U.S. government weighs in against trans girls competing on girls’ teams

By Matthew Lavietes

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Allowing transgender girls to compete in girls’ sports leagues is illegal and could mean schools allowing the practice lose federal funding, the U.S. Education Department ruled in a letter made public on Thursday.

The policy violates federal civil rights law that guarantees equal education for women, the department’s civil rights office said in the 45-page letter to the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC).

The ruling came in response to a federal lawsuit filed by three female track runners from the state of Connecticut who argued they were put at a physical disadvantage competing against trans athletes.

It solidified the federal government’s stance in the controversial debate that is playing out in states nationwide.

Connecticut is one of 18 U.S. states that allow trans high school athletes to compete without restrictions, according to Transathlete.com, a website that compiles information on trans inclusion in athletics.

The Education Department said it would either withhold federal funding for the Connecticut school districts where they runners competed or refer the cases to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The letter said the school’s policy has “denied female student-athletes athletic benefits and opportunities” including higher-level competitions, recognition and visibility to colleges.

In response, the CIAC said its policy protected transgender athletes from discrimination.

“Connecticut law is clear and students who identify as female are to be recognized as female for all purposes — including high school sports,” the athletic conference said in a statement.

“To do otherwise would not only be discriminatory but would deprive high school students of the meaningful opportunity to participate in educational activities … based on sex-stereotyping and prejudice,” it said.

Male-to-female trans athletes have been allowed to compete in the International Olympic Games since 2016 if their testosterone levels meet a certain low level for a year.

Idaho became the first U.S. state to pass a law barring trans high school athletes from playing in sports leagues that differ from their gender at birth. Several other states are considering similar restrictions.

The lawsuit was filed in February by the three runners against the CIAC and a number of local boards of education.

(Reporting by Matthew Lavietes, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Lessons from around the world: How schools are opening up after COVID-19 lockdowns

(Reuters) – Public health official Anthony Fauci warned on Tuesday about the dangers to children if U.S. schools are reopened and California’s state university system, the largest in the United States, canceled classes for the fall semester.

As the U.S. debates when to bring children back into classrooms, phased-in reopenings have begun in numerous countries around the world.

Here’s how schools around the world are trying to protect children as they reopen:

SOCIAL DISTANCING MEASURES

Denmark eased its coronavirus lockdown in mid-April by reopening schools and day care centres, although concerns they might become breeding grounds for a second wave of cases convinced thousands of parents to keep their children at home.

Teaching staff there are under instruction to keep social distancing in place between children and, with many school buildings staying closed, some teachers are taking pupils outside and writing with chalk on the playground instead of a blackboard.

In Switzerland, children at Geneva’s La Tour School had to adapt to new rituals, with parents dropping them off at a distance. Classrooms were half full to reduce crowding and desks spaced two meters (6.5 feet) apart.

Under a courtyard shelter in heavy rain, children laughed while others played hopscotch and one girl helped a smaller child put on disposable gloves.

PLASTIC SHIELDS AND HAND SANITISER

In the Netherlands, the Springplank school in the city of Den Bosch installed plastic shields around students’ desks and disinfectant gel dispensers at the doorways.

“Our teachers are not worried,” said Rascha van der Sluijs, the school’s technical coordinator. “We have flexible screens that we bought so we can protect our teachers if students are coughing.”

The Canadian province of Quebec reopened some of its schools on Monday, as some parents and teachers expressed uncertainty over the move’s safety. The Ecole St-Gerard, in a Montreal suburb, opened with staff wearing visors and using hand sanitizer.

STAGGERED SCHOOL SHIFTS

Schools in Australia’s biggest state, New South Wales, reopened on Monday but only allowing students to attend one day a week on a staggered basis.

Australia’s second-most populous state, Victoria, will resume face-to-face teaching from May 27, weeks earlier than expected. The state including the city of Melbourne will allow teenagers in classrooms first, followed by younger pupils from June 9, Andrew said.

Israel reopened some schools this month but the move was boycotted by several municipalities and many parents who cited poor government preparation.

