Dear School Committee Members,
As I said in the meeting last night, I am extremely concerned about the viability and educational wisdom of returning to school buildings in September. Since in the allotted three minutes I could share only a few of the reasons why I support remote learning to start the year, please allow me to elaborate:
1) The Need to Involve Teachers in the Process:
Please listen to the voices of those who actually have experience in classrooms, know the reality of the health and safety issues in the buildings, and can offer unique insight into the problems associated with a hybrid start.
Every teacher I know would give anything to be back in school doing the job we love, feeding off the energy of our students, holding discussions, building relationships. But we have to do so when it’s safe, and that’s just not the case right now.
2) Unaddressed Safety Questions:
Last night’s proposal (unfortunately delivered only hours before the meeting, both to NPS educators and the community) included many vague promises and did not satisfactorily address numerous safety issues:
• Will we have revamped HVAC and added air purifiers by mid-September? Sufficient weekly testing capacity, and PPE beyond “backup masks”?
• Will we be able to manage routine contact tracing? Who’s going to do all that, the one or two nurses in each school, who still don’t even have a fair contract during a pandemic? There’s a 1000:1 student-nurse ratio at the high schools. What happens when a student has symptoms of the flu? Or coughing from asthma? Will they quarantine?
• We can’t pretend that it’s safe to go back because we are working with children. 97,000 U.S. children tested positive in the last two weeks of July. Children can present as asymptomatic, and infection rates for children aged 10 to 19 are similar to infection rates for adults 20 to 49. Even if children are less likely to get seriously sick, as one professor health policy at Georgia State says, “every child that I know lives in a home with an adult…The idea that you can safely reopen schools and not in fact worsen spread is not based on science,” he added. “It’s based on wishful thinking.”
• If we go back to the building next month, we will put ourselves and/or our families in serious jeopardy. I’m 37 and other than tearing up my ACL in February attempting to ski, I’m pretty healthy. But my Dad has advanced Parkinson’s Disease, is severely immunocompromised, and is currently in the hospital recovering from spinal surgery. If I’m required to teach in the building come September, I’ll be unable to visit or help take care of him when he needs me the most. My wife (we got married at Newton City Hall almost a month ago) is also a public school teacher, and between the two of us, that’s a lot of potentially sick kids with whom we’d be interacting in person. We won’t be able to see my parents for fear of getting them sick. My talented, hard-working colleagues all have their own stories of fear and anxiety about their loved ones. I’d ask the SC and everyone in the community to bear in mind our individual stories when you think about NPS staff as you make your decisions.
• If we can’t ensure adequate safety for students and staff, it’s just not feasible yet to go back in-person. What we can do is a phased, data-based, sensible return to hybrid education that serves our high-needs populations first. The data indicates that children < 10 don’t spread the disease as easily, and elementary school students will suffer the most severe educational and developmental costs of not being in school. So, let’s focus on phasing them back in first, along with high-needs students and children in need of daytime care whose parents must work full-time. And please take robust measures to ensure the safety of those will teach these children.
3) Remote vs. Hybrid Models:
Having to do remote learning stinks – students and teachers know this better than anyone. Unlike last Spring, we haven’t met our students yet and don’t have pre-existing relationships on which to build. Remote learning undoubtedly presents major challenges. And I’ll admit – the hybrid model seemed appealing to me for a few minutes – the perfect Goldilocks solution! – not too many kids in classrooms, but some amount of “normal” education! In theory,
◦ Risk would be mitigated with fewer students in school at one time.
◦ Teachers and students would connect better.
◦ Students would be more engaged and learn better.
◦ There would be greater accountability for schoolwork.
◦ Negative impact of screen time on students’ emotional/mental well-being would be lessened.
◦ It’d allow for a smoother transition from remote to in person learning.
In practice, although teachers, students, and parents alike wish we could go back to “normal” school as if these were pre-COVID times, we simply can’t.
