Monday, November 30, 2020

Some things to read

A few things I recommend reading: 
  • Calling out the FY21 budget which does nothing for districts under the Student Opportunity Act, Brian Allen, Colin Jones, Diane Kelley, and Glenn Koocher (you'll recognize some names there) write of the impact and note that solutions exist in today's Commonwealth Magazine:
    This year Revere could lose $10 million and Worcester could lose $16 million in state aid if the SOA is not funded. So far, these districts are surviving because they can save money by not transporting kids to school and reducing other costs associated with in-person learning. But should Revere, Worcester, and many other cities move to in-person or hybrid learning, costs will skyrocket. 
    We are a wealthy state and have the capacity to help every school weather this crisis and provide their students with the same level of education as students in the wealthiest districts. All of our organizations believe that the state can raise the tax revenue we need for education (and other key areas such as public health, housing, transit, and child care). Research from MassBudget argues that the best way to do so is by asking profitable corporations and wealthy individuals, who continue to take home an outsized share of income earned in our state, to pay more in taxes. which I will only add: Hear, hear.

  • The Hechinger Report had a good piece last week that described not only rundown facilities, but the vast gulfs between districts in the school buildings they have, which related to the decisions they made about whether to bring students back into those buildings (and if families agreed):

    States have no reason to be surprised by the sharp divide in children’s access to their schools. More than 40 percent of school districts need to update or replace their ventilation systems in at least half of their schools, according to a report by the Government Accounting Office. Moreover, low-poverty districts spent about $1 billion more on school construction than high-poverty districts in 2016, which comes to 41 percent more per student.

  • And just out today, a study from Imperial College, London, looks at the impact the English lockdown (started November 5 and just being raised now) had on rates of coronavirus across the country. Rates were doubling every nine days before the lockdown; during it, they halved approximately every 37 days. Overall, rates fell by 30%. When one looks at subpopulations, as covered in the release from the College itself, most groups trended downward, with a single notable exception: 

    While previously all age groups were experiencing a rise in infections, now most are seeing a fall, with the exception of children between the ages of 5 and 17 where positive tests are increasing. This trend could be linked to schools remaining open during the current lockdown, in contrast with the first national lockdown, the researchers suggest. In those aged 13-17, the prevalence is now over 2% or 1 in 50 testing positive.

    Most things closed. Schools did not. Rates fell overall, but not for school-aged children, where they rose while they attended schools.  

Sunday, November 22, 2020

What I proposed

 Since the list of what I'd proposed as alternatives to the goals proposed by Superintendent Binienda made today's paper, I thought I'd post in full my list. I didn't put the numbers in for the meeting, as I thought we should really have the discussion as part of that, and it was clear it was going to subcommittee. 

  • Professional practice goal: Superintendent Binienda and her cabinet will participate in specifically implicit bias training of an ongoing monthly nature. aligns with indicators IV-B and IV-D
  • Student learning goal: The Worcester Public Schools will lower the dropout rate of English Language learners to the average district rate of 2.5%. aligns with indicator I-B and I-F
  • District Improvement goal: Using restorative justice as a best practice as supported by the FY21 budget and closely collaborating with families, the Worcester Public Schools will lower the student suspension rate across all subgroups to no more than 2%. aligns with indicator I-E, I-F, III-D
  • District Improvement goal: Superintendent Binienda and the Worcester School Committee will collaborate with the City Manager and the Worcester City Council on a comprehensive facilities renovation timeline for municipal buildings by the end of calendar year 2021. aligns with indicator II-A
There was also some discussion at the meeting at putting some numbers behind the hiring directions, which I think makes a lot of sense. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

The dog that didn't bark in Brockton

 blog title from "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" among the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, referring to the dog not barking being a key clue in solving the mystery, as one would have expected it to, given the circumstances of the mystery.

