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COVID-19: The World Responds - Sally Hendrick interviews Alisha Morris about school cases

Alisha Morris, high school theater teacher, responds by gathering news on COVID-19 cases in schools

This interview took place on August 31, 2020.

After joining a Facebook group about reopening Tennessee schools safely, I was tagged by Alisha Morris, a high school teacher in Olathe, Kansas who had spent a considerable amount of time gathering information of COVID-19 cases in schools across the country. She noticed that I was talking about collecting data, which meant we had something in common.

Alisha started gathering news articles in her local area and then expanded beyond that to other cities and towns across the country. Few articles about cases involving schools' faculty, students, and athletes were hitting the mainstream media as plans were forming up around opening for the fall semester. She saw an opportunity to pull information together to show how serious the pandemic was affecting reopening plans. 

Listen to this interview to hear the full story and how she has gained national attention.

NPR: How Many Coronavirus Cases Are Happening In Schools? This Tracker Keeps Count

Good Morning America: Teacher has more than 700 entries on a spreadsheet tracking COVID-19 in schools

NEA: Teacher Creates National Database Tracking COVID-19 Outbreaks in Schools

YouTube:

Podcast:

Transcript:

Sally Hendrick (00:00):

Hi, Alisha Morris. My name is Sally Hendrick. Thanks for coming to talk with me today with Shout Your Cause.

Alisha Morris (00:06):

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Sally Hendrick (00:08):

You're welcome. So I saw that you stepped into a group that I'm in online, around teachers in Tennessee, and you stood out cause you had been collecting information on COVID cases that are positive surrounding schools over the last month or so, right?

Alisha Morris (00:28):

That is correct.

Sally Hendrick (00:29):

Well, tell me, how did you end up in the Tennessee group? Because you're from Kansas.

Alisha Morris (00:34):

I am from Kansas. Yeah. I originally started sharing this information with people in Kansas specifically, and then I had an overwhelming amount of people tell me that, like I needed to spread it more. And so I started just joining whatever Facebook groups I could find for each state. I kinda like looked through each state and kept a log of like, which ones I had joined.

Alisha Morris (00:56):

And to this day there are still several States that I never got access to to give them this information. But so yeah, that's how I found Tennessee. And I just made my post in there and I actually went to so many different groups making the same post that Facebook like flagged me for being like a bot and how they will know in person.

Sally Hendrick (01:19):

Yeah. They will do that. So you are a school teacher. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Alisha Morris (01:26):

So I'm a high school theater teacher, which means that I teach theater classes during the day. And then after school I run the after school theater program where we produce shows and we produce eight shows a year, so we're a fairly large program. Yeah, the, the Kansas city area is very competitive theater, high school area. Believe it or not, you wouldn't think Kansas would have very competitive theater, but we do.

Sally Hendrick (01:52):

That's good. That's good. That's great. That eight and eight shows a year. That is a very large program.

Alisha Morris (01:57):

Yeah, it's big. And we're also, our school opened in 2017 where the fifth high school in the district. So we're only in our third year. Well now fourth, we're going into our fourth year of open as a school. Oh, wow.

Sally Hendrick (02:11):

That's great. So cool. So how long have you been teaching altogether?

Alisha Morris (02:15):

This will be my eighth year of teaching. Okay, nice.

Sally Hendrick (02:18):

Now, are you from Kansas originally and decided to start?

Alisha Morris (02:21):

Actually, I grew up in the same districts that I'm teaching in now. Yeah, but I spent my first four years of teaching.

Sally Hendrick (02:31):

Okay. Well, good. Well, I thought it was really interesting. Some of the information that you were collecting inside this database that has now blown up as far as the notoriety of this database.

Sally Hendrick (02:43):

So tell me a little bit more about what you started doing and how you started collecting information and what, what is in that Google document that you, that you started?

Alisha Morris (02:55):

Yeah, so I kept seeing all these articles going around about cases that popping up as schools opened specifically Georgia. I mean, I think we're all familiar with that viral photo that went around of the kids in the hallway at North Paulding. And I think that was kind of a spark for me and I saw some other articles going around and I thought to myself, like, maybe this is all just the same school. Like surely there's not all these different articles. And then I really started digging, digging in and realize that there were several different schools. So I, I am sort of just like a nerd and the fact that I like to collect information and category personal interests.

Alisha Morris (03:32):

And that seemed like for lack of a better word, a fun thing to do at the time that I was like waiting for school to start and I needed something based off of the anxiety of going to the school year, like little did I know that this would cause even more anxiety, but well.

Sally Hendrick (03:51):

how did you spend though? Cause you were, as far as causing anxiety, you were actually putting forth a ton of effort and time into this.

Alisha Morris (04:00):

Yeah, I would say, I mean, like I haven't totaled up all of the hours, but there were a few days in a row that I was working literally 12 hours a day on this.