Kitted with masks and hand-cleaners, the first three grades of elementary school and the last two grades of high school were allowed back, redistributed in classes capped at 15 pupils to enforce social distancing.

Across France, primary school pupils on Tuesday sat at least a metre apart in small classes and listened to teachers in masks on their first day back after two months of home-schooling during the coronavirus lockdown.

TESTING AND TEMPERATURE CHECKS

In Cyprus, health workers wearing personal protective equipment tested students for COVID-19 at a school in Nicosia after high schoolers were allowed to return beginning May 11.

In Shanghai, students and staff alike were required to enter the school building via a thermal scanner when school reopened last week after three months of lockdown. The walls are papered with posters on measures to tackle the coronavirus and in the spotlessly clean school canteen, glass walls divide the tables, so only two students can eat together.

It may be more like going to a hospital than a school, but the Shanghai students returning to class after three months of lockdown are thrilled to be there.

“I feel so excited coming back to school. Usually we look forward to the holidays but suddenly our holidays became so long, 17-year-old Zhang Jiayi told Reuters. “This time, we longed to go back to school, where we can see our friends and teachers.”

(Editing by Mark John and Lisa Shumaker)

Coronavirus school shutdowns threaten to deepen U.S. ‘digital divide’

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – Liz Peasley, a special education aide in the rural Grand Coulee Dam School District in Washington State, drives 10 miles from her home on the Colville Indian Reservation just to get a workable cellphone signal.

Now, with schools shut down until the fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, Peasley – who doesn’t own a computer or tablet – is confronting the same dilemma millions of others in the United States are facing: How to ensure kids trapped at home receive some version of an education if they can’t get online.

“I’m super overwhelmed,” said Peasley, who has three kids between the ages of 10 and 13. “I’m a single mom – it’s tough for us on a good day.”

Some 14% of school-age children, or 7 million, live in a home without high-speed internet, many in less populated areas that lack service or in low-income households that cannot afford it, a 2018 Department of Commerce study found.

In many cases, households may rely only on a cellphone, or may share a single device among several children, making it challenging to complete schoolwork even in the best of times.

While the digital divide is not a new phenomenon, the coronavirus outbreak has laid bare the technological inequities that bedevil rural and impoverished school districts, including Grand Coulee, where two-thirds of the approximately 720 students – many Native American – are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Now educators worry those disparities will turn achievement gaps into an “achievement chasm,” in the words of Michele Orner, the superintendent of the rural Octorara Area School District in Pennsylvania.

Some districts have reverted to earlier technologies, with staffers delivering paper packets along with meals for needy families. Some schools have stationed buses transmitting mobile wireless signals in neighborhoods; others have encouraged students to park near the school on the weekend and use the wireless network to download necessary materials.

But officials warn some kids will be left behind no matter what. Those concerns have only deepened as the coronavirus-forced hiatus has grown from weeks to months.

Thirty-seven states have either mandated or recommended that public schools serving more than 40 million students remain closed for the rest of the academic year, according to a running tally by the news publication Education Week.

Some states have already warned their schools may not reopen after summer. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, for instance, encouraged school officials to start preparing in case the shutdown stretches into the fall.

‘SUMMER SLIDE ON STEROIDS’

The U.S. government provides some $4 billion each year to schools and libraries to increase broadband access, but the program does not permit them to use funding to extend offsite access.

“Those students that can’t do online learning are falling further behind,” said John Windhausen, the executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. “It’s going to cause a real problem, because the skills that students learn (in class) build off of each other.”

The risks are particularly acute for students with special education needs, including those who have individualized instruction plans that may not be suited for distance learning.

Some districts have hesitated to transition fully online out of fear that doing so would expose them to legal liability for failing to provide equitable education to all students. The Northshore School District in Washington State, one of the first in the country to close in early March, launched an online program immediately but put it on hold for two weeks to address equity concerns.

A lack of training or equipment means many rural or low-income districts are also less able to rely on online instruction.

“The degree of being able to move to online learning at a moment’s notice is totally dependent on the wealth of the district,” said Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the national School Superintendents Association. “At best, maybe 40 or 50% of districts are able to do that.”

