To the members of the Worcester and Massachusetts delegations,
In the past week, thousands of students across the country, largely in urban districts including here in Worcester, walked out of their schools in protest of unsafe learning conditions.
And those, of course, are just those who walked out, not all of those who feel this way.
We have heard, over and over during this pandemic, that schools should be "the last things to close." That statement, however, continues to live in isolation, as there has not been a real policy in the United States or in Massachusetts that made other things the first to close. Thus schools have simply been ordered--and it is ordered, at this point--to open, without regard to what has been noted throughout the pandemic of the close tie with community spread and the intimate relationship schools have with all aspects of their community. There has been no community effort, let alone a state or national effort, to create the conditions and provide the resources in which schools can safety function in buildings during a pandemic.
Likewise throughout the pandemic, there has been a significant lack of effort to close the gaping wound of racial health inequities which have continued through this time. Instead, the argument has been that children of color and in poverty most needed to be back in school buildings. This was well addressed this past week by Dr. Michelle Holmes, who in The Prospect wrote:
It is curious to me that Leonhardt, Strain, Oster, and Bloomberg, none of whom are known as racial justice leaders, all now cite the disproportionate academic and social suffering of Black and Latino or low-income children as top reasons for in-person schooling, despite such disparities having been present historically. Nowhere in their arguments do they cite voices of color sharing their viewpoint. Also not evident are the voices of older people and those at high risk of exposure in their jobs.
As Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom noted in her New York Times column this week:
How we got here is a story about parents engaging with schools as consumers who want to extract the most school resources for their children. Mothers are the ones societally tasked with doing that extraction. A good mom gets the best learning plan, best teacher, best school, best activities and all-around “best” school experience for her kid. And a mom with the privilege of race and class gets to define the terms of what counts as best.
This week alone, I heard firsthand of:
- a promising young elementary teacher who had to quit her job, as her young children kept having their childcare close due to COVID infections;
- a number of combined elementary school classrooms, due to teachers and students being out due either to illness or to quarantine;
- students coming to school with known symptoms in order to be tested, as their families have no access to testing;
- students who didn't have a first or second shot because parents have not had the opportunity to get their children to a site, due to work obligations;
- staff who are still deceived as to the nature of the vaccine;
And we simply cannot run schools without people.
to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquility their natural rights, and the blessings of life:
When we are continuing to so poorly fighting a pandemic that has taken the lives of 850,000 Americans, nearly 21,000 of them in Massachusetts, I would assert that we who take an oath to uphold and defend these documents are not doing our jobs.
Let's say your salary is $100K.— Jess Gartner (@jessgartner) January 6, 2022
People say, pshhhh you can afford it-- you make $1M!
(Over 10 years).
This is the current conversation about ESSER dollars.
And even with money, there are things that the over three hundred districts of Massachusetts should not be having to sort out individually.
- Everyone needs tests, and not just four from the federal government or two for teachers coming back from the state. If we are to base our actions on real knowledge, then anyone needs to be able to test as needed. We know this can be done, as its being done in other countries. The kinds of testing that require staffing--whether that's the public PCR testing or the schools pool testing--cannot be left to current staffing level. More support and access is badly needed.
- Everyone in buildings needs masks, and they need good masks to protect against omicron. We cannot simply push this cost off to families of staff and students as well. There is no excuse for the back and forth about testing of masks given teachers, and we apparently could have been making them locally, to boot.
- The discussion around ventilation has demonstrated an enormous amount of ignorance of school buildings from those who should know better. I would suggest, however, that the state and federal government's substantial buying power could appropriately be applied to portable air filters for any school that doesn't have a system that runs MERV 13 filters already (which I am guessing, given what I know of local buildings, would be nearly anything not built or renovated in the past five years or so). Among other things, that would keep staff and students warmer in a Massachusetts January.
- The inflexibility around local conditions that leaves superintendents negotiating safety measures with the Commissioner is a massive state overreach, as I have noted in the past, and it should be called out as such. It is simply not safe to have a single arbiter of school safety who has incredibly limited district level experience making the call for every district in the state.
- We cannot run schools without staff. We cannot run schools with sick staff. If the federal and state government mean to keep kids in school buildings, then they must live out what we have known from the early days of the pandemic and CLOSE THINGS THAT ARE NOT SCHOOLS. That means, please note, supporting those people who are impacted by closing other things. There is no reason and no virtue in pursuing a 'normalcy' that continues to kill people, do lasting harm to student health, and does not, in the end, actually keep schools open.
Both Massachusetts and the United States can and must be better than this.
Worcester School Committee