Sweet Briar Thrives Amidst Coronavirus Epidemic

The Sweet Briar campus. Photo credit: Heather Rousseau for the Washington Post.

by James A. Bacon

I’ve long admired Meredith Woo, president of Sweet Briar College, who salvaged the troubled liberal arts college three or four years back by radically restructuring its business model. Hacking out administrative costs, reorganizing the curriculum, and clarifying its mission, she slashed the cost of attendance by 32%. She then built on distinctive niches such as equestrian and artisinal agriculture programs where the college could stand out as unique. Now she’s plugging Sweet Briar’s bucolic rural setting north of Lynchburg as a refuge from COVID-19.

“We are one of the only colleges that can maintain social distancing,” Woo told the Washington Post. “We can be as safe as home — if not safer than home.”

The onslaught of COVID-19 is expected to be devastating to small liberal arts colleges generally, as parents and students weigh the pros and cons of attending college without assurances that the institutions won’t shut down again if the virus rebounds this fall. Sweet Briar seems well positioned to weather another viral storm. Writes the Post: Continue reading

K-12 Schools Need Immunity for COVID-19

by James C. Sherlock

In May we saw several states pass laws that gave businesses immunity from COVID-19 claims.

We need similar but expanded protection for public and private schools, their school boards, superintendents and all of their employees.

In North Carolina, for example, immunity protection granted businesses was sweeping. That immunity does not bar regulatory actions, criminal charges, workers’ compensation claims, gross negligence, recklessness or intentional infliction of harm. It continues until emergency orders expire or are rescinded.

But the schools are in worse position than businesses.

Suits against schools for educational malpractice have been thrown out by courts for decades. However, COVID-19 offers opportunities to sue schools

  • for gross negligence or reckless endangerment if the schools are open; or
  • for violation of various constitutional guarantees if the schools are closed and provide remote learning only.

Quite literally, damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Continue reading

COVID-19 Update: Mixed Signals on Viral Spread

Here are three COVID-19 trends in Virginia worth watching:

  1. The seven-day moving average of the test-positive rate ticked upwards yesterday for the first time in more than a month;
  2. Hospital utilization by COVID-19 patients dipped to the lowest point since the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association began tracking the data in early April; and
  3. It turns out that multisystem inflammatory syndrome was not much of a thing.

Positive-test rate. The percentage of COVID-19 tests confirming the presence of the virus hit a seven-day moving average of 5.9% yesterday, based on data published today on the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) COVID-19 dashboard. That’s up from 5.8% the previous day. That doesn’t sound like much, but the seven-day moving average smooths out daily fluctuations, and it reverses what had been a steady decline since May. This number is an indicator that the viral spread in the general population, which had been retreating steadily, may start picking back up. This metric bears watching.

Hospital utilization. On the other hand, there is no indication yet that the greater numbers of infected people is translating into more trips to the hospital. Continue reading

Blue Lives Don’t Matter

Newport News police officer Katherine M. “Katie” Thyne, 24, mother of two, and girl’s basketball coach, was killed in January during a traffic stop. In the incident, she was dragged about a block and pinned between the fleeing car and a tree.

by James A. Bacon

Last week Virginia Senate Democrats unveiled a 27-bill package of criminal justice “reforms” they will advance in the special session that Governor Ralph Northam has said he expects to call this August. Some have potential merit, such as a slew of proposals to hold law-enforcement officers accountable for unjustified use of force. But some seem to be scripted to ruin police morale.

The list released by the Senate Dems provides only a bare-bones description of what the initiatives entail. There is no way to know exactly what legislators have in mind until we see the bills. Even so, there’s reason enough to sound the sirens. Bacon’s Rebellion will take a closer look at the more alarming proposals as time permits. For now, I want to focus on one: “defelonizing” assaults on law enforcement officers.

Under current law, anyone convicted of assaulting a law enforcement officer is guilty of a Class 6 felony and subject to a mandatory minimum term of confinement of six months. The proposal would reduce assaults to misdemeanors. Continue reading

Who Cares about the Kids? Not the Teachers’ Unions.

Did school teachers abandon their students during the Spanish influenza? I suspect they were made of tougher stuff than teachers today. — JAB

by Kerry Dougherty

They hate it when we call them teachers’ unions. But when organizations act like trade unions, throw tantrums like unions, put their own needs before the people they serve, you’re looking at a union.

Make that unions. Plural.

