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U.K. Backs Down in A-Level Testing Debacle Tied to Coronavirus – The New York Times

With students unable to sit for college exams during the pandemic, the government tried guessing how they might do. It did not go well.

Credit…Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Stephen Castle

LONDON — Barraged by protests from angry teachers, parents and students, the British government has abandoned the improvised college-entrance exam system it cobbled together for schools in England after the pandemic made traditional testing impossible.

Critics said the government’s approach discriminated against economically disadvantaged students — and pointed to the results as proof. When they were released, tens of thousands of students learned that their preliminary grades had been lowered.

On Monday, after insisting it would not make changes to the complex grading system, the government scrapped it completely.

“I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents but hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve,” the British education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said in a statement. He said it had been “an extraordinarily difficult year for young people.”

It was the latest policy reversal from a government already much criticized for its handling of the coronavirus. It was also a fresh setback for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who bowed to overwhelming political pressure to retreat, agreeing to the shift during talks by phone from a vacation in Scotland and then leaving it to his education secretary to make the apologies.

The problem began after Britain went into lockdown and schools were closed to most pupils. That made it impossible to hold the standardized examinations, known as A-levels, that are the main factor in determining college entrance.

Instead, teachers provided predicted scores based on students’ previous work and practice A-levels. These estimates were then reviewed by an education regulator, Ofqual, which used an algorithm that took into account each school’s past exam performance.

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Credit…Will Oliver/EPA, via Shutterstock

The architects of this system regarded teachers as generally too optimistic about the prospects of their students. Accepting teachers’ predictions at face value, regulators worried, could lead to “grade inflation.”

When the review was over, around 40 percent of the predicted grades — around 280,000 in all — were downgraded. Only about 2 percent of marks increased.

The main victims, said critics, were bright pupils from less affluent backgrounds whose schools had not previously performed well.

On Monday, Mr. Williamson agreed to accept teachers’ predictions, acknowledging that “the process of allocating grades has resulted in more significant inconsistencies than can be resolved through an appeals process.”

The same approach will also be adopted for another exam, the GCSE, which is taken by students around age 16. Those results are scheduled to be announced this week.

The decision is likely to be greeted with relief by those who argued that any other course of action would be a betrayal of the prime minister’s promise to “level up” opportunities across Britain.

But the debacle cast a harsh light on the competence of a government widely criticized for its slowness to order a coronavirus lockdown, for delays in setting up its track-and-trace system, and for an erratic approach to quarantine rules for those arriving in the country.

Under Mr. Johnson’s leadership, Britain has suffered one of the sharpest economic contractions in Europe, as well as one of its highest death tolls from the pandemic.

A previous plan to get most younger children back to school in England before the summer break was abandoned, and the furor over examinations bears many of the hallmarks of a government slow to identify looming problems or even to recognize the warning signs of a political crisis.

In this case, Mr. Johnson initially defended the algorithmic review system as “robust” and “dependable,” despite the immediate outcry, and even when Scotland reversed course after similar protests last week.

Over the weekend, Mr. Williamson insisted that there would be “no U-turn, no change.”

Guidance on how to appeal the downgraded examination results was withdrawn only hours after it was issued, compounding the confusion.

“Incompetence has become this government’s watchword,” said Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, in a Twitter post.

Yet the pressure also came from Conservative lawmakers who believe that young people have suffered significantly from the lockdown and that downgrading so many results was simply unfair.

“This group of young people have lost out on so much already, we must ensure that bright, capable students can progress on their next step,” wrote one government minister, Penny Mordaunt, on Twitter.

The conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph newspaper was scathing in an editorial, declaring that “the exams fiasco in England beggars belief, given the time authorities have had to prepare.”

“Even if they had failed to do so until recently, they were given a clear warning signal from Scotland that a storm was looming,” the editorial said. “Yet, rather than change tack, they sailed straight into it with calamitous consequences.”

The crisis raises questions about the future of Mr. Williamson, who made his name as chief whip, responsible for party discipline, under former Prime Minister Theresa May. In that position Mr. Williamson reveled in his reputation as a Machiavellian political fixer and kept a pet tarantula named Cronus in his office.

