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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

June 27 COVID-19 Update (excerpt from eBulletin)

Yesterday, Governor Charlie Baker released DESE's reopening guidelines and, almost immediately, David Fleishman followed up with an email to the Newton parent community stating that he fully supported DESE's priority of returning to an in-person school setting.  Of course, I think most of us share this priority. But are we as confident that David will follow through on his statement that "this return to in-person school will be accompanied by a comprehensive set of health and safety requirements to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 exposure or transmission"? And do these guidelines provide the means to do so.  To put Baker's announcement in context, here is a screenshot of the New York Times front page on the day he announced the new DESE guidelines:

"Texas Pauses Reopening" - "How the Virus Won" - "Arizona 'Overwhelmed' with Demand for Tests as U.S. System Shows Strain"  In other words, a litany of reminders of why NOT to underestimate this virus!

Yet it seems as if from the beginning, that is exactly what these guidelines do. The discussion of the scientific evidence supporting the guidelines' claim that students can return to school full time in the fall reads more like a public relations statement than an honest assessment of the scientific and medical evidence. The discussion of faculty and staff safety appears, when it appear at all, as an afterthought. 

The guidelines assert certitude where the scientific consensus is that there is uncertainty and offer reassurances that produce suspicion and doubt.

Here's a key example, indeed a pervasive theme, in the study:

The guidelines assert that there is a scientific consensus that students are highly unlikely to become infected by or transmit COVID-19, and that therefore, schools are, relatively speaking, safe spaces. "In general, rates of COVID-19 infection are lower for children than for adults. Based on an analysis of data from six countries, children under 20 are half as susceptible to COVID-19 infection than adults" (p. 7).

Therefore, "based on the combination of health and safety requirements and rigorous protocols that we are putting in place for the fall, we believe the risk of transmission in schools is likely lower than the risks of transmission in many other settings. Furthermore, based on available data and effective implementation of critical health and safety practices, the rate of in-school transmissions has been low" (p. 6) (emphasis in original).

But this is anything but a settled conclusion, and in fact there are some very unsettling counter-examples not even mentioned in the DESE guidelines that gives most scientific experts pause about making such bald assertions as DESE makes in its guidelines.

"The evidence, however, is not uniform. Some global studies indicate that children are equally likely as adults to become infected, to infect others, or develop antibodies to the virus."

"A recent study in Germany concluded that a child currently infected with COVID-19 has a similar amount of contagious virus (viral load) as an infected adult, indicating that children may be as likely to infect others as adults."

"A study of pupils and staff in one French high school found that more than 40 percent of pupils had been previously infected and developed antibodies, as did a significant portion of parents and siblings of those students, indicating that the adolescents in the school had a high propensity to become infected and pass the virus on to others (Fontanet et al., 2020)."

In other words, at best what we know now is that "[a] preponderance of existing evidence suggests that attack rates for children (percentage of children that become infected when exposed) are somewhat lower than the attack rate for adults. There is less evidence, however, that infected children are not as likely to spread the disease than infected adults." 

From Considerations for Reopening PA Schools, from the Regional Educational Laboratory of the Mid-Atlantic, co-authors Bill Gill, Ravi Goyal, Jacob Hartog, John Hotchkiss, and Danielle DeLisle. 

David Fleishman and I obviously disagree: he asserts that he is "pleased that the guidance is firmly grounded in medical expertise and was developed in consultation with, and is supported by, the Massachusetts medical community, including the MA chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics,"

I think we should all be far less sanguine, and I expect far better from our district and our state leaders.In this pandemic, the scientific and medical literature remains largely provisional; the medical, scientific, and public health experts are still figuring it out, and are often wrong, sometimes maddeningly so. The best advice they often offer is to be cautious, indeed cautious about what they, as scientists, can currently say with assurance. This was clear in the immediate follow-up to Baker's announcement. ("On Reopening Schools, Scientists Say Proceed with Caution")

(To see one incredibly consequential example of how things can go awry in the scientific community, read the article "How the World Missed COVID-19's Silent Spread" in today's New York Times, which shows how a combination of narcissistic academic competitiveness and jealousy, bureaucratic inertia, and politics prevented the dissemination of the potentially life-saving knowledge that COVID-19 can be spread by asymptomatic carriers of virus. The failure to heed this discovery helped give COVID-19 a free pass to become the pandemic we currently endure.)

