Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Worcester School Committee agenda for Thursday has a proposed superintendent search

 The agenda for Thursday just posted. As a member of the Committee, I will, as per our ethics, save my remarks for the floor, but I did want to note that this is the final item on the public agenda:

To consider options, if necessary, to begin the process and engage with a search consultant to conduct a national search to recruit and hire a Superintendent of schools for the Worcester Public Schools with an effective start date of JULY 1, 2022. Prior to the commencement of the search process, the School Committee, in collaboration with the consultant, will develop and implement a comprehensive, inclusive, public process to solicit input from all members of the Worcester community regarding the needs of the district and the characteristics and skillsets required in the next Superintendent of schools.

There is also, I should note, a back to school report.  

Monday, August 30, 2021

Just for the record...

 Tier one buses--the first round of pick-ups--were late today. 

Actual buses actually got to actual stops late. In some cases, very very late.

You can read here for my own family's morning. 

As a result of those late buses, many families--those who can--chose to drive their children. That did then cause congestion at the schools. 

But the families responding logically to buses that were late is not why those buses were late, even if the buses then got even later.

I had something to say about this here and here

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. 

And denying the lived experience of people is called gaslighting, and we shouldn't do it as a district. 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Back to school call from Superintendent Binienda

 for those who didn't let it go to voice mail; I replayed it to get the main points

All students must wear face masks on the bus and inside every school. Masks are not required outside at recess.

All bus routes are posted in the parent/student portal as well as on the website: https://worcesterschools.org/current-families/bus-routes/

Due to the shortage of bus drivers, WPS will *not* be dropping students off at after school programs. Students will be picked up and returned to the same location.

We'll be monitoring bus routes these first weeks, and we may have to make starting and ending time changes over the next few weeks.

There will be no transportation provided to student athletes for *in city* practice or games during the school week. Transportation to *out of district* game locations will begin at 4:30 pm. 

During the 21-22 school year, WPS will be implementing Rights, Respect, Responsibility, an evidence-informed sexual health education curriculum. The curriculum will be implemented in an age-appropriate manner by trained health teachers according to the National Sex Education Standards and the Massachusetts Health Education Frameworks. 

Online information sessions for families (dates and links) can be found here: https://worcesterschools.org/sexual-health-education-curriculum-information-sessions/

Dates as follows:

Kindergarten-3rd grade students - Tuesday, August 31 - 6:00-7:00 p.m.

4th-6th grade students - Tuesday, August 31 - 7:00-8:00 p.m.

7th-8th grade students - Tuesday, September 7 - 6:00-7:00 p.m.

High school students - Tuesday, September 7 - 7:00-8:00 p.m. 

The opt-out form is also on the website.

School starts Monday, grades 1-12; Thursday, preschool and kindergarten.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Board of Ed special meeting on masking

 agenda is here

Commissioner (coming in midstream; looks like he had a slide or two on rising COVID rates?)

Looking for "off ramps on masking"
"hopeful that this will be the final hurdle of the pandemic"
can't rule out that masking "may be required intermittedly throughout the year"
does not mean vaccination will be only measure for unmasking, but stress importance
"now recommend that we take this one additional" step

Peyser: thanks Commissioner "for his leadership in putting forward this proposal"
Smooth opening of school
"reinforce the importance of vaccination...create incentives" for districts to get all eligible vaccinated
moving to fully normal experience...get everyone vaccinated

West: acknowledge thousands of those who have written to us
"want to reject the notion is a simple matter of following the science"
questions efficacy of masking(?) and concerned about not seeing teachers faces(?)
concern about masking being imposed in schools "and not other places first"
question if the conditions exist such that such authority needs to be extended
"to prevent the need to quarantine large numbers of students in schools" (from your lips to God's ear as they say)
continued conversation with educators on how to 
lack of clear end date on masking
"I don't think the continued default of masking" can continue for elementary
unmasking around vaccinations: don't want students have to explain vaccination status or why they're unmasks

Rouhanifard: "I'm on a no on this vote"
"masking is not a hill worth dying on"
tying to vaccinations "is really bad public policy"
"ethically precarious" 
"a more reasonable off ramp would have been tying to community spread"
surprised Governor has endorsed this as usually supports his "technocratic policy solutions"
"if you look at hospitalization and death rates, it remains remarkably low"
"have an obligation to...open the door til normalcy"
"I think erring on the side of caution loses sight of the bigger picture"
practicing social distancing and masking "sounds like a religion"
drives to the tendency of divisive public policy
"worry about where we're headed"