Sally Hendrick (04:24):

Okay. So how many hours a day did you say?

Alisha Morris (04:28):

I was working probably for a few of those days. I was working at least 12 hours a day. Yeah, I just would like keep working on it because I felt really compelled to go find everything that was out there. And every time I found another article, it led me to more articles and more cases. And I just, I would search like all of the news articles in the past 24 hours. And even those would take me all day to get through, which is insane.

Sally Hendrick (04:56):

So how did you actually categorize it to keep these things straight?

Alisha Morris (05:01):

So at first I was looking specifically just for cases that were happening like now, but I kept running into all these cases of like, you know, if they had an article that was like, Oh, I'm a teacher in training, got a positive case.

Alisha Morris (05:17):

And then later down in the article it would be like, this is the fifth case that this district has experienced since X amount of date. And I'm like, Oh, well there's more cases. Should I say those? And it just got to be like a lot of information. So I ultimately decided to start like broadening my scope and going back and looking at the cases that had happened over the summer, which also led to looking at like deaths that had happened related to the school year. And that was when I started like looking into the, all the New York teacher deaths that happened back in March. So it grew to having data until the present, which a lot of people gave me feedback saying that they wanted it to be separated so that they could see more like what's been happening in the last month. So yeah. So I separated the data to just be from July 1st until the present. And believe it or not, the stuff that was from before July 1st was maybe 10% of what I had logged.

Sally Hendrick (06:21):

Wow. Yeah. So it got overwhelming for you, didn't it? I think we have similar traits. I collect data from Tennessee teachers and they, but they submit it on a Google form. So I get the information that way. And then I take, and I have like questions that I ask them. Like, you know, what have you been provided by the school as far as PPE is concerned? Or, you know, are there any cases, is it among teachers or among students or what do you know, what do you not know? And, and a few of them have been pretty generous with their information. But what I do find in in interesting about it is that they, every single one of them have, has wanted to stay anonymous, which is sad because that's basically saying that they're afraid to say something for fear of losing their jobs or having people come at them in some sort of a bad way.

Sally Hendrick (07:28):

That's, you know, not, not something that we want. That's welcome for us. So what has that been like for you?

Alisha Morris (07:35):

Well, I'm not going to lie at first. I really did want to be anonymous. And when I first had some people reaching out for articles I said, sure, I'll interview you all our interview with you, but only if I can stay anonymous. And then, you know, I wouldn't hear back from them after that. And so it was this kind of double edged sword that it was like, well, I'm already all over Facebook on my own profile posting on these pages. People know that like they could easily go to my Facebook and figure out who I am. So like I already kind of am not anonymous when it comes to that anyway. So that's kind of what I decided to just like, okay, well, you know, I got a piece of advice that was like, you know, just, just do the interviews because this information needs to get out there. So I wish that my name was not associated with it. Unfortunately that's just the sad truth of what's happened, but you know, I think it's, I think it's really sad that we have to be scared of that because what I did is it just

Alisha Morris (08:45):

Collected data that already existed on the internet and put it into one place. And I don't know how on earth that could be so polarized. But the sad truth of it is that it is like, we're so divisive that even putting numbers into a spreadsheet that you could easily go find yourself, you know, and I made it clear that I'm not trying to make a statement here. I just want to know this information. So I thought you might want to know it too. So, and.

Sally Hendrick (09:17):

I, I totally agree with you on that. It people, they tend to think that, Oh, you're just trying to change the narrative when really you're just trying to fill in the holes and fill in blanks and anybody could do the exact same thing that you did. It's not like you had any special knowledge or any special skills to go out there and pull all this information together.

Sally Hendrick (09:43):

You just had the wherewithal to actually do it and the passion to be able to pull it together. So I really appreciate that very much. About you have to be able to do that. So as far as like getting all of these articles together, you were really relying, I'm going to assume mostly on local news sources or did you look at the roll up to the higher news sources as well? Well, like I said, I was just on Google searching those key terms and what would pop up were the local news sources in those areas and what I also found out, and this is why it was so time consuming was because a lot of those news sources would not be super specific about the city or the town that it was in. And sometimes I didn't even know what state this news source was covering just by like first glance at the article.

Sally Hendrick (10:37):

So I found myself having to like Google the name of the school that it was part of, and then find that information myself. And I'm like, you know, my jobs could be so much easier if you just put these two points right here. Yeah.

Sally Hendrick (10:50):

Or even date your article. Cause not all articles are even dated. And I find that baffling. I'm like, if you're going to write an article or have a blog on your website or whatever that is, please put the date there. And yeah. And whoever wrote it to,

Alisha Morris (11:06):

I was doing an interview with someone and I was explaining that to them. And they were like, no, no, they're supposed to always have the city and the state on there. And I said, well, they don't know. And not, I do want to say that like, that's why local news is so important because that information wouldn't be out there if it weren't for them. So like, you know, support your local news.