The Old Post Office Building,
now the Crosby Administration Building of the Brockton Public Schools

One of the duties assigned to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (specifically by MGL Ch. 15, Sec. 55A) is district comprehensive reviews as follows:
The office shall perform not less than 40 school district audits annually, not less than 75 per cent of which shall be in districts whose students achieve at low levels either in absolute terms or relative to districts that educate similar student populations. The remainder of the audits shall be divided equally among districts whose students achieve at high levels relative to districts that educate similar student populations and randomly selected districts

You can read a bit more about them here. The most recent ones are posted online here. Each one looks at:

  • Leadership and Governance
  • Curriculum and Instruction
  • Assessment
  • Human Resources and Professional Development
  • Student Support
  • Financial and Asset Management
Now, if you're like me, you're seeing "audit" and reading "DESE" and thinking "YIKES!" I want to encourage you to take a look at them, though, as they are a useful perspective across the whole of a district. Worcester's, being from 2017, is increasingly dated but it is here.

So it was that I was interested to read an article that the Brockton Public Schools District Review Report was out (three weeks ago: I am behind!) from the Department's pre-pandemic visit in early March.
Brockton, of course, is the fourth largest school district in Massachusetts and home of the plaintiffs of both the McDuffy and the Hancock legal decisions. When it comes to gaps in school funding, thus, Brockton is a kind of ground zero. Brockton also was the nationally lauded district for closing the achievement gap without becoming a "drill and kill" sort of school system. What happens when those two things are true of the same system, decades or so on?

From the perspective of the Department per the opening paragraph, this:
Since its previous height nearly a decade ago as a recognized leader in closing the achievement gap, Brockton has experienced a continual decline in academic outcomes according to the most recent state data, with 10 of its 21 schools now ranked in the lowest 10 percent of Massachusetts schools. The district eliminated 212 positions from 2014 to 2019 due to budget cuts. These positions included key curricular and instructional leadership roles that were either eliminated entirely or their responsibilities redistributed elsewhere. The district’s decision to reduce leadership, primarily at the secondary level, in order to protect teaching positions has resulted in unstable systems and practices to create and drive improvement initiatives.

(as an utter side note: I do want to laud the writing on these; they're not full of lingo, they're easy to follow, and they're well constructed.)

There are many things I could say about this report--for one, I think the understanding it brings to "policy" is off-base--but I want to focus on this one, which is the central driving theme, but is also interesting in terms of what is not said. 

The argument is that Brockton has had falling achievement due to a hollowing out of its administrative management through its budgetary prioritization and thus there hasn't been the sort of alignment and oversight that is needed for good teaching that reaches students where they are. 

Let me first note that I don't dispute the premise--which some would--that having some degree of management that ensures things like all of the third graders get to the standards of third grade math, no matter where they are in the district, or that what happens in fourth grade logically follows what happens in third, and that the feedback loop of assessment showing that either of those two things are not happening then shifts what is going on in classrooms is necessary. I agree that it is necessary, particularly in a district where those third graders are in different buildings, where students move in and out, and where there are possibly more elementary school teachers than one can easily fit in a room. 

As much as not funding administration properly is frequently an argument during budget deliberations, having an underfunded administration is also, though, not something that's necessarily going to surprise anyone from Brockton. It has been clear from the district's own numbers that they are short administrators. See, for example, this from October of 2018:

From the October 2018 "Take of Four Cities" presentation

That $3.5M FY17 gap in the top line is real positions that didn't (and one assumes still don't) exist in Brockton. They are legitimately short central administration. This is not uncommon among Gateway Cities, and it was also noted over and again during the fight to get the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations into law.

The Department's report continues:

The decision to reduce the leadership force was not informed by district goals or an analysis of data. It was based on the idea that teachers can be effective without sufficient leadership and ignored the value of having high-level leaders to support and monitor high-quality teaching. This approach also avoided the reality that even with fiscal restrictions, it is possible to provide clarity about strategies and expectations for high-quality teaching practices, along with structures to support teachers and monitor the quality of instruction. Evidence gathered during the review indicated that the district did not fully appreciate the cascading impact of reduced leadership and supervision on the quality of curriculum, instruction, and student support services. Consequently, student achievement continues to deteriorate, even with added support and intervention from DESE’s Statewide System of Support.