I am equally distressed that David asserts that "our planning teams in the Newton Public Schools have already begun working on plans..... We anticipate our plans for the fall will be finalized by the week of July 20" (my emphasis).

The planning teams have not yet met. Next week everyone will be taking a well deserved and much needed vacation. So David just promised to the Newton Public Schools parent community that four planning teams that have not yet met will finalize plans they have not yet begun in a little over two weeks. These teams will radically reconfigure teaching and learning, transportation, and building safety protocols, which will be in place for much of the 2020-2021 school year. Moreover, the changes will require a temporary revision, via a negotiated Memorandum of Agreement, to our collective bargaining agreements, which also must be completed in this same tight time frame.

And, on top of that, we still need to negotiate what accommodations will be necessary for educators who cannot risk working in person. And what accommodations will be needed and in place for students who cannot risk attending school in person. All this, David confidently states, will be accomplish in a little more than two weeks.

Last spring, David did exactly the same things: he sent an email to the parent community stating that the district would be revising the NPS Distance Learning Plan on a very tight timeframe.

This led to much unnecessary stress and frustration, and frankly, much unduly high pressured work for many of our members, especially our Unit B members and special educators. And it resulted in a plan that made sparse use of a third of the NPS workforce, Unit C, and worked special education teachers to the bone. 

I told David then that his premature communication was unacceptable. He apologized. Yet he just did the same thing again. So his apology seems to have been of the sort: "Better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission." No thanks. No forgiveness.

Let's be clear about what is at stake: your lives, your families' lives, and your students' and their families' lives. We need to get this right, or at least as right as possible! What is going on here? Are our leaders at the state and local level taking their responsibility seriously, or they just pandering to public opinion?

Or in David's case, is he deliberately trying to rob educators of a voice in these decisions? Does he already know what he wants as an outcome, and is he just using these task forces, and the educator participants on them, as foils in a PR campaign? "We sought educators input." David, this is a recipe for cynicism!

WE as a Union need to let David know that this is an unacceptable way to treat the educators who give their all for the students of Newton...who in fact just gave their all in one of the most trying and difficult periods of our collective lives. 

Here is what you can do:

Using your personal email address, write to David Fleishman and copy Ruth Goldman, Chair of the School Committee. Use your personal email because that makes it clear that you are writing as an NTA member, and as such, your words are protected by state and federal law. As a member of the NTA, you can feel confident to speak to David and Ruth as your equals. You should of course be respectful and professional, but please be candid and direct.

Here are some suggestions of what you might tell/ask him, although I'm sure there is more you can think of on your own:

Tell him that you are frustrated that he communicates first to the community, and, then, in effect, "copies" the faculty on that communication. (As he put it in his email to staff: "Below is a communication I will send shortly to the NPS community, following the guidance from DESE earlier today.")

Ask him about his impossible deadline.

Ask him why he has communicated to the parent community that they have already been working on plans for the fall, since none of the planning teams have yet met.

Ask him how he views the role of educators on those teams. Specifically, ask him if he already has a plan in mind, and simply wants educators to rubber stamp that plan. Because certainly those planning teams cannot accomplish the enormous task in front of them in two weeks if the district actually expects the members to have meaningful input into the process.

Tell him you have been unsettled by the unnervingly cavalier attitude towards educator safety in the DESE guidelines.Ask him to explain to you how he plans on developing "a comprehensive set of health and safety requirements" based on those guidelines. 

Finally, if you or a member of your household is at high risk from COVID-19 infection, please contact Jill Murray, Interim HR Director, and, if your email does not disclose personal information, copy David Fleishman.

Ask her what the district's plans are to accommodate employees who cannot safely return to the schools next fall.

Ask if you should be applying for medical leave. Ask what documentation you should submit.

Ask if there will be opportunities for you to work via distance teaching. 

If she does not know the answer to these questions now, ask her if she will know sometime in the week of July 20th.

The NTA remains vigilant! Clearly David needs a reminder of this. Please send him many many reminders.


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