Sunday, January 31, 2021

I was very much disappointed in the Atlantic

"I was very much disappointed in the Atlantic Ocean."
Oscar Wilde, interviewed while in quarantine in New York harbor, 1882
That's not the Atlantic: that's the Clinton Reservoir! 
Consider it a metaphor.

Sometimes I put off writing something, because it so clearly needs to be done that surely someone, somewhere, will do it first?
And sometimes I wait and I can't find anyone who did. Oh, well...

So it is this week with a piece by staff writer Derek Thompson that The Atlantic first called "Just Open the Schools Already" (check the http address),  and then retitled "The Truth about Kids, Schools, and COVID." The author himself called it: 

The first title at least had the benefit of not being deceptive, as it would more clearly frame it as an opinion piece. What it certainly is not is the whole truth about kids, schools, and COVID.
(In fact, it is so much not as framed that I went looking on The Atlantic's website for an editor's address, to as a subscriber implore them to hire a fact checker. If you find such an address, let me know.)

This starts from the very first line of the piece: Thompson says "Federal health officials at the CDC this week called for children to return to American classrooms as soon as possible." He then cites an opinion piece published in the Journal of the American Medical Association entitled "Data and policy to guide opening schools safely to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2 infection." 
Here is the disclaimer from the authors of the piece: 

Thus we are into words being tricky things: are the three "federal health officials at the CDC"? Yes. Does this represent anything other than the opinion of three officials at the CDC? By the disclaimer, no. I'd also note that this was a common framing, with many going much farther, framing the essay as coming from the CDC. 

More concerningly, what the essay does not at all do is "[call] for children to return to American classrooms as soon as possible." The conclusion of the JAMA piece, in fact, is this: 
Decisions made today can help ensure safe operation of schools and provide critical services to children and adolescents in the US. Some of these decisions may be difficult. They include a commitment to implement community-based policies that reduce transmission when SARS-CoV-2 incidence is high (eg, by restricting indoor dining at restaurants), and school-based policies to postpone school-related activities that can increase risk of in-school transmission (eg, indoor sports practice or competition). With 2 vaccines now being distributed under Emergency Use Authorizations and more vaccine options anticipated to be available in the coming months, there is much hope on the horizon for a safer environment for schools and school-related athletic activities during the 2021/22 school year. Committing today to policies that prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission in communities and in schools will help ensure the future social and academic welfare of all students and their education.

That is not calling for a return as soon as possible, nor is that anywhere in the essay. The essay by contrast lays out a cautious array of policies and actions necessary to make safe operation possible.

Thompson next notes "adequate masking, distancing, and ventilation" as necessary, but he does not speak of the "community-based policies that reduce transmission" that the authors lead with in their conclusion, and speak of at greater length earlier in their piece: 

Preventing transmission in school settings will require addressing and reducing levels of transmission in the surrounding communities through policies to interrupt transmission (eg, restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants).

Thompson's third sentence is "The CDC’s judgment comes at a particularly fraught moment in the debate about kids, schools, and COVID-19." As above, the essay quite explicitly is not the CDC's judgment. 

So why, in Thompson's view, is it a particularly "fraught moment"? 

Parents are exhausted. Student suicides are surging. Teachers’ unions are facing national opprobrium for their reluctance to return to in-person instruction. And schools are already making noise about staying closed until 2022.

And each of those has a hyperlink. His evidence?

  • "Parents are exhausted" cites this December 8th Vox piece that talks about parents being exhausted (no argument), working long hours (that's from the Wall Street Journal), and leaving the workforce. Several times the statistic of 865,000 women leaving the workforce between August and September is noted. Not noted in any of those places is that job losses, per the National Women's Law Center,  disportionately hit Black women,  Latina women, and women with disabilities. 

    I wouldn't dispute that the parents are exhausted. I do find it very revealing when that argument is made during a pandemic, and the death of family members, the illness of family members, the cost of medical bills, concerns over residential extended family, the long-term health impacts of COVID on children (that's hearts; there are others), and, while yes, rare, the death of children are not anywhere noted. That speaks to the writer's place within the pandemic.

  • "Student suicides are surging" cites, as many of us feared last week, Erica Green's piece about Las Vegas schools in The New York Times. The headline of the piece aside, note that Green very specifically wrote: 
    Adolescent suicide during the pandemic cannot conclusively be linked to school closures; national data on suicides in 2020 have yet to be compiled. 

    As it happens, teen suicides in Clark County haven't surged this year; as Dr. Tyler Black, who studies this, noted on Twitter:  

    Simply put: is mental health suffering during the pandemic? Yes, internationally. But to speak of a "suicide surge" based on incomplete data from a single American county is irresponsible.

  • "Teachers’ unions are facing national opprobrium for their reluctance to return to in-person instruction." This is one really demonstrates the sloppiness of the piece: the EdWeek piece itself to which Thompson links says this: 

    National polling data show that overall support for teachers and their unions has remained steady...a nationally representative Education Next survey, conducted from Nov. 10 to Dec. 3, found that just 30 percent of parents said teachers' unions have a negative effect on schools--about the same as survey results from May 2019 and 2020. Forty-six percent of parents said unions have a positive effect on schools, up from 40 percent last spring..."In plenty of places where unions have opposed reopening, they have the support of many parents who are concerned for their own children's safety," [editor-in-chief of Education Next Professor Martin] West said. "I think it is always risky to reach conclusions based on what you hear from the loudest voices."

    Yes, the piece to which Thompson links says precisely the opposite of what he is arguing. 

  • The final sentence here is: "And schools are already making noise about staying closed until 2022." That links to this Washington Post op-ed from June--yes, this past June--about school buildings not reopening this past fall. 
    The smart districts are for certain going to be having conversations about this coming fall--the actual fall of 2022--but I have yet to see much coverage of that as yet.
    And it again is not what the piece to which Thompson links says...again.

And then Thompson says:
Into this maelstrom, the CDC seems to be shouting: Enough! To which, I would add: What took you so long?