This is, of course, just the sort of argument that drives a school committee member in a district that the state has conceded is massively underfunded to fury, and, as we see in the article, it did:

Minichiello, the school committee member, said an ever-tightening budget forced leaders to make a series of lose-lose decisions.
“What are we supposed to do? Hire more administrators?” he said. “Don’t tell that to the mother whose first grader is in a class with 30 kids.”

The argument that it had to be one or the other, that it literally was teachers' jobs on the line, isn't made up. Here's the FY17 comparison of Brockton's actual teaching corps versus what it should, by the state's foundation calculation, be:

From the 2018 "Tale of Four Cities" presentation
You are reading correctly that it is a 414 teacher gap.

In other words, while Brockton undoubtedly did cut central administration staff to save teaching jobs, the district still remained catastrophically--over 400 teachers, per the foundation budget--short of teaching staff by the state's own measures. 

The reaction the School Committee thus had this past spring to the promised first year of the Student Opportunity Act thus perhaps was not surprising: they planned to hire teachers. To this, the Department offers this critique (on page 5 of the Executive Summary under "Financial and Asset Management"):
The district is anticipating an additional $21,093,362 in Chapter 70 state aid following the passage of the Student Opportunity Act (2019). At the time of the onsite review, the district had begun to prioritize how to allocate the funds. However, the school committee had approved restoring 93 teaching positions before the full development of an updated strategic plan or district improvement plan. While this added infusion of funds can go a long way toward remediating some of the serious effects of reduced personnel, programs, and services the district has experienced in recent years, the district and its students would benefit from more thoughtful analysis and decision-making.

Again, I am entirely in favor of both thoughtful planning and of ensuring alignment with overall district goals. It would seem from the above gaping holes in personnel, however, that priority one for the district, spoken or otherwise, may well have be "stop bleeding."

The report offers a number of critiques that, from where I sit, potentially don't cost a dime. There is a discussion of consistent and timely assessment of students, followed by shared timely and actionable data, with a repeated note that this is something the School Committee should be using in their decision making (which, you may be sure, captured my attention in more ways than one; there are a number of things Worcester should be noting from this document). There is a challenge to share evidence of district performance with the community in multiple ways, and there is a critique (which I would echo) that the district could well use more accessible budgetary documentation. 

Fair enough. 

The "challenges and areas for growth" section of the Leadership and Governance section argues:

By focusing on external factors such as budget challenges rather than analyzing data and focusing on improving teaching and learning, district leaders have lowered expectations for themselves and students and have not recognized their power to improve all students’ performance, opportunities, and outcomes.

By failing to recognize that budget challenges are a key factor in student, school, and district performance--something which is not in dispute--the evaluation of the district misses a real opportunity to evaluate what can effectively be done by a district that is catastrophically underfunded and runs a real risk of the recommendations that are less monetary dependent being dismissed wholesale due to the documents non-barking dog.

My sense of this evaluation is this--and please note this is entirely surmise and conjecture on my part:

We have, as I have noted in the past, a tendency at the classroom, school, and even district level to talk about "the state" as if that is a single entity in education in Massachusetts. It is, of course, multiple entities, and that is, I think, what causes this report to be silent. 

What we refer to as “the state” is the Legislature, of course, and at the end of the day, the funding lies there, more than anywhere. The interaction between the Legislature and the Department is, in my limited experience, somewhat odd, as, again, the Department isn’t entirely subject to the Governor. It is the Legislature that has effectively been absent this year in the funding of Student Opportunity Act, due to when the pandemic hit. It was the Legislature, however, that (finally) had recognized the need to first look at the foundation budget and then change the calculation. By passing a bill unanimously in both chambers, they put the Governor in the position of either signing the bill or having his veto overridden. His hand was forced.

Evaluations of districts are, as I noted above, a function of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. As such, they are a function of the Executive branch, if one that is quasi-independent of the Governor. Changing the foundation budget has not been a priority of this Governor, nor has it been a priority of the Secretary of Education he appointed, nor of the Board of Education most of whom he also appointed. This all lends itself to a Commissioner who, while he has upon occasion mentioned the undercalculation of the foundation budget, has not centered his leadership on this issue, for all that his most notable experience in leadership prior to this one was in Lawrence. 

