Archives for category: Health

I am breaking my recent promise not to post articles that were previously published, but this is one of those rare exceptions to the rule, because it would not get the national audience it deserves without reposting it here. This article by Sandra Vohs, president of the Fort Wayne Education Association, appeared originally in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, one of the few newspapers in Indiana and the nation that appreciates our public schools and their teachers.

Vohs writes:


These days, it’s impossible not to hear cries of “get kids back in school” and “we need to reopen schools.” These declarations certainly suggest that schools are closed.

In this era of alternative facts, there is some bizarre belief out there that, all over the nation, school leaders have decided just to skip this year, allowing teachers to take a long, paid vacation. Of course, that would mean students have a year of free time with no lessons to complete, no grades to earn and no chance of moving on to the next level next year.

I suppose that means that virtual school or remote learning will no longer be officially considered “school.” What does this mean for all the virtual schools that have been enrolling, teaching and graduating students for years?

Will all the students who have earned credits from virtual schools see their credits reversed and their diplomas voided?

Of course not.

Though arguably inferior to in-person classes, virtual school has been an educational option available to students for quite a while.

Educators from traditional, in-person, brick-and-mortar schools have long been cheerleaders for theirs as the best option for students – sensibly pointing to supporting research to back their claims.

For the vast majority of students, there is no equivalent alternative to the academic and social advantages offered by in-person classroom settings.

So, while virtual education is not the best option for most children, it is still a viable secondary option in circumstances where in-person learning is impractical or potentially unsafe.

It is worth pointing out that, until the COVID-19 pandemic, there weren’t a lot of supportive voices joining the proponents of in-person school over virtual education; tax dollars in multiple states were siphoned from traditional schools and diverted to online schools under the guise of supporting “school choice” initiatives.

Some of the very same voices shouting about the need to reopen schools that are currently virtual – as if virtual school isn’t really school – are the same voices that supported pre-pandemic virtual schools over traditional public schools in the first place.

So, to all the school districts that have had to instantly offer virtual instruction to students, compliments of the pandemic: thank you. Thank you for rushing to get resources and training to students, parents and teachers.

Thank you for finding creative ways to allow some students to return in person, from creating blended schedules of in-person and remote classes to finding unorthodox spaces for classrooms to allow for smaller class sizes and social distancing.

Thank you for implementing ever-changing public health recommendations from local, state and national health departments.

And thank you for offering virtual classes when in-person school posed too much of a risk to the adults and children of your communities.

Since public school funding isn’t consistent, even within individual states, some school districts have been able to be more proactive against the spread of the virus.

To those districts, thank you for upgrading ventilation systems (if you could afford it), adding buses and drivers (if you could afford it), bringing in trailers for additional classroom space (if you could afford it), hiring extra teachers to lower class sizes (if you could afford it), providing free masks and hand sanitizer (if you could afford it), providing free breakfasts and lunches for remote students (if you could afford it), supplying computers and internet connectivity to students (if you could afford it), and being able to provide the safest possible environment for the children you serve.

By far, the biggest thank you of all should be reserved for teachers, the boots-on-the-ground first responders to the educational consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers are working both in person and virtually, often at the same time.

They have been charged with mastering virtual technology that is only as good as the virtual framework supplied by their districts. They have had to become software experts and tech support for students and parents, all while implementing standards of best practices for remote learning in the lessons they design.

They are working nearly twice as many hours, typically for no additional pay, yet these are the teachers whom politicians and pundits often publicly disparage as “not wanting to work.”

Teachers who have returned to in-person classrooms have to implement and sustain pandemic protocols with children – cleanliness, social distancing, mask-wearing.

They have to modify their curriculum to adapt to those protocols (no group work, no shared supplies, etc.).

They risk exposure to COVID-19 every day; the safest and cleanest school buildings have no impact on what students are exposed to outside of school.

Teachers are being asked to risk their health, or the health of their loved ones, all while TV news and social media are full of ignorant vitriol claiming teachers just don’t want to work.

While some states have prioritized vaccinating teachers, others (such as Indiana) have not made vaccinating teachers a priority.

