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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

NTA Ebulletin January 17, 2022

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

I hope you have had a restful three day weekend. I had hoped to get an update out to you earlier in the week, but just was not able to find the time. I apologize for the length of this update--especially at the end of the long weekend. Though I know this is arriving late, and I know it is long, I urge you when you can to read through to the end.

Medical Advisory Group Recommendations

As most of you are probably now aware, the Medical Advisory Group (MAG) has issued new recommendations regarding health and safety.

First, I will address process, then substance.

Process. The NTA requested, in the interests of transparency, (1) that meetings of the MAG be held in public, with (2) minutes and a video recording made available after each meeting and (3) that the minutes state which members of the meeting were in attendance.

The district (1) will hold a School Committee Zoom meeting on Tuesday, January 18, 2022, at 7:30 p.m. Select members of the MAG will answer questions from the full School Committee about its recommendations. There will be no public comment. This is a poor substitute for holding the actual meetings of the Medical Advisory Group in public. Only then could we hear their actual deliberations, and not merely the results of those deliberations.

To (2) above, the district wrote in response that, "[they] do keep notes for each Medical Advisory Group meeting, which are reformatted as the recommendation of the group that is published on [their] website." As above, minutes would contain their actual deliberations, not just their conclusions.

With respect to (3) above, the district responded that "all members sign off on each recommendation and their names are included on the top of the document." I find it hard to believe that a member of the Medical Advisory Group would sign off on the recommendations of the group without attending the group's meeting, or participating in any way in the deliberative process to form those recommendations.

Substance. The Medical Advisory Group says very little that is new; what it does say is, frankly, muddled, and either of very little practical value or, in some cases harmful.

1. "Vaccination remains the cornerstone of efforts to contain COVID".... an "ongoing goal should be to get staff and students as close to 100% vaccinated as possible and target booster shots for all as soon as eligible."

Of course vaccinations should be the cornerstone of the district's efforts. But any new vaccinations that happen now will not have any impact on the current surge. The question on most of our minds right now is practical ways to mitigate the impact this current surge.

2. Lunch. MAG recommends "1) Increase ventilation through open windows and/or doors, 2) use as many portable air filtration units as are available and obtain additional ones if possible 3) create as much physical distancing as possible, 4) encourage students to put their masks back on when not actually eating or drinking."

This recommendation is of no practical consequence: It neither changes nor adds anything beyond what schools are already trying to do.

3. Testing. The Medical Advisory Group recommends that the district discontinue "the [surveillance] pooled testing program at this time in favor of prioritizing testing those who develop symptoms in school and known exposures." They argue that antigen (rapid) testing is a better measure of infectiousness, whereas PCR testing picks up any viral material, even when the infected person may no longe be infectious, thus risking false positives.

This may be true enough, but their advice is not of much practical help in our schools, and actually causes harm, because it eliminates the one form of testing we currently have available for staff.

First of all, expanding test to stay under the current DESE guidelines is not possible, because DESE does not permit testing of vaccinated individuals. The MAG acknowledges this. So they offer no practical recommendation of how to expand the test to stay program.

Moreover, the district is no longer doing contact tracing, so there is no longer a means of determining who should participate in test to stay for close contacts. Because at home antigen tests are almost impossible to find, members have no way to test themselves if someone tests positive in their class.

MAG suggests that perhaps test to stay could be extended, so that individuals who test positive could be required/recommended to test on day 5 before they return--but that too is outside the scope of DESE's program, and at home tests are largely unavailable. So this part of their "recommendation" is no more than speculation, a few "what-ifs" or "wouldn't it be nice" statements.

Second, part of the scientific rationale they offer for eliminating pooled surveillance testing--that it is too sensitive and picks up positive cases for individual who are not infectious--omits one practical detail: Under the DESE sponsored surveillance protocol Newton is following, each individual in the pool which tested positive is then tested by an antigen test in order to find who was positive. False positives from the PCR pool are effectively screened out, while the antigen testing reveals individuals who are infectious and who were possibly asymptomatic at the time of the pooled test.

In short, the one assurance through the current pooled testing that staff, students, and staff receive at least once a week that they are not positive is traded for--nothing. Unless the MAG can provide a real alternative, it simply makes little sense to discontinue surveillance testing.

Finally, just a reminder that the DESE picks up the entire cost of the surveillance testing program for Newton.

4. Masks. The MAG states that high filtration masks that meet the KF94, KN95, or N95 standard "all filter virus particles more efficiently," but they then repeat the off-stated recommendation that the primary consideration is that masks must fit properly and cover the mouth and nose. We know that. We also know it's not always to easy get students and even some adults to wear good fitting, let alone better filtering masks, nor to get them to wear masks properly. That's the practical problem.

The Medical Advisory Group States that "[w]hile there are clear data that masks are an important part of reducing infections in settings like schools, we are not aware of specific data that compare different types of masks in schools. Generally, better fitting and better filtering masks are preferred."