We thus don’t have an activist Department around education funding, for better or worse, and I recognize that there are multiple perspectives possible on that. Do note, that more activist Boards and Commissioners have existed in the past—look, for example, at where much of the energy around desegregation came in the 1960’s and 1970’s, for all that they were not successful. That is not this Commissioner, nor, thus, is it this Department.

This seems, then, to effectively tie the hands of the Department when it comes to noting the real impacts of decades of underfunding on school and district performance. The evaluation does not--cannot?--parse out what is in fact poor governance on the part of the district and what is due to simply not having the money to get the job done.

Both are possible. Both may well be the case in Brockton. 
That dog sure isn't barking, though

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

offered with all due respect to His Excellency the Bishop

 I offer the following with enormous respect for the Catholic educators, here and elsewhere. 

I am not otherwise going to offer further comment on the letter from Bishop McManus in today's paper, but when we get into school finance, we're on my home turf, so I did want to correct the misapprehension here:

The best example of how the Catholic Church is helping the city is in the area of elementary and high school education. Each year, hundreds of young people are opting to enroll in our schools. Catholic schools located in the Diocese of Worcester have 5,033 students enrolled this year which saves the taxpayers and the communities in Worcester County over $65,000,000 dollars. 
In Worcester this year we have 687 students in our parish and diocesan schools who are residents of the city, excluding those who attend private Catholic schools. Using the latest reported average cost per student in Worcester, St. Paul Diocesan Jr/Sr High School, St. Peter Central Catholic Elementary School and Our Lady of the Angels Elementary School saved the city $10,380,735 this school year.

There are several common errors here that are at work:

  • Most of the funding for the Worcester Public Schools is not from "the city" at all: Worcester is a majority state funded district, thus only 26 cents of every dollar we spend is a city dollar.

  • Far from costing taxpayers---Worcester or otherwise--nothing, the private and parochial schools in the city of Worcester are, by state law, provided with bus transportation at no cost to the diocese, the schools, or the families of students. Thus some of those WPS taxpayer dollars are indeed supporting the diocesan schools.

  • Finally, the "average cost per student in Worcester," as supported by the state's progressive--that is, meeting greater need with greater dollars--funding system funds a student body that is 60% low income, 31.7% English learner, and 20.9% students with disabilities.
    I am quite sure that is not reflective of the student body of Worcester's diocesan schools. The $10M figure thus is simply incorrect; the student body of the diocesan schools, were they to join the Worcester Public Schools would not cost the district anywhere near that kind of money to educate. Those dollars thus are not being saved.

Proposed goals by Superintendent Binienda

 For those who haven't had a chance to check the Worcester School Committee agenda for tomorrow evening, the following are being proposed by Superintendent Binienda for her goals this year:

  • Starting in August 2020, participate in ongoing professional learning opportunities to further develop my leadership skills and to inform district decisions.
  • By June 2021, use data to identify achievement gaps and implement improvement practices and resources to support learning for each student.
  • Throughout the 2020-21 school year, develop a plan for staff recruitment and retention and implement strategies that will increase access to well qualified, diverse professional candidates.
  • Throughout the 2020-21 school year, create a school and district community environment that promotes two-way communication with families and provides resources for effective student learning and performance.
  • By June 2021, develop an annual budget that is aligned with the Strategic Plan and ensures equitable and efficient distribution of resources.
  • By June 2021, create a learning environment that reduces barriers through use of the frameworks of Culturally Responsive Teaching, Universal Design for Learning, and strength-based decision making.

A few reminders:

  • The superintendent proposes goals, but ultimately the decision on what those goals are belongs to the School Committee.
  • Goals are required to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
  • Goals of the superintendent should be specifically aligned with the district strategic plan.
  • Goals of the superintendent should be responsive to the most recently completed evaluation, to district data, and to community need.

Should you have thoughts, please be in touch.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

and he huffed and he puffed...

 I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this, but as we're going to see a bunch more "Baker pushes to have schools back in person" headlines, I did want to note a handful of things quickly here:

  • Carlisle, where Governor Baker visited, is a K-8 district of about 600 students northeast of Boston. It is 73% white; it has a student poverty rate of 4.4%. In FY19, they were budgeted to spend about 2x their foundation budget for their district. 
    This is not a district that looks like most of Massachusetts.