And of course, the CDC isn't shouting any such thing. 

So on to the evidence: Thompson writes:

 ...people under 18, and especially younger kids, are less susceptible to infection, less likely to experience severe symptoms, and far less likely to be hospitalized or die

And links as follows: 

  • For "less susceptible to infection," Thompson links to this "COVID-19 in children and young people" piece from Science in October. Regarding infection, the piece says this: 
    Evidence from contact-tracing studies suggest that children and teenagers are less susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection than adults; however, community swabbing and seroprevalence studies conducted outside of outbreak settings suggest that infection rates are similar to those in older age groups

    Did you catch it? While the contract tracings suggest Thompson's conclusion, community swabbing and seroprevalence rates suggest infection rates are similar to other groups. This has been found, for example, in studies done in Austria and evidence from the U.K. during their fall lockdown when schools were open; that's from this very thorough der Spiegel piece
    What the CDC itself says is:

    The true incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in children is not known due to lack of widespread testing and the prioritization of testing for adults and those with severe illness.

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
    And again, Thompson has linked to a piece that says the opposite of what he is arguing. 

  • For "less likely to experience severe symptoms," Thompson the same piece again. There are not two pieces of evidence here.
    Nonetheless, this is something on which there appears to wide agreement; to go back to the CDC

    A recent systematic review estimated that 16% of children with SARS-CoV-2 infection are asymptomatic, but evidence suggests that as many as half of pediatric infections may be asymptomatic.

    Note, of course, that it is this very absence of symptoms in junction, as cited above, with lack of widespread asymptomatic testing, that has led to the idea that children don't get or don't have coronavirus as often. It is instead that we have a great lack of information. 
    There are, of course, rare but very significant symptoms possible for children with COVID; there has been concern around multisystem inflammatory syndrome, as well as, as noted above, long-term heart damage and other effects

  • For "far less likely to be hospitalized or die," Thompson links to the CDC statistics (from August). No argument. I think they now only update that information through the dashboards.

Thompson notes that in August and September, we didn't have a lot of data for making recommendations around schools. Noting the time since then, he says: 
Meanwhile, anybody paying attention has long figured out that children are probably less likely to transmit the disease to teachers and peers. This is no longer a statistical secret lurking in the appendix of one esoteric paper. It has been the repeatedly replicated conclusion of a waterfall of research, from around the world, over the past six months.

That first sentence is just plain wrong. 
To support his claim, Thompson links to "Don't Forget the Bubbles," which is a website that collects research, rather than any particular research; I guess it's his "waterfall"?
A check through the links at hand right now don't make blanket claims about children spreading to peers and teachers. This December study discusses low spread in southwest Germany during the initial phase of the pandemic, and that children under ten were not "particular drivers" of the illness.
 This piece on Italy finds that cases among children were lower than the general population in all but two regions of Italy. 
Thompson--while still only linking to that general page--specifically cites a study from Ireland from May in which 1000 contacts from school cases were interviewed; I think that's this study. The kicker?

 Only symptomatic contacts were tested, and so asymptomatic secondary cases were not captured.

And cases after that would be characterized further as not stemming from the schools, of course.
He also cites a Singapore study--still linking only to that general page--that he says children are not primary drivers. My best guess is that's this study from March (!), as it's the only one I can dig up that has three clusters coming out of Singapore, though I can't find anything there about children. That isn't about schools or about children at all, so I am confused there. 

He then cites this Washington Post piece that, as of the end of September, "explosive" growth had yet to happen; the same piece says this: 

Poor and inconsistent reporting in many parts of the country means that experts do not yet have a full view of the situation, and most schools have been open for only a few weeks. 

Here's how things looked across the country since September: 

We of course are not going to escape a piece such as this without a citation of Emily Oster of Brown University, who is, let's remember, an economist who is doing a voluntary collection of data from schools across the country, which have widely varying systems of being in school and no widespread asymptomatic testing. 

He then notes this piece from Norway which systematically traced and tested contacts of students up to age 14. What Thompson fails to note is that the sample size here is of only 13 cases:

A total of 13 index cases and 292 school contacts participated in the study

They did systematically test all contacts; they did find no secondary cases. That is a very, very small sample size, though.  

And then he notes this piece in Pediatrics is of eleven school districts in North Carolina, which he says "found no cases of child-to-adult spread in schools." In fact, what the conclusion reads (scroll to the end) is the researchers were "not able to analyze incidence of child-to-child or adult-to-child transmission" due to privacy reasons. They did, to be clear, find low rates overall.

Thompson then refers to the large study of Korea from July, looking at data from the spring; that's the study that said: 

We showed that household transmission of SARS-CoV-2 was high if the index patient was 10–19 years of age. 

Thompson argues that this was followed up by this piece by some of the same authors, of which he says:

...the same Korean research team caveated those conclusions, saying it couldn’t prove whether the children in the study were infecting their parents, or whether those parents were infecting their kids, or whether entire households were being exposed by a third party.

If you read the study, however, it doesn't reference the earlier study, and it doesn't say what Thompson asserts in the above paragraph. What it did find, in contrast to the earlier study, was lower rates of pediatric transmission in the household with social distancing (yes, in a home).

Thompson then speaks of Israel, which made headlines due to outbreaks as schools reopened in the fall. A study that followed up, he argues, reverses that argument; he says “No increase was observed in COVID-19 … following school reopening" is what the authors conclude.

It's a lot more complicated than that, if you read the discussion (starting on page 10); for one thing, Israel has higher rates of positivity among children, which the researchers may be due to higher rates of testing. Here's what the piece actually concludes:

In conclusion, our findings suggest that school reopening did not have a substantial effect on the SARS-CoV-2 infection rate in the general population and suggest a major effect of ease of social restrictions on the COVID-19 resurgence in Israel. Though complete reopening of schools may have contributed to the spread of infection, it does not seem to have played a primary role per se, in the June-July 2020 resurgence. 