In Bronxville, the affluent New York City suburb that saw the state’s first major outbreak in March, the school district has many advantages that poorer systems do not: Engaged parents, a student population that has near-universal internet access, and plenty of laptops to distribute to families in need.

“I’m in a fortunate district,” said Schools Superintendent Roy Montesano.

Many others are not so fortunate.

In Pennsylvania’s Octorara district, where students receive a Chromebook laptop starting in seventh grade, Orner, the superintendent, said she concluded that going back to pencil and paper would shortchange her kids.

Around one-quarter of her students lack high-speed Internet access, so the district recently bought 100 iPhones – Orner secured a $9,500 emergency state grant to cover the cost – for students to use as mobile hotspots.

But she acknowledged that the most vulnerable students are also the likeliest to fall behind even further.

“We talk about the summer slide,” she said, referring to the months between school academic years that sometimes causes students to slip backward. “Imagine the summer slide on steroids.”

As school districts grapple with new challenges, they look for solutions wherever they can. Grand Coulee Dam just started to employ some distance learning this week by setting up Google Classroom for those families able to access it and loaning out some Chromebooks, even as it continues to rely on pencil and paper classwork for students without internet.

Those packets, however, have to be carefully curated to ensure kids in poor households have everything they need.

“You want them to measure something, you better put in a ruler,” said Pam Johnson, a ninth-grade Grand Coulee Dam teacher. “You want them to color something, you better throw in a packet of crayons.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Aurora Ellis)

‘Schools are survival’: U.S. coronavirus closures put homeless students at risk

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For U.S. student Samantha Kinney, high school is about more than education: It has also given her a support network, a sense of accomplishment — and, at times, even access to daily necessities like food and hygiene products.

Kinney, 18, has dealt with homelessness and housing instability for years, including a time when she lived out of a car with her parents and dropped out of school altogether.

She currently lives with relatives in Kansas City, Missouri – having not seen her parents in a few years – and has restarted school, where she has found a surprisingly nurturing community.

“There were even times when families would ‘adopt’ me for Christmas, when they would buy me gifts before break,” Kinney told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown that support system into flux.

Like most schools across the country, Kinney’s school is closed, probably through the end of the school year in June, leaving students in unstable housing situations without the everyday help they rely on, warn homelessness groups.

For many students, those closures have removed a key source of stability, safety, access to food and other resources, as well as the opportunity to gain the skills or a job that could secure their future.

“Schools are survival for children experiencing homelessness,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit that works on the issue nationally.

“Now that schools aren’t there, and the organizations that schools referred (homeless students) to are closing down or short-staffed, a lot of the most vulnerable populations are more likely to fall through the cracks,” she said.

Kinney is one of at least 1.5 million homeless public school students across the country, according to federal statistics released in January for the 2017-2018 school year, the latest available.

That figure is a record high, according to SchoolHouse Connection, up 11% in just a year, and includes a doubling of the number of students in “unsheltered” situations, such as living in cars or on the street.

Those who work with homeless students worry that the pandemic will have an outsized impact on many of them, now and into the future.

More than 90% of schools in the United States have been affected by closures to some degree due to the pandemic, according to trade publication Education Week.

So far, Kinney said she is coping with the changes. She has a computer and stable internet connection at her relatives’ house, and has stayed on top of her studies.

Still, the high school senior said she feels the disruption even more starkly than her peers, including the possible cancellation of landmark events such as prom and a formal graduation.

“I really wanted the satisfaction of being able to walk across that stage and being handed my diploma,” she said.

SOURCE OF STABILITY

Schools have long played a critical, but poorly recognized, role in helping homeless students in the United States, said social workers and activists.

As well as providing homeless students with an education, many public schools “offer other basic supports, including showers, laundry, and even clothing,” said Matt Smith of Washington state’s Homeless Student Stability Program.

But Dana Bailey, chief operating officer at nonprofit Homeless Youth Connection in Avondale, Arizona, said that homeless youths are more likely to drop out of school – and that the coronavirus outbreak has “turned our organization upside-down”.

In Arizona, schools started closing on March 16 for what was going to be two weeks, but has been extended to the rest of the school year.