  • Baker was there, of course, because Carlisle is one of the relatively small number of Massachusetts districts that is back fully in-person. Not only is this difficult or impossible to do for districts that look nothing like Carlisle, as noted by Carlisle's neighbor (and the other half of its regional high school district) Concord, it also can be impossible for districts that look more like Carlisle. As Concord/ Concord-Carlisle superintendent Laurie Hunter noted in her message to her districts today:
    The context and circumstances of the current operations, safety measures, and feasibility vary from school to school and district to district.

    She then--in something she and her Committee no doubt have done over and again this year--lays out the reasons for the decisions her districts have made: the small number of students who are fully remote, the spacing for health, the complications of transportation and nutrition, and so on.  

  • This is not, of course, something that Superintendent Hunter, or any superintendent, should be having to argue today, but it precisely the position the Governor has put districts in. Governor Baker has attempted to weaponize any districts that are operating as he sees fit, while ignoring the circumstances that make that possible, creating further dissatisfaction in those whose districts are not operating that way. 
    That most of those are whiter and wealthier perhaps explain why they are being heard. 

  • None of this explains why it is that a governor, in the midst of a pandemic with again rapidly rising rates, on the edge of what we know will be a terrible season, in an economic depression, with hunger and homelessness rates either rising or tending so, with both budget deliberations and a presidential transition happening, has decided that his battle is with district leadership. There are actual things he could usefully be doing with the power of the Executive branch. 

    This isn't it. 

If you get a chance, Matt Murphy of State House News captures the absolute whiplash of Governor Baker's messenging today.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Works cited

 I tweeted this out yesterday (starting here, though the thread breaks halfway through), but I know many find paragraphs easier to work with. 

On Friday, after the latest round of the Governor/Secretary/Commissioner's pounding their fists on tables (metaphorically) about getting students back into buildings, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued updated guidance. As the Governor and Commissioner continue to cite what is known from other countries, I was interested to see what they cited as their sources in urging all students, even those in communities where the virus is surging, to go back into buildings for school.

The Department has four footnotes on their recommendations:

Obviously, I am not a doctor, but I am able to read research and review conclusions, and so I did to the pieces here cited, as the argument here is that these are indicating that students even as the virus surges, should be going back into buildings.

The short answer is that none of these pieces say that. A few other general notes:
  • all of the pieces are from August and September, thus they are looking at the spring response to the virus. Any updates on what we know about it since then are thus not included.
  • all of these are from countries that responded very, very differently to how our own country, and yes, even our own state, have responded to the virus. This is particularly important, as you'll see.
  • there are repeated cautions against drawing too broad a conclusion from these pieces
  • and perhaps most importantly, none of these studies draw the conclusion that the Governor and Commissioner have claimed
On to each of the studies:

The Public Health England "SARS-CoV-2 infection and transmission in educational settings:
cross-sectional analysis of clusters and outbreaks in England" study looks particularly at what happened in the UK in the first month after the government lifted the spring lockdown and sent students back into schools. For those who haven't followed that closely, note: attendance in schools was not required and thus, as is noted on page 12, "[o]nly 1.6 million of the 8.9 million students nationally attended any educational setting during the summer mini-term...Additionally, very few secondary schools opened (and those that did, did so with small class sizes) during the summer mini-term." So, no the U.K. did not open all schools or anything of the sort. 
What did they find? The interpretation says "SARS-CoV-2 infections and outbreaks were uncommon in educational settings during the first month after the easing of national lockdown in England." Uncommon, not unknown. The very next sentence says, "The strong correlation with regional SARS-CoV-2 incidence emphasises the importance of controlling community transmission to protect educational settings." On page 7, where they describe process, likewise, they write, "There was a strong correlation (R2 = 0.82, p=0.001) between outbreaks in educational settings and regional COVID-19 incidence" thus again tying what is happening outside the schools to what happens inside schools. Schools are not set apart: higher rates one place correlates with higher rates within the same community.
After they run through much of what we've been able to find out--low known incidence among younger children, higher apparent rates in older children--they note the limitations of what they can conclude, first, by noting limited number of students in school, then:
Settings that opened had stringent social distancing and infection control measures in please and, in addition to school attendance not being mandatory, there were strict protocols for class and bubble sizes, 12 which may not be achievable when schools opening fully in the next academic year (and indeed, updated schools guidance now recognises that bubble size may need to be increased from September to ensure that a full range of activities is feasible).