They are probably right. It is not likely that there have been any studies done comparing the efficacy of different types of masks in schools, so there isn't any data available. So why, "generally speaking," does the MAG say good fitting and better filtering masks are preferred? Based on their logic, why not wear ill-fitting and poor filtering masks? For that matter, why not wear them below your nose? Are there any studies that compare this? It is foolish to ask for the data point they are asking for.

There is ample evidence some masks filter better, are easier to breathe through, generally provide a better fit, are more comfortable and easier to wear than others. (See this two page document. See this brief video reviewing children's masks. See the projectn95.) That is the kind of evidence that matters, not evidence that compares schools that use better filtering masks to schools that use poorer filtering ones.

We need a practical recommendation from the medical advisory group that actually gets more "better fitting, better filtering" masks onto the faces of staff and students. Everyone is made less safe by those students and staff who wear poor masks, or wear masks improperly. The district should not continue to rely on staff, students and parents to do the research for themselves on high quality masks, nor to make the purchases themselves.

The Medical Advisory Group should recommend high quality masks that are currently available for purchase. They should then recommend that the district purchase these masks and make them available to staff and students at no cost. If they were to do this, the percentage of staff and students wearing good fitting, better filtering, comfortable, quality masks would improve dramatically. That would make a practical difference, and help keep schools safer during this surge. That's common sense.

And it would make all of our jobs of teaching easier. Members tell me they are tired of being the COVID police, constantly reminding students to wear their masks properly. First of all, good masks are actually easier to wear properly. Second, if the district were to provide high quality, high filtration masks, it would reinforce the message that wearing them is important. That's educator common sense.

You are doing your share to keep mask on students faces. The district needs to do its share to support you. And--to make it easier for you to do what you should be doing--teaching students. That's common sense administrative leadership.

Labor Relations Update

Late this fall, in the course of supporting members in the high school Harbor and Springboard programs, the NTA submitted an information request, based on our legal rights to such information under Massachusetts General Law 150e. The district had commissioned an outside consultant to do a review of these programs. The district had earlier given us the executive summary of the consultants' report. We were requesting the full report.

Dr. Beth Fitzmaurice, at the time the Assistant Superintendent for Student Services, told us that she and the Director of Secondary Special Education had written the executive summary. They also gave staff in the Springboard and Harbor programs the executive summary, but they told them this was the full report from the consultants.

Dr. Fitzmaurice first delayed giving us the full report. She claimed that the outside consultants had only provided a written copy of the report, and that this copy had been damaged in the mail. She also prevaricated, suggesting that she had already given us the full report when she gave us the executive summary.

When she provided us with a photo-copy of this allegedly damaged report, she (or someone in her office) copied the first six pages of the actual report and appended to these pages a fifteen page reformatted copy of the executive summary. Dr. Fitzmaurice, or someone from her office, went so far as to crumple up the original from which she made the copy, in order to give the appearance it had been "damaged in the mail." All page numbering was removed. The pages of the executive summary still had the typos in them from the original executive summary. The formatting of the first six pages were different from the formatting of the executive summary pages. The first six pages from the real report were introductory, and promised content that never appeared in the pages of the executive summary.

We filed unfair labor practice charges for failure to respond to an information request and misrepresentation with the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations. District council then provided us with the full report--by providing us with the emails between Dr. Fitzmaurice and the consultants with the full report attached. (We had also requested these emails from Dr. Fitzmaurice, but she herself went through them and provided only those that did not disclose the existence of the full report. Those we received later were prepared by IT.)

The district then hired outside council to investigate Dr. Fitzmaurice. A few weeks after the investigation began, Dr. Fitzmaurice resigned. No one in central administration informed us of this. We found out through our members. We do not know if the investigation disclosed whether anyone else in her office assisted her. We do not know if the outside consultants have been made aware of the misuse of their report.

I do know the School Committee held a meeting in Executive Session (not open to the public) to discuss "the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health, rather than professional competence, of an individual, or to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 30A, §§ 18-25 of the Massachusetts General Laws." I assume this was to discuss Dr. Fitzmaurice. I know they have scheduled another such meeting for this week. I do not know whom they plan to discuss in this meeting. I would not know this much if I did not subscribe to Amy Sangiolo's community update email. She provided a link to a posting by the City of Newton Clerk announcing each of these meetings. To my knowledge, that link is not to be found elsewhere, neither on the City of Newton website, nor the Newton Public Schools website. To our knowledge, the district has posted the position for Assistant Superintendent for Student Services for next year, but has no plans to hire an interim to replace Ms. Fitzmaurice for the remainder of this year.

The charges we made are still pending with the Department of Labor Relations.

Finally, for your information, Dr. Fitzmaurice had primary responsibility in the district for coordinating the operation of the surveillance testing program. We do not know who has taken on those responsibilities.

You can't make this stuff up.



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