And lest we think we can determine too much on cause and effect, earlier, the researchers say this:

The main limitation of our study is its ecological design and the possibility that some findings presented here may have been related to other concurrent interventions. Due to the observational design, this study cannot inform causal relationships. Since the demographic, cultural, and socioeconomic features of Israel evidently affect our results, particular attention should be given to such factors in assessing reopening in specific geographic areas.

Now let me note that all of the above is in contrast to, for example, the large study in India, that found children drive spread; the round up of recent research of COVID-19, children, and schools by Dr. Zoe Hyde from early December; this discussion of children and COVID;  this piece on why the debate is so fraught; everything I cited in this earlier post; not to mention that as cases are shooting back up due to new variants, schools in Europe and elsewhere are closing.
That last is due to schools being among interventions that have been shown, more than once, in reviews of multiple studies across many countries, to lower the contagion rate; see this thread for an explanation of that. 
(And I could cite much more here; I really recommend that people interested start listening to epidemiologists, who frequently are discussing this on Twitter.)

Thompson then turns to other arguments: high income parents are leaving! That isn't exactly what this Axios piece he links to says, but it's effectively boils the argument down to the same "consumer demand" arguments. That much of the demands of schools is tied to privilege isn't surprising. That privilege should drive public health decision making is a terrible argument.
Calls, he says, to mental health lines have increased; that links to this Washington Post opinion piece which cites no source for this assertion. That piece in turn links to this piece on stress, but that is pandemic stress overall. As I noted earlier, there is much, much more going on than school buildings being opened or closed.
And then he talks about Las Vegas and suicides again. 

And yes, agreed, that immunizing kids is more difficult, as is feeding them. We should be wondering, though, why those have fallen to the schools to do?

And, no, schools being closed do not "make impossible the edifying effects of play.'
A pandemic, which requires social distancing and masking, however, does make it more difficult.
It is interesting, isn't it, that he only gets to play this far into his argument? 

 His proposals?

  1. open the the lower schools
  2. enforce COVID-19 protocols, which he speaks of as mask wearing, social distancing, and whispering. He doesn't mention restaurants, gyms, or other large gathering spaces being open; he doesn't mention community rates of transmission; he doesn't mention hospitalization rates; he doesn't mention demographic disparities. 
  3. accelerate vaccination and procurement. Sure, no argument
  4. "Distribute high-quality scientific information. Most important, educate teachers about the lower transmission risk of young students—and the ongoing necessity of COVID-19 protocols—to get their enthusiastic buy-in, which will naturally be contingent on our success at reducing community spread and accelerating vaccination."
 I darkly laughed at this last one. Every educator has solidly in their minds the 72 educators of the New York City public schools that had died of COVID by May. Most can cite many, many other cases of teachers who have sickened, and some who have died. That is the place where this work on "buy-in" needs to begin. There are districts that have done so successfully, but they have done so from a place of local community trust, which is the work of years.
And this piece does not mention anywhere else the reduction of community spread. It is difficult to take seriously his argument that this is a key point when it nowhere prior is noted. 

Moreover, if this piece is supposed to be the "high-quality scientific information" Thompson thinks is necessary, no wonder teachers don't trust it!

In his closing, Thompson says, "I don’t blame teachers for keeping schools closed yet."
How generous of him! Teachers, of course, are not the only ones who are in some cases advocating for school buildings being closed; schools of course are not. As noted over and again during the pandemic, there are major demographic differences in who wants their children back in buildings. That is not accidental. 
Thus his conclusion:
Americans have to learn, and accept, that the preponderance of evidence simply doesn’t support the fears that govern school policy today. not only wrong, as demonstrated above: it reveals a vast lack of understanding about school policy and the history of many groups--including teachers and families of color.

As author Noliwe Rooks noted earlier today:

 This piece is poorly sourced, badly edited, condescending in its conclusion, and marked in its privilege. It is not a piece that should drive any school policy.

What I'm reading (and listening to!) this week

 My periodic update for those who wonder where I'm getting this stuff!

  • I am not in any way a podcast listener, but I urge you to make time, as I did, for this week's episode of Have You Heard about the school reopening debate. Opening with Justin Feldman's satirical summary of what we know about schools and kids and COVID: 

  • Remarkably, we have federal leadership that cares about this now! Here's some on the Congressional bill filed this week. And we have people in the White House who read the whole thing now! 

  • This piece in today's The Washington Post notes in Washington, D.C. what we have seen happen in other places: it is disproportionately white families who are sending their kids back into schools when that is an option. Likewise, take a look  at Rachel Cohen's thread regarding the latest Understanding America Study.

  • That aligns with this piece of research from Education Next which did a nationally representative sampling of families to discover what their children were doing and what they thought about it. As I noted yesterday on Twitter, I do find their framing of political perspectives and COVID rates a bit...obtuse. Political parties aren't just sports teams we root for; they're grounded in values and perspectives about how we do things that have impacts. That areas that supported the Republican candidate for president would have more open school buildings and would also have higher rates of COVID by November is not a coincidence. Public health decisions reflect political realities.

  • And as we talk about family decisions, we must include disparities such as those covered by this WBUR piece which speaks of Brigham and Women's Hospital: 
    Lower-paid employees were getting COVID more often than nurses and doctors. Sivashanker said there were dozens of small group meetings with medical assistants, transport workers, the security team and the environmental services staff where he shared the higher positive test rates and encouraged everyone to get tested.

  • The above then should be driving conversations now about improving remote learning, and so I recommend this piece of research on how that might be done:
    Our analyses indicate that student technological resources, such as high-speed Internet and access to Internet-enabled devices, predict engagement even after controlling for student family income and other measures of household socioeconomic resources. Furthermore, we find that students who are exposed to diverse socioemotional and academic learning opportunities have higher levels of engagement. But even after controlling for a robust set of material, technological, and instructional resources, we find that students whose families remained socially connected to other students’ families were more likely to engage online.
    Ideally, I'd hope that this would drive some district conversations.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Comment on proposed permanent adoption of emergency amendments to 603 CMR 27.00 (Time on Learning)

Good afternoon,
I am writing to provide public comment on the permanent adoption of the emergency amendments to 603 CMR 27.00 that were passed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in the December meeting.