Expectations of what “in-school” will entail this year, even part time, are simply inconsistent with reality. We won’t be sending students back to school as we know it – we’ be sending them into something weird and unprecedented. Everything we would need to do to keep students and teachers safe in our schools would get rid of makes in-person learning so great in the first place.
Please allow me to paint a picture of the reality of hybrid learning, informed by 15 years of actually working in classrooms:
• Student social-emotional health: Many are suggesting that returning to in-person schooling is a necessity for children’s psychological health, which is indeed a major concern. However,
◦ Social-emotional connections will be limited by our need to keep 6 feet apart and behind masks or plexiglass. The classroom will be unrecognizable.
◦ Asking our kids not to participate in extracurriculars and remain socially distant from their friends is going to leave them deprived of important forms of socialization and outlets for stress.
◦ We have massive amounts of data telling us our high school students are severely stressed out, and this may be exacerbated by anxiety about the virus, constant vigilance about safety, and teachers or classmates potentially falling ill or dying.
• Passive learning: Teachers do their best work when they can circulate the room, look over students’ shoulders to see their work, and sit with them, face to face. Instead, in hybrid…
◦ Teachers will stay at the front of the room in order to avoid virus exposure, with students seated in rows, learning passively:
• No more one-on-one writing conferences
• Few projects
• Little to no collaborative group work or partner discussions.
• More likely: worksheets, independent work with insufficient guidance, students on their Chromebooks at their desks (when they could be doing the same at home, safely), or going on Zoom while at school, with their peers at home.
• Classroom management (Note: I’d be happy to host any of you in my classroom for a day to offer a first-hand insight as to why this plan isn’t feasible)
◦ Teachers will need to become vigilant mask police and distance-enforcers for students; this doesn’t help with relationship-building or learning.
◦ Tents: while I’m all for being outside as much as possible, try to imagine the collective attentiveness of a group of 14 year-olds in a tent the moment a bee starts buzzing around…we’ll try to redirect them, if they can hear us as we shout through our masks…outdoors…under a tent.
◦ What happens the moment kids take their masks off even temporarily to eat in the classroom? I live in Newtonville and regularly see people either not wearing their masks or wearing them on their chins. That may help to cover up a zit but doesn’t protect you or anyone else. We’re also in collective denial about childhood psychology. As one teacher put it, a normal 8th grade classroom is a “whispering, giggling, snoring, snacking, writhing mass of humanity constantly touching each other. The only thing eighth-graders love to do more than touch each other is ignore rules created by adults. Yes, even to the detriment of their own health and safety. (Adolescent brain development at work.) There goes your six feet of separation and your mask requirement…”
• Logistics: In the high schools, the sheer population numbers & frequent movement make hybrid the riskiest proposition of all. Students and staff will interact with far too many people in a given day and over the course of a week for the schools to avoid cross-transmitting the virus between groups.
• Child-care: As the New England Journal of Medicine states, hybrid plans “also fail to solve child-care challenges, since children will still be out of school for substantial periods. These challenges may be particularly acute for educators who are parents themselves, for other workers who lack flexibility in determining when or where they work, and for parents with multiple children on misaligned attendance schedules.”
• Duration: In a hybrid model, we’ll be lucky to get a couple of weeks in before infections and quarantines spike and we’re forced to shut down and go remote anyway.
◦ How will we help students deal with the inconsistency of a “stop-and-start” school?
◦ The bouncing back and forth will be chaotic, and students benefit from routine.
◦ When hybrid doesn’t work, will teachers get blamed (even though we advised it wouldn’t work), as we seemed to be blamed for every systemic failure in American society?
• Misplaced Energy: As pediatrician Dr. Emily Berner noted in a Globe op-ed last week, “Rather than Massachusetts schools investing resources in a return to in-person instruction, which is destined to fail, I encourage leaders to work with teachers to develop remote learning opportunities that are accessible for all students, and to support these plans with the funding necessary to do so.” Indeed. We’re only a month away, and we’ve already misallocated time, energy, and resources by not committing to improving remote learning as much as we could.