Sally Hendrick (11:25):

Yeah, exactly. And I'd always go and dig further when you're reading main, you know, big time news sources, like the big dogs up there always go and dig into where these stories are coming from because it's, it's something much better to get it from the original source. All of the other ones are just paraphrased and padded stories. That kinda piece it together. And, and it's kind of like playing that telephone game when you go from one person to the next and the story is going to change a little bit just because of the way somebody words things. Now, one of the things I thought would be interesting was if you're seeing an article about these cases in this particular town or this school system or whatever, you know, that's just the tip of the iceberg because not everything's reported.

Sally Hendrick (12:18):

And a lot of people are very private about the fact if their COVID positive or not, they don't want to tell people some people just for privacy reasons, but other people do it because they don't think it's so bad and they're going to go to work or school anyway. Yeah. That's the scary part. Yeah.

Alisha Morris (12:38):

Like I think that Oklahoma case in, in Moore, Oklahoma, there was a kid who like knowingly went to school with COVID or at least that's what I read. I don't know if it's been debunked, but yeah. And yeah, it is the tip of the iceberg because there's so much, that's not being reported on. And ever since my responsibilities with the spreadsheet have been diminished because NEA is taking over the operations, my focus has kind of been on advocating for transparency. Because I think that's really important that if parents are going to send their kids back to school, they need to be fully informed of what exactly has happened in that building over the summer.

Alisha Morris (13:26):

Anything for anyone who has touched the ground of the floor in that building, they need to know what's going on. You don't have to reveal their occupation. You don't have to reveal their sex. You don't have to reveal their name. All of that can stay completely private, but you need to know if someone or some people have having have had cases in the building.

Sally Hendrick (13:49):

Yeah. I agree. I very much agree. Now talking about you passing this on to the NEA, which means the national education association, tell me, you know, how did that come about and what did they say to you when you talk with them about it?

Alisha Morris (14:07):

So I think it was after I did the Washington post interview I received a flood of emails that day because I had also put my email out on the spreadsheet, asking for people to help me log cases because I just couldn't keep up.

Alisha Morris (14:24):

And you know, that was a good thing to do. And also not a good thing to do because I got so many emails, but they emailed with, with an offer that said they were like, Hey, can, you know, we were planning on doing something like this anyway, can we collaborate or take the project off your hands? Like we already have a team ready to go.

Sally Hendrick (14:44):

And you're like, yes, exactly.

Alisha Morris (14:46):

I'm like within three minutes, I was like, Oh yes, please. I will gladly have your ticket because I don't created a monster and I don't get it. I get rid of it. Like, all they wanted to do was just make a spreadsheet. And then here we are. Yeah, exactly.

Sally Hendrick (15:03):

So they're taking over this spreadsheet or they already have, do you know, what are they going to do to improve it or to change it?

Alisha Morris (15:13):

So currently they are still like working on moving the data over. So some of the States are incomplete with the data itself, but in the process of doing that, they have gone through and tried to like correct any errors that have happened or, sorry, my cat they've been trying, working they've been trying to correct any errors and verify the unverified cases as they go along. So it's a little bit more slow going. It's not just like copy paste and stuff. But something I've also been impressed with is on their website. Not only have they kept the opportunity for the public to submit their own cases or articles, or even, even those anecdotes they've allowed that to happen, but they also have added a section for people to report health and safety concerns in their school building. Like if they're not following the correct protocol or, you know, things are, you know, not, you're just, you're just concerned for your safety.

Alisha Morris (16:16):

And I think that jiving, yeah, I think that's important because now you, they can not only collect that data, but they can also have someone to advocate for you to, for a safe work environment.

Sally Hendrick (16:27):

Yeah. Well, I mean, it's also a safe way to report if you need to be anonymous, which like we talked about before, a lot of people don't want to be standing out there, you know, potentially putting themselves on the chopping block or in the spotlight unknowingly. So as far as what the, NEA is doing, you mentioned that they would be looking for patterns within certain States or jurisdictions, and then they would be passing that information onto the state NEA chapter, or how does that work?

Alisha Morris (17:02):

They haven't given me too many details other than that, but they did say that they would be looking to see if like, okay, if if [] had received many submissions about these cases are happening, but nobody's reporting about it, then they would send that to like the Kansas NEA.

Sally Hendrick (17:21):

And then the Kansas NDA would follow up with it. I'm not sure the system they have in place for that yet, because I'm not really on that side of things, but that's just what I know so far. Yeah. Well, it sounds really good. So has it made you think of anything that you would want to do career wise? Like, cause I mean, this has kind of opened up a whole different door for you and notoriety and something really amazing.