Please note that the following comments are made entirely in my capacity as a parent of two current Worcester Public School students and a member of the Worcester School Committee, 'though of course education policy is my professional field.

As one who spends much time and thought on public meetings and public process, I first must note the appalling way in which public process was circumvented in the passage of these regulations. Superintendents were informed Wednesday of the contents of proposed regulation that was not available until Thursday, the same day the Department sets as a deadline for sign-up for public comment at the meeting the following Tuesday. There was no consultation with any portion of the field regarding the proposed regulation or the purported need for them, no discussion with districts that have been teaching in remote or hybrid fashion, and very limited opportunity for anyone at all to review the regulations prior to their passage. As a public body that is responsible for the public good of public education, that may meet the letter of the Open Meeting Law. It certainly doesn't meet the spirit of public process.

It is also quite explicitly not in keeping with what the Commissioner promised on his assumption of his current role; he assured the field at large that he would, above all, listen. Listening has been in short supply during the pandemic, however. 

As for the changes themselves, the entire argument from the Department was that of student mental health. Specifically, the argument was that student mental health was suffering due to not being in school buildings, that this was the emergency being faced by K-12 education at this time, and that the solution to that concern was to require districts to have synchronous learning of 40 hours for those fully remote or of 35 hours for those meeting in a hybrid fashion.

Every piece of that argument, however, is incorrect.

Over 400,000 Americans are dead. One of out of every 500 Massachusetts residents is dead. Millions have or will suffer long-term health impacts after having survived coronavirus. As a result of the pandemic, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, their homes, their economic stability. 

Every single portion of that falls inequitably across our society. The rate of deaths of coronavirus among Black Americans is one in a bit over 700, compared to one in 1200 for white Americans. Black and Latino people are more likely, due to structural racism across sectors, to suffer long term health impacts, to be working in fields that put one at more risk of infection, to be living in communities that are underserved by health care, to be hit by job loss and hunger.

It is absolutely not a coincidence that these are also the same communities that are likely to have students who are learning entirely fully remotely. For much of this year, the state's nine largest communities all were fully remote. Those are of course also the same communities that have been underfunded by the foundation budget for over two decades, and that have most of the school buildings that in some cases date back to the Civil War.

Student mental health in and out of our cities was poorly supported prior to the pandemic. Wait times for in patient services regularly has stretched weeks, families may search for months to find a therapist, and far too many students go without services. That has, like nearly every other sector of our society, only grown more strained due to the pandemic. 

And naturally, student mental health, yes, has been impacted negatively over the past number of months by the pandemic--not remote schooling--by the ensuing economic catastrophe, and every other subsidiary impact of both of those. That is not at all surprising, as children live in our society and our families. What happens there happens to our children. 

Any of the above would have been and still would be areas in which your advocacy and work as a Department and as a Board are badly needed. Noting the inequitable impacts of the pandemic itself, as Vice Chair Morton did at the December meeting, calling out that as the emergency, is a voice that the state very much needs to hear. Advocating for better mental heath supports in and out of schools is very much support that the field would welcome. Ensuring that the foundation budget is funded not at a lag but at a level to meet the actual ongoing needs of students in our districts would be in keeping with the historic nature of both the funding system and the Massachusetts Board of Education. 

Instead, the requirement was to have more time on Zoom and Meet. I hope you have heard from students and teachers, as I have, of how that does not in any way improve anyone's mental health. It is, on its face, an absurd argument. That the measures districts and schools took to actively improve both learning and mental health through small groups did not count towards the total only further demonstrates how poor this argument is. it makes no logical sense. Were I still in the classroom, I would have marked this down for being an argument that is unsupported. 

Here in Worcester, we made the change as required. Were the regulations to change, I do not know that we would change back, as moving 25,000 students and 4000 staff is complicated. I will note that I know well from other districts that hybrid is by far the most difficult system to achieve. It would be ironic indeed if the Board's action in fact drove more districts towards remote learning.

I would ask that you not continue these badly supported regulations. Moreover, I would ask that you listen to the districts that are actually doing the work and advocate in ways that better support our students. 

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Tracy Novick 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

About FY22 from Governor Baker

First, some links: 

  • the Governor's House 1 budget is here (there are a bunch of links off of that page) 
  • the preliminary information on Chapter 70 and net school spending requirement is described (and spreadsheets can be downloaded) here
  • the cherry sheets for regional districts and municipalities is also now updated with the FY22 numbers from this proposed budget. 
  • I've made a habit of starting a spreadsheet each budget season that goes K-12 account by account (I used to do this in the blog, but then you couldn't compare one version of the budget to the next). That is online as an Excel spreadsheet here. I also tweeted out the account by account lines yesterday starting here
    Usually, I'd just compare against the actually passed prior year, but that was so off this year that I also included the Governor's proposal from last year. 
And as a general standing invitation: if there's anything here you don't understand, please ask.

On Saturday, I outlined some of my thinking entering into this budget year. Where are we in terms of that, to start?

