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I Was Open to Partial Re-Opening… But Now Opening Virtually Makes the Most Sense

August 1, 2020 1 comment

As posted earlier this summer, I offered some ideas to the Vermont School Board on how schools could open in a phased fashion that would provide face-to-face instruction for the youngest children, hybrid instruction for middle school aged children, and a completely flexible set of options for high school students. News stories I read yesterday and today and conversations and email exchanges with my two daughters have led me to change my mind: schools should begin planning NOW to open virtually and each school district should develop contingency phase in plans as opposed to contingency close down plans.

Yesterday’s stories described spikes in COVID 19 cases across the country despite the efforts of Governors to impose quarantines and a general effort on the part of the populous to wear masks and maintain social distancing. The one that particularly caught my eye dealt with the reaction of the Governors in New York and New Jersey where they are considering slowing down the reopening of businesses in light of recent spikes in their states and what they are witnessing across the country. It seems foolish to contemplate opening schools a month from now when the trendiness for the disease are moving in the wrong direction and all the medical advice suggests that at least 14 consecutive days of flat or diminishing cases are needed to consider reopening. Even New Hampshire and Vermont, two states that seemingly accomplished the flat-line status needed to reopen, are witnessing a modest but clear uptick in cases according to the latest data from each state.

Another story from yesterday’s news also gave me pause. A recent report from the CDC on an overnight camp in Georgia underscores the reality younger children DO get COVID 19 and may unwittingly spread the disease! Here’s an excerpt from the report:

…SARS-CoV-2 spread efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting, resulting in high attack rates among persons in all age groups, despite efforts by camp officials to implement most recommended strategies to prevent transmission. Asymptomatic infection was common and potentially contributed to undetected transmission, as has been previously reported (14). This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection (1–3) and, contrary to early reports (5,6), might play an important role in transmission (7,8).

Then this morning’s New York Times reported on the experience of an Indiana school district that was among the earliest to open in the country. Titled “A School Reopens, and the Coronavirus Creeps In“, the story describes how a school encountered a COVID case in the opening hours! Here are the opening paragraphs of the article:

One of the first school districts in the country to reopen its doors during the coronavirus pandemic did not even make it a day before being forced to grapple with the issue facing every system actively trying to get students into classrooms: What happens when someone comes to school infected?

Just hours into the first day of classes on Thursday, a call from the county health department notified Greenfield Central Junior High School in Indiana that a student who had walked the halls and sat in various classrooms had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Administrators began an emergency protocol, isolating the student and ordering everyone who had come into close contact with the person, including other students, to quarantine for 14 days. It is unclear whether the student infected anyone else.

The article notes that in light of these kind of experiences and in light of the fact that coronavirus is clearly NOT under control in almost all states that more and more regions are deciding to close schools and offer only remote learning. The plaintive response of a Greenfield Central Junior High School parent explains why that is the case:

One father whose daughter goes to the middle school with the positive case said he felt conflicted about his three children attending classes in person. Few people in the community are wearing masks, said the father, who asked not to be named because he worried that his family would face backlash.

“I have all these concerns,” the father said. But he has to commute at least an hour to work every day, so remote learning was not a good option for his family.

It’s just a mess,” he said. “I don’t know what the answers are.”

I’ve pondered this question and I do have an answer: plan now for remote learning and work with parents to find a way to make it work for them! School buildings will still be standing and if they are needed to serve as a safe haven for some children, a child care center for parents who work, or an internet hot spot for others some kind of plan can be worked out… but the default should be learning from home.

For 29 years as a School Superintendent in New England, Maryland, and New York I had to decide whether or not to open schools when it was snowing or snow was forecast. Whenever it was a close call I would opt on the side of safety. Why put thousands of children and hundreds of employees at risk in order to avoid an additional day in June? The Greenfield Central Junior High School parent is right— it IS a mess. But at this juncture it is not a mess of the school district’s making and opening can only make things worse. Opening school has the potential of adding to the mess and creating a problem where none exists.

And MAYBE the spike in cases, the infections and deaths of people who publicly declaimed the requirement to wear masks, and the examples set in other countries will get our populous to wake up to the need for masks and social distancing. When that happens, America will bend the curve and schools can begin a phased reopening.