Teachers have been ensuring the continuation of school all year, both virtually and in person, yet they and their professional associations are routinely and publicly disrespected for their efforts.

The next time you hear anyone say students need to get back in school, or that schools need to reopen, please remember that schools are open and performing miraculous feats to keep public education available to all.

Sandra Vohs is president of the Fort Wayne Education Association.

The BBC reports that the British Psychological Society warns that policymakers should emphasize children’s well-being rather than “catching up” with academics. They are concerned that children are facing too much pressure as the adults make decisions about what to do next. All schools in England are expected to open by March 8.

Dr Dan O’Hare, co-chair of the BPS division of educational and child psychology, said it was “absolutely understandable” that parents are concerned children have “been missing out on many aspects of their formal education” – but warned against setting expectations too high.

“The notion that children need to catch up or are ‘behind’ at school due to the pandemic reinforces the idea that children have ‘one shot’ at their education and puts them under even more pressure to perform academically after what has been a challenging and unprecedented time for everyone,” he told the PA News agency.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, board member of the Network for Public Education, and expert on student privacy, pulls together some interesting threads in this post.

If Biden wants schools to reopen soon, she says, he should make sure that every teacher gets vaccinated so schools can safely reopen. Instead, he has broken his promise to get rid of the federal testing mandate and turned responsibility for the decision over to a junior staff member. She wonders who is making decisions at the Department of Education.

Why prioritize standardized tests over vaccinations for teachers?

The decision to restart testing was advanced recently by EdTrust. She shows how much money each of the signers has received from the Gates Foundation over the past decade. The total is at least $200 million.

Is the Biden administration dancing to the Gates’ tune?

John Thompson writes below about the ongoing confusion about whether it is safe to reopen schools. Trump and DeVos demanded that schools reopen without the resources to reopen safely. Now, the debate continues, with a mixture of science, hope, and fear. I am not a public health expert, and I offer no advice. But common sense suggests that teachers should be vaccinated first, along with other essential workers. Teaching in a room with a large group of students all day long, it seems to me, is materially different than shopping in a store where one enters and leaves within 15-20 minutes. If we expect teachers to be frontline workers, they should get the vaccinations and PPE equipment they need.

He writes:

Today we’re in a situation in regard to reopening schools that is similar and different to that of the first six months of the Covid pandemic. Then, it seemed likely that schools could reopen by the fall semester as long as we respected public health evidence, and set smart priorities, such as reopening schools not bars. But Trump and his acolytes politicized the pandemic, even leading the way to super-spreadings by holding crowded political and motorcycle rallies, as well as pushing the premature reopenings of indoor dining and partying.

I’m afraid, however, that we’re also in a situation similar to last November when it should have been obvious that the holidays were coming, bringing super-spreads. Rarely do we face school reopening issues that lead to obvious conclusions. However, it would have been crazy to reopen schools as Thanksgiving approached, prompting the surge which would feed the super-surges of Christmas and New Years. Even so, true believers in the claim that educators were being too cautious often continued to ramp up the blame game. In “When Trump Was Right and Many Democrats Wrong” (Nov 18), Nick Kristof criticized Democrats for failing to learn from Europeans who had safely kept their schools open.

Ironically, Kristof’s editorial was published 6 days after Spiegel International’s “Reevaluating Children’s Role in the Pandemic.” It explained in great detail that “a large study from Austria shows that SARS-CoV-2 infects just as many schoolchildren as it does teachers. Other surveys indicate that while young children may show no symptoms, they are quite efficient at spreading the virus.”  

Spiegel explained, “‘Schools are not islands of serenity,’ says study leader Michael Wagner, a professor of microbiology at the University of Vienna. Leaving them open is ‘a significant risk.’” Moreover, “‘Children reflect the infection levels they are surrounded by,’ says microbiologist Wagner. But because they are so often asymptomatic, they are ‘severely undertested,’ leading him to believe that there are a rather significant number of unreported cases.”

In fairness, even if Kristof had read about and contemplated the new situation in Europe, he could not have known that it would foreshadow the most important pandemic challenge we face today. But he no longer has an excuse for sticking with his simplistic attacks on teachers.

