NTA Health and Safety Update, August 12, 2021

Learning Models and School Safety

In his July 28 summer update, Superintendent Fleishman said that “virtual and Hyflex will not be learning models provided by the Newton Public Schools this year.” In fact, DESE has explicitly prohibited districts from offering these learning models. And I say: Thank goodness! I think very few members of the NTA want to see a return to virtual or Hyflex learning.


That said, keeping schools open for “normal” in person teaching and learning is not something we should take as a given; it is something we must achieve. How? By keeping schools as safe and as free from disruption as possible.


On Monday, August 16, from 7:00 to 8:00, at a School Committee meeting, the Superintendent’s Ad Hoc Medical Advisory Group will present its health and safety recommendations for the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year to the School Committee and the larger Newton community.


The Advisory Group has been meeting this summer with the Superintendent and select members of the School Committee as they plan for reopening. We hope that—as happened last spring—the minutes of these planning sessions will be made available to the public and the NTA through online posting and/or directly to the NTA.


If we are to trust that the district is taking appropriate steps, it is critical that district leaders—the Superintendent, School Committee, Department of Health and Human Services, and Mayor Fuller— be transparent and open with the community and with NTA leadership and members. If there is anything I have learned so far from reading your thoughtful responses to the Summer Listening Project survey—it is that district leaders have a long way to go to regain our trust.


There is, dare I say, a political dimension to why transparency is so important: We know the School Committee and Superintendent’s decisions are not based exclusively on public health considerations. We need to know which constituencies, whose voices, they are prioritizing; which courses of action they are ruling in, which they are ruling out, and why. We need, in other words, to know not only the results of their thinking through the recommendations they make, but the process by which they considered these recommendations.


Last year it felt to many of us like the School Committee and the Superintendent were most responsive to the loudest and angriest voices in the parent community. In your survey responses, you commented frequently that in your personal interactions with the parents of your students, parents were supportive and understanding of just how hard you were working, how taxing that work was, and how dedicated you were to their children. But to those loud public voices who kept shouting that educators weren’t doing enough—district leaders just didn’t seem to be able find it within themselves to say: “Enough. Educators are giving their all, and bashing them—their dedication, their effort, and the incredibly good work they are doing-- is simply not ok. Stop!” And they needed to say this not just once, but often. That just didn’t happen.


The angriest, the most belligerent and bellicose voices cannot dominate our public discourse about schools this year. They will try; it is up to district leaders to prevent this from happening, to protect and preserve the integrity of our public discourse, speak up for educators when necessary, and take stands that are not popular with the angry voices but are in the best interests of staff and students, teaching and learning.


There will be an entirely different constituency in the buildings this fall: All of those students and educators who spent the last year teaching and learning remotely. Many educators and many students who had been teaching and learning remotely returned to the classroom last spring, but large numbers did not. The largest group among these are the elementary educators and students of the Distance Learning Academy. They have not been in person in the Newton Public Schools since the winter of 2020—well over a year and half in September!


These educators and students remained at home because they or their families were more vulnerable to COVID. A disproportionately high percentage of these students were black, Asian American, Latino-a, or students with special needs. Many of these students, because of the Delta variant, and because they are not yet eligible for vaccination, are even more vulnerable this year than they were last year. If, as a school community, we are to truly embrace the anti-racist values we say we embrace, then Newton must create conditions in the schools that keep the most vulnerable members of our community safe. There will be voices—angry voices—that object to some of the measures that will need to be taken. Their voices cannot have the same weight they did last year.


So what should we be listening for when the School Committee hears the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Medical Advisory Group on public health and safety measures?


1. Will the Medical Advisory Group recommend a mask mandate and will the School Committee adopt one? It is almost certain that this will happen. How could they not? So let me reframe the question:


Will the Medical Advisory Group and the School Committee go beyond recommending that the Newton Public Schools mandate masking to encourage the use of high quality, high filtration, comfortable, and well-fitting masks?


District leaders should do all they can to encourage staff and students to not only wear masks—but to wear high quality, high filtration, comfortable, and well-fitting masks. I hope the Medical Advisory Group speaks to this issue. Perhaps the district could purchase high quality masks and make them available for staff and students to wear. We must progress beyond the “masking or no masking” empty debate—and talk about how to mask most effectively. Our politics have not caught up with the science…as in so many things. Newton can lead here.