Massachusetts has of course not set limits on numbers of students together, nor of bubble sizes, and the comments made Friday are frankly in opposition to that.
Because so few secondary schools opened, they write, their conclusions "therefore, are not likely to be generalisable to secondary schools, especially since the risk of infection, disease and transmission is likely to be higher in older than younger children."
And they conclude:

The strong correlation between COVID-19 outbreaks and regional SARS-CoV-2 incidence highlights the importance of controlling the disease in the community to protect the staff and students in educational settings.
The Governor can change the map colors any way he'd like; we still aren't controlling the spread of the disease in our communities.

The study "Stepwise School Opening Online and Off-line and an Impact on the Epidemiology of COVID-19 in the Pediatric Population"looking at data from Korea Disease Control and Prevention examines specifically what happened over May and June ""Online classes started from April 9, and off-line classes started from May 20 to June 8 at four steps in different grades of students." During that time, "[t]here was no sudden increase in pediatric cases after the school opening, and the proportion of pediatric cases remained around 7.0% to 7.1%." The study says:

As of July 11, 45 children from 40 schools and kindergartens were diagnosed with COVID-19 after off-line classes started. More than 11,000 students and staff were tested; only one additional student was found to be infected in the same classroom. Among those 45, 32 (71.1%) patients had available information for the source of infection. Twenty-five (25/45, 55.6%) were infected by the family members.

So that's low, and more than half were infected by family members; there's a really low finding here of cases within the same classroom.
Again, that's great! If kids don't get each other sick, that is good news. 
That does, though, leave out a LOT of people in schools--this is, after all a pediatric study, which does not look at staff members. The study itself also says this:

The proportions of pediatric patients without information on infection sources were higher in older age group (middle and high school students) than in younger age group (kindergarten and elementary school students) (47.6% vs 12.5%, p=0.010). In the younger age group, 79.1% of children were infected by family members, while only 28.6% of adolescents in the older age group were infected by family members (p<0.001).

...which again is to note that elementary and secondary are very different things here. In this study, they could track the elementary cases mostly back to their families; that isn't the case with the secondary school students.
This is part of why several districts have asked that the infection rate data breakout that 0-19 age group. As we entered October, that group was particularly of concern

The third study that DESE cites in their new guidance is this one "Surveillance of COVID-19 school outbreaks, Germany, March to August 2020" via Eurosurveillance. I don't know about you, but my first response to Germany is "they put a scientist in charge of the country." Germany has, of course, dealt aggressively with controlling the virus. That matters: the discussion section of the report notes: "When schools reopened, the incidence of COVID-19 in the general population was low and there was no community transmission."
No community transmission and low general incidence. Did they have cases in schools?
Yes: "Despite the low-incidence period and enhanced hygiene measures implemented in schools, school outbreaks occurred."
Not just single cases: outbreaks of infection.
The average number of outbreaks and of cases per outbreak was smaller after schools reopened than before school closure, suggesting that containment measures implemented in schools may have some protective effect.

They go on to discuss how discovering what is going on with children and coronavirus is difficulty because children often are asymptomatic, and thus less often tested. 
Despite what the Governor and the Commission said, though, right here in this report they cited, it says:

 There is some indication that transmission occurred within a school.

Of the school they're discussing, they write:

As the number of student cases of the same grade was 25 in outbreak number 5, it is unlikely that no transmission occurred between students. Moreover, in some outbreaks, more than one grade was affected
It does appear transmission was low, however.
They then discuss the opening of schools in places in the EU and in Israel, which had very different experiences, in part because the procedures under which they opened were very different. This of course matters a great deal, despite the argument from the Commissioner on Friday that "fully back" was a real option for any but a very few. 