Hills: "people should vote the way we want...and be respected for it"
"regret some people on the Board" attacking another on how they voted at a prior meeting
move without regard to prior decisions
leaders "have done exactly what we should want them to do"
pandemic "which isn't over yet"
Commissioner "has been very deft" in how he has uses the power he has asked for
"as a Board member, Jeff is exactly the sort of person we'd want to entrust with this responsibility"
"straightforward to me, not because it's perfect, but we don't have the luxury of only voting when the situation is perfect"
hope we have a smooth opening to the school year and in a month "are talking about" relaxing the standards

Craven: thanks Board members "and all the citizens who have written to us over the last 72 hours"
Calls for vote

VOTE: all save Rouhanifard in favor, motion passes 9-1

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Let's talk about this Board meeting on Tuesday

 After 47% or so of public K-12 students in the state were already under mandatory masking for back to school due to decisions made by their local districts, the Commissioner announced Friday (at 11:16 am) that he was asking the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for authority to mandate masks in all K-12 public schools through at least October 1. 
They thus have called a special meeting for Tuesday at 10. It is a remote, public meeting, which you can watch here.

They are not taking public testimony.
The single item on the agenda describes the request as:

The Student Learning Time regulations provide that the Board may declare that “exigent circumstances exist that adversely affect the ability of students to attend classes in a safe environment unless additional health and safety measures are put in place.”   Upon such a declaration, I must then, in consultation with medical experts and state health officials, issue health and safety requirements and related guidance for districts. If the Board gives me this authority, having consulted with medical experts and public health officials, I will implement a mask mandate for all students and staff in all grades. 

The proposed motion reads: 

 MOVED: that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, in accordance with G.L. c. 69, § 1B, and consistent with 603 CMR 27.08(1), determines that exigent circumstances exist that adversely affect the ability of students to attend classes in a safe environment unless additional health and safety measures are put in place, and authorizes the Commissioner to require masks for public school students (age 5 and above) and staff in all grades through at least October 1, 2021.  

Note, importantly, that this authorizing the Commissioner to require this; districts are required to follow state regulations. 

While I never count out a deliberative body, I would be surprised if they didn't pass this. 
If you are brand new to hearing about the Board of Ed, you may find this post from 2017 useful. Currently, the chair of the Board is Katherine Craven; James Peyser remains Secretary; Jeffrey Riley is the Commissioner, having been appointed to that position in 2018.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Liveblog: Finance and Operations closes FY21 and talks transportation

 And the agenda is here

posting as we go once it starts

Foley: FY21, how did we fare relative to the budget, and how much did we give back to the city
$3 on a $300M budget
Allen: final spending in relation to the adopted budget, not the transfers over the course of the year
what happened in the course of the year
December adoption after $16M cut
used to "improve budget development practices moving forward"
very different: some additional extended remote savings, additional COVID costs
"despite these challenges...all credit to Budget Director Sara Consalvo and her team for a very successful close"
Foley: Questions?
Great work the budget office, an outstanding job
at August 26 meeting will make that public as well
motion to file

and on to transportation:
Foley: part of our conversation on Durham services and "some of the continuing problems with management at Durham services"
facing deadline for transportation for end of school year 2021, as well
items, plus direction on what plans are for next year
there had been a possibility of a one year extension or not
both C and D plus any comments on the backup material