During the first few weeks of the closure, Bailey and her colleagues focused on the immediate needs of the nearly 290 students they work with.

For students who usually get food through schools, the group dropped off groceries or gift cards that can be used for food and other supplies.

Then, as the schools prepared to start remote learning, Homeless Youth Connection began trying to source essentials like computers and internet hotspots for students who didn’t have them.

“Our students come into our program with no stability,” said Kayla McCullough, a program manager at the non-profit.

“They don’t have what we think of as a home, housing is temporary, food is unreliable and family members are overburdened by trauma caused by homelessness.”

Students who face problems at home are often safer at school, McCullough said.

“If there’s any danger at home, they get to escape that by going to school … It’s a light at the end of the tunnel for many,” she said.

Some community advocates say the public fear surrounding the pandemic is exacerbating homelessness issues, sometimes resulting in people being kicked out of their living situation.

“We’re starting to hear from (homeless) parents that there’s fear on the part of their hosts, (who are) saying, ‘You’ve been here for six months, and I’m too scared to have you’,” said Debra Albo-Steiger, a director at the Project UP-START homeless programme in Miami’s public school system.

DORMS SHUTTERED

School closures don’t affect only younger students: As colleges and universities across the country have shut classrooms and dorms, many have been confronted with students who have nowhere else to go.

Nearly half of college students are housing insecure, and 16% are homeless, according to Marissa Meyers, a researcher with the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Amid the pandemic, “colleges and universities don’t know what to do — they’re paralyzed,” she said, with most seeing major holes opening in their budgets.

Colleges and universities are projecting a $23 billion decline in revenue next school year due to the coronavirus-related drop in enrolment, according to the American Council on Education industry group.

The federal government recently allotted $14 billion to struggling colleges and universities, half of which must be used to help students pay for things like food, housing, school materials and health care.

Some schools have found a way to keep some of their dorms open for students, at least temporarily.

Middle Tennessee State University spokesman Jimmy Hart said the school has made exceptions for those who can’t go anywhere else, including international students and those without reliable internet connections at home.

Berea College in Kentucky, which caters solely to low-income students, is also maintaining housing for about 150 students who could not vacate, according to president Lyle Roelofs.

“No student who had no home to go to or another viable option was asked to leave campus,” he said in emailed comments.

Yet Roelofs expressed concern about the longer-term effects of coronavirus-related closures, particularly for poor students.

“My larger fear is that … the extra curveballs they are facing as a result of the pandemic may seriously degrade their already discouraging prospects,” he said

That’s a sentiment expressed by many, at all levels of schooling.

“We know (the pandemic) isn’t just affecting health, but also our economy,” said Dana Bailey of Homeless Youth Connection.

Ahead of the next school year, she said, “we’re already anticipating a greater number of students needing our services”.

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

‘Under Siege’: desperate Mexico region uses guns, children to fend off cartels

By Alexandre Meneghini

RINCON DE CHAUTLA, Mexico (Reuters) – When the 56-year-old mother-in-law of David Sanchez Luna was tortured and killed after venturing out of her small Mexican community encircled by drug cartels, he let his seven- and ten-year-old daughters receive military-style weapons training.

Unable to send their children to school and too afraid to step out of their enclave of 16 mountain villages in the violence-plagued southwestern Guerrero state, residents say they have been left with little choice.

“They do this to prepare themselves to defend the family, their siblings and defend the village,” said Sanchez Luna, a corn farmer in a rugged region which five years ago formed a self-defense “community police” militia to protect itself.

The move by the villagers to offer arms training to school-age children shocked the nation and made global headlines last month after local media broadcast images of children as young as 6-years-old toting guns and showing off military maneuvers.

While elders in the mainly indigenous community near the city of Chilapa privately concede young kids would not be used to fight cartel gunmen, they say their gambit to get the help of far-away officials in Mexico City is borne of desperation.

Ten musicians from the area were ambushed and killed last month by suspected Los Ardillos cartel members after stepping out of the territory guarded by their self-defense militia, known as CRAC-PF. Their bodies were burnt, officials said.