As the super-spread that took off in November subsides, and given the fact that President Biden has replaced Trump, it could be argued that we should be able to safely reopen schools over the next 100 days. As was true in the summer and the fall, new scientific research keeps producing evidence that schools can operate safely in person, especially in places where masking, social distancing, and public health guidelines are respected when dealing with community transmissions. Recent studies documented successes in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and European schools. Research keeps confirming that schools for the youngest children are the least likely to spread the virus. And a recent JAMA study concludes “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

On the other hand, the path JAMA describes toward “return primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery” also requires “steps to reduce community transmission and limiting school-related activities such as indoor sports practice or competition that could increase transmission risk.” For instance, it cites a recent wrestling tournament where, “Among the 130 tournament participants, 38 (30%) had laboratory-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection diagnosed, but less than half the participants were tested. At least 446 contacts of these cases have been identified.” These and secondary transmissions are still being studied.

Sadly, we’re also seeing a repeat of the politicization of public health which contributed so much to the super-spreads that made it impossible for so many urban districts to reopen in the fall. One of the worst examples is Derek Thompson’s article published online with the title, “Open Schools, Already.” Thompson began with an oversimplified characterization of the Center for Disease Control’s call to reopen schools “as soon as possible,” and asserted, “the CDC seems to be shouting: Enough! To which, I would add: What took you so long”?

I always follow the links in these reports, and almost always I find a story more complicated than anticipated. But, these reports tend to start with the conclusion about whether schools can reopen safely, followed by a number of disclaimers and warnings. Thompson turned out to be one of the most extreme examples of a respected reporter misrepresenting the complexities documented in the sources he cited. 

Rather than get into the weeds of methodology, before addressing Thompson’s misleading arguments, I’ll just mention a few more differences between today’s questions and those of the summer and fall. New research estimates that 59 percent of transmissions, not 35 percent as previously estimated, are by asymptomatic persons. Moreover, we now have evidence that teens are more likely to spread the virus than originally thought. And a new study of infections in Florida and China shows that children may be more likely to be asymptomatic, and they may be 60% more likely than adults over 60 to spread the infection. 

These findings, combined with the lack of testing and contact tracing in many places, call into question the previously understandable conclusions by some that schools aren’t major contributors to community transmission.

Also, there are new reasons to worry about the unknown, but potentially serious, harm done by Covid to asymptomatic persons.   

Getting back to Thompson’s article as a case study in misrepresenting complex science, North Carolina and Wisconsin offer just two of many examples of studies of small samples of committed school systems that are not representative of many other districts. In “Incidence and Secondary Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 Infections in Schools,” Duke University researchers found that infections were rare in “35 North Carolina schools that offered in-person teaching for at least some of the 9 weeks, with only 17 staying open to students for the entire quarter.” 

The researchers acknowledged that the sample of schools “may select for school districts that enforce adherence to preventative measures, emphasize transparency, and cooperate with peers.” These characteristics “are likely associated with greater adherence to masking, reduced secondary transmission, and lower risks.” And, when two districts faced reduced compliance with masking and distancing, a nonprofit stepped in to reinforce those policies.

In response to my questions on methodology, co-author Daniel Benjamin volunteered that the key to success:

Is that there is 99% mask compliance for every person in the mainstream curriculum that steps on school property. It’s the mitigation strategies—distancing, masking, hand hygiene that are crucially important. If a school district does not do these things, they will likely make the pandemic worse by being open. This is why we don’t advise “you should open” or “you should go remote”…. It’s all about the public health measures.

And while we’re reading more optimistic reports by reliable researchers like JAMA and the CDC, let’s not forget their qualifying statements, such as the CDC’s summary of Wisconsin infections from Sept 3 to Nov16. Schools were the 4th largest source of infections, following long term care and corrections facilities, and colleges; an estimated 14% of infections were linked to schools.

These are just a few of the new pieces of evidence that schools may not be super-spreaders, but they are spreaders. But, how fast do we want to reopen those spreaders as the virus variant comes to the United States? The New York Times cites the CDC and other institutions that predict the more contagious U.K. variant will be predominant by March. If so, will it make sense to not reclose the schools that contribute to spread, even if they don’t drive the increase in infections?  

