the real world, doctors are often focused narrowly, devoting most of their attention to a patient’s chief complaint. They listen to patients on average for only 11 seconds before interrupting them, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Narrative medicine seeks to change that.

While listening more carefully may add one more item to a physician’s lengthy “to-do” list, it could also save time in the end, Schaff said.

“If we train physicians to listen well, for metaphor, subtext and more, they can absorb and act on their patients’ stories even if they have limited time,” she said. “Also, we physicians must harness our narrative competence to demand changes in the health care system. Health systems should not mandate 10-minute encounters.”

Telling The Patient’s Whole Story

In practice, narrative medicine has diverse applications. Modern electronic health records, with their templates and prefilled sections, can hamper a doctor’s ability to create meaningful notes, Gowda said. But doctors can counter that by writing notes in language that makes the patient’s struggles come alive, he said.

The school’s curriculum will incorporate a different patient story each week to frame students’ learning. “Instead of, ‘This week, you will learn about stomach cancer,’ we say, ‘This week, we want you to meet Mr. Cardenas,’” Gowda said. “We learn about who he is, his family, his situation, his symptoms, his concerns. We want students to connect medical knowledge with the complexity and sometimes messiness of people’s stories and contexts.”

In preparation for the school’s opening, Gowda and a colleague have been running Friday lunchtime mindfulness and narrative medicine sessions for faculty and staff.

The meetings might include a collective, silent examination of a piece of art, followed by a discussion and shared feelings, said Dr. Marla Law Abrolat, a Permanente Medicine pediatrician in San Bernardino, California, and a faculty director at the new school.

“Young people come to medicine with bright eyes and want to help, then a traditional medical education beats that out of them,” Abrolat said. “We want them to remember patients’ stories that will always be a part of who they are when they leave here.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Local Teens, Global Impact

It’s vital that we don’t forget about aiding communities impacted heavily by the virus even as the lockdowns and shelter-in-place are lifted.

Rayan Garg (Left) Arjun Gupta (Right)

Non-profit Elevate The Future, started by teens Arjun Gupta and Rayan Garg, is a 501(c)(3) organization is focused on “providing youth with the resources and support in order to spark their passions and set them up for success”. This involves giving students exposure to fields beyond the traditional STEM sphere — topics such as business, finance, and computer science. Established a year ago, Elevate the Future has seen incredible success, with 22 chapters all over the world, 200 volunteers, and 1000 completed hours of service.

While the coronavirus pandemic could have stopped this organization right in their tracks, Elevate The Future has emerged resilient and prepared. Recently, they collaborated with the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Cupertino Chamber of Commerce to help family-run businesses adapt to this rapidly shifting environment. This involved providing them online presence for takeout meals and coaching their students in developing websites for these businesses. Not only does this endeavor protect local establishments, but also provides students with a web development skillset that they can use for the rest of their lives.

To encourage the same creative, entrepreneurial spirit that led to their formation, ETF has hosted multiple online Global Entrepreneurship Summits in partnership with local chapters. Their most recent effort is the Cloud 9 summit, which is a virtual competition that produces student-led businesses. The judges include the Head of Global Customer Conferences at Juniper Networks as well as the co-founder of the 1517 fund. First-place winners will receive a mentorship opportunity from an IBM Executive Partner, while top competitors will receive prize money and assistance in filling out a patent. 

During these tumultuous times, it’s heartening to see young students like Rayan Garg and Arjun Gupta encourage and empower their communities. To find out more about Elevate the Future, check out their Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn!

If you are a business and need help, you can complete this form. If you are a student who wants to learn or would like to volunteer and help, you can reach them through their website.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor of India Currents, she is also the editor of her school newspaper The Roar and the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton.

Fear and Hope

 Fear and Hope

Life without living, a burden to bear!

In the midst of thorns, hope like roses

flourishes and releases sweet fragrance.

“Sweet are the uses of adversity.”

It too will wither away, slowly though.

“Suffering makes a man wise.”

Where there is suffering, there is hope

waiting patiently in the wings for the cue.

 

Haltingly though, let’s bear the burden

and march along toward our homes,

though they may now seem far away.

Don’t let negativity deflect our hope.

 

Difficult it may be to bear suffering

that is within us; let’s face it with positive energy.

******

Satyam Sikha Moorty is a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and taught for 31 years at Southern Utah University. He has two chapbooks ready: “Who Am I? and other poems”  and “Poems of Fear and Songs of Hope.”  His book “Passage from India: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays” has recently been published by Austin Macauley, London, England


Notes: “Sweet are the uses of adversity”—Shakespeare, “As You Like It,” Act II. Scene i.

“Suffering Makes a man wise”—Aeschylus, from his “Fragments”