As he noted last week, Governor Baker did fund a year of the Student Opportunity Act implementation. As I noted last week, though, this isn't A year; this is the second year. We're $250-300M short from that year. That isn't only about not having had that funding this past year; that's about never having that funding. Implementation is cumulative. If we'd had had SOA implementation last year, that additional funding would be built into the base for this year. It is not, and it won't be next year, or the year after. Whatever good would have been done with those funds--teachers in front of kids, repaired buildings, better services for students and families--is gone. 
The proposed budget, unlike last year, funds the low income implementation at 1/7th, which is not what had been proposed last year, which shorted it. The low income count switches, as had initially been done last year, from all direct certification (as we have been doing) to that OR the percentage of low income students in the FY16 budget (when we last did this through collecting free/reduced lunch forms everywhere), which was intended as a stopgap while a shift on low income counting was taking place. That picks up 30,118 students across the state, but keep in mind, those additions are going to be VERY uneven (just to give an example, 1447 of those students picked up are in Worcester). The 1/7th implementation thus is important, as not everyone has an increased count.
The budget overall, though, is based on the October 2020 student enrollment count, as usual, despite the statewide drop in enrollment due to the pandemic, as was covered at the November Board of Ed meeting. There have been calls--which I assume will only increase--to hold enrollment harmless this year, as this is a pandemic-induced drop, rather than one that's happening over time. This is particularly important--and this is a thing that I'm going to keep saying--when you look at where much of the drop in enrollment is: 

Of the 37,396 students that have been 'lost,' 17,202 are in preschool and kindergarten. Those are not grades which are required in Massachusetts. It is a fair guess that if this coming year is anything approaching more normal, many of those students are going to come back. 
Where are we going to put them? Who is going to teach them? And how are we going to pay for it, if these are students that aren't included in our budgets?
And I'm really asking this, because over 700 of them are in Worcester.

What this means, by the way, is that the overall increase in the foundation budget is over $100M less than last year at this time. The proposed increase--WITHOUT the full low income implementation of 1/7th--at this time last year was $290M; the increase this year over actual last year (which, remember, was no implementation at all) is $176M.

The other variable besides enrollment is inflation, which for health insurance--under SOA, remember, health insurance inflation is tied to the Group Insurance Commission plan average over three years--is 2.78% and for all else is 1.41%. Those are exactly what they are supposed to be by statute.
They also don't in any way reflect the actual increases in costs in lines. I mean, really: is your insurance plan going up by only 2.78% this coming year? Are the costs of gas and electricity and internet going up by only 1.41%?
They won't for schools, either.

Across the other accounts--charter, circuit breaker--there likewise are indications of some implementation of SOA. The circuit breaker increases only by $10M, though, so it's a bit concerning, as MassBudget last year estimated that it would take an additional $25M to implement the inclusion of transportation, as required by the SOA. Likewise, charter reimbursement was estimated to need to rise by nearly $30M to have full implementation; it's up by $16M. 

Beyond SOA and these core accounts, it's frankly a pretty depressing picture from a governor who rarely is in front of a microphone without professing his great concern for kids and the driving need based on that for them to be in school buildings. This is his chance to literally put money where his mouth is. Where is it? It's not in building repairs. It's not in mental health services in or out of schools. It's not in extended day or summer programs. It's not in additional staffing supports for schools. It's not in any of the areas that anyone has suggested need additional support this year. It's just...not there.

Moreover, the Governor even manages to remove some of the support in this line being given to schools by the federal government. As I noted earlier this week, the second round of pandemic support to schools, passed as part of the big federal package at the end of December, is going to start to be available for applications soon. Districts can find the amount dedicated to them online here
...except it turns out they can't. Governor Baker is proposing in his budget that towns and cities be allowed to count up to 75% of the federal grant to schools towards the increase in their required local school spending; the language is on the Chapter 70 page under "required local contribution."
In other words, the additional aid for handling COVID that the federal government specifically set aside for schools could instead be claimed by the city or town as school operating expenses.
I have a couple of problems with this. First, it isn't clear to me that this is the intent of the funding; this effectively takes emergency pandemic school aid and substitutes it for municipal operational funding. It also seems to me--no, I'm not a lawyer--to be creating a terrible legal precedent. This funding is like Title I or IDEA: it is a grant that is specific to schools. Those grants aren't touched by towns or cities; there's a set-aside within them for whatever "writing the checks" sorts of services the town may do, but they certainly don't have allocation authority. This is allowing the municipal side to allocate school funding, and to do it in both municipal and regional districts. 
I don't think it's right, I question its legality, and its going to be an absolute mess at local levels.
It's not up to local school districts to make up for the stubborn refusal of Senator McConnell--who I would note is of Governor Baker's own party--to pass local aid assistance. That's on him. 
And putting a budget that supports our students is on Governor Baker. While this makes a better than last year's effort at SOA, it isn't last year. It's ten months into a pandemic and it's two years into the Student Opportunity Act. Neither of those show up in his budget. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

January Board of Ed: update on budgeting matters (offline)

State education finance update (with ongoing thanks to those who respond to my emails)

•Baker files House 1 tomorrow; you already know the admin line is "fully funds year 1 of SOA."
•New ESSER II grants (that's $800M in total to state; $733M to districts directly, based on Title I allocations) will be live to apply for in the next week or so. District by district allocations at link here
Actual quote on that page: "DESE is providing an additional $10,000 to each district for student mental health services and supports." Don't spend that all in one place, folks.
•On the $53M (I thought it was $54M, but whatever) from the state: payments coming in Feb ($25M) and April ($25M) based on state’s allotment schedule. Update on the School Finance page soon.

January Board of Ed: college access

 update on college access for class of 2021
in a given year, about 70% of graduates attend college; for some groups, it's much lower
pandemic fall of 2020: zoom in state university system
11.6% drop in community college; 7.7% drop in state universities

data on gap years; "enrolling immediately matters"
those who enroll immediately earn much more money in their 30's than those who postpone or who never enroll

equity gaps increasing in who is access college
what about this year's seniors?
90% of students who fill out FAFSA by March 15 eventually attend college
gaps, but still, "timely completion of the FAFSA matters"

Allows students and families to keep options on a the table 

"we know that we have a little time here"
"we're not on fire yet" 
applications for college are down as well
March 1 to 15 is the critical time
community college remains an option; still time to work on this
"very little direct work to complete FAFSA" done by the department
"trying to rev people up to get out to their kids"
"how we message"
met with three largest districts
"there's a lot of things counselors are doing; their plates are full"
knowing we have to change things in this matter, shifting what and how
"most of those kids, if you don't complete FAFSA, there's no college at the end of it"
enrollments are down: "that's not a gap year; that's a gap decade"
there's work to be done about this