The reopening of schools in 100 days is a reasonable goal, but decisions on the pace of reopenings and when it is necessary to reclose schools, should not be politicized. My sense, however, is that more of the press, and public health and education advocates are now discussing politics more, and complicated science relatively less. For instance, there has been a steady increase in charter school advocates implicitly or explicitly blaming shutdowns on unions. Robert Pondiscio’s “How Anger Over Covid Closures Can Fuel the School Choice Movement” is just one recent example.

At the same time, more journalists are focusing on the differences between statements by some of Biden’s public health experts, and his apparently more balanced approach, as well that of teachers and unions, than the nuances of medical science conclusions. Moreover,, the Washington Post explains, “CDC researchers looked to Europe’s experience in the fall to inform their conclusion that ‘there has been (emphasis mine) little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.’”

But new research from Europe leads towards a new conclusion, articulated by Celso Cunha, director of the medical microbiology unit at Nova University of Lisbon’s Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, “By themselves, schools are not the main problem, but it makes sense to close them when the numbers are so high that anything can have an impact on the health system as a whole,” 

The Wall Street Journal also reports:

A consensus is emerging in Europe that children are a considerable factor in the spread of Covid-19—and more countries are shutting schools for the first time since the spring.

Closures have been announced recently in the U.K., Germany, Ireland, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands on concerns about a more infectious variant of the virus first detected in the U.K. and rising case counts despite lockdowns. …

The Journal quoted the director of the University of Geneva’s Institute of Global Health, “In the second wave we acquired much more evidence that schoolchildren are almost equally, if not more infected by SARS-CoV-2 than others.”

And as Spiegel reported in November, Europeans have had to ask, “Might children, in fact, be mini-superspreaders running around without so much as a sore throat as they pass the virus on to classmates, parents and siblings?”

I sure can’t anticipate the answer to that question, but unless we can discuss it in a non-ideological manner, we might fail at both the reopening of schools within 100 days, and contribute to a resurgence of Covid. 

I am getting dizzy from the whipsawing of information and advice about whether, when, and how schools should reopen. They were open in Europe, and we envied Europe; then they were closed in Europe. Schools open, then close, then open again. I am not a scientist so I offer no advice. The scientists agree that schools can open safely if they observe the medical protocols. If I were a teacher, I would want to be vaccinated first, but that is not what the scientists say here. Teachers are in an enclosed space with students most of the day; they are essential workers. Why not prioritize them for vaccination?

This story appeared in the New York Times:

Many of the common preconditions to opening schools — including vaccines for teachers or students, and low rates of infection in the community — are not necessary to safely teach children in person, a consensus of pediatric infectious disease experts said in a new survey.

Instead, the 175 experts — mostly pediatricians focused on public health — largely agreed that it was safe enough for schools to be open to elementary students for full-time and in-person instruction now. Some said that was true even in communities where Covid-19 infections were widespread, as long as basic safety measures were taken. Most important, they said, were universal masking, physical distancing, adequate ventilation and avoidance of large group activities.

The experts were surveyed by The New York Times in the last week. Depending on various metrics, between 48 percent and 72 percent say the extent of virus spread in a community is not an important indicator of whether schools should be open, even though many districts still rely on those metrics. Schools should close only when there are Covid-19 cases in the school itself, most said.

“There is no situation in which schools can’t be open unless they have evidence of in-school transmission,” said Dr. David Rosen, an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Washington University in St. Louis.

The risks of being out of school were far greater, many of the experts said. “The mental health crisis caused by school closing will be a worse pandemic than Covid,” said Dr. Uzma Hasan, division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at RWJBarnabas Health in New Jersey.

For the most part, these responses match current federal guidance, which does not mention vaccines, and reflect significant scientific evidence that schools are not a major source of spread for children or adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release new recommendations Friday on how schools can safely operate, and the Biden administration has prioritized opening schools.

But the expert consensus in the survey is at odds with the position of certain policymakers, school administrators, parent groups and teachers’ unions. Some in these groups have indicated that they do not want to return to school buildings even next fall, when it’s likely that teachers will be able to be vaccinated, though not most students. Some districts have faced fierce resistance to reopening, particularly in large cities, where teachers have threatened to strike if they are called back to school buildings.