But after being promoted to defense secretary he was fired by Mrs. May, accused of leaking details of discussions in the National Security Council. He was restored to the cabinet by Mr. Johnson when he became prime minister last summer.

Few observers would argue that things have gone well for Mr. Williamson in his latest job.

Before the government backed down on the exams Monday, one veteran Conservative politician and former education secretary, Kenneth Baker, warned that the crisis risked alienating not just those young people deprived of college places but also their parents, grandparents, friends and relatives.

“The damage is absolutely enormous,” Mr. Baker, now a member of the House of Lords, told Times Radio.

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U.K. study backs HCMC’s bullish use of dexamethasone for COVID-19 – Minneapolis Star Tribune

A British trial showing that a common steroid could reduce deaths in severe COVID-19 cases by one-third was good news for Minnesota physicians who have been battling the infectious disease without a vaccine or proven treatment — and even better news for intensivists at Hennepin County Medical Center.

They have been using the drug for treatment of severe COVID-19 cases almost from the start of the pandemic, despite discouragement from national medical societies.

“This is helpful because it kind of supports what our practice has been,” said Dr. James Leatherman, director of HCMC’s medical ICU.

The debate over dexamethasone for treatment of severe COVID-19 cases — patients needing ventilation and suffering from acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) — might have been overshadowed by the political fervor over whether to use hydroxychloroquine to treat the disease. But doctors are split over whether the risks of this steroid outweighed the benefits.

Leatherman said most of the 80 patients with COVID-19 and ARDS at his ICU received dexamethasone. Three weeks ago, the hospital also started offering it to COVID-19 patients outside of the ICU to prevent the onset of ARDS that can increase death risks.

“Since we are not randomizing patients, I can’t say what would happen if we didn’t use it, but it’s been our impression that a number of patients seem to improve after we initiate the treatment with these steroids,” said Leatherman, though some severely ill patients still died.

Across town at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, doctors resolved to wait for clinical trial results before using a steroid that had the potential to boost the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Studies of the drug’s use in the SARS and MERS viral epidemics suggested it had this effect.

Preliminary results of the Recovery trial led by the University of Oxford suggest a strong benefit. The researchers issued a news release Tuesday showing that the drug reduced mortality by one-third in COVID-19 patients placed on ventilators and by one-fifth in patients receiving supplemental oxygen without ventilation.

The drug offered no benefit to patients who didn’t need respiratory support. The study was based on 6,400 patients — with one-third randomly selected to receive the steroid and two-thirds receiving standard care.

“COVID-19 is a global disease — it is fantastic that the first treatment demonstrated to reduce mortality is one that is instantly available and affordable worldwide,” said Martin Landray, a leader of the trial and an Oxford population health professor.

In Minnesota, COVID-19 has been diagnosed through testing in 30,882 patients and caused 1,313 deaths.

Growth in cases has been ebbing, but state health officials are watching for upticks in cases and hospitalizations this week. Protests following the May 25 killing of George Floyd in police custody could have spread the virus.

Any effect from those demonstrations should appear this week, said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director, but increased mobility following the relaxation of state restrictions in June could increase virus transmission as well. That effect might not show up for two weeks.

A state health analysis of the first 2,428 people hospitalized in Minnesota for COVID-19 showed that 666 needed intensive care, 365 needed ventilation, and 335 died in hospitals.

The results of the steroid trial fit the evolving narrative of COVID-19, said Dr. Timothy Schacker, vice dean for research at the University of Minnesota’s School of Medicine. Dexamethasone doesn’t appear to help in the early stage of COVID-19 when the virus is spreading and symptoms are emerging, but he said it could play a lifesaving role in the next phase when the immune system overreacts and exacerbates breathing problems in some patients.

“Most of the damage being done late stage is all about inflammation and an overzealous immune response,” Schacker said. “Dexamethasone suppresses that.”

Schacker said he wouldn’t endorse the drug for Minnesota patients until the full study results are published. The release of preliminary data before it’s published is rare in medicine but more common amid the race to find treatments for COVID-19.