The attack followed a spate of murders in recent year, including a beheading, that rattled the 6,500 residents whose lush land sits amid fertile poppy-growing farmland that feed Guerrero’s heroin trade and supply routes to the United States.

The grisly murders and siege-like conditions facing residents go to the heart of cartel power and state failure in modern Mexico, where runaway violence tears at society’s fabric.

“This is a public cry for help by a community that’s been cornered,” said Falko Ernst, an International Crisis Group (ICG) analyst. “They’ve been trying to get assistance by federal and state government, unsuccessfully, so they’re trying to escalate the language to try to negotiate and get help.”

President Manuel Andres Lopez Obrador said those who arm children “should be ashamed of themselves” and denounced the use of children to grab attention.

Lopez Obrador’s government has struggled to get a grip on gangs and violence, with a record 34,582 murders last year.

Residents remain deeply suspicious of regional authorities and the smattering of local policemen in their villages, who they accuse of being the eyes and ears of the Los Ardillos.

Parents say their children are forced to stop formal education once they reach about 12 years of age, as the middle schools are in territory controlled by the cartel.

Abuner Martinez, 16, stopped attending school a year ago after his father was kidnapped outside CRAC-PF territory, tortured, and then beheaded.

“I got scared at that moment. I didn’t want to go to school,” said Martinez, who now wields a shotgun as he guards a checkpoint.

The Los Ardillos want to extort the farmers and force them to grow opium for the cartel, said Sanchez Luna’s brother, Bernardino, who founded the CRAC-PF.

“We find ourselves under siege,” he said.

CRAC-PF repelled a major attack by Los Ardillos in January 2019, but residents live in fear of the siren, a community alarm system, going off again.

Farmers tend their corn fields with shotguns slung on their backs, while armed CRAC-PF militiamen keep guard and patrol their territory round the clock.

David Sanchez Luna’s wife, Alberta, sobbed as she described receiving her mother’s body riddled with torture marks.

“It’s terrible what’s happening to us,” she said, wiping away tears.

(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Thanksgiving leftovers: Storm serves U.S. Northeast second helping of snow

By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A vast wintry storm that has been raging across the United States since before Thanksgiving served a second helping of snow to the Northeast on Monday, closing offices and threatening to disrupt the evening rush-hour commute.

Alternating rain and snow showers were forecast to switch completely to snow, piling up by the workday’s end to 1 to 3 inches in New York and 4 to 6 inches in Boston, said meteorologist Bob Oravec of the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.

Heavier snow totals were expected in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, northwestern New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, southern Vermont, southern New Hampshire and Maine, with some areas already receiving 1 foot of snow, Oravec said.

“When it’s all said and done, some areas will have over 2 feet of snow from this storm, especially over parts of the Poconos and Catskills,” Oravec said of the mountain regions.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo directed all non-essential state employees in the capital region to stay home on Monday. State offices in New Jersey opened as usual on Monday, but New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said all non-essential workers should head home at noon due to weather conditions.

Travel glitches on U.S. flights began mounting throughout the morning, with most of the 1,500 cancellations and delays posted by late morning at airports in San Francisco, Albany, Boston, Chicago and Newark.

The storm that started on the West Coast ahead of Thanksgiving, the busiest U.S. travel holiday, slowly rolled across the entire country, drenching some areas with rain, blanketing others with snow and blasting still others with winds. Three tornadoes were reported northwest of Phoenix.

“It’s uncommon to have a tornado in Phoenix, but it’s not uncommon to have multiple types of weather with a big winter storm like that,” Oravec said.

The storm was expected to linger in New York until just before sunrise on Tuesday, in Boston until early Tuesday afternoon and in Maine until Wednesday morning.

“There have been huge impacts from the storm since it occurred during the Thanksgiving week of travel and coming home from the holiday,” Oravec said.

“It hit about possibly the worst time it could hit, and it went right across the entire country.”

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

More U.S. children die in mass shootings at home than at school: study

By Brad Brooks

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – Three out of four U.S. children and teens killed in mass shootings over the past decade were victims of domestic violence and generally died in their homes, according to a study released on Thursday by the gun control group Everytown.