Allen: bus drivers provided to School Committee at budget time
have had weekly meetings 
Durham reported each week; just received an updated email
available to us: 19 drivers short for big drivers for open of school without any coverage for absences
Foley: what is the plan to meet this shortfall?
Binienda: regional manager had said that, "the person who does some of the routing...what is her title" 
Allen: customer service manager
Binienda: "they were going to speak today...would like to speak with them. Contact them and verify with them."
McCullough: no questions per say, interested once we know the actual deficit and what our actual plan is going to be
Biancheria: when will we get a final count on what we have for the first day of school?
Binienda: "hopefully will get that tonight and will let School Committee know tomorrow"
Foley: will have to accommodate the shortfall
Biancheria: who is developing a plan to ensure our kids are going to get to and from school?
Binienda: Allen, Hennessey, myself, Durham
Biancheria: and when do we anticipate that plan is going to be ready?
Binienda: hopefully we could finish that this week
Biancheria: the 23rd?
to reroute what we need to reroute using our buses?
Do we have additional buses and drivers available?
Allen: the answer, hiring interviews tomorrow to get us to the level needed for this year
Biancheria: what are our vacancies under WPS?
Allen: filling 5 and 6 drivers, have people signed up and coming for interviews tomorrow
Biancheria: 6 for WPS and 19 for Durham; do we have any coming from anywhere else?
any available coming from anywhere else?
Binienda: two Durham drivers resigned today to come to WPS
general shortage of drivers, billboards hiring AA
shortage that Durham having, "in order to work it out, we'll have to work it out"
Biancheria: percentage is about the same on both sides
"if we don't have this plan ready for Monday, when are we going to inform parents that their child may not be getting a bus ride to school"
Binienda: do have ten buses that only do a first tier afternoon route
"an example would be not having transportation for athletics" (??)
Biancheria: additional traffic, additional coverage
"How do we resolve this issue, it doesn't seem as if we're going to have an opportunity to resolve this"
wondering if people being interviewed tomorrow drive today for Durham and now work for the Worcester Public Schools
do we know if they came from Durham yet?
Allen: looking at the current civil service list, there could be one, 
of the two mentioned, know of only one currently working for Head Start, not for WPS 
Foley: express concern, very difficult rerouting the buses, think seven days is the mimimum time needed
doesn't give enough time
really need a really solid number to make the plans
Allen: different from this year and last year is the number of students coming back
Foley: can't reroute
"the alarm from all of us that you're hearing"
"we have more confidence in our numbers in order to hire before schools start"
"problem with Durham numbers have fluctuated quite a bit"
number short doesn't include any support for absenteeism
Allen: ten drivers per day
Foley: more than 19 to cover absenteeism as well

Allen on ESSER funds: eligiblity for ESSER funding
So long as it meets any of the federal grants
IDEA can be used for special education buses; was not at that time clear on big buses
have heard back "if you can make it COVID related, then it would be approved for ESSER spending"

Foley: also provided the report from Sept. 2019 summary and recommendation from the last time the transportation contract was extended
along with additional analysis on buying buses
current status and deadlines?
Allen: two year contract FY21 and FY22 with option of third year FY23
third year at sole decision of city
city made that decision by October 1, 2021
Foley: recognize back seven years ago has become little competition for transportation for large school districts
not seeing competitive bid prices, not seeing level of service
"we have experience with significant difficulities wiht the management of Durham...not the bus drives, in many ways of drivers are exceptional, both those who drive for Durham and who drive for us"
"our concerns have been with Durham management"
continuing problem with the driver shortfall
continuing issue with getting credits from Durham
provided a breech on contract letter, as went for so long without drivers filled
"have been other issues as well"
have been waiting for at least seven years for family-friendly GPS routing for buses
"that hasn't happened"
we have GPS in our buses--Allen "We have the ability to launch that on our buses"
lack of communication, families trying to find where their kids
issue of communication with all of us on the public school side
have been planning for running as self-operation
Discussed back at 2015 contract; would begin to build support operation
"in many ways, we're running a very large transportation network already with the buses we are running"
moving to run self-operation, very confident that we can improve on the service, improve on the communication
"can plan for that, can improve those services, can improve communication with families"
"let them know what is going on with their bus systems that we have"
two years ago, projected savings of $3M a year
with purchasing buses, savings is now $4M a year
can improve service, can consider later start for high school, can consider reduction in two mile requirement, can help fund other WPS items
a self-operation would provide a significant reduction in field trips 10% reduction in costs
1. will not exercise a third year option in contract with Durham
2. will take responsibility for transportation services beginning with end of this current school year (2021-22) entirely
3. directs administration to begin immediately to ready to run an effective transportation network, including hiring drivers and purchasing buses
4. use ESSER funding to acquire vehicles necessary to run transportation network

McCullough: has never been an issue with the drivers, being on front line and bearing the brunt
otherwise have hit every other issue
GPS tracking and access, plus benefits discussed over the years

Biancheria: motion, as we proceed we take into consideration a priority the Durham drivers that would be filling out applications with the Worcester Public Schools
is that legal?
is not a reflection that they are employed by Durham
Feasibility of purchasing buses from Durham; what buses they own and how are they fueled, are they looking to sell buses to us at a reasonable price?
administration of transportation has moved to Northeast Cutoff, will need to use that for more 
where it will be located and how much it will cost
motion that job descriptions be in process and something we are reviewing as much as they can, with the possibility of who is going to run this and who is going to do this
Foley: report back monthly on progress being made on moving to self-operation would talk about administrative needs would talk about who is running it and progress, staffing, capital equipment, location, and costs
Biancheria: and costs, please make sure the costs are there
Durham is represented by Teamsters; our drivers are represented by EAW
Foley: "we would work with whoever represents the drivers"
clearly something that's down the road
Biancheria: don't want it to get lost; those with a good record will come over to the Worcester Public Schools
have two different unions that are under our umbrella
Foley: suggestion we deal with the essence of the contract, if it passes the School Committee, make a mention that night, but have see that this passes the Committee
Biancheria: need to recognize that WPS bus drivers are under EAW, Durham drivers are under Teamsters 170
"all I am asking is that we recognize this in this process"

