Saturday, July 31, 2021

What I want from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

 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. 

Here we go again

 song to accompany yesterday's release of new state guidance for schools:

Note especially "...there's no way to win"

As I noted to Scott O'Connell when I spoke to him on Thursday, it was "not very reassuring" to be waiting on the state again, having been let down so many times before.
And so it wasn't perhaps all that surprising that in marked contrast to both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Massachusetts Departments of Public Health and Elementary and Secondary Education instead gave us this, which doesn't mandate anything, recommends masks for K-6, says those students who are over 6th grade don't need masks, while continuing to emphasize that every single child needs to be in the buildings.
But you know: you do you. No mandates.

As the current trope online goes: tell me you've never created and implemented local education policy without telling me you've never created and implemented local education policy.

No child under 12 (unless they're in the handful that are in trials) is vaccinated. Thus every single elementary school is full of unvaccinated people; they are by definition unvaccinated gatherings. That's why the Committee on Public Health heard from doctor after doctor on Monday saying that mandating masks in schools was "a no brainer."
Why even for secondary students? Well, first, because being vaccinated/unvaccinated is invisible, so, no, you really can't create one policy for those who are and one policy for those who are not (have you ever run a classroom? no?). Secondly, while it happens less often, those who are vaccinated can spread the illness. It's particularly ironic that the CDC cited the outbreak in Provincetown in making this argument, something which the Baker administration is ignoring. 

This of course means that some are going to blow off masks entirely. And it goes right back to making this a district by district war, which, if you've been paying any attention to school committees, is the last thing we need right now. 

As I said to Max Larkin, the position this puts many families in is untenable: 

Tracy O’Connell Novick, a member of the school committee in Worcester, said she feels “let down” by the latest state intervention.

“Think of the choices families have to make right now, in particular for families with children that have any kind of vulnerability” to the virus, Novick said. With masks optional but fully in-person learning mandatory, per state policy, “what kind of choices do they have?”

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The CDC said what now?

 You can find the latest CDC update here. The school-related piece is under "Recommendations for Indoor Settings" and reads simply: 

CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies in place.

You can, if you like, see me talk a bit about this here 

Something I had not realized until yesterday--so sharing for others who likewise might not have known--is that the federal transportation requirements, which is masks being worn on planes, trains, buses, and such, also applies to school buses. If you scroll down to the FAQ, you'll find this:

Which public transportation conveyances does the order apply to, and in which areas?

The Order applies to all public transportation conveyances traveling into the United States (i.e., arriving from a foreign country) or within the United States (including within states or territories or traveling between states or territories). This includes school buses. The Order also applies to all conveyances leaving the United States until they arrive at a foreign destination.

Emphasis added. h't to Arizona School Boards Association for their tweet noting this yesterday! 


Monday, July 12, 2021

Some additional reading on the current brouhaha

 A few more things about the ongoing national firestorm over critical race theory not actually being taught in K-12 schools: 

  • NBC News (which appears to be making this a regular part of their coverage?) notes that it is driving educators out of the profession
  • As has been noted earlier and elsewhere, it's made school board meetings across the country a battle zone. Axios noted last week that there has been an increase in school board recalls.
  • This New York piece has an amazing grabber of an opening: 
    Los Angeles public school teacher R. Tolteka Cuauhtin had Googled his discipline, ethnic studies, in March when he discovered he wanted children to honor the Aztec gods of human sacrifice and cannibalism. 

    That piece focuses on Christopher Rufo, who, in what he has said publicly is intended to be misleading, has been driving much of the online national activism.

  • And I really appreciate the clarity of this editorial from The Transylvania Times*:

      As parents and citizens, we expect our schools to teach facts – the full picture of American history. This includes the things we are proud of (the Constitution, free speech, freedom of religion and our efforts fighting fascism in W.W.II, for example), but it also must include a frank discussion of our crimes, flaws and shortcomings. All children must feel accepted, valued and protected at school, but education should not be compelled to censor the truth to protect the personal preferences of certain groups. Instead, we send our children to school to learn unbiased information that will allow them to think clearly for themselves. Ideally, we want them to become better people than we are and able to create a better world, a “more perfect union.”

    *yes, really: Transylvania County is in North Carolina, and it takes its name from the woods with which it is filled  

Saturday, July 10, 2021

$350M for what?

 Of all of the various things to come out as part of the conference committee budget, I am most puzzled--and pretty irritated--by this:

SECTION 103: Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, the comptroller shall transfer $350,000 from the General Fund to the Student Opportunity Act Investment Fund, established in section 35RRR of chapter 10 of the General Laws. Said transfer shall be made by the comptroller in accordance with a transfer schedule to be developed by the comptroller after consulting with the secretary of education, the secretary of administration and finance and the state treasurer.

