2021-2022 School Calendar On Thursday, December 10, the NTA Executive Committee moved that I should survey members once again on whether to allow the School Committee to change the school calendar for next year in order to allow students to return before Labor Day. The members of the EC (myself included) felt that the original survey biased respondents towards voting for the change, because it only presented arguments for changing the calendar, and no arguments against. So I will again ask you to respond to this poll below. I first present arguments for, and arguments against, the change. Argument for changing calendar: Next year, Labor day falls on Monday, September 6th, Rosh Hashanah falls the next day, on Tuesday, September 7th, and then Yom Kippur falls on Wednesday September 15th. These factors contribute to the school year ending as late as Wednesday, June 29th for staff if there are five snow days. If staff were to return to school on Monday, August 30th, and students on Wednesday, September 1st, school could end two days earlier in June. Subtract one snow day, and staff would then finish on Friday June 24th. Argument against changing calendar: The School Committee/Central Administration has been incredibly inflexible with the NTA this year, going so far as to vote against the tentative agreement we reached. There seems little incentive for us to give back to a district that has been shown us so little flexibility. Although Labor day is late this year, the winter holiday is quite short, as Christmas and New Year Day fall on Saturdays. The end date in June is not in fact that unusual. Moreover, the change is more substantial than just moving the start date back before the Labor Day weekend. Once that happens, it means:
Educators will have to begin teaching immediately after their two professional days, which are usually filled with administrative meetings of varying types. There will no longer be four days over Labor Day weekend to catch your breath and continue to prepare for students to arrive.
In order to be ready to greet students immediately after the professional days, educators will have to return to their classrooms more than just two days earlier.
The pressure of the tighter schedule falls inordinately harder on elementary educators, who have to do much more hands on work to set up their classrooms.
The first week back after Labor Day will likely be more intensely academic, as the two days before Labor Day will be used for greeting and welcoming students back.
The contractual change is only for one year, but doing this once creates an expectation that it may happen again. We can expect that it will eventually be something the School Committee asks for as a permanent change. Finally, asking educators to greet students earlier next year, after the difficult year we have had this year, is asking a lot. If there ever was a year that the members of the NTA needed a slow, gentle easing back into school, it will be next fall. So, I ask you again: For the 2021-2022 school year only, do you think staff should return on Monday and Tuesday, August 30th and 31st, and students should return on Wednesday and Thursday, September 1st and 2nd? Yes, we should make this change. No, we should not make this change. Surveillance Testing Chris and I met with Jill Murray, Liam Hurley, and Ruth Goldman last Thursday. As best as we can tell, the decision to implement surveillance testing happened shortly before the Thanksgiving break, and, again, as best we can tell, the Mayor's office, working with the Health and Human Services department, made the decision to begin testing, set the parameters for doing so, then handed over the responsibility for handling the logistics for setting up the testing to the School Department. The NTA is concerned that these discussions are not a matter of public record--that there so little transparency around who makes these decisions when they are under consideration. As matters of public policy, made by publicly elected officials, the deliberations should be a matter of public record. There should be a debate at the School Committee meetings; the Mayor and School Committee members should be sharing their respective opinions with the public--and inviting the public to weigh in. And, most importantly, these are matters that should be under discussion at the bargaining table. These are critical decisions that impact NTA members health and safety, and we should be part of the discussion--before decisions get made--when they are being contemplated. Here is what we know: 1. The plan calls for giving all educators who work with students in person the opportunity to be tested ONCE before the end of January. To be clear: This is not surveillance testing; this is baseline testing. 2. The NTA is advocating for surveillance testing. At a minimum, employees should be tested once per week for it to not just make people feel safer, but rather be safer. As designed, to some extent, the plan is to placate members of the NTA, not protect members of the NTA. To illustrate: Educators who work with high needs students will be tested before the winter break, and currently there is no plan to test them again in January. This means that, in January, they will be no safer than they are now. 3. The problem is that the district began setting up this testing program too late (like they also did with the work on the ventilation systems). So right now setting up the logistics for testing employees is going to take time. Without really having the medical expertise themselves, Liam Hurley's staff will have to develop the systems, provide the personnel and the training to do the testing. For now, administrators who work in the ed center will do most of the staffing. Eventually, for the program to expand into genuine surveillance testing, they will need additional personnel, and, perhaps, different systems (e.g., some districts send home testing kits, which staff return the following day to drop sites.) And they will need to open additional sites for testing other than the ed center. 4. The roadblock, as may be clear, right now is the time it will take to get the systems up and running. In our meeting, Ruth, Liam, and Jill agreed that we should, in January, aim to test weekly at a minimum the educators who work with high needs students in programs like Stride, Connections, and the Preschool. It really is a question of whether they can build their capacity to do so fast enough. 5. The funding for the testing is currently coming through the city from the CARES act...which runs out soon. We need to put much pressure on elected officials and David Fleishman to continue the funding beyond January, and increase the scope of the program to provide genuine surveillance testing that is available at least weekly for all educators, and possibly twice weekly for educators who work with high needs students in specialized programs that require more a more hands on approach to teaching and learning. We are extremely glad that the district has finally taken these first steps. But it is also extremely unfortunate that the program is just getting up and running at the same time that cases are exploding. The district now finds itself in a Catch--22 position. Schools must remain open to in-person learning for the district to get its surveillance testing program fully operational. But the conditions in which we find now ourselves may not allow that to happen--the metrics are really bad. The district needs fully functional ventilation systems and, at the least, once per week surveillance testing asap if there is any chance of keeping schools open safely.
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Make Newton's School Safe! Since I emailed members on December 9th, you have sent 261 emails to the School Committee, Mayor Fuller, and David Fleishman asking them to (1) reach an agreement on a new MOA, (2) finish the HVAC work in the NPS, and (3) implement genuine surveillance testing. We must keep the pressure up. If you have not yet sent an email, please do so by clicking here.
Even if there is a district-wide or statewide return to remote only learning, we will need these measures to re-open schools to in-person learning safely.
The Metrics... ... are very concerning. Statewide, there are nearly 70 new cases each day per 100,000 residents, and Governor Baker refuses to scale back in ways that meet the current challenge. Statewide, cases of COVID in school continue to increase, from 523 for the week ending December 2 to 923 for the week ending December 9.
In Newton, those numbers were 14 and 18 for the weeks ending on the 2nd and 9th. There have now been 75 total cases confirmed among NPS students and staff since school opened in Septembers; 32 of these were confirmed in the last two weeks. One of the most concerning metrics is the amount of SARS-CoV2-RNA that the state is now currently tracking in wastewater. Tracking SARS-CoV2-RNA shows overall prevalence of the virus in the community. Generally, the amount o
f RNA in wastewater is predictive of confirmed cases of COVID about two weeks later. (MSNBC Live with Rachel Maddow aired a spot on this on December 9th, with the focus on the wastewater treatment plant on Deer Island, which serves greater Boston.)
Those numbers show us that in the greater Boston area, SARS-CoV2-RNA is present in much higher numbers than it was last March and April, which was predictive of the first wave of COVID-19 cases then. The consequences of these current levels of SARS-CoV2-RNA will manifest themselves in confirmed cases of COVID-19, as I said, over the next two weeks. In other words, barring some dramatic change in behavior and/or policy, between now and winter break, there are going to be a lot of cases of COVID-19.
The call for more in person learning, in the light of these metrics, is surreal. What we need, now, is a realistic assessment of when the metrics preclude in person learning altogether. Too little, too late, is just not good enough. Realism needs to prevail over magical thinking. *************** "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." Please take care and stay well. Mike Mike Zilles, President Newton Teachers Association