A return to in-person school this week in Chicago, where disagreement between elected officials and the teachers’ union over reopening has been particularly intense.
A return to in-person school this week in Chicago, where disagreement between elected officials and the teachers’ union over reopening has been particularly intense.Credit…Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

And some experts concurred that open schools pose risks, particularly to the adults working there, and said that many parts of the country had not yet controlled the virus enough to safely open.

“Just because school opening isn’t causing higher levels of community transmission doesn’t mean that there isn’t individual risk to teachers and staff,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a visiting professor of health policy at George Washington University. “If we had wanted schools to safely reopen, we should have worked hard as a society to keep transmission rates down and to invest resources in schools.”

About half of the nation’s students are still learning from home, and while a majority of districts are offering at least some in-person learning and more are trying to reopen this spring, many are offering students just a few hours a day or a few days a week.

The mismatch between the experts’ preferred policies and the rules governing school opening in many districts reflects political considerations and union demands, but also changes in scientists’ understanding of the virus. Many school policies were developed months ago, before growing evidence that Covid-19 does not spread easily in schools that adopt basic safety precautions. The guidance could change again, they cautioned: Nearly all expressed some concern that new coronavirus variants could disrupt schools’ plans to be open this spring or fall.

More than two-thirds of the respondents said they had school-aged children, and half had children in school at least some of the time. Over all, they were more likely than not to support their own schools being open. About 85 percent of those in communities where schools were open full time said their district had made the right call, while just one-third of those in places where schools were still closed said that had been the right choice.

The point of most agreement was requiring masks for everyone. All the respondents said it was important, and many said it was a simple solution that made the need for other preconditions to opening less essential.

“What works in health care, masks, will work in schools,” said Dr. Danielle Zerr, a professor and the division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Washington. “Kids are good at wearing masks!”

Half the panel said a complete return to school with no precautions — no masks, full classrooms and all activities restored — would require that all adults and children in the community have access to vaccination. (Vaccines haven’t been tested yet in children and most likely won’t be available until 2022.)

But not everyone agreed that younger children needed to be vaccinated to return to pre-pandemic school life. One-fifth said a full reopening without precautions could happen once adults in the community and high school students were vaccinated, and 12 percent said it could happen once vaccines were available to all adults in the community.

The experts also questioned another strategy used by many districts that are open or plan to open this spring: opening part time, for small and fixed cohorts of students who attend on alternating schedules to decrease class size and maximize distance between people. Only one-third said it was very important for schools to do this, though three-quarters said students should be six feet from one another some or all of the time. Three-quarters said schools should avoid crowds, like in hallways or cafeterias.

Limiting time in school increased other risks, some said, like impeding children’s social development, disrupting family routines and increasing the chance of children’s exposure to a bigger group of people out of school.

The experts expressed deep concern about other risks to students of staying home, including depression, hunger, anxiety, isolation and learning loss.

“Children’s learning and emotional and, in some cases, physical health is being severely impacted by being out of school,” said Dr. Lisa Abuogi, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at the University of Colorado, expressing her personal view. “I spend part of my clinical time in the E.R., and the amount of mental distress we are seeing in children related to schools is off the charts.”

The survey respondents came from the membership lists of three groups: the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, the Decision Sciences for Child Health Collaborative and the American Academy of Pediatrics subspecialty group on epidemiology, public health and evidence. Some individual scientists also responded. Nearly all were physicians, and more than a quarter of them had degrees in epidemiology or public health as well. Most worked in academia and about a quarter in clinical settings, and most said their daily work was closely related to the pandemic.

Though their expertise is in children’s health, they cited evidence that with masks and other precautions, in-school transmission was very low, including from children to adults.

“I completely understand teachers’ and other school employees’ fear about returning to school, but there are now many well-conducted scientific studies showing that it is safe for schools to reopen with appropriate precautions, even without vaccination,” said Dr. Rebecca Same, an assistant professor in pediatric infectious disease at Washington University in St. Louis. “They are much more likely to get infected from the outside community and from family members than from school contacts.”