Binienda: obviously don't agree with this
"if this had been done in 2019, we wouldn't have been able to close the budget gap"
(HAHAHAHAA: Later edit: let me explain why I am laughing. The superintendent's argument is, because we largely closed last year's budget gap by not paying Durham, that there would have been no way to close the gap if we hadn't been paying Durham. This clearly is false on its face. Moreover, it misses that if the district had switched to self-op back in 2019, the district would have first, been saving $3M a year, plus would have already had the added flexibility of those drivers being in house. So, as the old phrase goes: that dog won't hunt)
still have shortage of drivers (yes, but note the difference between Durham's gap and WPS's. Not mentioned at the meeting: the WPS gap is SUBSTITUTE drivers. WPS has all routes covered.)
also think people have gone out of their way that they have not been a partner, have come to the table
(this is poor comfort to any of us who have continued to have buses not come and phones not answered)
"don't know how we can say we're going to use ESSER funding, when we have needs in our schools every day"
" buses are not what kids need...they need to get to school, but I don't know what those needs are"
(well, first, they need to get to school. That itself is already something too often not happening)
"I talked to Durham today and said that I suspected that this conversation would happen today"
"even though everybody in this administration was not made aware of that fact"
it's been discussed since 2015; this was the plan since 2019. We made it clear this was the discussion on the table prior to renewal when we did the budget in June. This administration--or rather, the superintendent herself--absolutely has had every chance to be more than aware of this. 
even suggested that Durham runs half our routes
So...we continue to have the same headache without being able to fix it all?
"plan that was obviously hatched tonight"
Foley: have talked about self-operation for more than seven years 
when the contracts were issued we talked about that
"We wouldn't be here if Durham management weren't performing at a higher level"
"to say that it was hatched tonight is unfair, because we've been talking about this for seven years"
"would hope that Durham would work with us...we have a very important year ahead of us"
Binienda: got voted down in 2019, but never did the study, because "we struggled to find someone"
Biancheria: was against it, but as I've looked at Worcester Public Schools has done, all indications went in that direction to say to me that being respectful to Durham bus drivers and being respectful to Teamsters, their union is represented and has come to school committee meetings
looking for solid recommendations, look forward to the plan, complete with costs 

all four motions pass, Biancheria's motions to be written up and passed just prior to full committee meeting

Two to read on back to school

 Rachel Cohen in The New Republic is back with a round up on why what we thought was going to be a more normal year is looking a lot more shaky. 

And The Nation looks at the setup for the back to school year. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Worcester meetings this week: back to school, closing FY21, and transportation

 There are two Worcester Public Schools meetings this week:

On Tuesday, there is a back to school forum at 6 pm. Please note that you can submit questions to be answered (use the same link; the form is there in several languages) until tomorrow (Monday) also at 6pm.
As a side note, the School Committee didn't get asked about scheduling here, so not all of us can make it, including me.
As per usual, that will be streamed on Facebook, as well as via the Zoom link. 
Note also that Molly McCullough has been collecting answers we know already on this Facebook post.

On Wednesday, there is a Finance and Operations subcommittee meeting at 4:30 pm. There are two items on the agenda: the closing of the books on FY21 and a transportation update. 
The FY21 closure demonstrates, first, why I'm always a little confused by the question of how much funding the district 'gives back to the city': 

...and second, that the WPS Budget office is just damn good at their job. Remember that the school district is allocated a particular amount of funding--in our case, it is the MINIMUM amount of funding legally required--to education the children of the city of Worcester. Anything that isn't spent by June 30 goes back to the city to be certified as free cash.
If we have the money for education, it gets spent on education. Period. I've been searching for a metaphor for landing a $372M budget on $3--one doesn't 'land' aircraft carriers, I suppose--but take something very big and make it end up on something very small, and you're there. 
Thus, what is an annual h/t to the WPS Budget office.

Second, remember school buses? 
Maybe you also remember back in March of 2019, when the (then) Worcester School Committee received a report on moving to self-operated transportation, projected not only to offer better service (largely due to management)  but also to save the district $30M over ten years?
And then decided to renew with Durham instead?

