Monday, January 17, 2022

"We pauperize education": a letter to my delegation

“The richest nation on Earth has never allocated enough resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige our work justifies. We squander funds on highways, on the frenetic pursuit of recreation, on the overabundance of overkill armament, but we pauperize education." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Speech to the United Federation of Teachers on receiving the John Dewey Award, March 1964

 To the members of the Worcester and Massachusetts delegations,

In the past week, thousands of students across the country, largely in urban districts including here in Worcester, walked out of their schools in protest of unsafe learning conditions. 
And those, of course, are just those who walked out, not all of those who feel this way. 

We have heard, over and over during this pandemic, that schools should be "the last things to close." That statement, however, continues to live in isolation, as there has not been a real policy in the United States or in Massachusetts that made other things the first to close. Thus schools have simply been ordered--and it is ordered, at this point--to open, without regard to what has been noted throughout the pandemic of the close tie with community spread and the intimate relationship schools have with all aspects of their community. There has been no community effort, let alone a state or national effort, to create the conditions and provide the resources in which schools can safety function in buildings during a pandemic. 

Likewise throughout the pandemic, there has been a significant lack of effort to close the gaping wound of racial health inequities which have continued through this time. Instead, the argument has been that children of color and in poverty most needed to be back in school buildings. This was well addressed this past week by Dr. Michelle Holmes, who in The Prospect wrote

It is curious to me that Leonhardt, Strain, Oster, and Bloomberg, none of whom are known as racial justice leaders, all now cite the disproportionate academic and social suffering of Black and Latino or low-income children as top reasons for in-person schooling, despite such disparities having been present historically. Nowhere in their arguments do they cite voices of color sharing their viewpoint. Also not evident are the voices of older people and those at high risk of exposure in their jobs.

As Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom noted in her New York Times column this week

How we got here is a story about parents engaging with schools as consumers who want to extract the most school resources for their children. Mothers are the ones societally tasked with doing that extraction. A good mom gets the best learning plan, best teacher, best school, best activities and all-around “best” school experience for her kid. And a mom with the privilege of race and class gets to define the terms of what counts as best. 

This week alone, I heard firsthand of: 

  • a promising young elementary teacher who had to quit her job, as her young children kept having their childcare close due to COVID infections;
  • a number of combined elementary school classrooms, due to teachers and students being out due either to illness or to quarantine; 
  • students coming to school with known symptoms in order to be tested, as their families have no access to testing; 
  • students who didn't have a first or second shot because parents have not had the opportunity to get their children to a site, due to work obligations;
  • staff who are still deceived as to the nature of the vaccine; 
Students continue to be concerned that they will miss work if they miss school. Teachers are torn between attempting to continue to cover skills and material and leaving myriad children who are absent well behind. Administrators open every day scrambling to ensure that students are at least supervised during the course of their day. Parents are continuing to send students to school because the national message has been that the 'pandemic is over,' and thus there is no provision for them to stay home with sick or isolating or quarantining children. Everyone in district leadership knows we don't have enough bus drivers, or school nutrition staff, or nurses, on an average day, and that we are dangerously burning out those we have. 

I know of no one in my city, state, or country who has the sort of easy access to testing that guidance assumes: at home tests are hard to find and not cheap; PCR tests require taking time during the workday to stand in line. Neither of these is achievable for many. 
I know of far too many people who are not vaccinated, some of whom are are staff, many of whom are our students. I am exhausted by those who have cars and flexible time and access to health care and speak English as their first language who say that there is no excuse. When you are juggling three jobs in a country that pays little mind to your language or your health, when you don't have a car and have unstable housing and access to food, then perhaps we can discuss who has 'an excuse' at this time. 
Omicron has made it necessary to upgrade masks for those in spaces with limited circulation and other people (that would be schools), which has set off a mad scramble for parents who can afford to upgrading masks for kids, a handful of districts making their own arrangements, and yet another illustration of health and safety coming back to resources. 
And we simply cannot run schools without people. 

It is the responsibility of both the state and the federal government to provide for the health of its inhabitants. This is absolutely part of promoting the general welfare, as the U.S. Constitution provides, and the Massachusetts Constitution is even more explicit in the commitment: government is: 
to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquility their natural rights, and the blessings of life:

When we are continuing to so poorly fight a pandemic that has taken the lives of 850,000 Americans, nearly 21,000 of them in Massachusetts, I would assert that we who take an oath to uphold and defend these documents are not doing our jobs.  

While I have perhaps grown accustomed to the lack of care for such issues by the state's executive branch, I confess that I have been puzzled to see what seems a similar attitude by the year old federal administration. Justin Feldman's analysis of the Biden administration's response to the pandemic, posted last week, gave some much needed perspective. This, together with Daniel Boguslaw's piece in The Prospect looking at the leadership appointed at the federal level, well frames the lacks we have faced as a country. 

The argument has been "districts have plenty of money" due to the three rounds of ESSER funding. I would never wish to be seen as ungrateful, but it is the case that the rounds of federal funding don't provide anything close to the needs. As Jess Gartner of Allovue, among others, has been at pains to note, the total of ESSER funding represents about a 6% supplement to all K-12 spending over the life of the grants:

And even with money, there are things that the over three hundred districts of Massachusetts should not be having to sort out individually.