While the specter of school shootings looms darkly in the minds of American parents who remember massacres in Newtown, Connecticut; Parkland, Florida, and around the country, the group’s review of shootings from 2009 through 2018 found far more children are killed in their own homes.

“These are not random acts of violence, yet people have the perception that the killings come out of nowhere,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, Everytown’s research director. “That is simply not the truth.”

The Everytown report, based on police and court records, as well as media reports, found that 54% of mass shootings involved the shooter killing a family member or intimate partner.

A total of 1,121 people were killed in 194 mass shootings in the decade examined – one-third of whom were children or teens.

Nearly two-thirds of all mass shootings took place entirely inside homes, the study found.

Burd-Sharps said Everytown hopes that its report helps the public gain more understanding about the statistical realities of mass shootings, which it defines as an incident that kills at least four people, excluding the shooter.

The federal government and other groups set a lower threshold for what constitutes a mass shooting. Those definitions can result in higher totals than Everytown’s count.

Only 1% of the nearly 35,000 gun deaths averaged in the United States each year in the past decade involved mass shootings, but Burd-Sharps said she believes public interest in them can help propel gun-safety legislation that could cut gun deaths across the board.

At the top of Everytown’s wish list is a “red flag” law that would allow family members or law enforcement officers to petition a judge to seize firearms from a person they think is a threat to themselves or others.

The group also believes a comprehensive federal law requiring background checks on all gun sales would quickly be effective in decreasing gun deaths.

The link between domestic violence in mass shootings was seen this week in San Diego, when a man who had a restraining order against him killed his wife and three of their four young sons before taking his own life.

“When you look at all these cases of kids who lost their lives, if some family member had been able to heed the warning signs and temporarily had guns removed from the home, many of those children would still be alive,” Burd-Sharps said.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Berkrot)

U.S. minority students concentrated in high-poverty schools: study

U.S. minority students concentrated in high-poverty schools: study
By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – Segregation in U.S. public education has concentrated black and Hispanic children into high-poverty schools with few resources, leading to an achievement gap between minority and white students, a nationwide study showed on Tuesday.

Stanford University Graduate School of Education professor Sean Reardon and his team crunched hundreds of millions of standardized test scores from every public school in the United States from 2008 to 2016 to reach their conclusions.

The findings reinforced previous studies illustrating that poverty, linked to continuing segregation, is a key mechanism accounting for racial disparities in academic achievement.

“If we want to improve educational opportunities and learning for students, we want to get them out of these schools of high-concentrated poverty,” Reardon said in presenting his findings at Stanford on Tuesday.

“Part of the reason why we have a big achievement gap is that minority students are concentrated in high-poverty schools, and those schools are the schools that seem systematically to provide lower educational opportunities,” he said.

African-American and Hispanic students tend to score lower on standardized tests than white students, and closing that achievement gap has posed a persistent challenge for educators.

The U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled that racial segregation was a violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

In the decades that followed, public education officials wrestled with how to integrate schools in the face of opposition by residents and politicians in many regions.

This history became a point of contention between Democratic presidential candidates during a televised debate in June, when U.S. Senator Kamala Harris criticized former Vice President Joe Biden for his 1970s opposition to court-ordered busing to reduce segregation.

In a working paper released on Monday, Reardon and his team compared different levels of racial disparities between schools in New York City and those in Fulton County, Georgia, to explain how segregation affected student performance.

The school attended by the average black student in New York City over a recent span of eight years had a poverty rate 22 percentage points higher than that of the average white student. There researchers found white students performing 2-1/2 grade levels above black students on average.

By comparison, the average black student attended a school with a poverty rate 52 percentage points higher than the average white student’s school in Fulton County, where an achievement gap of four grade levels separated black and white students.

Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles and not affiliated with the Stanford study, endorsed the methodology Reardon’s team used but said its findings reveal only part of the picture.

“It’s really misleading to talk about whether race or poverty is most important, because a lot of the poverty is caused by race, and that’s something that people need to keep in mind,” Orfield said.

For instance, discrimination against minority parents is a factor in why those families are more likely to struggle with poverty, Orfield said by telephone.

