Updated: Jan 26, 2021
I apologize for the late hour of this EBulletin, and it's length. But, as you will see below, there is a good deal of important information I needed to convey.
Collectively, we have sent 486 emails to David Fleishman, the School Committee, the Mayor, and Newton Health and Human Services Commissioner Deborah Youngblood urging them to implement surveillance testing with all due haste.
We’re half way to a thousand emails— and we must keep them coming. The district’s response to the emails they have received so far is to offer us more of the same: more misrepresentation, more attempts at placation; no real commitment to action to make Newton’s schools safer.
The reality is, we CANNOT let up. If you haven’t written an email yet, please, click here and do so now!
Building Representatives and I hear from members who sit in their cars in the morning, in tears because they are so afraid to enter their buildings. Other members, forced to work in person on Wednesdays, work from their cars to avoid entering their buildings. Special educators send me pictures of district provided face masks that are falling apart; they are tired of paying for their own. Members are frighted more, not reassured, when they hear the mantra “schools are safe.” Most are dumbfounded that the state imposed capacity restrictions on indoor public gatherings simply do not apply to schools.
Yet there still seems little recognition from the Mayor, the School Committee, and the Superintendent of the urgency of the current situation. And this is clearly evidenced by their response to our email campaign.
First of all, we hear no acknowledgement that the situation is urgent, that the current COVID-19 metrics belie any statement that“schools are safe.”
The number of confirmed cases per capita in Newton has been growing rapidly every week since Thanksgiving.
According to today’s NYTimes, the number of statewide confirmed cases per capita in Massachusetts currently sits at tenth highest in the nation, down slightly from its position as seventh highest in the nation last week, mid week. Statewide, last week we were not far from 100 cases per 100,000 people per day.
While there have been only three NPS cases this year among staff who work remotely; there have been forty-four cases among staff who work in person--thirty of which were confirmed since Thanksgiving break.
Nationwide, based on the limited data available, school staff working in person contract COVID-19 at a rate nearly one and one half times faster than the case rates in the communities where they teach. This, by the way, from the same data set that many public health experts cite when they claim “schools are safe”!
The much more highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus--the “U.K. variant”--is expected to be the dominant form of the virus in the U.S. by March. What we have been doing up to now will not be enough to stop the spread of this variant. Even the cloth masks we currently use—one of the “four pillars” Newton relies on heavily to keep staff and students safe—will not be good enough to protect us when this new variant becomes dominant, as this article in the Atlantic--“Why Aren’t We Wearing Better Masks”?--makes clear.
Many of our neighboring communities, including Watertown and Wellesley, already have testing programs in place to provide weekly surveillance testing for staff and students which have already prevented outbreaks in their schools. Many communities began the testing, balancing, and repair of their HVAC systems early last summer, and have long since completed that work.
You would think with these numbers, Newton’s leaders would be doing all they can to protect the staff and students of the NPS.
They simply will not commit. The School Committee, Mayor and Superintendent reject every proposal for surveillance testing the NTA puts forward in negotiations. They reject our calls for transparency in how they report the results of the not-yet-completed testing, balancing and repair. And in response to our email campaign, they make no commitments.
Moreover, they reject all input from the community (except, of course, from those who are the most extreme in their demand for “more” in person learning). They do their best, for example, to keep at bay the scientific experts of the “Safer Teachers, Safer Students K12 Testing Collaborative,” who have been instrumental in supporting Wellesley and Watertown and a number of other communities in building their surveillance testing programs.
What is even worse: They continue a pattern of misinformation and attempted placation that they began this summer. Then, they defied the NTA’s legally binding requests for information about their preparations of the HVAC systems. We are currently seeking charges from the state Department of Labor Relations that the district not only refused to provide us with the information we had requested, but also that they willfully misrepresented the work they had completed, to us, and to the public.
The pattern is this: an unwillingness to commit to an action plan, a willingness to misrepresent what they have done, and an attempt to placate, rather than protect, our members.
There are three places in which this pattern most recently emerges:
(1) the Mayor, the Superintendent, and the Commissioner’s form letter response to those who wrote those 486 emails,
(3) the Superintendent’s health and safety update to all staff on January 13.