In Fairfax County there are three: the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, the Fairfax Education Association and the Association of Fairfax Professional Educators.

According to a piece in The Washington Post headlined, “Teachers in Fairfax Revolt Against Fall Plans, Refusing to Teach In-Person,” these three groups are acting in concert to force Fairfax County students to miss another year of school.

Maybe two years.

Heck, Fairfax County schools may never reopen since these teachers are demanding that all learning be virtual until a Covid-19 vaccine is available. Continue reading

Uh, Oh, COVID-19 Metrics No Longer Improving

Source: Virginia Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard

The bad news from recent COVID-19 statistics is that the numbers aren’t getting better. Virginia has hit a plateau in the number of confirmed cases, as seen in the chart above, which shows the seven-day moving average in the number of confirmed cases. To some degree, the tick upwards in COVID-19 cases may reflect increased testing. But it’s clear that the virus, which had been receding for a month, no longer is.

I’ve never worried overly much about the number of cases. The vast majority of cases cause no lasting harm. What matters is the number of hospitalizations and deaths. As it happens, the number of hospitalizations, which had undergone a month-long decline, also has hit a plateau, and the number of deaths has nudged noticeably higher than early June, as can be seen in the chart below. Continue reading

The Big Lie of Unequal Funding

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) has unanimously adopted a statement regarding its commitment to provide equal access to a high-quality public education.

“Systemic racism and discrimination still exist in public education, and too often, a student’s skin color or socioeconomic status predicts the quality of their educational opportunities,” says the statement. The VBOE goes on to attribute the educational achievement gap between whites and “people of color” to unequal funding.

The current system of funding for our schools, codified as the Standards of Quality, has not resulted in meaningful changes in educational outcomes. In fact, in combined effect with the previously long-standing Standards of Accreditation, segregation in our schools has increased. We have seen resources, in terms of funding and personnel, migrate to schools and localities that disproportionately served fewer students of color. The result has been a recognized achievement gap that continues to persist.

There is one big problem with this statement. There is no meaningful black-white funding gap in Virginia. The VBOE provides no statistics whatsoever to back up its statement. Repetition of a falsehood does not make it true. Here are the average annual per-pupil expenditures for school operations across the state broken down by race/ethnicity:

From a statewide perspective, there is a funding gap in Virginia, but it’s between Asians and Hispanics on the one hand and blacks and whites on the other. If the BOE had restricted its claim to the existence of a white/black funding gap, not a gap between whites and “people of color,” it would have been on firmer ground, although that gap is barely more than one-tenth of one percent. Good luck trying to explain the educational achievement gap (which is very real) on a one-tenth of one percent difference in spending. Continue reading

Senate Democrat Promises on Police Reform

By Steve Haner

What follows, without edits, is the full list of legislative proposals now endorsed by the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus. With 21 members, if they all show up and vote aye on all of these, they pass in the upcoming special session. Bills would then have to also pass the House of Delegates and be signed by the Governor. This follows up an earlier post by Dick Hall-Sizemore.

  1.  Bringing Equity to Virginia Policing
    ● Prohibit No Knock Warrants (Breonna Taylor)
    ● Ban Sex With Individuals Arrested by Law Enforcement
    ● Prohibit Hiring of Officers Fired or Resigned During Use of Force Investigations
    ● Create a Decertification Procedure for Law Enforcement Officers
    ● Ban chokeholds and strangleholds (George Floyd)
    ● Require Attempts at De-escalation Prior to Use of Force
    ● Require Warnings Before Shots Fired
    ● Require Law Enforcement to Exhaust All Other Means Prior to Shooting
    ● Create Duty to Intervene by Fellow Law Enforcement Officers
    ● Prohibit Shooting at Moving Motor Vehicles
    ● Require Departments to Create a Use of Force Continuum
    ● Require Comprehensive Reporting by All Law Enforcement Agencies Including Use of Force Data
    ● Defelonize Assault on Law Enforcement Officer (Return to Misdemeanor Offense)
    ● Cancel HB599 Funding (Virginia supplemental funding for local police departments) After Local Police Have Disproportionate Use of Force Incidents In their Jurisdiction
  2. Expand Local Authority to Respond to Mental Health and Regulate Law Enforcement
    ● Create Local Authority for a Marcus Alert System – System to Report Acute Mental Health Crises
    ● Create Local Option for Citizen Review Board Empowered to Investigate, Fire and/or Discipline Officers
  3. Restore Courts’ and Prosecutors’ Flexibility to Effect Mercy
    ● Confirm Prosecutors’ Authority to Drop Charges
    ● Enhance Courts’ Ability to Expunge Charges for Dismissed Charges, Substance Convictions and Pardoned Offenses
  4. Reduce Racial Profiling Opportunities for Law Enforcement
    ● Prohibit Searches of Person or Vehicle Based on Odor of Marijuana Without Probable Cause for Other Offenses
    ● Prohibit Stops for Equipment Violations Not Covered by State Vehicle Inspection
    ● Secondary Offense For Dangling Objects, Extinguished Tag Light, Tinted Windows or Loud Exhaust
  5. Restore Equity to the Sentencing Process
    ● Jury Sentencing Only at Option of the Accused
    ● Eliminate Commonwealth’s Right to Demand Jury Trial When Jury Trials Suspended for State of Emergency
    ● Require Agencies to Determine Cost Savings for Introduced Criminal Justice Legislation
  6. Restore Equity to the Virginia Prison System
    ● Allow Earned Sentence Credit for Good Behavior During Prison
    ● Create Discretion for Compassionate Release for Terminally Ill or Permanently Disabled Prisoners