The Stanford research data is publicly available at the website edopportunity.org.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Steve Gorman and Darren Schuettler)

Texas shale towns grapple with growth as oil-bust fears fade

FILE PHOTO: A sign soliciting applicants is seen outside of a truck stop in Midland, Texas, U.S., February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Jennifer Hiller

ODESSA, TEXAS (Reuters) – In west Texas, the center of the U.S. oil boom, about 3,800 students at Permian High School are crammed into a campus designed for 2,500, with 20 portable buildings to help with the overflow.

School officials had expected enrollment to fall after the last oil price crash, starting in 2014, but it kept rising – one sign of a growing resilience in the region’s oil economy as Exxon Mobil, Chevron and other majors continue pouring billions of dollars into long-term investments here.

For most of the last century, oil money has flowed into this region like a rising tide during booms – but residents here had enough sense to know it would flow right back out again when the next bust hit. That cycle has always made officials, developers and voters wary of investing too much during the good times on everything from school construction to roads to housing.

That hesitance is fading fast as oil majors make ever-larger and longer-term commitments to drill in the Permian Basin and residents grow weary of traffic jams on once-rural roads, long waits for medical appointments, pricey housing and overcrowded schools. Local governments, industry and foundations are joining forces to tackle the region’s overwhelmed infrastructure and public services.

“When you have more students, you need more teachers,” said Danny Gex, principal at the Odessa school, which was made famous as the home of the Permian Panthers football team in the book and screen adaptations of “Friday Night Lights.”

Texas has a statewide teacher shortage, Gex said, and “when you’re in a desert, it makes it a lot more difficult to find them.”

Also in severe shortage: housing. The median price of a home in Midland, $311,000 in April, was higher than any other Texas city except the hip tech-industry hub of Austin, according to data tracked by Texas A&M University.

(For a graphic comparing Midland home prices to the rest of Texas, see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2Zd7YIS )

Former convenience store manager Ruben Garcia came to the region and now earns $2,000 to $2,500 a week hauling sand to fracking sites. But he had to sleep in his truck until he could find an RV to rent.

“I had to go where the money is, and the money is here,” Garcia said.

The city of Midland, the local hospital district and other employers are considering banding together to build apartments for workers, said Jerry Morales, mayor of Midland, the de facto capital of the Permian. In neighboring Odessa, the school district has considered buying a hotel to house new teachers.

“That’s crazy to even think that,” said Gex, the principal.

STAYING POWER

The oil industry, of course, still has its ups and downs, like any business involving global commodities subject to rapid market shifts.

Some of the smaller producers that pioneered shale drilling in the Permian, such as Concho Resources, Laredo Petroleum and Whiting Petroleum, are downshifting as West Texas oil prices have lost 16% and natural gas has tumbled 36% over the past year.

But the world’s biggest oil majors are increasingly taking control of the Texas shale business, and their drilling plans – sometimes sketched out in decades rather than years – are envisioned to withstand the usual price drops.

That means they will need to lure more staff to live permanently with their families in cities such as Midland and Odessa, rather than depending on “man camps” for transient roughnecks or relying on temporary worker-training schemes.

In Midland, a group of local foundations started by wealthy area families, as well as a consortium of energy firms, recently put up $38.5 million to finance 14 tuition-free charter schools to relieve the stress on local classrooms.

“The mindset is changing,” said Mayor Morales. “There are those who understand we’re growing and we need these things.”

But it’s a scramble to catch up: “We’re behind, because we never invested in ourselves.”

On the New Mexico side of the Permian, local governments, schools and foundations joined together to build a $63 million sports complex with a water park in Hobbs. Hotel taxes from visiting energy workers will pay part of the facility’s operating costs, said Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb.

Hobbs’ next proposal involves a $60 million vocational high school that would help turn out welders, electricians and other skilled blue-collar workers. Oil firm executives will consult on the curriculum by offering insight into the skills they need in new hires, he said.

“I think there’s more sustainability because all of the supermajors have come back into the area,” Cobb said.

While many local officials and civic leaders say the region has permanently left its boom-and-bust cycle behind, others remain wary. Alan Herig arrived in Midland in 1977 to sell oilfield equipment and later opened an office supply store. He went from flying to Houston for steak lunches to painting houses after oil prices crashed.

