NTA EBulletin December 29, 2021

Today I sent the letter below to Superintendent David Fleishman, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, Chair of the School Committee Tamika Olszewski, and Vice Chair Kathleen Shields.

In an article in today's Boston Globe (As COVID rates soar, Mass. schools brace for a chaotic January — and lots of testing) David Fleishman is quoted several times, and given the he article's last words:

“January is not going to be easy, but we’re all committed to in-person schooling,” Fleishman said. “We want people to know that, yes, we’re prepared, and this is going to be hard, and we all need to really pull together.”

Indeed, we all do need to pull together. But that is much easier to say when you are not the person working day to day in understaffed schools, when it is not your colleagues and students from your classroom who are absent because they have tested positive, and you are not the one left to do the "pulling."

In this letter, I make clear how, as we all "really pull together," we, the members of the NTA, expect the Newton Public Schools leadership to pull its share of the load, so that we can, indeed, take David at his word that "we're prepared."


*****

Dear David, Tamika, Kathy, and Ruthanne: The explosive surge of the omicron variant presents the Newton Public Schools with an enormous challenge. I am writing to you in the hope that we can work together to address that challenge with the sense of urgency that it demands. I will articulate for you my understanding of the challenging situation we face in order to share with you my sense of its urgency, and I will follow with a number of proposals for addressing that challenge.

Challenge

Omicron, Infections, and Risk Case counts in Massachusetts are higher than they have been since the beginning of the pandemic, and they are going up.

It is likely the upward curve in Massachusetts could soon look much like it does in New York state and New Jersey. Comparing cases in Westchester County in New York to those in Middlesex County, those in Westchester are currently (December 29, 2021) at 199 cases per 100,000, while those in Middlesex are currently at 95 per 100,000. The fact that our case counts here are going up more gradually than they currently are in New York is likely indicative that growth here was initially fueled by Delta. Westchester is indicative of where we are likely headed as 0micron becomes dominant. Even though vaccination so far seems to provide protection against hospitalization and/or death from infection by omicron, this variant nonetheless infects both the vaccinated and unvaccinated--especially those who have not yet been boosted—and so spreads rapidly, even in communities like Newton with a high vaccination rate. While there is evidence that omicron causes milder illness, to date there is no evidence comparing the incidence of long-term effects of COVID caused by omicron relative to that caused by other variants. We simply do not yet know the long-term impact omicron will have on the health of those who are infected.

I am sure we can agree that contracting COVID is still not something about which we can or should become complacent, as individuals, or as community leaders.

I know the members I represent are still very much concerned about becoming ill themselves or passing on this disease to their friends and families, and I am sure the alarming rise in case counts has most of them very much on edge about returning to school on Monday, January 3rd.

Staffing and Staff Morale Staff in the Newton Public Schools were already experiencing very low morale and high burnout prior to this most recent surge.

Our educators are working with students who have been terribly impacted by almost two years of this pandemic.


In addition to meeting their students’ acute social and emotional needs, educators have been burning out from the number and unrelenting pace of new initiatives introduced this year. Even as educators do all they can to attend to their students’ needs, they are themselves also suffering. They are finding it increasingly difficult to care for themselves or to keep clear boundaries between work and home.

Complicating educators’ ability to meet their students’ needs is that the Newton Public Schools are understaffed, particular with regard to substitute teachers, aides, and mental health providers.

In fact, this has been one of the primary sources of staff stress and anxiety. Each morning, in most programs and in every building, administrators, teachers and aides spend the first part of their day juggling schedules and assignments to cover for absent colleagues. Being stretched so thin is wearing people out.

High case counts and outbreaks in schools could of themselves force individual schools to close. This risk is exacerbated by the fact that high case counts among staff members could force many of them to stay home. Understaffing in individual schools or programs could become so acute that it would not be safe to keep them open.

The members I represent need to know (1) that school and city leadership are doing all they can to keep them and their students safe; (2) that they have the district’s support to deliver the kind of education and support that their students need during this time, including space and time for addressing students’ social and emotional needs and; (3) that they will not be put into situations where, due to understaffing, they know they can’t keep their students safe.

Recommendations

Medical Advisory Group

  • Please post publicly dates and minutes of any prior Medical Advisory Group Meetings from this year, including a list of members present—as was done last spring.

  • Please convene a public meeting of the Medical Advisory Group as soon as possible.

  • Share this letter with the group.

  • Publicly post, prior to the meeting, a meeting agenda.

  • Publicly post, after the meeting, a recording of the meeting, list of participants, and minutes.

Testing

Please continue surveillance testing from pre-k through 6th grade and extend it to all secondary schools as soon as possible. As DESE is now permitting districts to provide “test and stay” rapid testing to vaccinated individuals, please offer test to stay rapid tests to all close school contacts, regardless of vaccination status. Given the highly contagious nature of omicron, consider anyone who is in a classroom with someone who tests positive a close contact, and offer them the opportunity to participate in test to stay.

Mask Mandate: Administrators, teachers and aides have all expressed concern that adherence to masking protocols has become lax in their schools. At the same time, there is a growing a professional consensus that high filtration respirators (Korean standard KF94, Chinese standard KN95 or U.S. standard N95 masks) should now be the norm for indoor spaces. Please give full consideration to (1) requiring that all staff and students wear a high filtration respirator (and provide information on how to purchase and wear these). This new requirement would both provide more effective protection, and it would remind the entire school community of the importance of continued vigilance. Purchase a large enough quantity of these high filtration masks to provide all staff and students at least two per week

. Ventilation: Last year the Newton Public Schools, along with the City of Newton, did important work to provide adequate ventilation to all classroom and office space in the NPS and made all of this information easily accessible to staff and families via ventilation dashboards. This year, the schools and city have followed up in critical ways on this project. Please share this with the NPS community. Specifically, please update the building dashboards to indicate:

  • In the 19 rooms where new unit ventilators have been installed, update the dashboards to indicate new results of testing and balancing.

  • In the 60 rooms that were spot checked over break, update the dashboards to indicate the new results of testing and balancing.

  • Indicate, on the ventilation dashboards, which rooms now have centrally connected CO2 detectors.

Criteria for keeping schools open Full transparency will reassure staff of leadership support—critical, as they will be shouldering the risk of keeping schools open. With the assistance of the Medical Advisory Group, please develop clear and transparent criteria for determining if and when a school or a program can remain open, and when it should be closed, for how long, and what the learning expectations are when closed. Moreover, independently of the advice of the Medical Advisory Group, the district should develop criteria for determining when staffing levels have become so compromised that a school or program can no longer safely be kept open. Finally, even if the staffing crisis doesn’t require a school or program to close, schools would be prudent to develop some plans for dealing with being open with unusually low numbers of staff: enough to keep the school open, but not enough to keep everything running as usual. Thank you for your attention. I look forward to hearing your reply.


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