Morton suggest a public awareness campaign
people in communities who'd be willing to speak to young people about this 
Craven: coordinated effort through community learning pods
Hills: some high schools are "doing much much better work in setting up their graduates for financial success" than others
R: can only get out to mid-30's
is there variation? Yes, there's a lot of variation in high schools in the varying rates
some doing "a better job"
Hills: if schools don't have their seniors enroll right away (he's interrupted "on average, on average")
note that these are stacked bars with delayed enrolled

Coughlin: definitely something the student advisory council willing to take up
maybe a PSA from the Department going out to families and students

Peyser: think there were 121 views of individual student FAFSA reports, with fewer than last year (from EDWIN)
"if you don't have the data, if you don't know which ones filled it out and which ones haven't completed, you can't do the work to get this done"
previously, there was an urgent sense of data being needed; concern that is lost
counselors checking "every week" to see who has and can't get it done

Morton: and we lost sounds
work going on with counselors?
Target resources, communications to those places that we know that this is going to make a big difference

West: indicator in real time that allows to intervene
(snaps from Morton)

January Board of Ed: competency determination for class of 2021

 class of 2021 in reading and math
Curtin: last spring, graduates of '20, and science through class of 2023 modified
plan had been for administration of 2021 in ELA and math in January
waiting to see what trajectory of virus was coming out of winter break "primarily from a safety concern"
announcement was made "to postpone" as it is the Board's decision on competency determination (aka if the Board votes 'no' they need another option)
"we are not providing these students with a diploma" as that is a local determination
the competency determination is the piece that is the state's part
note this is not automatic: last year, only about 2/3rds of seniors earned it
"it is not a given"

Hills: based on history, what percent of students would have ended up passing ordinarily?
Curtin: "it is not high"
fading in and out
over 92% of students have earned it; "need to offer an alternative pathway, given that we will not be offering" the test
Hills: the broader MCAS issue "for me" has nothing to do with this issue

Morton: commend department in getting 92% of students having passed it already

motion, second

Moriarty: "these loosening of standards always concern me a great deal" don't think it helps students
"always feel this is taking away from them"
lessens diploma 
do more for these students who aren't taking and passing MCAS
"I hate anything that loosens this system; I don't think it's already strong enough to begin with"
have to accept realities
"I am going to vote for this, but I am deeply sorry to do this; I did not come here to lower standards."
Riley: will discuss more opportunities at February meeting

ACCESS testing: (back to Curtin)
deadline extended out to May 20: hope is there will be more students coming to school
"our intention around the use of the data this year is for diagnostic value"
ACCESS at core is diagnostic test: have looked for federal government about accountability
intent is to not use it in bulk, but to use it as a diagnostic test
"it is a federally required test"
"unless that changes, that federal requirement exists"
get data into hands of educators so they can think about programming
test is also required for a student to exit English learning programs

January Board of Ed: updates on COVID

 on to Riley's updates
"continued to inform districts of new development in COVID-19" and state action
modify testing this spring: sampling approach and reducing time administering
accountability relief: no new underperforming and chronically underperforming schools this year
air purifiers: purchased by DESE, shipped to districts; 2 to 3 air exchanges
pool testing in process of being set up
six weeks of kits, support, and results for no cost to districts
rapid antigen test program as well for symptomatic individuals
flu vaccine removed as a requirement: mild flu season to date
request for flexibility around certain federal requirements
US Ed: defer requirement to ID comprehensive and targeted support
await more information
$800M in federal aid; $733M to districts directly, needs based
10% under DESE's control to ID needs throughout system
$5.6M to all districts and charters receiving some under formula grant (who otherwise wouldn't)
seeking more on Biden's proposed additional plan
SOA plans...were finally really due
high school teacher internships: professional development to begin later in February

Hills: federal flexibility: "there was nothing having to do with MCAS in Massachusetts"
Riley: awaiting any movement from the federal government
Hills: "trust me, I'm not looking for it"

and I think Fernández is asking a question we can't hear?
ACCESS testing query: reasonable cause to revisit EL requirements
DESE has extended window to take place to May
was recommendation to consolidate multiple tests
questions around not knowing how many children will show up; possible high numbers not
results might be incomplete or invalid
reluctance for families to send children into buildings
also relief on low participation
other options for determination of competency as is being done for seniors and MCAS
matters of practicality: some real challenges with transportation, technology, and staffing issues
recommend they be taken seriously
Riley: awaiting ground rules at federal and state level (state level?)
more coming

Lombos: want to fully support Fernández says
have made their cases; I don't think we have to rehash those points
want to revisit MCAS and ACCESS requirement 
"other ideas and ways...would love to have more conversation about"

January Board of Ed: opening comments

 The agenda is here; the video will be here.

updating as we go

coming in late as the initial broadcast had no sound...missed several rounds of public testimony...and again...and now?

public testimony on ACCESS testimony: 
requesting suspension of ACCESS and MCAS
"why are we worrying about a test when our children are struggling with isolation"
"poor allocation of our resources"
"I really have no sensible answer" for why you're doing this now
only widening gaps, measuring who has had access to the internet
"we ask was it worth it"
"you keep asking us to make it worth, but is it worth it?"
find a different way to make it work without high stakes testing

regional vocational schools admission
Cabral: superintendent of Taunton
our responsibility to advocate for our students and our families
advocate for our children
speaks of his own family history, parents directing to access to education
admission denies some students access to vocational schools
once denied admission, they have little chance to transfer later
"many at risk students lose interest in education, because the curriculum does not seem to have" real world application
urge those with a voice in authority to create systemic changes
"should not be a one-time opportunity or a decision made by a 13 year old in 8th grade"
should not forget those new to our country
create greater opportunity for students to access opportunities and to gain them if they were denied access
"leaves comprehensive schools at the mercy of regional vocational schools"
quotes student in Taunton High in their drafting program: hoping internship with lead to full time employment