Schacker called dexamethasone a “blunt hammer that just sort of shuts everything down” and said more targeted immune system therapies might end up working as well.

The U has been studying a cancer drug, tocilizumab, that blocks an inflammatory protein called IL-6. Patients with COVID-19 are screened for IL-6 levels to determine if that drug might help prevent immune system overreactions.

Infectious disease experts at Abbott met Tuesday and discussed the findings by respected British researchers but didn’t see enough proof yet to prescribe dexamethasone.

“These are fine investigators, but we have squat for information,” said Dr. Frank Rhame, a virologist at Abbott.

The Infectious Disease Society of America discourages corticosteroids for COVID-19 patients with pneumonia and encourages their use for patients with COVID-19 and ARDS in clinical trials only. The Society of Critical Care Medicine issued only a weak recommendation for steroids in treatment of COVID-19 with ARDS.

Research is finding niches for drugs to treat COVID-19. A U.S. trial validated treatment of COVID-19 with an antiviral drug, remdesivir, which appears most effective in patients who are hospitalized but whose infections haven’t resulted in the need for ventilation.

Studies have found no benefit of hydroxychloroquine. The U will soon publish findings on whether the drug treats early symptoms, but the Food and Drug Administration on Monday revoked its emergency use authorization as a treatment for COVID-19.

Leatherman said other hospitals are using dexamethasone aggressively for COVID-19, and that the decision to offer it earlier to patients, before they developed ARDS and needed ventilation, was based on success at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Leatherman is awaiting the final published results of the British study as well, but said the preliminary data suggests even broader use of the drug.

“The problem with COVID has been that it has exploded on us so fast,” he said. “Ideally, we always want to operate on best evidence, which usually means randomized trials. But people have had to make decisions with empirical data. If this [benefit] turns out in fact to be true, it’s very helpful.”

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New York City Council backs proposal to slash $1 billion from NYPD budget – Fox News

New York City Council leaders have issued a joint statement declaring their intent to back proposals slashing $1 billion from the NYPD budget.

Speaker Corey Johnson, Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, Finance Committee Chair Daniel Dromm and Public Safety Committee Chair Donovan Richards, among others,  said they support a plan to “get to $1 billion in cuts to New York City’s police spending in the Fiscal 2021 budget.”

NEWARK MAYOR RAS BARAKA CALLS DEFUNDING POLICE A ‘BOURGEOIS LIBERAL’ SOLUTION

The NYPD has a proposed budget of $6 billion, which Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to cut in response to citywide protests after initially backing the department.

The loss of $1 billion in funding would limit the scope and function of the police, but the City Council believes it shows a clear commitment towards reform.

“There is no doubt that this is an ambitious goal, but it is one that the time we are in calls for – both here in New York City and nationwide,” read the statement, posted on the council’s website.

“This is possible,” the statement said, noting anticipated savings by “reducing uniform headcount through attrition, cutting overtime, shifting responsibilities away from the NYPD, finding efficiencies” and more.

NY TIMES OP-ED CLEARS UP ‘DEFUND THE POLICE’ CONFUSION: ‘YES, WE MEAN LITERALLY ABOLISH’

The council said it will work with “impacted communities” in deciding how to best spend the billion dollars.

In the wake of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, cities and states across the country are responding to demands to “defund the police.”

Some cities have taken the message further, with Minneapolis council members intent on totally dismantling the force, though they have only voted to review how to reform the police.

The proposed NYPD cuts will likely be applauded by protesters, though it falls well short of the “abolish” the police demand by some activists as stated in an op-ed in The New York Times on Friday.

The Police Benevolent Association expressed disappointment with the council’s announcement and said it will bear the “blame” for the fallout from cuts in police services.

“For decades, every time a city agency failed at its task, the city’s answer was to take the job away and give it to the NYPD,” the PBA said in a tweet. “If the City Council wants to give responsibilities back to those failing agencies, that’s their choice.”

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“But they will bear the blame for every new victim, for every New Yorker in need of help who falls through the cracks. They won’t be able to throw cops under the bus anymore.”

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