The thing I always try to be careful about in citing research is the "however" part. Here's the "however" piece from this German study:
  • "There are some limitations to our analysis. Outbreaks, particularly in primary schools, may have been difficult to detect because the children may have been asymptomatic."
    This is the question over if we really even know if/when children have it, because it is frequently asymptomatic in them; this makes it that much harder to discover if students in schools do have it, are spreading it, and to whom.

  • "Household outbreaks epidemiologically linked to schools are not always reported as linked outbreaks or as outbreaks at all."
    In other words, maybe the child got it at school and someone at home got sick, but it was not reported as traced back to that school.

  • "we did not know in which class a student had been and can therefore not exclude that cases of similar age may had been in parallel classes" sometimes, we don't know

  • "as the period of reopening schools coincided with relaxing measures in other settings, it is difficult to assess the impact of school reopening on transmission dynamics within a school."
    This is messy data because there were other things going on at the same time.

And what is their conclusion in this study?
While schools remain open, well-designed evaluations of the preventive measures are needed to assess effectiveness in terms of reducing SARS-CoV-2 transmission and to guide future decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, school openings should be accompanied by developing surveillance capability and the ability to rapidly test, trace and isolate suspected COVID-19 cases and their contacts.

We don't have that yet. It is only then that they conclude: "To avoid detrimental effects on children, school closures should be applied only cautiously and in combination with other control measures." We haven't done the first piece, as yet, though, so we aren't here yet.

The fourth study cited by DESE in their Friday guidance is the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention "COVID-19 in children and the role of school settings in COVID-19 transmission"report from August 6.
For this one, I'm going to give you the entire executive summary:

  • "A small proportion (<5%) of overall COVID-19 cases reported in the EU/EEA and the UK are among children (those aged 18 years and under). When diagnosed with COVID-19, children are much less likely to be hospitalised or have fatal outcomes than adults." So, children have been diagnosed less often, and when we know they have it, they get less sick.
  • "Children are more likely to have a mild or asymptomatic infection, meaning that the infection may go undetected or undiagnosed." Thus BUT we do not always know that they have it. 
  • "When symptomatic, children shed virus in similar quantities to adults and can infect others in a similar way to adults. It is unknown how infectious asymptomatic children are." When they are sick, they make other people sick just as adults do, and we don't know how much that happens if they have it but don't have symptoms.
  • "While very few significant outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools have been documented, they do occur, and may be difficult to detect due to the relative lack of symptoms in children." Yes, schools are places where people can get sick, and sometimes we may not know, because children can so often be asymptomatic.
  • "In general, the majority of countries report slightly lower seroprevalence in children than in adult groups, however these differences are small and uncertain. More specialised studies need to be performed with the focus on children to better understand infection and antibody dynamics." I had to look this up. This means kids are less often testing positive, but the differences are small and we don't know enough about this yet and need more data. 
  • "Investigations of cases identified in school settings suggest that child to child transmission in schools is uncommon and not the primary cause of SARS-CoV-2 infection in children whose onset of infection coincides with the period during which they are attending school, particularly in preschools and primary schools." Kids seem not to often get each other sick, and for young children in particular, it seems they are not getting sick from school.
  • "If appropriate physical distancing and hygiene measures are applied, schools are unlikely to be more effective propagating environments than other occupational or leisure settings with similar densities of people." If schools do everything right, they're no more likely than anywhere else to have people get sick from each other.
  • "There is conflicting published evidence on the impact of school closure/re-opening on community transmission levels, although the evidence from contact tracing in schools, and observational data from a number of EU countries suggest that re-opening schools has not been associated with significant increases in community transmission." As of then, it appears that schools did not contribute to community increases in transmission. There has since been evidence otherwise
  • "Available evidence also indicates that closures of childcare and educational institutions are unlikely to be an effective single control measure for community transmission of COVID-19 and such closures would be unlikely to provide significant additional protection of children’s health, since most develop a very mild form of COVID-19, if any." Closing schools alone isn't enough to control the virus, and it seems unlikely to protect children from COVID.
  • "Decisions on control measures in schools and school closures/openings should be consistent with decisions on other physical distancing and public health response measures within the community." Schools are part of a larger group of decisions which should be made consistently. 
This then is the evidence that Governor Baker, Secretary Peyser, and Commissioner Riley are putting forward to argue that schools in our state--a state which by all accounts is seeing another surge, for which the most stringent recent methods the Governor has proposed to control the virus is a 10pm curfew and masks outdoors, which continues to not have enough testing or contact tracing among much else--should be open. 