(1) To those of us who wrote 486 emails imploring the district to implement surveillance testing for staff and students, Mayor Fuller, Superintendent Fleishman and Newton HHS Commissioner Youngblood form letter response was just that— all form, no substance. We were assured the city would be “attending the upcoming information session and indicating their interest in learning more,” after which they would be “reviewing their options thoroughly and expeditiously.” Somehow even the words they chose deny the urgency of the situation—they are officious, not expeditious, and they are empty. Will Newton, or will it not, commit to providing surveillance testing? If so, on what timeline, how often, and to whom? Not only am I not reassured; I am offended that they thought they could placate NTA members so easily.
O for one.
(2) At their January 11 meeting, the School Committee assigned a “Working Group,” comprising three Central Administrators, one School Committee Member, the Director and Assistant Director of School Health Services, along with the two local doctors the district taps regularly as their outside resources. No one new, and nary a member of the working group with expertise in surveillance testing!
O for two.
(3) And then, on January 13th, came the coup de grâce: David Fleishman sent an email to all staff to provide us, as he puts it: “accurate and timely information on the steps the district is taking to improve and enhance health and safety measures for all NPS employees.”
Misrepresentation #1: “Our decision to reopen in the fall was made in consultation with two of the most well-regarded infectious disease specialists in the country, one of whom has been nominated to lead the Centers for Disease Control. The critical advice we received from Drs. [Rochelle] Walensky and [Ashish] Jha was that if we followed the critical health pillars, we would be able to open safely.”
This may be true. Yet in early November, Dr. Jha was one of the signatories on an email the “Safe Teachers, Safe Students Collaborative” sent to David Fleishman, the School Committee, Mayor Fuller, and Commissioner Youngblood advocating for the district to develop a surveillance testing pilot program that the Collaborative developed in consultation with the NTA. While not a signatory on that email, Dr. Walensky was copied on it.
The district ignored the advocacy for a surveillance testing program from one of the two doctors David claims to have consulted.
Misrepresentation #2: “As you know, over the summer we undertook an extensive evaluation of our school buildings to ensure proper ventilation in all spaces utilized by faculty and staff.”
The district did not do this. Last summer, the district made false and misleading claims about the extent of the work they had done. But in response to our information request, they could provide no documentation of this purported work. Finally, under pressure from the NTA (we were planning to hire and pay for an outside firm to do testing ourselves), in late September the district tested the outdoor air introduction in twelve rooms in four buildings. Of those twelve rooms, four failed to meet minimal standards, two were very close to not meeting standards, and multiple rooms had systems that were failing due to disrepair.
With the support of an MTA attorney, the NTA filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations(DLR), claiming not only that the district failed to supply the information we requested, but also provided misleading statements purporting to have done work it did not do.
As our attorney has argued in front of the DLR:
“Quoting from just a few of the documents initially produced by the District in response to the Union’s [information] request, the District states:
Air Exchange Considerations: Air exchange per hour is a cumulative calculation based on several standards set forth by ASHRAE (the governing body for engineers). Air exchange is a factor, but the more important calculation is outdoor air introduction. Based on our (general) classroom size, the Unit Ventilators provide up to 1000 CFM (Cubic Feet per Minute) of air to the room. This value must be tempered by the fact that the units are not airtight, so we use 900 CFM as a baseline. The required outdoor air requirement is 256 CFM for an 800 square foot room. This indicates we are introducing up to three times the amount of outdoor air than is required by ASHRAE. The amount of outdoor air brought in by the unit is diminished when the unit must heat the room (winter conditions). This reduction occurs only for the period of time it takes to heat the space to setpoint temperature. (emphasis supplied)
All of the spaces we will be utilizing in our buildings for students and staff provide appropriate air exchange. The limited number of converted spaces in schools that were not originally designed for occupancy and don’t have air vents will not be utilized. (emphasis supplied)
Rooms/spaces in buildings with air exchange vents have adequate circulation of fresh air for occupancy, whether or not they have windows and whether or not the windows are open. Opening windows in rooms that have them is a supplemental step that can increase air circulation further. (emphasis supplied)
Our attorney, after quoting these district documents, continues: “Where specific work is indicated as performed above, it was not. Where claims are made about the safety of the air, they were baseless and have now been proven untrue (by the District’s own subsequently retained contractor and subcontractor). It is critically important that the Union be able to rely on the information provided by the District. Here, the information was not only unreliable, it was inaccurate and misleading. Most disturbingly, if left unchecked by the Union’s continuing and persistent demands—for the testing and data that formed the basis for the District’s representation last summer that all of the spaces“provide appropriate air exchange”— would have presented extremely dangerous working conditions for the Union’s members.”