Massachusetts Teachers Union’s Stance Help Pro-Privatization Advocates

July 29, 2020 Leave a comment

Given the way this pandemic is playing out, I have grave fears about the future of public schooling. The lack of leadership at the Federal level and in many states is leading to a situation where public schools are left to fend for themselves when it comes to making crucial decisions about school reopening. And, when the sole unifying entity in a State— the teacher’s union– makes some bone-headed proclamations that play into the hands of pro-school choice privatizers it does not bode well for the public schools.

Forbes education contributor Jeanne Allen’s article describing the recent actions of the Massachusetts Teachers Union makes me question the long range thinking of that group and, in turn, question the long range future of public education. As she notes, charter schools and Catholic schools spent the summer focussing on how they would open their individual schools in the Fall and developing contingent plans for actions they would take should the pandemic preclude live classes. In the meantime, public schools flailed about waiting word from the States on what they would do.  And when states failed to put together specific recommendations (in the name of “local control”), each district had to devise plans on its own. There IS one group in the State that could have played a role in developing a unified response to the issue: the teachers union. Had the unions spent five minutes thinking strategically they could have seen the train wreck that was about to occur. It was abundantly clear from the very beginning that the national leadership on the pandemic was completely absent and when, in April, the President decided this issue would be dealt with on a State-by-State basis the unions COULD have taken a step back and convened a group to devise a plan for schools that would make future transitions between remote and in-person learning more seamless. The unions COULD have proactively tackled the issue of how best to provide remote instruction realizing that such a stance would win over parents in the long run. Instead, at least in Massachusetts, the unions clung to the existing model of collective bargaining and fought to maintain the status quo at all costs. As Ms. Allen, no friend of unions, writes:

Massachusetts is a textbook case of vested interests over kids

The Massachusetts Teachers Association secured a major concession to delay school another two weeks to give teachers time to “prepare” for school. Districts will now be starting school September 15, rather than provide for students to begin their education on time or at least close to it, by taking advantage of the varied and innovative approaches that exist in these unprecedented times. That may work for wealthy families who can stay at the beach, or afford tutors, but what about the vast majority of families whose students lost ground this spring?

Ms. Allen then describes the work done over the summer by charter schools and parochial schools and contrasts it with the union’s actions over the summer:

And where was the organization that just negotiated the un-kid friendly concession to delay school again when Covid-19 hit?  It was busy negotiating contracts that forbid teachers to be working more than five hours in asynchronous work, and limiting to 15 hours real-time interactive work (including meetings with colleagues and professional development), setting a maximum limit of 20 hours of work per week. There were no requirements for student-facing time, no requirements for daily work (only per-week), and video could not be required at any time.

The goals of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is clear in this treatise, which outlines what they expect from the government during the crisis. This is not a proactive, forward-looking plan of action, but a manifesto with nothing about how education should be delivered.

The unions COULD have used the federal government’s failure and the failure of Governors to accept responsibility for devising a unified set of reopening standards as a teachable moment for the public: a chance to advocate for equitable state funding and a uniform set of standards. But instead, they were working on the traditional union issues: wages, hours, and working conditions of their employees. The pandemic crisis is an opportunity for unions to redefine themselves as allies of parents, as groundbreakers when it comes to new ideas, as being aware of the predicament businesses and parents face when schools are closed. I can’t help but think that were Albert Shanker alive he would have seized this moment. Jeanne Allen and the privatizers are.

NYC Teachers’ Union Splinter Group Questions Reopening Plans

July 28, 2020 Leave a comment

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MORE, a splinter group of the UFT in NYC, is threatening to stage a sick-in unless they are given a chance to have their voices heard.

MORE members argue that schools will not be safe until there’s more rapid coronavirus testing, until school budgets grow to cover the staff and other supports students will need, and until teachers themselves have a bigger say in reopening plans.

This same group made the same points in March and the school district ultimately decided to close, a decision that may not have been a direct response to the teachers demands. In this case,though, the teachers may well be speaking for the majority of parents as well. Interesting times lie ahead.