Continue reading

Roanoke County and Education in the Age of COVID

by James C. Sherlock

I subscribe to the Roanoke Times because I find it by far the best regional newspaper in Virginia. It produces local reporting that the rest of us can only envy.

I was drawn to two stories in the past week.

The first, on June 21 by Alison Graham, revealed only 2/3 of residents of Roanoke County have broadband access.

Roanoke County’s Tentative Plan

The second, by Claire Mitzel today revealed the school system’s tentative plan:

“Southwest Virginia’s second-largest school system on Thursday unveiled its plan to return to school in August, which will involve daily in-person instruction for pre-K through second grade students and twice-a-week in-person instruction for third through 12th graders. Roanoke County’s plan is based on the state being in Phase 3.”

The plan is preliminary, but the article reported that the School Board seemed to support its broad outline and will vote on a final plan July 2.

“Third through 12th grade students will be split into two groups under the plan to attend at 50% capacity. One group will attend school on Mondays and Thursdays; the other group will attend Tuesdays and Fridays. Families with multiple children will attend on the same schedule.”

Continue reading

School Shutdowns Will Aggravate Racial Disparities

Graphic source: McKinsey & Co., “COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime.”

A new report by the McKinsey & Company management-consulting firm contends that delaying in-class schooling to Jan. 2021 would result in a catastrophic loss of learning for students — a loss that would be even more pronounced among blacks and Hispanics than whites (and, presumably, Asians, who are not mentioned despite comprising 5.6% of the U.S. population).

The average loss of learning for all students would be 6.8 months. The loss would be slightly less for whites, about 6.0 months, but significantly greater for blacks (10.3 months) and Hispanics (9.2 months). The racial/ethnic achievement gap, which has defied all efforts of school administrators to close over the past decade, would grow significantly worse, says the article, “COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime.”

The McKinsey scenario does not describe the hybrid stay-at-home/back-to-school model proposed by the Northam administration for Virginia, but it highlights many of the problems that Virginia school districts would encounter by having students attend school only two days per week. Continue reading

“Equity” and the Performance of Virginia’s Black and White Students

by John Butcher

The estimable Jim Bacon suggests that the Northam administration’s emphasis on “equity” and “restorative-justice” is keeping disorderly students in the classroom to the detriment of the other students. As well, he posits that behavior problems are more common among black students so the effect should be larger in divisions with larger black populations.

VDOE has some data that might speak to those issues.

Elementary and middle school students mostly take the same tests at the same time. High school, not so much. So let’s look at the data for the elementary and middle school grades.

First, the disorder. The Safe Schools Information Resource goes back to 2015. For grades 3-8, the statewide counts there of individual offenders as a percentage of their ethnic population are:

Continue reading

COVID-19: Milder than We Thought

The latest numbers from the state and hospital-association COVID-19 dashboards suggest that the coronavirus in Virginia still is retreating. The seven-day moving average of test-positive cases for COVID-19 tests continues to fall, hitting a new low of 5.8%.

Meanwhile, two measures of intensive hospital utilization have hit new lows. The number of COVID-19 patients in Intensive Care Units fell t0 219 yesterday, down from a high of 469 in early April, while the number on ventilators declined to 99, from a high of 302 in mid-April.

