In this issue: Positive cases and close contacts Updates from buildings: What is the pulse? All Levels Pre-K, Elementary, Middle High School Newton Introduces "NewMO" Commuter Ride Sharing Service School Committee Campaign in Full Swing MTA Legislative Agenda Extended COVID-19 Emergency Paid Leave Provisions Continuing to Push on the Early Retirement Bill A Fair Share Massachusetts Heads Up! MTA Professional Development Opportunities
Positive Cases and Close Contacts
Many members have contacted Chris and me asking what the district policy is for identifying, notifying and quarantining close contacts when there is a positive case in the school community. We met with Rush Hoshino, Director of School Health Services, and Beth Fitzmaurice, Assistant Superintendent for Pupil Services, to ask about the policy.
Below please find a Q&A based on information Chris and I gathered from that conversation, information on the NPS 2021-2022 Back to School Health and Safety Plan, and information from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and Department of Public Health (DPH) “Protocols for Responding to COVID-19 Scenarios - SY 2021-22".
(I do confess to some editorializing in my answers, which I have set apart by using italics.)
Q: What counts as a close contact?
A: The definition of a close contact has not changed from last spring. A close contact is anyone who, while indoors, has been within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive individual for more than fifteen minutes in the course of 24 hours. What has changed is how close contacts are managed in school settings in Massachusetts.
Q: Why aren’t all of the close contacts in a classroom/in the school being asked to quarantine?
A: Last year, all close contacts were required to quarantine. This year, DESE and DPH have determined that there are a number of exceptions to who must quarantine:
Anyone who is vaccinated and asymptomatic does not need to quarantine.
Anyone who was a close contact, but was only within three to six feet is exempt. Only close contacts who were within 3 feet of an individual who tested positive while indoors are required to quarantine.
Q: How will the contact tracer know which individuals were within three feet of each other?
A: We were told that teachers should keep track of where students are seated during the day. This seemed to us to be both (1) highly burdensome to teachers and (2) impracticable, given that the district is requiring very little social distancing, so that students regularly come within 3 feet of their classmates and their educators—in the classroom, in the halls, while eating, during sports—in ways that are almost impossible to track.
Q: What about lunch and snack when students remove their masks? Does this change who is exempt from quarantine?
A: To our knowledge, the presence or absence of masks does not affect the protocols for deciding who must quarantine or test to stay.
Q: I was a close contact of a person who tested positive. Can I participate in the “Test to Stay” program to monitor whether I have COVID-19?
A: If you are exempt from quarantining, you cannot participate in “Test to Stay.”
Effectively, after October 15th, when all NPS employees must be fully vaccinated, only employees granted an exemption to the vaccine mandate will be eligible to participate in "Test to Stay."
Q: I would like the added layer of security of knowing that I have tested negative after I was a close contact. For example, this would allow me to know that I am not going to pass COVID on to my loved ones. Why can’t I choose to participate?
A: The “Test to Stay” program is intended to minimize disruptions in school by reducing the number of people who must quarantine. If you are already exempt from quarantining, the rationale is you are not required to “Test to Stay.”
I realize that answering the question of why you are not required to participate in “Test to Stay” does not really answer the question of why you cannot choose to participate, but that’s the rationale. While individuals who are close contacts in school do qualify for free testing offsite, given the shortage of free tests statewide, that is an impractical alternative. We believe individuals who were close contacts in school should be eligible to participate in "Test to Stay” if they choose.
Q: If a student is the close contact of a person who tests positive for COVID-19 while they are not in school, are they allowed to participate in “Test to Stay”?
A: No. They must quarantine. The rationale for this is that the exposure is probably more acute if it is outside the controlled environment of the school, and it would compromise the safety of everyone if this student were allowed to come to school under “Test to Stay.”
Q: If a student is a close contact while participating on a sports team or other school sponsored activity, are they eligible to participate in “Test to Stay”?
Q: Are students who attend elementary after school programs eligible for "Test to Stay" if they became a close contact while in that program?
A: Currently, students who participate in elementary after school programs are not eligible, but the DESE/DHS are reconsidering this decision, and considering eligibility for students who participate in after school programs that are housed in public school buildings. Many districts statewide are advocating for this change in eligibility, including Newton.
