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Amateur Data Analysis Filling An Information Gap

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An interview with UTW member Guy Sturdevant

The past year has had its fair share of innovation, but one thing we found particularly insightful was the videos that Guy Sturdevant, Northwest science teacher and UTW member, created to analyze the data that was coming from the district. 

November 9th Video

November 17th Video

January 8th Video

It was certainly helpful for those of us in the office to get a thorough but easy-to-understand video analysis of the data to aid in our own decision-making process, and we really can’t thank him enough for all of his efforts.

So, we decided to call him up and ask him a couple of questions about his rationale for making these videos and any insights he might have for us all going forward. 

As a quick disclaimer, Guy will be the first one to tell you that he is not an expert but simply has the time and desire to dive into the data. None of the following is meant to act as legal or health advice from him or UTW.

Why did you decide to get so heavily involved in studying the Covid Data from the district?

Well, I have a background in heavy industry in the oil and gas field, as well as other mineral extraction, so I'm used to working in high danger environments, and I found it appalling when I came to public teaching last year, how little consideration there was for the health and wellbeing of the workforce even before Covid-19 entered in play. So, I think I was already kind of primed for that based on some experiences we had last year with air quality issues that we thought were handled pretty terribly by the district. Eventually, they made the right choice, but it took far more prodding and scientific proof than I think they were used to being presented with to get them to do what they knew they should have been doing all along.

Another part of it is I'm trained as a geoscientist, and I think one of the unique things that these really large datasets do is they confound a lot of people just because we're not used to thinking of things in those magnitudes, and so the numbers kind of lack context and meaning.

And I think you'll find this across the country, in a lot of places it's geoscientists that have stepped up on a lot of this volunteer data management stuff because we're used to handling really complex, really large, datasets that are maybe a little unwieldy and hard to just look at and get a picture from.

So we're closet statistics nerds and we just happened to also be interested in public safety. I just wanted to see how our district analyzed the reported data, but they weren't doing any analysis of it publicly, so I wanted to see what the numbers said and go tell their story.

What kind of response did your videos get from leadership in the district?

You know, surprisingly little, even from the leadership that I think would be more inclined to value analysis and numbers. I'm not going to throw anyone under the bus, but the responses I’ve received from leadership have generally been very curt and dismissive, and I guess part of me understands how many contacts they must receive, but I don't know how many people went to the trouble to analyze their data for them and then present it in a succinct, less than 5 minute video. I think I brought a lot of value to the table for their time and I'm not sure that they even ever actually looked at it.

There's some sort of internal district processing that happens with the data, but they don't share it with us, they just give us raw data with no analysis, and then don't look at the analysis when we provide it.

This tells me that they have some analysis happening, or they're grossly negligent. One of the two.

I think it's probably that they have an analysis, and they're just not sharing it. But interestingly, since I run these reports every week based on the weekly output, I noticed there were some weeks in December where cases just disappeared from reports and then reappeared in the next week’s report. So, I am not an epidemiologist, but in science, when you report bad data and then fix it, you publish a correction saying “hey, this data set was wrong, here's why it was wrong, and here's the fix.”  Instead, we got radio silence. We got no interpretation, and if I were just to take one of those weeks to look at, I would declare fraud because there are flat lines (no cases reported) in places where there shouldn't be flat lines, and that is very clear evidence of data mishandling or data manipulation.

Now, it seems like they tracked down the issue, but again, without them commenting on what happened we have no idea. So data transparency and dumping raw data sets on us is great, but they should be telling us their decision-making metrics and their report, not just leaving it up to someone like me to find out that they're having issues.

I'm not arguing that I'm better at this than anyone else. I’m just somebody who had enough time and enough interest and cared to do it. So it would be cool to see what they've come up with and be able to compare because I'm sure we could learn things from each other. That’s what education could be about, but this is the business of education, not actual education of children, I guess.

What kind of response did your videos get from teachers or people in the community?

I corresponded briefly with The Eagle. They put out an article about the numbers in the district. Some of the plots they made, though they were looking at slightly different populations from the same data set, looked eerily familiar to my own. It was comforting to see an independent analysis made by professionals end up with virtually the same results we were reporting in our very much amateur epidemiology.

Looking back, what do you think the district or any of us could have done differently?

I think the response to this was stifled from the top down and smothered. I believe our early response was actually great. I think they made a tough call in closing the schools in March, but it was the right decision because there were so many unknowns. 