Misrepresentation #3: “In October, we began the second phase of ventilation work…
This work did not begin as a “second phase.” It began because the NTA showed the district’s claim that “All of the spaces we will be utilizing in our buildings for students and staff provide appropriate air exchange” to be baseless. The work the City undertook in October was the work they should have been doing from late spring until fall, the work they claimed in August and September they had already done.
In fact, when the district did begin the work in earnest, the sheer number of rooms that needed major and minor repairs is astounding.
Misrepresentation #4: “All data and reports from the work conducted is published on our website as it is received from the City. In addition, we are compiling “data dashboards” that summarize the work completed, as well as any follow up work to be done. The work will continue until all spaces have achieved proper airflow for full occupancy. I encourage you to visit this webpage to review the work conducted in your school building.”
The district has not been publishing the results of work as it has been completed. We have had to nudge the district continually to get them to post the results that they do have up, and, though they claim to have nearly completed the repair, testing and balancing of almost every room in every building in the district, there are still no dashboards posted for Bigelow, Day, Oak Hill, Newton North, and Newton South.
And the data dashboards are themselves untrustworthy. To point to only one example, at Memorial-Spaulding, the HVAC contractor who did the initial repairs reported that the pneumatic control system that ran the HVAC systems was obsolete, and should be replaced with an electronic system. In his report, he asked if he should proceed to do that… after which one can find no record of any reply, nor of any work to replace the obsolete control system. When a testing and balancing firm then did their work, in over half the rooms the ventilation system failed to provide sufficient fresh air—sometimes providing none, because unit ventilators simply were not working.
At a meeting for staff to discuss this report, district leaders told staff that the methodology used by the testing and balancing firm was flawed. No mention was made of the obsolete control system. Later, the dashboard was updated, and all rooms were listed as having passed. But that updated dashboard does not publish new numbers to confirm that all rooms are safe; rather, appended in the comment section to the old dashboard is the statement “Observed fresh air flow met requirements for full design occupancy. Formal results to follow.”
To date, no formal results have followed—the new testing was done in late December. Nor have we received a response to our request for an explanation of why and how the methodology of the first testing and balancing firm was flawed. We wonder how this could have even happened, since all the testing and balancing firms with which Newton has contracts are working under the supervision of the same engineering firm. And this is just one building.
Misrepresentation #5: COVID-19 Testing
First of all, David praises the work of the team that put together the current COVID-19 testing program at the Ed Center. And he is right to do so. This group was tasked with doing this work within a very short timeframe, and they did indeed do “a terrific job of designing and implementing a testing program that allows staff to access tests and results in a quick, efficient, and safe manner.” There is no misrepresentation in these words.
But if you word search David’s email, you will find one word conspicuously missing from it: ‘surveillance’. To make us safer, this program would have to be a surveillance testing program. It is not. It does not make us safer. Yet even when David discusses Governor Baker’s support for testing, he never mentions that what the the governor is willing to support is at least weekly surveillance testing.
And when David states that “together with our partners at Newton HHS and medical consultants, we have formed a working group with members of our NPS team to explore testing options and we will share information as their work continues,” he fails to mention that this is pretty much the same insular group that has been informing the district on safety all year.
Moreover, this is just a continuation of the pattern of holding the “Safer Teachers, Safer Students Collaborative,” at arm's length. Astoundingly, the district continues to remain uninterested in hearing from those who can offer them the most up to date, scientific knowledge on the safety, nor learning how neighboring districts have established successful surveillance testing programs.
So, if we dig just a little under the surface of David's email, we learn that the plan is to send students back into the high schools at the end of January and though February without surveillance testing, with no reports yet available on the status of the HVAC systems in either school, in the midst of the worst surge in the pandemic the nation and the world have seen to date.
0 for 3. Strikeout.
We expect better.
Please, if you have not already, email Mayor Fuller, the School Committee, David Fleishman, and Commissioner Youngblood, and urge them to implement a full surveillance testing program for the entire district—students and staff. Anything short of this is just too risky.
FYI: We distributed the below flyer to community supporters across Newton this weekend.
"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose."
Please take care and stay well.