• Remote’s tough, but can be done: Parents have totally valid concerns about remote learning; so do I, and so do my colleagues and our students. We were all frustrated by the crisis learning situation last Spring, and remote learning indeed presents major challenges and can worsen inequities. But, if teachers are given resources, training, and time to plan, remote education can be done reasonably well, and it’ll be safe. At least some of the things I mentioned that will be extremely challenging if not impossible in hybrid can be done remotely. It won’t be quite as good as our teaching in a normal year, but we can get creative and do our best in a pandemic. If we trust and support smart, qualified, creative teachers to do their best, the result can still be pretty damned good.
• High risk, low reward: Hybrid schooling will NOT provide a better quality education than students would receive at home, and will very likely lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases and potentially deaths. These infections and losses of life could be you or me, your kids, or my parents. This is not a gamble worth taking. It’s educationally unsound and morally indefensible.
◦ Listen to the poignant words a Newton parent wrote on Village 14: “As the parent of an NSHS student who did not thrive with online learning last spring, I know that fully remote learning is going to be rough. But I also recently attended an online funeral & memorial service for a friend’s 23-year-old son, and I’d much rather have a rough time with remote learning than have to attend another such funeral.”
4) Equity & Inclusion:
◦ Our motto in the Newton Public Schools is “Equity and Excellence.” Active anti-racism is ostensibly a major focus for the school system. But as the author of one recent article put it, “If opening schools is about equity, then why aren’t we listening to those most impacted?”
◦ At the SC meeting last night, a colleague spoke to some of the racial inequities of the hybrid model. The supposedly obvious social-emotional benefits of returning school are not a slam dunk, and especially not for vulnerable families who don’t want to choose, as says, “between economic and educational security and their lives.”
◦ The impacts of disease are most devastating to families of color and to those who live with other forms of insecurity. The CDC reports that nationally Hispanic children are approximately 8X more likely and Black children 5X more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than their White peers. An Axios poll showed higher levels of opposition to sending students back to school amongst Black, Latinx, and low-income families: “Almost 9 out of 10 Black parents think it is a risk to their “health and well-being…Another national poll found that only 19% of parents making less than $50k feel comfortable sending their kids back to school in August or September, as opposed to 39% of those making over $75k.” In Massachusetts, 69% of white parents feel confident about schools reopening vs only 48% of Black and 44% of Latinx parents. Here in Newton? During the Zoom meeting last Thursday, Mr. Shen of the SC brought up racial disparities in the survey data, but his concerns were ignored. Please pay careful attention to whose stories are being told and whose perspectives are informing your decision-making. Is ignoring important voices “equity”? Does this promote “excellence”?
5) Misleading Claims:
I think it’s incumbent on the SC, other elected officials, and NPS administration to address blatant misinformation and misleading claims that poison valid debate. This weekend I watched an hour and a half recording of a presentation and panel put together by a few Newton parents last Thursday. This group made numerous claims as to why it’s supposedly safe for students and staff to meet in person, despite holding their own meeting virtually over Zoom. What I heard from the presenters in this meeting was a remarkable display of privilege and hypocrisy:
• In the SC meeting last night, one of the Zoom organizers, Valerie Pontiff asked the SC to “Please consider the perspective of the students.” I wonder how she can claim to speak for our students, many of whom I think would disagree vehemently. But maybe someone should ask them what they think. Respect student voices – I never cease to be amazed at how insightful they are. The city leadership could begin by actually answering the thoughtful questions posed by courageous student rep Christian Gaines. And I’d urge the SC to consider who’s participating in these conversations, and who’s not. Please do not cater to the most privileged voices.
• One supporter of the parent Zoom forum wrote on Village14, “All at-risk teachers already have waivers from returning to the classroom…Regarding non-at-risk teachers, NPS can take the same precautions as those used for hundreds of millions of workers in the US.” Aside from the questionable math, this claim simply isn’t true.