That's setting aside $350M from this year's budget for the Student Opportunity Act...but not spending it. It's "in case" money.

Now, the argument that one should "save, in case" is a potent one, but the operational function of the government is primary. The government exists to do its job, which, constitutionally in Massachusetts, includes public education. And, likewise, constitutionally, that is currently underfunded until the SOA is fully funded.

Stashing $350M away in fears--I assume?--that the state won't have the funding to meet responsibilities in future years misses that we have been having headlines like this for months:

And that's without anyone touching any of the federal aid that's coming through to the state, incidentally. And these are in the months COMING OUT OF THE PANDEMIC!

It also is responding as if the state has met all of its responsibilities for this year. Mea culpa for not pointing this out before, but the Student Opportunity Act ties implementation of the circuit breaker and the charter reimbursement changes to SPECIFIC FISCAL YEARS, as so:

There was no implementation of SOA at all last year.
This year, they've implemented 25% of the transportation on the circuit breaker and 75% of the charter reimbursement; in other words, the FY21 levels. It is, though, FY22 they're funding. Despite the "no, really, we're up to date on the SOA implementation" language, we are not up to date. 

As noted yesterday, one could solve one of these with the other:

Monday, July 5, 2021

Yes, Boston is running summer school without A/C

 Today's Boston Globe piece on BPS running summer school in buildings that don't have A/C:

After the hottest June in Boston history, the school district will reopen multiple schools for summer learning Tuesday without air conditioning to cool the students seeking to catch up after a year of mostly remote learning.

Only 29 of the 63 buildings have air conditioning, leaving the rest to resort to other methods to keep classrooms cool, including turning off overhead lights, opening windows, and using fans and blinds. The high on Tuesday is forecast to be above 90 degrees.

 ...sent me back to the numbers. The Mass School Building Authority--MSBA--did a survey of nearly all public school buildings in Massachusetts in 2016, which is a handy document to know exists. I went back to take a quick look at Boston (that starts on page 53). Boston, of course, takes up several pages; it seems to have (numbers differ!) about 130 school buildings.

And most of them have been around for awhile. 

We say that so often that it feels nearly like a quip, but here's what that ends up meaning: by my count, per the MSBA report (which, remember, is from 2016, 'though I know BPS hasn't opened a new building since), Boston has five school buildings that were new from 2017 (the Dearborne) back to 2000. Boston had another five school buildings new in the 1990's (all the late 90's, in fact), and then none in the 1980's.
If my count on that is right, that means that Boston has only ten buildings that are newer than 40 years old.

That matters for a couple of reasons: 

  1. The lifespan for which schools are built now, per MSBA, is fifty years. That means that every other district building in Boston, save those built in the 1970's--of which there's at least 25; Boston went on a bit of building boom in the '70's (which was not unrelated to what else was happening the Boston Public Schools in the 1970's!)--should be cycling in for either a major renovation or rebuild.
  2. Massachusetts, by and large, wasn't putting air conditioning into buildings much before then. Yes, I'm sure you'll find exceptions, but for the most part, public schools in Massachusetts aren't as full buildings being air conditioned in the 1980's, even.
The Globe notes that 29 of the 63 buildings that are running summer school have AC, so clearly other parts of this are at work, but we might also note, from the Build BPS report, how many buildings have issues with what it terms their "heating distribution systems." My sense is that some have a notion that we can simply plunk AC into existing systems. For the most part, we cannot. Many, many schools of any age are running heating systems that don't make that possible.
(And no, you absolutely cannot plug those window units into every classroom window of a school; you'll blow the circuit breakers!)
Replacing or adding HVAC systems in buildings like this is big work; it isn't something you can do around students and teachers while they're using the building, for example. Nor is it inexpensive. 
That means, for those up on MSBA and reimbursements, that those sorts of projects are the kind that tip a district over into a full renovation/replacement, which, depending on cost and other considerations like what else is going on with the building, even makes sense.

I raise this for a couple of reasons:
  • Everything I said here about Boston also goes for Worcester. We're very excited to bring our new high schools online, but the majority of our buildings date back to the Second World War or before, and the vast majority neither have AC or can easily get it. Three high schools built in the past ten years is...three new schools. Add Nelson Place and that's four new schools out of nearly fifty buildings (which is a better ratio than Boston, but not great).
    And those new buildings are built under the same ticking clock on replace/renovation as anything else.

  • This problem isn't going away. We're in a climate emergency, and need to recognize it.

  • We have to start thinking about school buildings in terms of the climate emergency--see this good piece in The Hechinger Report, for example.