At Monday's Joint Committee on Public Health hearing, Rep. Mindy Domb asked the school committee panelists what they could use from DESE this year. I asked on Twitter if she'd take that input from others, and she said yes. Here, slightly edited from Monday, is what I sent in.
|train platform at Union Station, Worcester|
In my capacity as a member of the Worcester School Committee and a parent of a high school sophomore, I am leaping at Rep. Domb’s request to send in what we could use from DESE this year. As I write this on my train homebound to Worcester, fully masked and looking at a smoky Massachusetts from western fires, I am wondering, I have to say, about what sort of world we’re arranging for our children.
I do want to start, however, by thanking you with all my heart for today’s hearing. It was the very first—and I am not exaggerating—time I have felt that any organized state level public body or group of officials in Massachusetts has acknowledged just how local districts have been profoundly misserved the past eighteen months. In all the reading I have done of the various types of challenges schools have faced for centuries, never did I imagine that when the challenge came for Massachusetts public education that the state leadership would abandon its responsibilities. And yet they did, and they have continued to do right up through their non-appearance today. Thank you for hearing and acknowledging that; thank you even more for working to change that.
Rep. Domb asked what we would want of the Department in our capacities at the local level, month by month. Let me start by saying that I want the Department to center my kids—and those of Boston, and Chelsea, and Lynn, and Fall River, and Springfield, and Pittsfield—in their decisions. It has been exhaustingly clear that the Governor lives in Swampscott and the Secretary in Milton and (more to the point) they never leave. We cannot and will not have equity in this state unless and until we first acknowledge the profound segregation of school districts and what impact that then in turn has on absolutely everything we do. The community health leadership who testified today are entirely correct: we have had our response to this pandemic backwards from nearly the beginning. The question should never be “is it okay for the kids in Swampscott?”; it should always be “is it okay for the kids in Springfield?”
Those children—my kids in Worcester—have parents who have been working front line jobs throughout the pandemic. Those are literally the people that Worcester has depended on to keep our hospitals open, crucially, as they are the custodians, the food service, the CNAs and more of our hospitals on which the central Mass health system depends. They have worked long hours and have been worried about COVID throughout. Some of our families ran small businesses, and some of them have closed. The hunger, the concerns about homelessness, and all of the cascading impacts of the pandemic have hit our families.
This hasn’t been a “shift to take out and Amazon” pandemic for most Worcester Public Schools kids.
So first, yes, as soon as the shots were widely available to school staff (and what a mess that was!), the state should have mandated for them. If it meant quite that much to them to have our kids in schools, then they should make it as safe as absolutely possible.
Likewise, as soon as the vaccines were available for our students, we should have seen a profound push first for city kids to get them vaccinated, with the expectation that all would be required, down to age 12 for fall.
And then the state should have spent the entire summer at every single possible space at which people have gathered in cities—farmers markets, outdoor church services, festivals of every kind—having vaccinations there. They should have rolled out PSAs with any and everyone who has any kind of following—sports, music, and more—having them use their social media to magnify that anyone who was anyone was getting vaccines. They should have worked with the Statewide Student Advisory Council, first, to make sure they’re vaccinated, and then to have them use their social media reach, and those of their student government peers, to reach out further to their peers. Make teen vaccination a constantly trending topic on Instagram.
As you note, Rep. Decker, we’re now five weeks out. How much of this can be done now? I don’t know. But we shouldn’t give up the weeks we have. DESE should absolutely be using its reach and messaging to push as many as possible to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
And then, yes, it should be mandated at the state level in partnership with DPH. I don’t want to be the test case for a district mandating vaccinations of students, but if I have to (and if I can get the votes), I absolutely will. This is not my job as a school committee member. It wasn’t my superintendent’s job to cancel school in a pandemic, either, though, and she had to do that.
It also, as it long since should have been, should be mandated for all school employees. We’ve been told that this is something we’ll need to negotiate with our collective bargaining units. If DESE wanted to be useful, they could make it embarrassing for the unions to fight this; as a former member of the MTA, I will find it horrifying if my former union argues that this isn’t in their members’ interest.
The state should also absolutely mandate masks for all in school buildings for the coming year. This is, I agree, a no brainer. And there should be no exceptions for wealthier white communities that don’t have front line workers and have managed early high rates of vaccinations, either. Lines between communities are invisible; so is the virus.
I would like the state to give solid research on just want kinds of realistic improvements we can make to ventilation in the buildings we actually have with the time and money we actually have. Stop sending us pie in the sky idealized and expensive options when our floor plans and our building ages are available to the state. What should we spend time and money on and what is a waste? This, again, would have been more useful months ago, but I’ll take it now. Give it to us in phases: what can we do now, what could we do if there are two weeks off in December, what can we plan for next summer?
I would like the state to do what they should have done this summer (but again, here we are): create a statewide mobilization of after school programs. Yes, let’s run some in schools, but we also have plenty of community resources. How do we make sure that any student who needs a place to be after school has a safe place to be? Cross reference those with the school districts to ensure those students also have what schoolwork support those students specifically need as part of their after school hours. That should, though, only be part of that.
(This isn’t what you asked, but I’d further extend that to making sure every student of a particular age—fourth grade?—also got swimming lessons.)
The state should create and staff statewide affinity groups for anyone who will be dealing with students emotional and social impacts of this year. I am very worried of how much we’re pushing onto our adjustment and guidance counselors this year, and I’m certain that some of that is going to end up on teachers, too. Yes, we at the district level should be supporting them, too, but the state has capacity to create common support groups. They often can better point to resources.
There also should be common catalogues of resources: online, easy to access, well organized, for any school staff to access as they have need to for their students.
Heading into teachers going back to school, the Department should use every channel they have to emphasize that the first job of schools is not reading scores or math scores; it’s supporting students. There should be no question in anyone’s mind who walks into a school building this fall as to what we’re about. That will need repeating over the course of the year, particularly once we get into spring and what traditionally is test prep season. In general, the messaging on academics has been less than stellar. Students are in very very different places right now, and that is to be expected. That should be the first message from the state.
As we head further into fall, the danger of students showing up sick to school will grow. First, we certainly need a flu vaccine mandate this winter (and one that sticks this time). We also, though, need a clear message that showing up for school sick (whether you’re staff or student!) is a bad idea. We need flexibility with DESE on outreach to students who stay home (as there’s no easy switch to remote this year), and we need a hard discussion on accountability accordingly. We can, if we are smart about it, emphasize the importance of school without encouraging “presenteeism” as your speaker today had it.
We also need the state for the holidays—first the long weekend in October, then Thanksgiving and forward—to create real mandates on testing after traveling, even discouraging traveling as needed depending on what things look like around the country. We have to be consistent that we are endangering unvaccinated children when we aren’t strong on these standards.
Should we have under 12 year old students eligible for vaccinations by the turn of the calendar year, then, yes, we must be more than ready to go. It must be mandated but in concert with vaccinations being in schools. This should be, as you noted (and as we already should have) Rep. Domb, multi-lingual resources for families that respond to frequent questions and misinformation about vaccines in children. Again, that should be anywhere there are families, should be culturally responsive, should be easy to find, should be above all accessible. We will know this is a success if the rates in Chelsea exceed those of Brookline.
I am certain that as soon as I send this, I will think of much more. This is the first time that someone has asked, though, and I want to send this right in so you understand how much it means to be asked. Contrary to what the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education said in their evaluation of the Commissioner, this was not, has not, been well handled for any of us at the local level.
I would be more than glad to speak with any of you regarding this at any time.
Thank you again for asking the question.