It's really easy to armchair quarterback and go back in time and say, well, we could have stayed open longer, but the fact is, with what we knew in March, that wasn't a wise decision. I think, had we had the advantage of foresight, we might not have done what we did in the spring with making everything basically optional for students. Then in the fall, with students not really understanding that we're playing for keeps again, that was kind of a problem.

I do think that the district set some pretty good guidelines in August when we were sorting through what it looks like to evaluate publicly available information to determine our threshold for safety. And then, unfortunately, they kind of backed away from them when they became inconvenient, which was a little frustrating to see.

Until the last couple of weeks, some of those thresholds had never gotten out of the yellow or the orange; you would not know that from the types of discussions held in public meetings.

I think there's also something to be said for if you're willing to risk staff, you should also be able to have public meetings, or maybe UTW gets to bring five people in, SEIU gets to bring five people, and then there's a public slot where people can register to speak. I mean, you saw it even with the election issues. In some states, they were able to have comment sections for meetings that were happening state or nationwide. So, something as small as a school district should have figured out how to have public participation in such an important decision. 

Also, I think there's this problematic duality where teachers know that students need them, but teachers also understand that this may be putting their lives or the lives of their loved ones at risk. This risk is not normal or ordinary in our profession, and we're not adequately compensated, trained, equipped, or prepared.

And the fact that this is never a topic of conversation during any board meeting, I think, disheartens us quite a bit.

What are your thoughts on the current situation in our district?

I think that if everything were as the district says it is, we would be OK.

And by that, I mean that if every building level administrator is holding to the policies the district has in place, then we're meeting most of the requirements that the CDC has put out to be back in person, especially in this sort of hybrid mode where we're lowering student population counts.

However. if you look at the data, the minute school came back in session, cases skyrocketed in the staff. Now, this is all correlative work. There's no causal link in any of my work. There isn't enough information to make a causal link, but it's pretty damning that case counts go way down, and then all of a sudden, students come back, and they skyrocket again.

So, the good news is transmission in schools looks to be not increasing, and there is no longer a disparity between secondary and primary that we saw in the fall. Bringing people back in person has roughly equalized things, but it's interesting that with high schools in hybrid, we still see similar case rates to elementary schools with full student loads.

So I think if everything were, as the district says it is, we could potentially stay in hybrid relatively safely, especially since the community dating criteria are looking the best they've looked since October, which is good to hear.

But then, if you look at the whole span of this thing from when we first set the gating criteria to the high point in October, and then to now; we're back to the beginning of when the bad things started happening. We're not back to a safe, low baseline. We're just off of the crazy peak.

So cautious optimism.

And I guess the other thing would be that I would wonder why the county leadership has decided not to prioritize public educators for vaccines if public educators act as frontline interventionalists in this, which is effectively what we're being asked to do.

Speaking of the vaccine and going forward.

You know, I can understand why people are a little hesitant to look at something like this and just immediately sign up. Still, the unfortunate thing here is that the risk is carried at the community level, not the individual level, but the control requires an individual-level commitment of taking the vaccine.

That's fundamentally the issue. We're looking to do common good through individual action, which has been the problem this whole time.

The vaccine is overwhelmingly safe. Compared to other vaccines, it looks to be one of the safest ones we've put out there. They are using new vaccine technology, but that new technology has been in development for over 40 years. We are so lucky that mRNA technology was ready for primetime because, without that, we would still be looking at our first vaccines, probably in August of this year.

I understand why they're prioritizing the elderly because the elderly are at the highest risk of severe complications and death. However, for the most part, the elderly who haven't been infected yet have probably been able to sequester themselves pretty thoroughly to avoid infection.

I would argue anybody who must work for the public good should be prioritized to kill community spread. If we kill community spread everybody is safer, but that's a high-level discussion across the country.

I don't know that I have any particularly world-changing insights on that, other than to agree with what the experts say.

I think the underlying issue here is a lack of scientific literacy, and we're reaping what we've sown in allowing that to be a thing that moves forward in this country.

There's some good news in that younger people are much better at having an online BS detector, as it were. That doesn't mean they're immune, but I think what you'll find is that the people who are falling wide scale for the misinformation tend to be skewed older online.

Fundamentally, one of the amazing things about all this Covid-19 nonsense has been that we have access to the frontline journal articles before they're even published. If you wanted to, you could be a world-class epidemiologist through all of this.

If you had just tried.

So when I see people at our August board meeting still not understanding what herd immunity means, I get very concerned. The worst of Covid-19 started in March; crack open a biology textbook (we’ve got thousands), talk to Dr. Minns or your family doctor, get informed on the basics of viral transmission. It disturbs me that someone unwilling to do that is in public office making decisions that affect our students’ and staff’s safety.

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