Q: What information is the district releasing to parents when there are positive cases in schools?
A: The district calls those who were within 3 feet, lets them know, and informs them that their students must either quarantine or participate in “Test to Stay.” For other close contacts (those who are exempt), the district sends an email, lets them know they are close contacts, that they are exempt from having to quarantine, and tells them there are no next steps they need to take. At the time Chris and I spoke with Ruth and Beth, the district was considering sending a letter out to the parents of all students in the classroom of an individual who had tested positive, but had not yet decided.
Updates from Buildings: What is the Pulse?
At the last two sessions of the RA, we asked participants (Building Reps, NTA Officers and Committee Chairs) to give us the “pulse” on where things are in their buildings so far this year. Here is some of what we heard:
Many people reported to us that, overall, people--students and staff--are thrilled to be back in person. Educators have found the resilience of students to be a real positive. For many students, this year seems to be offering them a “fresh start.” Most educators and students are just glad to be back in a “normal year”
On the other hand, many reps said that this idea of returning to a “normal year” felt double-edged: They reported that it feels as if district leaders, in promoting a “normal, pre-COVID year," weren’t acknowledging how far from normal--and hard—this year has been so far. We are still very much in “COVID” times. One clear indicator of this was that this year, like last year, there are still many open positions that have not been filled, and many educators are carrying the burden of, effectively, filling two roles. Changing bus schedules and open bus driver positions have meant buses often arrive late, and educators have had to wait with students for a bus in the afternoon. Others noted that district leaders, in pressing forward with their initiatives, and their continuing high expectations for educators, weren’t being realistic about how challenging our jobs remain.
Many comments were particular to grade levels. I compile these below:
Pre-K, Elementary and Middle School
Some reps reported that the shift of the elementary and middle school start time back by ten minutes was more impactful than expected. Others noted that last spring, elementary teachers had nearly an hour of prep time at the end of every day. Not having that this year—both the much longer block of time, and the consistency of having it every day--has been a difficult adjustment. Moreover, the prep time last year came at the end of the day—after students were dismissed—so it was uninterrupted. (This makes clear something the NTA has been advocating for forever: Elementary school teachers need more high quality prep time! Tasting what it was like to have this last spring is making the days this year feel even more fast paced and condensed.)
Some reps commented that they were impressed with how resilient the students who were in DLA last year have been; others commented that they were noticing discrepancies in the behavior and well-being of DLA students, who are having to relearn what it is like to be in the classroom. Others noted that a growing number of students are already struggling socially and emotionally, and showing this in their behavior. They expressed concern about how taxed mental health providers in their building have become already.
Many expressed worries about safety: They noted that the surveillance testing program is off to a very rocky start—and I soften very much how that was worded--; they worried about shifting lunch, P.E., mask breaks, and snacks indoors as the weather grows colder; they said that learning of positive cases in their buildings causes great anxiety.
And others brought up that, while having 1 to 1 devices for all students may mean the end of signing up for a cart, it also means a lot of work tracking and trouble-shooting devices. While the number of devices in both elementary and middle school has increased, the number of Technical Support Staff and Instructional Technology Specialists has not. And it’s a lot of work figuring out what the new protocols are for managing devices.
Reps reported that there is exhaustion and frustration at both schools around the schedule change. Schedules are more “packed” than they were in the past—many teachers teach straight through all of the blocks on some days, and have the responsibilities of the new “Win” blocks as well, which they are just figuring out. For some, the new start and end times mean that both arrival and departure happen during rush hour, making commutes harder and longer, eating up valuable time. And in addition to the changes to the schedule, the district is moving forward with initiatives to change grading procedures and making multi-level classes the norm for many courses. Adding these initiatives on top of the schedule change just feels like too much, and makes it hard to measure the relative value of any of the individual changes towards achieving district goals.
Newton Introduces "NewMO" Commuter Ride Sharing Service
This summer the city of Newton introduced “NewMo” a ride sharing service that allows Newton residents and employees to inexpensively hail a ride from a number of transportation centers in the city, and travel from there to their chosen destination within the city—this could include the school where you work. The service operates from 7:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m, and costs $2 per ride.
When the Mayor announced this new program in the summer, I contacted her and let her know that for some NTA employees, the 7:30 start time might not be early enough to facilitate arriving to work on time—program facilitators are currently working on the logistics of beginning service at 7:00.