New research from the federal Centers for Disease Control suggest that only one in ten COVID-19 cases have been identified through testing, so the number of confirmed cases, which stands at 60,570, is likely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If the national rate holds true here, more than 600,000 Virginians have contracted the virus. In other words, about 7% of the population has been infected. The bad news is that the virus still has a long way to run.

Here’s the good news: If that 600,000 figure holds up, and if the Virginia Department of Health’s 6,071 figure for the number of hospitalizations is reasonably accurate, it means that only 1% of the population that gets the disease ends up hospitalized for it. Given the 1,700 Virginia deaths so far, it also means that only three out of 1,000 who get the disease die from it. Continue reading

Richmond’s “Numbnuts” Cripple Busch Gardens

by Kerry Dougherty

Five more days until Virginia finally enters Phase 3 of the slo-mo reopening of the commonwealth.

But if you were planning to take the kids to Busch Gardens or Kings Dominion to celebrate, forget it.

Thanks to ridiculously small crowd limits, both sprawling theme parks said they can’t comply with Virginia’s rules. The management of the parks want to know why they are lumped in the same category as bowling alleys and skating rinks.
Under the governor’s rules “entertainment venues” can open at 50% capacity, but with no more than 1,000 visitors.

On a good summer day Busch Gardens draws upwards of 24,000 guests. Holding the 383-acre park to 1,000 visitors would be economic suicide for one of the biggest tourist attractions in Virginia.

So Busch Gardens will remain shuttered. And the economy of the so-called Historic Triangle of Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown will continue to circle the drain.

“Our parks are largely outdoor facilities spread across hundreds of acres but we continue to be lumped in with unrelated models like bowling alleys and skating rinks,” said Kevin Lembke, president of Busch Gardens. Continue reading

“Bring That Sucker Down Without Anyone Getting Hurt”

Confederate statue in North Carolina

By Peter Galuszka

In a striking sign of the times, Popular Mechanics magazine has published a how-to article regarding removing statues on your own.

The article is titled: “How to Topple a Statue Using Science: Bring that sucker down without anyone getting hurt” by James Stout.

The force need to bring down a controversial statue is not all that great, Stout writes. Most statues are bronze, with an alloy of 90% copper and 10 percent tin with a maximum thickness of 3/16 of an inch. Most people statues weigh 3,500 pounds. One that includes a horse is maybe 7,000 pounds.

For a pure muscle job, you’d need about 70 people and several high-endurance recovery straps. One should be placed across the head. Once in place, you’ll need to break the statue from its base. This can be done by two teams on either side of the statue working a back and forth motion.

As for safety, this isn’t that big a deal as long as you have done the proper geometry.

If you don’t have many protestors, you can do the job using a high temperature approach with home-made thermite. Propane torches are also good. Continue reading

Beyond COVID-19: New Opportunities in Land Use

Vacant storefronts — a challenge and an opportunity

by James A. Bacon

The stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 epidemic accelerated a trend that was already reshaping the American economy: the shift of commerce from bricks-and-mortar retail to online delivery. Traditional retailers are retrenching; malls and shopping centers are hollowing out. If current trends continue, we’ll be seeing a lot more UPS and Amazon trucks cruising through our neighborhoods… and a lot of vacant retail space.

This seemingly irreversible trend will create dramatic challenges and opportunities for Virginia communities. Local governments rely upon the property taxes generated by malls and shopping centers. As those properties empty out and lose value, local governments will see an important revenue source erode. That is a problem, to be sure. But the decline of bricks-and-mortar also presents Virginia localities with once-in-a-generation opportunities. The potential exists to address two of Virginia’s chronic issues: affordable housing and traffic gridlock.

The scarcity of affordable housing in Virginia, especially in high-growth counties, has become increasingly acute in recent years. Construction of new dwelling units has not kept pace with household formation, and housing shortages have pushed up rents and sales prices faster than incomes have risen. Home builders would be more than happy to build more houses, if only they could find the land and gain zoning approvals from local governments to do so. Meanwhile, congestion is reasserting itself on Virginia’s Interstates, highways and arterials. There is not enough money to build our way out of gridlock.

While no solution is perfect, the least imperfect is to recycle old retail districts into “walkable urbanism” resembling pedestrian-friendly places such as Arlington, Reston, or downtown Richmond and Norfolk. Continue reading