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.

The reason for that is simple: We have never recovered from March. In March, as the Department’s directive was for districts to close, clean, and reopen schools, cases continued to rise, contagion was clearly spreading, and state leadership remained stubbornly unresponsive. By the afternoon of Sunday, March 15, hours in advance any announcement by Governor Baker, every single district in the state had independently decided to close for at least one to two weeks.

I know. I checked them all.

Given that ground level rebellion, thoughtful state leadership would have recognized the chasm that had developed between the state and local districts. Clearly, the basis on which the state was making its calls was not trusted by local authorities. State leadership quickly connecting with local authorities to listen to what was missed in the directives being given would have begun to solve the problem.

Instead, the directives continued to come. We went from “find and feed your kids” which made sense, to “get them some instruction” which was complicated, to “here are the standards you must meet for each grade,” which was, frankly, very hard. I will be (and was) the first to say that our district also didn’t scramble as quickly as we needed to on implementation. There were, however, ways in which the state could have been supportive and was not. While there was support in particular ways—I would praise, for example, DESE’s nutrition sector, the quick work on Pandemic EBT, as well as the ongoing work around special education and clarity in finance—the overall leadership was not well clued in to what was happening in local districts. As far as I am aware, this is simply because they didn’t ask.

I would note that in his summer meeting with school committee members, the Commissioner did not tell school committee members that he’d support the plans we’d submitted prior to the map, as he said in his testimony; he said that he’d support local decisions, period. It was not a conditional statement.

He has not.

After waiting much of the summer, districts were given the guidance from the Department on this fall. Telling us that districts must put forward three plans, the guidance spent most of its space directing how to bring students back to buildings, with vanishingly little space on the reality we knew would come for all districts, that of remote learning.

Alongside that, we were given outlines of classrooms, with spacing that defied much of what we’d taken upon ourselves to learn about safety during the pandemic. Increased ventilation was mentioned, but little more, with little of how to achieve it. Classroom spaces were recommended to go to three feet, in contradict of the six feet we’d been hearing about for months. The only use to which the state put the MSBA database of our school buildings was to give a tool to see how closely you’d have to put students in classrooms in order to get them back in. Having spent, like many of my colleagues throughout the state, much time in the foregoing months reviewing everything that came my way on virus transmission and education, I read the Department’s documents with incredulity.

Even as it became increasingly clear that the virus was airborne, the Department’s guidance did not change. Even as it has become more evident that we do not know enough to draw conclusions about what is and is not safe for children, the directions have not shifted. Even as the regular attendance of people other than children in our buildings has been noted, it has not been part of the Department’s direction to districts.

What has shifted has been the map: the map that we received two days before plans were due. It seemed clear that red was the line. Then it was several weeks of red. Now, in his testimony to you, the Commissioner announced that even then, high need students should be in buildings.

Districts have, however, continued to make local decisions. We have to. It is abundantly clear that the executive branch right now is bent on pushing as many students back into buildings as quickly as possible. The map shifts, but the directions from the state do not, even as we learn more about how the virus spreads.

And we would do well to note: the virus in Massachusetts is currently raging.

I also feel I must note the utter lack of discussion of the massive demographic disparities among those most impacted by the virus and how that impacts some of our districts—most notably our Gateway cities, of course—more than others. If we cannot discuss how much more heavily impacted our Black and Latinx families are by COVID-19, how can we as communities hope to address racial equity?

And it is, in this year that is the first of the Student Opportunity Act implementation, racial equity to which we are driven, is it not? I would hope, therefore, that is not escaping attention that it is the very districts that were to receive the bulk of that funding that are most hurting now.

It is a simple truth of economic downturns: districts that are more dependent on state aid are those that are hit the hardest. Property tax revenue is much less subject to income tax revenue, thus districts getting more from the former are more secure than those who depend on the latter. We also know that those districts that are more dependent on local revenue are more wealthy overall. Those are districts that inspected tents for their students, robotic cleaning devices, automatic door openers, and updated bathrooms. They have the revenue to do so.

Worcester cannot fit more than one-third of its student population safely back at any one time. We have entire sets of classrooms that have been taken offline, as they were built as basement spaces and don’t have the air circulation called for. The levels of staffing, in a district that by foundation budget standards is somewhere more than 600 teachers short, is stretched to handle remote learning; to shift to hybrid will require more staff than we employ.

And we’ve cut $15.5M from our budget already this year; we will need to cut at least another million. As often as the Governor repeats his line about the additional pandemic aid to districts, it is not a replacement, nor was it ever intended to be a replacement, for the Student Opportunity Act funding. I appreciate both Senator Lewis and Representative Peisch noting that in the hearing. I would ask that those on the Committee work to see this implementation not left to yet another year to take place.

If this is the first that you are hearing of the lacks of state leadership in education right now, I’d urge you to have small group conversations with district staff and school committee members who have reason to trust you. What I write here is common.

I don’t know how many will say it to you.

Thank you again for asking to hear from us.


Tracy O’Connell Novick
Worcester School Committee

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