Check out the program here, and let me know by responding to this email if an earlier start time would make this service work for your commute to school, and I will pass this along.
School Committee Campaign in Full Swing
NTA has endorsed Kathy Shields for Ward 7 School Committee, and Shawn Fitzgibbons for Ward 6. Newton residents from across the city vote in these elections. Sign up on Kathy and Shawn's websites to:
Attend or host or a house party/coffee for Kathy and Shawn.
Personally endorse Kathy or Shawn.
Have their lawn signs delivered to your home. You can also contact Jane Frantz directly to arrange to have a lawn sign delivered to your home JaneFrantz5@gmail.com.
The NTA is organizing stand outs near your school for both candidates. If you would like to participate, please email Jane Frantz at JaneFrantz5@gmail.com.
MTA Legislative Agenda:
Extended COVID-19 Emergency Paid Leave Provisions
The MTA and its allies, as part of the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, secured another victory recently: The state's COVID-19 pandemic sick time program has been extended through March 2022. This extension of paid leave as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic is an important public health benefit for all Massachusetts workers.
Continuing to Push on the Early Retirement Bill
H.2620/S.1791, An Act to provide a retirement enhancement opportunity for certain members of the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System, is a high priority for the MTA. This legislation gives us the opportunity to both bring justice to our eligible members and put the state on a new path to diversify our educator workforce. This bill, along with H.584/S.365, An Act relative to anti-racism, equity and justice in education, and H.583/S.338, An Act ensuring diversity in public education, will help us further the goal of racial justice in education. The hundreds of members who have already taken action on the bill demonstrate to the Legislature how much it matters. The legislation is currently being reviewed by the Joint Committee on Public Service following its hearing on Sept. 1. While the hearing sent a powerful message to the committee and showed how personal the issue is for so many of our dedicated educators, it is just one part in a multi-step legislative process. Please click here for more resources, including an outline of the many steps of the legislative process with a note about where we are today. You can keep up the pressure by recording a video and emailing your legislators to urge them to support H.2620/S.1791 and push for a favorable report out of the committee.
A Fair Share Massachusetts Heads Up!
Although it may seem far off, it's not: In November 2022, the Fair Share Amendment will appear on statewide ballots. This amendment would add 4 percentage points to the tax on income above $1 million, generating up to $2 billion annually for public education and transportation. The campaign is beginning. Click here to learn more, and to pledge your early support for the amendment.
MTA Professional Development Opportunities
MTA Early Career Educator Conference-- Saturday, November 6th Each fall the MTA New Member Committee hosts a conference with a variety of timely workshops geared toward Educators in their first five years. This year, due to Covid restrictions, this conference will be held virtually. It is a great opportunity to learn and connect with other early career educators in Massachusetts. Please see the attached flyer for workshop topics and a link for registration. This conference is open to all members, and prospective members. Participants can certify workshop time which can be applied to PDPs. This is a great way to engage prospective members and show them what resources are available to them if they join the union! MTA New Educator Trainings: Professional Teacher Status and Pre-PTS Rights This training will show you the ins and outs of how to get professional teacher status, how you can earn it in fewer than 3 years, and what your rights are before you get it. Trainer: Ashley Adams, MTA New Member Organizer Wednesday, 10/20/2021, 7:15-8:00 p.m. click here for registration link. Credit Counseling and Loan Forgiveness Webinar This training explains exactly how you may qualify for loan forgiveness, with tips on good credit practices. Trainer: Todd Friedhaber, Student Loan Counseling Manager, Cambridge Credit Counseling Corp Wednesday,10/13/2021, 4:30-6:00 p.m. click here for registration link. Monday, 10/18/2021, 6:00-7:30 p.m. click here for registration link. Wednesday, 10/27/2021, 4:30-6:00 p.m. click here for registration link. NEA/MTA Teacher Leadership Institute The TLI is a partnership between the MTA and the NEA that readies educators for leadership roles. Three hundred participants from across the country hone their expertise and engage in leadership work in schools, state houses and associations. TLI makes leadership accessible to educators with busy schedules as learning takes place primarily through webinars and video conferences, with much of the work self-paced. Click here for more information and access to the application form.