Alisha Morris (17:51):

Well, first of all, I absolutely love my job and I love my building. I love my district. I personally feel really lucky to live in or to work and live in this district where I know many teachers across the country are not experiencing the same issues. So, you know, my district has done a great job of putting the data to use and being fully informed and making decisions going forward on that. But I,

Alisha Morris (18:25):

I don't, I don't think that this would persuade me to do a different career mainly because this is kind of stuff that I do all the time. Anyway as a theater teacher, I'm constantly collecting data, you know, I'm like taking down T shirt sizes of kids or, and I'm also making spreadsheets of like my rehearsal schedule. And then also you know, I, I, there's a lot of written communication that goes into theater teaching because there's so many there's, I mean, people are like, you're a theater teacher and you made this spreadsheet, like, how do you know how to do that? That's so weird. Like why? And I'm like, well, you're also forgetting about the technical side of theater where like stage managers, like they rule the world. Okay.

Sally Hendrick (19:09):

So there's a lot of logistics involved.

Alisha Morris (19:11):

Oh yeah. Oh yeah. And that was my sort of technical forte other than directing was stage management.

Alisha Morris (19:19):

So and I was actually supposed to stage manage a show this summer and it got canceled. So I think if there's any stage managers like listening to this right now, they will absolutely understand where I'm coming from.

Sally Hendrick (19:31):

Well, maybe you'll put together a screenplay of some sort and have a script and, and, and put together, you know, some sort of play around something like this. And the fact that you stepped forward to be brave enough to pull this information together. I think that that's really amazing. And maybe your district would come to you as an advocate for, you know, to help represent teachers or whomever for, for something else. You never know the fact that you put yourself out there makes you known enough to be able to be tapped into later. So I appreciate that. So what do you think about the future hopes of what's coming with this?

Sally Hendrick (20:15):

Because, I mean, obviously we've got all these challenges with opening up schools and people are talking about that and just beating it like a dead horse, you know, just on and on and on, but it is, it is very important and we're all in this state of anxiety, but what about once we get through this? Because I mean, it's not gonna last forever. We will get past this, but what do you think it's going to bring to the table to make things better?

Alisha Morris (20:40):

Well, my hope is in, first of all, I'm really thankful. I am not in the, that makes any decisions, whether school's open or not, or what kind of measures are taken. I'm very thankful not to be in that position. I know my hope was with this was just for it to be easier for decision makers, to make informed decisions.

Alisha Morris (21:05):

And, and that may look different across the country based on what you have going on in your community. But at least now you have a singular place where you can go and look and see what's going on in your community. But I really do hope that for communities that have a significant spread and that's jeopardizing the ability to open safely I do hope that that encourages the community to follow the mitigation measures that are put in place in the County and, and, and help to reduce that spread. And I, I just, you know, I want to be back at school. My job is very hard to do virtually I'm ready for the task. I truly am. But you know, you can't really do like acting exercises with a large group of people when you're virtual. It's difficult. I mean, like we're making the challenge work, but it's, I want to be at school.

Alisha Morris (22:01):

I want to have that interaction with kids. And, and it feels as if it's been prolonged more than it needed to, I think.

Sally Hendrick (22:13):

Yeah, it does. It seems that way. It seems like if things had been managed or taken more seriously, probably over the summer, I think a lot of people just kind of went nuts. You know, they were just like, okay, we're just ready to open back up. And, and what they didn't realize with that was that that was just going to send everything into another spiral. So hopefully this will have straightened everybody out and we will take the safety precautions for the months to come to get us all the way back down to a manageable level until we can get some sort of, you know, treatment and vaccine protocol or whatever that may be to move forward with this and life.

Alisha Morris (22:57):

Yeah. I mean, and yes, it sucks that we kind of had to learn the hard way, but it's just like when you're, you're a teacher, if your student fails on the test, it's, you know, we, we can give opportunities for them to make it better and to learn, learn the, the lesson ultimately. So I think that might be the face we're in right now is the, is the reteaching phase. Yeah. Yeah.

Sally Hendrick (23:21):

We're reteaching, we're taking those do overs right now and hopefully we won't have to do that again. Okay. Well, thank you. If there's anything else you want to share, let me know. Otherwise we can go.

Alisha Morris (23:33):

Yeah. I just thank you for having me talk with you. And you know, I hope that everyone is able to keep their, keep their positive atmosphere going even in these trying times and just making sure that we're fully informed so we can be comfortable how however we move forward.

Sally Hendrick (23:52):

Awesome. Well, thank you, Alisha. I really appreciate you coming on. Shout Your Cause and good luck to you in Kansas.

Alisha Morris (23:59):

Thank you.

Sally Hendrick (24:00):

Alright, thanks. Alright.

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