NAACP: Juan Cofield
education has been a central concern of NAACP "almost from its inception"
"in support of a change in admission policy of the voke schools" for equal access of these schools to students in the Commonwealth
students of color represent a significantly smaller number of students enrolled
"dramatic underrepresentation" of students of color in regional voke schools
"there must be an open enrollment policy for voke schools"
Constitution of the Commonwealth; 14th amendment on equal access
"should be a function of capacity" rather than the chance of the students getting in 
"currently exclusionary admission policy practice is just simply illegal and it discrimates against protected is blatant race-based discrimination"
should require a lottery system for admission for 21-22 school year

Kevin Murray, Mass Advocates for Children
sound went out again
evolution of admission for programs
"has turned these schools into another form of selective admission schools"
Commissioner has attempted to encourage voluntary changes, with no results so far
and he's speaking of some proposed changes but I don't know what those are or what group he's talking about

teacher licensure proposal
speaker: have been a substitute, general curriculum MTEL is all that stands before her
Has taken the MTEL over 20 times and have spent over $1000 on books and prep material
have been to public schools with teachers who never took the exam
"make a necessary change in public education"
lack of diversity in teaching

Chair Katherine Craven: thank Board for participation in anti-racism training
will follow up with second round in spring
Amanda Fernández on teacher diversity: except she can't hear the meeting
committee met last month and will continue to meet quarterly
Updates on current work
new potential areas of work; financial support for college students, other opportunities
Matt Hills being added to the Commissioner's review committee
Evidence-based policymaking; adopted with Board of Higher Ed
West: at Feb. 1 meeting with discuss progress on student longitudual data system

Secretary Peyser: who I think is talking about finance but is fading in and out
"vast majority of" federal resources still available "has not been drawn down"
"suggests our schools and districts are going to be going into FY22 in pretty good shape"
references Globe article on reading: incumbent on schools to provide interventions
"the early years are critical for building reading skills"
"very hard to recover" if students don't build reading skills early

Riley: announcement of guidance counselor award
dyslexia guidance
STEM Advanced Placement access opportunity

Saturday, January 23, 2021

And so to FY22

 And so, on to FY22. 

Governor Baker's address to the annual Mass Municipal Association yesterday gave the traditional handtip of what's coming on the state budget. He said his budget that will be filed Wednesday (called "House 1" as it's the first budget of the new Legislative session; next year is "House 2"; and no one ever explains these things) will "fully fund" the first year of the Student Opportunity Act.

Hm. Okay. I have some questions, which I went through in a gif Twitter thread yesterday: 

If you don't want to run through the 90210 gifs, I'll note in brief:

  • Baker says he's funding the "first year" of SOA. This is not, however, the first year of SOA; this is the second year of SOA. It didn't get funded last year. The reset of the clock without comment repeats the error of the implementation of the original school funding reform, when some aspects did not kick in the first year. 
    School funding builds on itself. A year missed is never recovered.

  • What are the numbers being used? If what this is based on is the October enrollment as counted, that is missing kids that were held out this year; there are thousands of preschool and kindergarten students that are, should this be in any kind of check by fall, going to be back in classrooms, joining those who would normally be turning up this year. Districts are going to get slammed with enrollment, with funding that's based on those students not existing. That's a problem. We should be holding enrollment harmless this year.

  • Unless the Governor has been enlightened, I would assume he's going to claim he's "fully funding" the SOA if the low income count does the one year middle ground proposed last year--that is, the higher of the direct certification count OR the FY16 % of low income students--plus a bit more in funding. That isn't equitable implementation as required by the language of the law itself. There being more poor kids across the state is no excuse for each of those children being funded at a lower increase. 

  • And speaking of low income, do we have any real idea of how many kids are low income now, given the pandemic and unemployment? If we're basing that on October's numbers, are we sure we've got all the kids that should be counted?

Let me note that we're starting our budget just after the annual publication via the Shanker Institute of school funding fairness from  Bruce D. Baker (Rutgers University); Matthew Di Carlo (Albert Shanker Institute); Lauren Schneider (Albert Shanker Institute); Mark Weber (Rutgers University). You can download the full report here, or access the database here. There are also one page state profiles, and the one for Massachusetts is here

I think it's crucial to note one thing from this, as we're often told about how much Massachusetts does for its schools. When it comes to state fiscal effort, Massachusetts, spending 2.91% of its Gross State Product on education, ranks 41 out of 49 in the nation: 

Budgets are an expression of values. Is this ours?

Things I read this week on COVID-19

Front page of the New York Times
for Tuesday, January 19, 2021: deaths 

Most of this ends up on my Twitter feed and some of it I post on my blog Facebook page, but here's a collection for your reference:

  • Just this morning, I read this interview in Der Spiegel with virologist Christian Drosten, who is among those advising the German government. I highly recommend reading it all--there's even a Douglas Adams reference!--but for the questions of schools, this is relevant: 

    DER SPIEGEL: The issue of school closures was the subject of hours of debate on Tuesday during the meeting between Merkel and the state governors. Why has it been so difficult for scientists to convince people on this issue?

    Drosten: To be honest, even without our study on viral loads in children, I would not have considered it likely that children would be spared by SARS-CoV-2. From a purely biological perspective, the mucous membrane doesn't change all that much during puberty. Which means that children can also get infected – and be contagious. That so many doubts about that fact have arisen was always, and still is, confusing to me.

  • The Danes are sequencing all samples of the coronavirus they get, and they are worried: 

    Like a speeding car whose brake lines have been cut, the coronavirus variant first spotted in Britain is spreading at an alarming rate and isn’t responding to established ways of slowing the pandemic, according to Danish scientists who have one of the world’s best views into the new, more contagious strain.

    Cases involving the variant are increasing 70 percent a week in Denmark, despite a strict lockdown, according to Denmark’s State Serum Institute, a government agency that tracks diseases and advises health policy.

    Note that the "strict lockdown" noted above includes even primary schools. They're discussing closing preschools

  • Referenced in that article and discusses further here, there's some concern that the variant that's been spreading from the U.K. is more deadly

    England’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, offered an example. He said that among 1,000 men in England age 60 or older who get infected, the original virus would kill 10. The new variant, he said, would kill 13 or 14. That would represent a 30 percent rise in mortality, though it is important to note that absolute risk of death remains low.