  • Everyone needs tests, and not just four from the federal government or two for teachers coming back from the state. If we are to base our actions on real knowledge, then anyone needs to be able to test as needed. We know this can be done, as its being done in other countries. The kinds of testing that require staffing--whether that's the public PCR testing or the schools pool testing--cannot be left to current staffing level. More support and access is badly needed.
  • Everyone in buildings needs masks, and they need good masks to protect against omicron. We cannot simply push this cost off to families of staff and students as well. There is no excuse for the back and forth about testing of masks given teachers, and we apparently could have been making them locally, to boot.  
  • The discussion around ventilation has demonstrated an enormous amount of ignorance of school buildings from those who should know better. I would suggest, however, that the state and federal government's substantial buying power could appropriately be applied to portable air filters for any school that doesn't have a system that runs MERV 13 filters already (which I am guessing, given what I know of local buildings, would be nearly anything not built or renovated in the past five years or so). Among other things, that would keep staff and students warmer in a Massachusetts January.
  • The inflexibility around local conditions that leaves superintendents negotiating safety measures with the Commissioner is a massive state overreach, as I have noted in the past, and it should be called out as such. It is simply not safe to have a single arbiter of school safety who has incredibly limited district level experience making the call for every district in the state. 
  • We cannot run schools without staff. We cannot run schools with sick staff. If the federal and state government mean to keep kids in school buildings, then they must live out what we have known from the early days of the pandemic and CLOSE THINGS THAT ARE NOT SCHOOLS. That means, please note, supporting those people who are impacted by closing other things. There is no reason and no virtue in pursuing a 'normalcy' that continues to kill people, do lasting harm to student health, and does not, in the end, actually keep schools open. 
As I said about this pandemic early on, if you had asked me to guess how Massachusetts would do at responding to a pandemic, I would not have dreamed that it would look like this. As a lifelong resident, as a parent, as an elected official, I believe it when I say that we are "a Commonwealth." We are not, now, acting like one. 
Both Massachusetts and the United States can and must be better than this.
Thank you, as always for your attention to this matter.
Tracy O'Connell Novick
Worcester School Committee

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Worcester School Committee standing committees for the 2022-23 term

 Released this afternoon: 

The very first meeting I ever went to for the Worcester Public Schools was what was then called a Business standing committee, chaired by Jack Foley. This has always been Jack's committee, so that's a lot to live up to.
I am beyond thrilled. 

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Most read of 2021

And sometimes the blogging happens at 4:30 am...

I don't spend a lot of time on my analytics on here, but once a year, I pulled them up to see what folks have been reading. Here's the top ten list for 2021:

As per usual, the blog itself is, far and away, the most often landed on, meaning that plenty of you stop by here to see what is new. Overall, this year was by far my smallest number of posts ever, which I will endeavor to do better on for the coming year. 

10. Letters to the Board of Ed ahead of yesterday's meeting, from March: These are the letters I wrote to individual members of the Board of Ed back in March when they were considering the guidance for this past fall's return to school.

9. A real "great divide" from October on the Globe continuing to ignore the elephant in the room around which parents have been behind the push to get kids back in buildings, "as normal" without masks and so forth. For the Globe, which terms its education "The Great Divide" to continue to ignore the role of race in this and other issues misses a major issue in Massachusetts education.

8. Switching to a non-pandemic local one, my comments on Worcester's sex ed vote from May is next. I rarely write out what I am going to say in a School Committee meeting, but for this vote, I did. Certainly among the most important votes that we took this term.

7. Every so often, people come across one of my older posts that has photos from a school and clearly start passing it around, and so it was with my 2015 post on Vernon Hill School. Note the WPA-era murals of Native Americans from the lobby. 

6. I spent a long time putting together a response to a student email I received last January on in-school transmission, so I decided to post it for those who might find it useful. Clearly many did!

5. My notes from the March meeting of the Board of Ed, at which they voted to change the time on learning regulations to force schools to have students in buildings full time are next, for obvious reasons. 

4. My length rebuttal to the Atlantic's article pushing for schools to reopen--one of many pieces in which the Atlantic fumbled the issue--is next. I would also note that the Atlantic piece is one of many this year in which the hyperlinks don't tell the story the text claims.

3. My February letter to the Worcester delegation, pleading with them to act as a co-equal branch of government--something, I'd note, we could still use--is next. I continue to think this:

 Had we started our response there--with Worcester, with Chelsea, with Lawrence--we would have had a very different result. 

And yet, of course, here we are.

2. Something we haven't seen in some time is a charter school application for Worcester; we had one this year (which didn't get sent forward to the next step), and that blog post is next. This is, I think, something which is not going to go away quietly in the coming years, so Worcester needs to be ready for it. 

1. And topping the most read individual posts is my March letter to the delegation questioning the Commissioner's authority, something which I have yet to hear anyone at the state level do. I think that coming out of this era, one of the things with which we need to wrestle is the question of who has what job. The model of everything being left to the local level except when the state decides it doesn't like what you're doing is not a good one. 

And on into 2022! Thanks for reading!