Friday, February 5, 2021

on the reopening of school buildings

 I was asked to write up what I said at last night's Worcester School Committee meeting about our vote to reopen school buildings. I don't write my comments ahead of time--I speak from notes--and in this case, I was partly responding to the public comment that preceded our vote. 
If you'd like to hear it, you can watch it on YouTube here.

Professor Marty West earlier this week said, "I think it is always risky to reach conclusions based on what you hear from the loudest voices."
I am going to recommend to my fellow West Side, white, middle class, Ward 9 parents a podcast called Nice White Parents. There is a very solid history that has been happening over the course this year of urban school systems having conversations over buildings and going back into schools, and exactly the same thing happens--it happened in D.C., it happened in New York, it's happening now in Chicago, it's probably part of why the city of San Francisco is currently suing their school system--and what happens is this: the middle class white parents who are a minority in these communities, as they are in ours--thirty percent of our student body is white--argue that they need buildings open. Obviously, I am generalizing; it's obviously not all white parents. And they make broad-based claims about children, and about children that are not their own. They talk a lot about concerns about equity, they talk a lot about the learning loss that's going on, they make broad-based claims about the safety of the family life of the children that are in our school system, and how they're in danger from not going into schools. And again, we've seen in this in New York, we're seeing it in Chicago, and we're seeing it again here tonight.

And so I'd like to say, as much as this is going to potentially be very unpopular, to my fellow nice white parents that you can talk about your own kids: totally valid, absolutely. 

You don't get to talk about other people's kids until you've actually listened to what they want for their kids. The one thing that we've tried to do here--and it's not easy, because we speak, as we so often say, lots and lots of languages in Worcester; and we have lots and lots of levels being able to be involved--but we've got pretty clear data that not everybody actually wants their kids to go back to school. And a lot of the kids that have been made claims about this evening are the kids whose families have said that they don't actually feel safe putting their kids back into schools right now. 

And again, this bears out across the country. There was a survey that was done by the C.S. Motts Children's Hospital earlier this year about the top ten children's health concerns for 2020. 

Number two for Black parents was COVID--after racism, by the way--COVID was also in the top ten for Latino parents; it didn't even appear in the top ten for white parents. 

Now that's lovely if COVID has only been an inconvenience for you, and frankly, COVID has only really been an inconvenience for my family. We have not suffered greatly from it; it has been inconvenient. My children, who are also learning--one of whom by the way is a high school senior, who thus is going to have the same experience that we've heard from some others this evening--would prefer to be having a normal experience. 

But no one in my family has died. And no one in my family has been dangerously ill. 

And meanwhile, one out of every five hundred people in Massachusetts has died since last March because of this illness. The national rate of death among Black people is one out of seven hundred (worse; it's now of 645). It's estimated that 78% of Black people know at least one person who has died close to them.

So we don't get to make assumptions about what we think is best for other people's children when we're talking as parents about those experiences and are actually differing with those parents about what they think is best for their kids. 

I understand that this is a super uncomfortable conversation that most people don't want to engage--and I notice that most of us aren't--but we are an urban school system. We're not Shrewsbury. We're not West Boylston. We're certainly not Wachusett. 

And I know, because I saw it on my Facebook page, too, that two weeks ago, when the buses started rolling in Wachusett, you got a whole bunch of photos on your page of happy little children in masks who were going off to buses. And you felt sad because your kid was going to open up a laptop and was not going anywhere. And I get it! Because that's the experience in my house, too, and I had the same experience on Facebook. 

But I also know that my kids don't go to Wachusett. My kids go to the Worcester Public Schools. My kids go to a city school system that, as several of the teachers have mentioned, has been underfunded for two decades. 

And you know what? We don't get all of these calls from all of these people, some of whom are pretty dang connected, when we're talking about our budget. I wonder if we maybe would have actually funded the Student Opportunity Act last year if we'd gotten this kind of agitation about that? I think that if we had taken the level of white angst about buildings being opened and applied to the State House last year, maybe we would have, statewide. 

If we had actually taken this level of energy and applied to the fact that half of our buildings were built before 1900? Yeah, that's not true in Wachusett. The last building to be renovated in Wachusett (the longest ago) was renovated in 1990. We've got buildings that literally haven't been renovated aside from having plumbing and electricity installed since 1885. This is're not dealing with the same universe at all.

So, it's nice to be able to look over the border and say, "Oh, my neighborhood looks a lot like Holden! My neighborhood looks a lot like Shrewsbury!" Your school system doesn't look a lot like Shrewsbury. It doesn't look a lot like Wachusett. Your buildings don't. The funding, as we're going to see later tonight, is nowhere in comparison! 

So if all of those parents who were calling up want to then call the City Council and see if we can get funded 110, 120, 135 percent of foundation, then maybe we can talk. I'm pretty dang sure that the City Manager isn't going to be able to come up with 35% more of our school budget in a single year. But that's what's been happening for years and years and years in those school systems that suddenly we're making these comparisons to! If we'd been making these comparisons for twenty years, maybe we would have actually changed something. We don't get to suddenly decide when it's inconvenient that we look like Wachusett, that we look like West Boylston: we don't! We don't look like them! Our buildings don't look like them! Our budget doesn't look like them! This is not the same deal.