  • Here in the U.S., we (whew!) inaugurated a new president who got right to work on this. For coverage of what the actions mean for schools, I do recommend reading the actual executive order to the Secretary of Education issued by President Biden which directs delivery of:

    ...evidence-based guidance to assist States and elementary and secondary schools in deciding whether and how to reopen, and how to remain open, for in-person learning; and in safely conducting in-person learning...

    I've seen some online consternation at the word "whether" in that part, but, well, read the preceding. Good coverage of this, as always, from Chalkbeat, and more here from EdWeekwhich notes that the executive order is only a beginning; there's the vaccine rollout, major testing needed, and simply overall:

    More likely to be influential are the administration’s broader efforts to contain the virus’s spread and get Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible.

  • And speaking of vaccines, here's ten minutes with Dr. Anthony Fauci on vaccines and such, a satire piece on "Fauci unchained" and a reflection in the New England Journal of Medicine reflection on lessons from measles on vaccination of children.
    Note that the Moderna trial is looking for participants from ages 12-17 and one of the sites is in Worcester.
    There's concern about the national vaccine supply, and of course, the Massachusetts vaccine rollout has been slow and racially inequitable.
    In the meantime, there are things we can do to drive down the spread now.

Monday, January 18, 2021

...regarding in school transmission

 Early last week, I received a lengthy, footnoted letter from a Worcester Public School student, pressing for a return to school buildings.
Let me note first: I do so love getting emails from students! or any contact at all from students! Keep those coming! 
It repeated--not surprisingly, as this has been the main push in much of the press--the idea that schools were safe from COVID transmission. As I haven't done a blog post on that--I just keep tweeting out links to things--I am excerpting here that section of my response to the student letter, for both myself and others who might find it useful. 

...And none of that is to speak of the fear that surrounds transmission, because there is certainly transmission in schools. Multiple Massachusetts superintendents have publicly noted that they have, through their contract tracing, found transmission within their buildings; here, for example, is Framingham from the beginning of December, and Hudson from about the same time. This is in line with what was found by a study published in the Lancet back in early December: there is in fact school transmission. 

The science of transmission of COVID-19 in schools is something that I've been reviewing with care since last spring.
It has been apparent from fairly early on that children more often get coronavirus asymptomatically; the CDC, for example, notes that
 as many as half of COVID-19 cases in children may be asymptomatic. On the same page, they note the main issue that has plagued us from the beginning: 

The true incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in children is not known due to lack of widespread testing and the prioritization of testing for adults and those with severe illness.
Without widespread testing of all--including asymptomatic!--individuals, we simply do not know the rates of coronavirus among us. 

We do, though, have research from places that have been doing testing. The models, which like those you cited, are from Europe, give us troubling perspective on the reality of COVID-19 in schools. In mid-December, the German magazine Der Spiegel had what has been one of the better reviews of this research as of that date. As you'll see in the piece, Austrian researchers have been, since late summer, been conducting research in 240 schools in Austria in which students and teachers are being regularly tested. This weekend, the Wall Street Journal included an update of that research in an extensive article they did on schools across Europe now closing; they've found: 
In Austria, a nationwide survey by universities and medical institutes found that children under 10 showed a similar rate of infection to those between 11 and 14, and that the children in general were getting infected as often as teachers, said Michael Wagner, a microbiologist at the University of Vienna who oversees the study.
“That is very different to what has been claimed for months, that younger children are less frequently infected,” said Mr. Wagner. The study, funded by the government, regularly analyzes samples from up to 15,000 children between the age of 6 and 15, as well as teachers who show no symptoms.

(The WSJ  piece is paywalled; let me know if you'd like me to send it to you.)
The United Kingdom has been widely held up for keeping schools open even during their fall lockdown. The U.K. also is regularly testing 2% of their population. During that fall lockdown, when just about everything but schools were closed, (to quote from the WSJ again):

Scientists also point to data from the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics, which conducts a weekly random survey of the population. Just before the Christmas break, when schools were still open, the positivity rate among children was higher than in most adult groups, especially in those older than 11.

You can find the details of that in this study from December. As you may know, the U.K. has, in this most recent surge, now closed their schools. This is in part due to the new more contagious variant--now in Massachusetts--but it also is because community rates across the U.K. are now so high; as noted of open schools in Utah in the AAMC piece you cited:
That stuns Benjamin Linas, MD, MPH, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University School of Medicine who has advocated for opening schools under strict safety measures. “You can only open your school safely if you have COVID under control in your community,” Linas says.
This is in line with two recent pieces of research done in the United States, summarized well in this Chalkbeat piece. Having schools open where there are higher caseloads of hospitalization for coronavirus, or (in the other study) simply high rates of daily cases further contributes further to community spread. We in Worcester, and across Massachusetts, exceed the rates found to be of danger in the studies; the REACH study on hospitalization links to a spreadsheet that updates county hospitalization rates across the country. It was the CALDER study on daily rates of positive cases that I found particularly alarming, as we've exceeded those rates for some time. You might find this Intercept piece looking at recent research also of interest.

The relative safety of schools thus is not that which has too often been cited in the press; On the Media had a useful review of how we got to a place so misleading in their show late last week.
Schools can and do contribute to community transmission, and we must, above all, hold the lives of those in our district at high enough value to appropriately manage that.


While appreciating the concerns regarding remote learning, I also want to be realistic about them. The Christakis study, which I reviewed when it came out, was flawed in a number of significant ways, which led (after much online scholarly discussion) to a letter to JAMA criticizing its publication. Most notably from my own perspective, the loss of learning was based on a single study of an Argentinian teachers strike during which students received no instruction, which is of course not at all the case for students now; the study itself warned against using it to draw these sorts of conclusions. The assumption as well that those lost "years" of learning translate into lost years of life also simply does not follow.