“Midland became a ghost town,” said Herig, who now owns three hotels in the area and believes hard times could come again any day.

Still, Herig understands why city officials and civic groups are scrambling to upgrade local infrastructure and services.

“Midland is way behind,” Herig said. “They need to invest.”

ORANGE BUCKETS AND FOLDING TABLES

The latest shale boom, which started about three years ago, has brought jobs and wealth but also many hassles to day-to-day life.

Midland resident and energy executive Kaes Van’t Hof had a hard time scheduling an eye-doctor’s appointment for new contacts before his wedding earlier this year.

“Simple things have to be planned far in advance here,” Van’t Hof said.

Max Campos, a tattoo artist who lives in Odessa, recently sold his motorcycle after concluding it was no longer safe to ride alongside heavy truck traffic.

Odessa, a city of 120,000 people, drew unwanted attention last year after a school teacher equipped a classroom with orange buckets and folding tables because of a lack of chairs and desks. The school found tables after photos of students using the makeshift furniture went viral online.

Several groups have formed to bring change to the region, and local officials are finding that voters are more receptive to approving new spending on services such as schools and roads.

Priority Midland – a long-range planning initiative formed this year by officials in government, business and philanthropy – plans get-out-the-vote efforts to press for increased school financing and a possible sales tax hike to pay for hospital services or improved roads, Morales said.

The Permian Strategic Partnership, a group of 20 energy companies operating in the area, promises to spend $100 million to promote training, education, health care, housing and roads. The partnership chipped in $16.5 million for the charter school initiative, which will open its first campus in August 2020 and plans to offer public education to 10,000 students over time.

One member of the organization is Travis Stice, chief executive at Midland’s Diamondback Energy, which has been among the Permian’s fast-growing firms.

It’s time for the community, he said, to trust that the oil industry is here to stay.

“We’ve allowed ourselves to be rangebound by thinking: ‘Don’t invest during the boom time because the bust time is coming,'” Stice said.

(Graphic: How shale booms affect Midland, Texas, home prices link: https://editdata.thomsonreuters.com/#/portal/groups/editorcharts).

(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller in west Texas; Editing by Gary McWilliams and Brian Thevenot)

Notre-Dame toxic fallout lawsuit turns heat on Paris authorities

FILE PHOTO: A view shows the damaged roof of Notre-Dame de Paris during restoration work, three months after a fire that devastated the cathedral in Paris, France, July 14, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – An environmental protection group has filed a suit alleging lives were deliberately endangered after the fire that ravaged Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, saying authorities failed to protect people from lead that spewed into the area.

The April 15 inferno melted hundreds of tonnes of lead in the cathedral’s spire and roof. Unusually high levels of lead were later detected in the air and nearby buildings, including primary schools.

Campaign group Robin des Bois filed a lawsuit dated July 26 against unknown persons, alleging that authorities in Paris were aware the fire had dispersed large quantities of lead into the air and that lead is toxic.

Authorities failed to provide adequate warnings of potential lead poisoning to local residents, tourists and workers on the site before and after the blaze, the suit says.

The authorities’ actions meant there was exposure to toxic fallout and that “lives were deliberately endangered”, Robin des Bois said in its complaint, filed with the Paris prosecutor.

Paris City Hall declined to comment.

The prosecutor will next determine whether the complaint merits deeper investigation.

Health officials have said people living and working in the vicinity of the cathedral were kept informed of risks and safety measures. Nearby residents were advised to wipe down surfaces with a damp cloth.

In June, after unusually high lead levels were detected in a child, pregnant women and young children were invited to get tested for lead levels in their blood.

More than three months after the fire, the Paris prefect suspended restoration work on the cathedral on July 25 until more robust decontamination measures have been put in place. The same day, the mayor’s office temporarily closed a nursery and primary school that were hosting a holiday club for a “deep clean” after high lead levels were detected.

The cathedral’s spire and roof, which collapsed in the fire, contained more than 450 tonnes of lead.

(Reporting by Emilie Delwarde; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Frances Kerry)