The survey asked experts about various strategies that schools are using to keep students and staff safe. The experts said many such measures would have some merit, but identified two as most important: mask wearing and distancing.

Other widely adopted measures — like frequent disinfection of buildings and surfaces, temperature checks or the use of plexiglass dividers — were viewed as less important. One-quarter said routine surveillance testing of students and staff was very important for schools to open.

“Masks are key,” Dr. Noble said. “Other interventions create a false sense of assurance.”

Many states have tied openings to measures of community spread in the school’s county, like test positivity rates, the rate of new infections or the rate of hospitalizations. But 80 percent of the experts said school districts should not base reopening decisions on infection data in the county at large; they should focus on virus cases inside the school.

Many districts have opened or are considering opening for younger students before older ones. Research has found that for children around adolescence, infection and spread become more similar to that of adults. The Biden administration has shaped its reopening plans around students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Just over half of pediatric infectious disease experts said fifth grade should be the cutoff, if schools are partly opened. Just 17 percent said eighth grade should be. But despite high school students’ greater risk, many lamented the long-term effects of a year of extreme isolation on teenagers.

Although these experts specialized in children’s physical health, many concluded that the risks to mental health, social skills and education outweighed the risks of the virus. Students’ future opportunities, said Dr. Susan Lipton, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, are “torpedoed without the best academics, interaction with inspiring teachers who become mentors, clubs, sports and other ways to shine.”

“This is devastating a generation,” she said.Schoolchildren Seem Unlikely to Fuel Coronavirus Surges, Scientists SayOct. 22, 2020How 700 Epidemiologists Are Living Now, and What They Think Is NextDec. 4, 2020Monitoring the Coronavirus Outbreak in Metro Areas Across the U.S.

Claire Cain Miller writes about gender, families and the future of work for The Upshot. She joined The Times in 2008 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. @clairecm • Facebook

Margot Sanger-Katz is a domestic correspondent and writes about health care for The Upshot. She was previously a reporter at National Journal and The Concord Monitor and an editor at Legal Affairs and the Yale Alumni Magazine. @sangerkatz • Facebook

Kevin Quealy is a graphics editor and reporter. He writes and makes charts for The Upshot about a range of topics, including sports, politics, health care and income inequality. @KevinQ


WASHINGTON—
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten issued the following statement after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines for reopening schools:

“Today, the CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence. For the first time since the start of this pandemic, we have a rigorous road map, based on science, that our members can use to fight for a safe reopening.

“The CDC has produced an informed, tactile plan that has the potential to help school communities around the country stay safe by defining the mitigation and accommodation measures, and other tools educators and kids need, so classrooms can once again be vibrant places of learning and engagement.

“Of course, this set of safeguards should have been done 10 months ago—and the AFT released its plan recommending a suite of similar reopening measures in April. Instead, the previous administration meddled with the facts and stoked mass chaos and confusion. Now we have the chance for a rapid reset.

“We note the CDC has identified the importance of layered mitigation, including compulsory masking, 6 feet of physical distancing, handwashing, cleaning and ventilation, diagnostic testing and contact tracing. It reinforces vaccine priority for teachers and school staff. Crucially, it emphasizes accommodations for educators with pre-existing conditions and those taking care of others at risk.

“We remain supportive of widespread testing—especially as mutant strains multiply in areas of uncontrolled community spread—and we urge the CDC to remain flexible as more data comes to light. The guidance is instructive for this moment in time, but this disease is not static.

“The stage is now set for Congress and the Education Department to make this guidance real—and that means securing the funding to get this done in the nation’s school districts and meet the social, emotional and academic needs of kids. To that end, we are encouraged that the department is citing examples of successful reopening strategies in New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C.

“There’s a lot of work ahead to get this done. But the good news is the Biden administration is committed to realizing these recommendations through its $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, and to creating a culture of trust and collaboration with educators and parents to get us there.”