This past January, Cambridge resident and MIT scientist Jill Crittenden, a Co-Chair of the City of Cambridge’s COVID Expert Advisory Panel, made very practical and helpful recommendations on masks, including the below list of tested and recommended high quality, high filtration masks and reliable retailers for purchasing them. She also gives tips for making sure your mask fits well, how often a mask can be safely used, and other generally useful information. (If you really want to geek out on masks, the organization of which she is a part has produced this longer, more detailed document on masks.)


Recommendations on masks and retailers:

New recommendations since the list was produced.

  • Savewo Ultra 3D, Savewo Ultra 3D - Small, Savewo 3DMask EX Pro. No U.S Distributor yet—available through this Hong Kong distributor.

(These Savewo masks have both high filtration rates and extreme breathability, making them comfortable and safe to wear for extended periods of time.)


These children’s high filtration children’s masks are also extremely good—and affordable:

  • Posh KF94 Kid's Mask available for purchase here

  • HappyLife GoodDay Small (middle school age children) available for purchase here

  • HappyLife Gooday Kids Mask - XSmall (children <8) available for purchase here

  • Birdie Friends Kid's Mask available for purchase here

  • Blue Bifold Kids KF94 available for purchase here


2. Will the advisory group take up the issue of air quality, in particular, the HVAC systems?


Last fall and winter, the district, at the NTA’s insistence, completed a major project in testing, repairing and balancing the HVAC systems in every building and every space that was utilized for teaching and learning, and providing dashboards that made the results of that work easily available and accessible to everyone. Is my room safe? Is there enough fresh air? By late January, almost all of our members could refer to the dashboards and be confident that the answers they found there to these questions were accurate.


Work of this scope is generally effective for up to five years. Given that COVID spreads primarily through aerosols, this is really important, and Newton is way ahead of most districts on this issue. That said, most of Newton’s HVAC systems are quite old and some spaces only narrowly met ASHRAE standards.


The Medical Advisory Group and the School Committee should insist that, before the school year begins, the district perform spot testing and balancing checks across the district, particularly in rooms that were narrowly meeting standards last year, updating the building dashboards where necessary, in order to ensure that each and every room continues to have adequate fresh air circulation for teaching and learning. Moreover, a number of administrative spaces did not meet standards before year’s end; these too should be brought up to standards.


3. Surveillance testing? Surveillance testing began late last year, and compliance was poor. Unless the district makes surveillance testing mandatory, it is not very effective—and even if it did make it mandatory, enforcing that mandate would create a heavy burden for school staff.


The state is now recommending a different approach—”test and stay” rapid testing. If students or staff are symptomatic, they should be tested and sent home if they test positive. If negative, they should stay rather than quarantine. Close contacts of anyone who tests positive will choose to “test and stay” every day for five days or, if they choose not to be tested, they will quarantine.


Newton’s medical advisory group should issue a recommendation on whether Newton should follow DESE’s guidance and implement an approach like this, which not only protects schools from becoming places that spread the virus, but also prevents the disruption of quarantining large numbers of students and staff for extended periods.


4. Will the Medical Advisory Group recommend that the City require vaccines to work in or attend public schools? At the time David Fleishman sent his emails out to staff and families, Mayor Fuller reported that only 62% of Newton residents 16 to 19 were fully or partially vaccinated. Certainly the number of vaccinated has increased since then, and we don’t know how many of those 16 to 19 year old young adults will be enrolled in the Newton Public Schools this fall. Yet, at the same time, 95% of 12 to 15 year olds were fully or partially vaccinated. How will the Medical Advisory Group advise the School Committee to encourage more young people to get vaccinated, since the unvaccinated put not only themselves, but all of us, at greater risk?


I believe the members of the NTA would support a mandate that employees be vaccinated to work in the NPS. Currently, almost all NTA members are vaccinated, and those who have chosen not to be vaccinated have likely done so for medical reasons, which would allow them to be granted medical exemptions under any mandate. In effect, requiring NTA members would not have much real impact—except it would send a message of support to the district should it decide to require vaccinations for students.


If the Newton Health and Human Services Department were to mandate vaccination for any Newton Public School students and employees who are eligible, this would greatly enhance the safety and improve the teaching and learning conditions for both students and staff. Such a decision would likely be met with loud opposition from some quarters of the community. But is it the right thing to do from a public health standpoint? I think yes. Will the Medical Advisory Group or the School Committee even touch this issue? We will see.


Regards,


Mike Zilles, President

Newton Teachers Association

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