This is not, also, about a choice, because as soon as we open the buildings, you know who doesn't get a choice? Our staff. And that's not just teachers. When we send people back into schools, we're sending back IAs, who frankly I don't think make enough money, many of whom work multiple jobs; we're sending back bus drivers; we're going to have to bring back our laid-off school nutrition people. We're bringing back everybody who helps all of our kids during the day, many of whom don't have--and believe me, I say this as a teacher, teachers don't make enough money, BUT--don't have advanced degrees, don't make middle class wages, and don't have the kind of health insurance that people should. Now, that's on us, though we would say, that's on the state in terms of our funding. Those people all have to go back into buildings, too. They don't have a choice. 

And yes, there's always comparisons to front line workers and everything else. I know of very few front line workers--save health care here--who are in a room for six hours with 15, or 20, or maybe 10 people with the kind of ventilation that traditionally that our schools have had. 

Now, we've done improvements; we've done ionization. We said we were doing HVAC, not just ionization. HVAC isn't done yet. So for people who think we're somehow reneging or anything else? Nope, we're not, 'cause the HVAC's not done yet. You want to yell about Honeywell taking too long? That's fine, we can do that. But don't tell me we're "reneging," because it's actually not the truth.

The other thing is that yes, I know: hybrid lowers the quality of instruction. And I'm not just making that up, and I'm not just "giving up." I actually do this for a living; I know what's going on in other school districts. When you go to hybrid, particularly when you go to hybrid when you're instructing the kids in front of you and on the screen at the same time, instruction suffers. 

So, people who want to stay remote? The instruction of their children, yes, absolutely will suffer. I'm telling you that right now, and I'm telling you that as a parent who's planning on sending her kids back to hybrid: it is not going to be as good as it has been remote.

Now maybe you want to make that choice, anyway; that's fine, but I just want you to understand that the people who are staying remote will be making a sacrifice once we move to hybrid even though their children aren't moving. And I'm also going to tell you that, by the way, from personal experience, because I've presented to school committees in a hybrid experience when some of them were on a screen and some of them were in front of me. Guess who suffered? Not the ones who were in front of me. The ones who were on the screen. So the remote kids are the ones who are actually going to bear the brunt of this. 

Our rates right now are where they were at Thanksgiving. Yes, they're heading in the right direction. Were we talking about sending people back into buildings at Thanksgiving? No, because we thought things were potentially going to go up and they also were too high. We're about to have the Super Bowl, and people were actually giving advice about they shouldn't shout and they should do touchless cash exchanges, rather than maybe just not actually getting together. We can hope that maybe New England not being in it makes a difference, but, I don't know, I'm not necessarily feeling very positive about that. 

We are so close to actually getting our staff vaccinated. We are within weeks of getting our staff vaccinated. 

Anyone who tells you that there hasn't been spread in schools is ignoring two facts: kids largely get this asymptomatically, and we have had no broad-based testing, period. The only place that I know that's been doing this are the towns who have been able to afford it on their own--guess who they are?--and there's been some broad-based testing of places in Europe. And when they do broad-based testing, guess what they find? Kids have it! They're just walking around with it. Nobody knows they have it, because they don't have any symptoms.

at this point the Mayor asks me to wrap up

Twenty percent of cases in Massachusetts in the past two weeks have been in under 19 year olds. We're considered a hot spot for the MIS-C variant that is actually causing problems in children. 

The second best way of lower transmission rates in a community is to have school buildings closed. That's from a broad-based survey of multiple countries...across the world. The first, by the way, is to close restaurants, and clearly, the Governor's not going to be any help there

Mr. Chair, I said back in March that my goal in this was not to contribute to people dying. Sending people back when we're this close to a vaccine is irresponsible. 

I am going to oppose this motion. 

We should be conditioning, at this point, when we're this close, we should absolutely be conditioning reopening our buildings on getting our staff vaccinated. And again, that's not just our teachers. That's our IAs and everybody else.

And part of the reason, Mr. Chair, is not just for our staff. It's because we have a city that lives in multigenerational households, and we don't have most of those multigenerational households vaccinated, either. So if we actually start to get our teachers vaccinated and we get farther in, we've got more of the people who are over the age of 65 and 75 who actually have had a chance to be vaccinated, which means that when the little kid comes home and he's actually got it from school, maybe Grandma he lives with doesn't get it from him. Because if we're not actually going to wait for that, then we're going to be contributing to that kind of thing.

I'm not willing to risk people's lives to do this. And it's not just about our teachers, and it's not just about our staff; it's about our kids, and it's about their families. 

Thank you, Mr. Chair.  


Unknown said...

I absolutely agree, and thank you for your comments. For those of us who feel the same way, how can we organize to counteract the "loudest voices" in the room? Thanks again. said...

Bless you.