Time to have that conversation again, as the contract with Durham is up this year. 
F&O has the full transportation report back on this agenda, but with an update, as we now have an additional opportunity within the self-op: We have money that we can use to buy buses. 
You may not be surprised to find that this means additional savings and more quickly; here's the financial rundown: 

Yes, that's up to $40M in total savings over ten years, or on average $4M a year.
That starts with FY24 at $3.8M.

As I've said before, it's against the state code of ethics to pre-deliberate before a meeting. I also think I've posted plenty about this before, (including my actually pulling papers right about when this decision was made, shortly after yet another morning when I was getting texts from my kids, wondering where their bus was).
But if you have something to say on transportation, now's the time. 

Friday, August 13, 2021

On trust

 Earlier this week, the man who was my first department chair, who first hired me as an English teacher, died. Fred was a just lovely person, who, as was mentioned today at his funeral, had a real heart for kids. He wanted students to do well, he worked to see them succeed, and he was always so happy when they did, in whatever context that was.

Lenny P. Zakim Bridge
Because bridges are about trust, too

I was thinking this week, though, that it wasn't only the students that Fred wanted to see succeed. As my first boss in education, Fred wanted me to do well. As I was hired a long-term part-time sub for someone who was out on medical leave, one could understand why maybe I wouldn't have gotten an investment in time from the department chair. But Fred, first, of course, cared about my students, and thus had to pay attention, but he also saw me, freshly minted MAT and licensure in hand, and he wanted me to be a good teacher. 

Among other things, that meant that he knew that I had probably the best teacher in the department next door, and he made sure I knew I could call on her anytime. It meant that he was in and out of my classroom a lot, unobtrusively. It meant that I knew I could call him in if I didn't know what to do, or needed help figuring how what to do, or if I just was overwhelmed or at a loss.

But the other thing that Fred did was trust me. I--wisely, given my experience!--didn't yet trust myself. But Fred and my other experienced colleagues were there to back me up, to give me feedback, to help me over the bumps, to answer my dumb questions and my hard ones, and to generally get me through those first months (and, eventually, first years). And that meant that I had space, also, to fail. 

I trusted Fred, and I trusted my colleagues. Ultimately, I also trusted my principal and my superintendent.

To get better at something, it has to be safe to fail. 

I see this said about students in classrooms: kids have to feel safe in order to learn. Kids have to know that they can try and not get it without that being the end in order to try again. It is, though, just as true when we are learning to do something as complicated as teaching, which juggles so many different kind of skills and practices. If you're a new teacher--or a new principal, or a new anything--you're going to sometimes get things wrong (hopefully, not in any way that's major!). You have to feel safe to try, and to fail, so you can get better.

And that's about trusting those who supervise you, and those who surround you, and those who supervise those who supervise you. 

Ultimately, education runs on trust.

As we prepare for the new year, I'd ask, particularly those of us in any kind of educational leadership: are we creating districts in which people trust one another?
And if not, what are we doing about that?

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Questions I have about the Massachusetts school guidance for fall

 I will continue to update this post.

  • How exactly is the "masks for the unvaccinated only" policy supposed to be implemented in secondary schools? Are you imagining an honor code system (which was such a failure when implemented nationally)? Are you under the impression that staff will have a record available to them of which students are vaccinated and which are not? Is the expectation that they then will individually tell students who are not vaccinated that they must wear masks, while not doing so for those who they have evidence are vaccinated? Will they have this list memorized for their over 100 students each? Who keeps track in the hallways? What is the consequence for a student who is unmasked who is unvaccinated in this scenario?

  • As all students are now required to come back full time and thus no spacing is possible (or even noted all that heavily in the guidance), how is lunch working? What about elementary student snacktime?

  • The guidance recommends continued student testing. Many districts have declined to participate due to how unmanageable the system is. What changes and additional supports has the state made to make the system more accessible to districts? Is the state dedicating funding to this for this school year?

  • For districts that are doing testing, the guidance imagines that districts will do a 'test and stay' policy for students who we know have been exposed to COVID. As we also know that tests aren't positive immediately upon exposure, and that those in that stage can still spread it, how exactly is this cutting down or even stopping the spread of the illness?

  • Obviously, students not attending school when they are sick is more important than ever. It is also clear that quarantine will still be necessary in some scenarios. How is the state adjusting a) remote learning options and b) attendance accountability status to reflect that students may well not attend school for appropriate health concerns?

  • What further efforts is the state making to get those who are ages 12 and up vaccinated? When can we expect DPH to require such a vaccination for school attendance?

  • What is the state doing to get staff vaccinated?

  • Will there be further guidance coming regarding sports, particularly those held indoors or requiring close contact among participants?