• Also misleading was the characterization of the NPS family survey results. “70% of NPS parents said they would send their students back full in-person.” Right…but 75% also said they would do so in a hybrid model, and 66% remote… The numbers have also changed since that survey and especially after last night, people are rethinking the options. Please don’t vote using problematic data.
• There was no almost no discussion of the health and wellbeing of the hundreds of adults in our schools, and no mention of studies that came out weeks ago that showed children > 10 can spread COVID at similar rates to adults.
• Certain claims were presented as “consensus” when they are anything but, and false comparisons were in abundance. Running a summer outdoor day camp, yoga class, or even a private school, with much smaller class sizes and fewer regulations, is hardly the same as running a public school of 2000+ students. It’s intellectually dishonest to suggest otherwise.
• The presenter who spoke the most last Thursday was Dr. Stefanos Kales, who misleadingly referenced outdated statistics from three months ago and said the 3 feet initially suggested by DESE was acceptable. It’s worth noting that Dr. Kales’s own institution, the Harvard School of Public Health, is going fully remote in September. One of the FAQ on the school’s website asks “How long will classes be taught online?” The answer: “We are planning for virtual instruction to continue through the 2020 fall semester…We don’t know what will be safe for WinterSession and the Spring semester yet and will be carefully monitoring the situation and making decisions as soon as possible.” Sounds eminently reasonable. And yet, despite the Harvard School of Public Health keeping its own students remote due to the uncertainty, some of their staff are pressing for in-school education in K-12 schools.
6) Exceptionalism & Gov’t Accountability:
You’ve surely seen the news about disastrous premature attempts at reopening elsewhere around the country. Some will say, “well, our numbers in MA, and in Newton, are comparatively lower.” But that’s because the majority of us have maintained our distance…
◦ Congratulating ourselves that we haven’t yet gone the way of Arizona, Georgia, or any other state simply because we’re MA is the height of hubris. Moreover, cases in the Northeast, including MA, are rising again. The NYT Editorial Board wrote on Sunday, “even clear victories over the virus, in places like New York and Massachusetts, feel imperiled.” As I write this, the Globe just reported that Gov. Baker is implementing new COVID-19 restrictions. And this is before college students from all over the country return to the Boston area this fall, right as we are reopening. We’re debating reopening K-12 schools at a time when local colleges and universities are changing their minds. We do not operate in a vacuum, and no one knows where MA will be by mid-Sept. And if we’ve achieved some level of public health success, why throw that away?
◦ It’s inconvenient and unfair that students, parents, and teachers must bear the burdens of incompetence. And surely many parents will again struggle this fall if we begin school remotely. In a different universe, the federal government might give billions of dollars to a “safety net” for family childcare and economic security instead of bailing out large corporations. Since that’s not going to happen, and the hybrid model won’t solve the underlying issues of childcare, then let’s start remotely and work together to develop a safe, reasonable, flexible model, starting with students who absolutely need supervision. But educators shouldn’t be asked to risk their health and those of their loved ones because of larger institutional failures. And we can’t expect schools to magically become child care facilities and hospitals, all in a matter of weeks.
7) The School Committee’s Decision:
I have great respect for the smart and capable folks on the SC, and I don’t envy your position. But please consult teachers as to what will work and how, and then let us do our jobs in a way that avoids putting our students, ourselves, and our loved ones at risk.
◦ It needs to be reiterated that optics matter: the SC will be voting on whether or not to send children and adults back to buildings, with serious health and safety questions, from the comfort of their own homes, over virtual Zoom meetings.
◦ The lack of certainty is causing great anxiety for all of us, but the virus is not going to magically disappear, and a vaccine will not be widely available any time soon. In the meantime, I hope our School Committee and other elected leaders will demonstrate courage, patience, caution, and wisdom. This year has been enormously challenging for everyone. But we can still be socially responsible and empathetic human beings, and do our part in making the best we can of not just a difficult situation, but a pandemic. Let’s model for our students the values we claim to uphold.
Thanks for your time and consideration,