#

The United Teachers of Los Angeles are not satisfied with the new CDC guidelines:

Feb. 12, 2021

For immediate release

UTLA Media Contact: Anna Bakalis / 213-305-9654 / abakalis@utla.net

UTLA Statement on new CDC guidelines for returning to in-person instruction

We applaud the CDC’s efforts for a national strategy to return to in-person instruction, but the new guidelines released on February 12 do not do enough to address the specific challenges of large urban school districts like LAUSD. And most troubling is that it does not require vaccinations for school staff, six-foot distancing in all schools, nor improved ventilation as a key mitigation measure. 

We reiterate that the path to a safe reopening must include: vaccines for all educators and school staff, multi-tiered mitigation strategies (such as COVID testing, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation/quarantine procedures) and lowered community transmission rates — LA County must be out of the purple tier. 

On the same day as the CDC released its new guidelines, LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom, calling for the immediate reopening of K-6 classrooms, even without proper funding for mitigation measures nor vaccinations for school staff. It’s clear that political pressure is rising to force a return to in-person instruction. Without important health and safety protocols in place, we know whose lives will be on the line — the low-income communities of color disproportionately impacted by illness and death from the virus.

We ask those like Barger who are pushing to reopen in the purple tier and without lowered community transmission rates: How many infections and deaths are considered ‘safe?’

While LA educators want nothing more than to be back in classrooms, the risk of community transmission of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County is still too high. 

UTLA remains committed to the health and safety of our students and our communities.

###

UTLA, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union local, is proud to represent more than 35,000 teachers and health & human services professionals in district and charter schools in LAUSD

John Merrow is exasperated by the media narrative that it’s only the teachers’ unions that are blocking the reopening of schools.

Of course, students should be in real school, but schools must be safe for adults and students alike.

He writes that teachers should be vaccinated. And communities must prioritize what matters most in school, which is NOT testing.

He writes:

The giant lumbering beast known as the US Economy–akin to a conveyor belt with countless moving parts–wants public schools to reopen.  The beast needs workers, but right now too many adults are at home, supervising their children’s ‘remote learning.’  Open the schools, and the adults can go to work: it’s that simple….

But of course it isn’t simple.  Putting kids back in schools will allow adults to work, and that’s important, but it is what happens inside schools that matters more.  

A quick history lesson: We’ve always sent our children to school for three reasons: 1) Acquisition of knowledge, 2) Socialization, and 3) Custodial care.  The internet has turned that upside down because it puts infinite information at everyone’s fingertips wherever they happen to be and because thousands of apps allow for ‘socialization’ with anyone and everyone.  That left only custodial care as a vital school function, until the pandemic made even that impossible. 

However, students swimming in a sea of infinite information need guidance, because ‘information’ is not knowledge.  It takes a certain skill set to distinguish between wheat and chaff, and a certain value system to choose the wheat over the chaff.  Skilled teachers make that happen.

Socializing via apps, though convenient, is fraught with peril, because that person you believe to be your age and your gender might be an adult with evil intentions. Skilled teachers help students learn to discern. And skilled teachers see that students use this all-powerful technology for useful purposes.

But perhaps the major lesson of remote learning is that young people want and need to be with their peers.  Apps don’t cut it…and the kids are not alright.

The mental health consequences of prolonged isolation are becoming clearer by the day.  “Students are struggling across the board,” said Jennifer Rothman, senior manager for youth and young adult services at the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, to The Washington Post in January.  “It’s the social isolation, the loneliness, the changes in their routines.  Students who might never have had a symptom of a mental health condition before the pandemic now have symptoms.” 

If you read my blog last week, you were shocked by one reader’s response:  “John, I’m wondering if we could have a conversation sometime. I am passionate about this subject. Our 13-year old grandchild just committed suicide after return one single morning to virtual schooling. It was Monday, Jan. 4, first day back, after the holidays. They broke for lunch, Donovan wrote a note…. went outside, and shot himself.”

So when schools reopen, attention must be paid, not to catching up with the curriculum but to the needs of young people.

Now to the present: President Joe Biden has pledged to reopen schools by the end of his first 100 days, a monumental challenge.  Reopening schools is a complex issue, but–sadly and predictably–opportunistic politicians and some in the media are framing the issue as a conflict between the needs of students and the selfish wishes of teachers and, naturally, their unions.  

This false narrative hurts both groups...