That isn't what the research that they themselves are citing actually says, though. 

Monday, November 2, 2020

Testimony to the Joint Committee on Education

To the members of the Joint Committee on Education:

I write in response to your request for comment on the conditions of education in the Commonwealth, per the Joint Committee hearing on October 27, 2020. The below is in my capacity as a member of the Worcester School Committee and a parent of two children in the Worcester Public Schools. Thank you to Senator Lewis and Representative Peisch for holding the hearing and for soliciting such input.

As I’ve listened to Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meetings this year, and again when I heard the testimony from Secretary Peyser and Commissioner Riley earlier this week, I continue to be distressed at how much of an abyss there is between what they say and what is actually happening on the ground. A quick glance of local headlines makes this clear: the current directives from the Department to districts are simply not being followed.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

a word about ventilation

This is not going to be in depth, because this is not my field at all, but I've seen some online consternation from the end of last week at the report that students from Silver Lake Regional rode home on a bus with the windows open in the snow.

Yes, they had their windows open, and yes, there are districts planning on having bus windows open, and yes, we knew that.
Here's why:

Air exchange can be a key piece in cutting down on virus transmission. This excellent piece from El Pais from last week does a nice job of running through the variables--space, mask wearing, loud speaking, and others--in transmission of the virus. One of those is how much air is being exchanged: how much fresh air is coming into a room, and how much stale air is leaving the room. There are ways of measuring air turnover and so forth, but the key point is that it's both fresh air coming in and the old air from the room being pushed out.

Now as the El Pais piece makes clear, this is about combinations of things that make the chances of virus transmission higher or lower. So you're trying to add things--masks, spacing, air exchange, in Worcester's case ionization--that lower chances of transmission.

When we talk about schools--and if you watched Worcester's School Committee this summer, you caught this--we talk about three kinds of systems:

  • Full ventilation systems (the AC in this particular case isn't the question), which both bring IN fresh air from outside AND ALSO push the old air out. Now, if you're someone who grew up in places that need indoor heating in particular seasons, you know why schools wouldn't necessarily have this: you're continually needing to heat that outside air! They do, though, in some cases, have settings that allow for particular mixtures of air so you're not having to continually heat entirely new air. However, they can be set for full exchange if that is what is wanted.
  • Partial ventilation, which brings IN fresh air from outside BUT doesn't have a mechanical means of getting rid of the air inside. If you're an adult of about my age from the northern piece of the U.S., there's a decent chance that your memory of a school heating capacity is from the blowers along the walls. That doesn't do anything about the air that's already inside getting pushed out.
  • No HVAC: many schools have just systems that just heat the air that is in the building; ventilation (the V of HVAC and thus why these buildings without that or AC don't have HVAC) isn't part of that. This is things like steam radiators. 
So if you're in the situation of either of those last two, which is many school buildings and yes, also buses, what are you going to do? You're going to open windows both to bring in outside air and to expel indoor air. Thus the fans you've seen in school windows (frequently pushing air out, though sometimes they're paired to bring air in, too), and thus also why buildings were built with things like the transom windows opening onto the hallway, which allowed for cross-ventilation in buildings when they were built, if the exterior windows also are open.

An important note if you're in Worcester (or other places doing or discussing this), incidentally, is that the ionization systems are yet another layer to all of this, which are actually cleaning the air without air exchange, and so are a whole different thing. 

This is how we end up with apartment buildings from the last pandemic that are designed to be overheated, so the windows will be open in the winter. From an energy efficiency standpoint, of course, this is...not.
On a school bus, though, there aren't a lot of options on air exchange.