What have school boards been doing?  Not much. The San Francisco School Board has spent months arguing whether to rename schools for people more admirable than Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, instead of preparing for reopening or pushing to make sure teachers would be vaccinated.  While that’s pathetically politically correct, the behavior of some school boards was borderline criminal, in at least one case allowing their family members to jump the vaccination line ahead of teachers!

And so, today, not even half of states have prioritized the vaccination of teachers and others who work with children in schools.  That’s an absolute disgrace.  As one teacher noted on Twitter, “…for us it’s been about the lack of care and preparedness of the school district, how they’ve treated the teachers and staff, the lack of communication, and the moving goalposts for how and when to reopen…”

So, yes, schools should reopen as fast as possible–but only after teachers have been vaccinated, classrooms have been provided with adequate ventilation and PPE, and schools have developed safety protocols. In some instances, this will require immediate attention to the physical condition of buildings, because there are public schools in America without hot running water!  

Experts have voiced concerns about what they call ‘Learning Loss,” which they tend to measure in months and sometimes years.  I hope that others find it offensive to define learning in terms of quantity rather than quality, but let’s save that for another day.  That said, it’s absolutely essential that adults stop obsessing about ‘learning loss.’  Cancel the damn standardized tests.  Meet the children where they are.  

Our giant lumbering economy wants schools reopened for another reason: It needs what our schools produce: high school graduates.  After all, America’s education system has been a reliable conveyor belt, moving students along for 12 years before dumping them out into society.  Higher education has come to depend on a fresh supply of close to 2 million freshmen each fall.  Branches of the military need recruits, and so on.

COVID has stopped the conveyor belt entirely in some places, and slowed it down considerably elsewhere, but I believe that many who are demanding that the conveyor belt be restarted are not thinking about either students or teachers. They want to get back to ‘normal.’

That ain’t happening, and we must embrace that reality.  This school year is unlike any other. For those students who have been able to stay on track, congratulations and Godspeed.  But for those whose lives have been turned upside down, you have not failed!  You shouldn’t have to go to summer school, have your ‘learning loss’ measured and published, or be held back.  

You should get a mulligan, a blame-free, no fault do-over.   

And finally, the interests of teachers and students are aligned. They may not sync up with the interests of higher education, restaurants, bars et cetera, but students and teachers are in this together.

John Merrowformer Education Correspondent, PBS NewsHour, and founding  President, Learning Matters, Inc.

Jan Resseger reminds us of the traditional Masai greeting, “How are the children?” The assumption is that if the children are well, the village or society is well. Many of our children are not well. Too many live in poverty and lack adequate nutrition, decent medical care, and a safe place to live.

Sadly, as Jan explains, the Republican moderates who asked Biden to cut his COVID relief package focused their cuts on aid to children.

She begins:

This week a group of so-called moderate U.S. Senate Republicans proposed to negotiate with President Joe Biden about his proposed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan stimulus bill.  But even the ten senators, who profess themselves to be moderates and who came forward with a $618 billion alternative proposal, proved themselves willing to neglect the needs of America’s children. The United States, the world’s richest nation, posts an alarming child poverty rate, but, apart from the voices of a handful of social justice advocates, any level of concern about child poverty is inaudible. Hardly anybody seems to have noticed that one of the great strengths of Biden’s American Rescue Plan is the President’s inclusion of funding for programs that would significantly ameliorate suffering among America’s poorest children.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr did recently recognize the significanceof the pro-child provisions in Biden’s new American Rescue Plan: “President Biden’s $1.9 trillion emergency relief plan includes a Child Tax Credit expansion that would lift 9.9 million children above or closer to the poverty line, including 2.3 million Black children, 4.1 million Latino children, and 441,000 Asian American children. It also would lift 1.1 million children out of ‘deep poverty,’ raising their family incomes above 50 percent of the poverty line. To do that, the Biden plan would make the credit fully available to 27 million children—including roughly half of all Black and Latino children—whose families now don’t get the full credit because their parents don’t earn enough….”

Do Republicans not care about our children? Why is military spending more desirable than spending to save the lives of the neediest and most helpless?

Everyone should read The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, which demonstrates that societies are happier when there is more equality.