OPINION: FREQUENTLY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS – REOPENING SCHOOLS AMIDST A PANDEMIC

Art Keene

Frequently Unanswered Questions is a new feature of the Indy that will pursue answers to questions about critical issues facing the Amherst community that have been frequently raised but have gone unaddressed.  This week, we’ll look at the daunting challenge of reopening the schools amidst a pandemic.  There seems to be widespread agreement that there is a great need for children to return to in-person education (see links to articles about reopening below). There is also widespread agreement that this needs to be done safely.  What is now being contested mostly is how to resume in-person schooling safely.  The question of whether and how to reopen the colleges and university is similarly fraught.   It is widely agreed that in-person teaching and learning is generally superior to what can be offered on-line (although see a dissenting view here).  The question is,  how can this be done safely and what constitutes safe enough.

The Indy has posed the questions that follow to Michael Morris, Superintendent of Amherst Public Schools, and to Ed Blaguszewski, Executive Director of Strategic Communications at UMass.  These are questions that have been circulating on social media and in some mainstream sources over the last few weeks and represent questions that many people think need to be answered in order to resolve whether schools are safe for face-to-face instruction and what constitutes “safe.”  Many focus on basic questions about COVID-19 testing and about what institutions will do when cases of COVID-19 inevitably pop up and how they will manage an outbreak.  Some of the questions below were adapted from a Facebook post by JoAnn Jarmon-Avant but they have also been widely circulated under a number of names.

Michael Morris responded to our inquiry promptly, indicating that the District is awaiting guidance from the State and will be unable to answer these questions until they receive that guidance.  He indicated that he would update us as new information becomes available and we will print those answers as we receive them.  We received no response from UMass as of this writing – although they posted today, a partial answer to one of our queries on their travel guidance website (see below and here). We have resubmitted our request to the Chancellor’s Office and The Office of Media Relations.  We will print their answers if/when we receive them. 

The Amherst Public Schools draft plan for reopening is discussed in this article in The Indy.

The UMass Reopening Plan Can Be Found here.

Unanswered Questions For The Amherst Public Schools

1.  What are the protocols for managing confirmed cases of COVID-19 among ARPS students?  Will classmates and teachers of infected students be required to quarantine?  

2. If a teacher tests positive for COVID-19 are they required to quarantine until they are symptom free? Is quarantine covered by paid sick leave? Do all of that teacher’s students need to then stay home and quarantine for 14 days? Do all of those students now have to get tested and if so, where do they get tested? Who pays for those tests? How will parents be notified? Does everyone in each of those kids’ families need to get tested? Who pays for that? What if someone who lives in the same house as a teacher tests positive? Does that teacher now need to take 14 days off to quarantine? Is that time off covered? Paid?

3. Will the district require testing for all students/staff who exhibit symptoms? If yes, who will do that testing and what is the expected turn around time for results? If no, how does the district plan to track and manage a potential outbreak among district students and staff?

4. How will parents be kept up-to-date of incidences of infection within the school or within the greater school community?

5. Has any consideration been given to the role of asymptomatic spreaders?

6. Does the District have a sufficient reserve of substitute teachers to replace those who may be unable to work because of illness or quarantine? What plans are in place?

7. Does the District have an estimate of the number of teachers who will be unlikely to return to work because of heightened risk due to comorbidities? Are these teachers guaranteed the right to opt out of face-to-face teaching?

8. Has the District established a threshold for the number of cases after which it will cease face-to face instruction?

9. Does the District have a formal response to the concerns and demands of the Amherst Pelham Education Association? 

10.  (recently added).  What provisions will be made for safe transportation? Will school bus occupancy be reduced to allow at least six feet of spacing – keeping in mind that there is far less air circulation on a bus than in a classroom? 

Unanswered Questions For UMass

1. Does UMass have a contact tracing operation in place?  If yes, what does that look like?  If no, how does UMass plan to manage the spread of infection when positive COVID-19 cases inevitably appear on campus?

2.  Will there be testing requirements or any other special arrangements for students who are arriving from current hot spots?

UMass recently added the following travel advisory to their coronavirus web page. “Travelers returning from any international locations or any COVID-19 High-Risk Domestic Location must self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving in Massachusetts.” However there is no indication how or if such “required” quarantine would be monitored or enforced and what kinds of accommodations could be available for students, particularly for those living in dorms, for access to meals and bathrooms while maintaining quarantine.

3.  Will there be any special effort to monitor fraternity houses, given that fraternities were recently implicated in super-spreading events at The University of Washington and The University of Michigan?

4. Has UMass engaged in discussions with Cooley Dickinson and Bay State Hospitals concerning collaboration in managing a campus outbreak?

5.  What precise plans are in place to monitor and manage an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus?

6.  What is the capacity of UMass to test students for COVID-19 and what is the expected turnaround time for test results?

7. Should a student tests positive, what will be the quarantine requirements for those who have been in contact with that student (e.g.,roommate, classmate, instructors) and does UMass have any means of enforcing quarantine?  Ditto for face-to face instruction.  If faculty test positive will their students be required to quarantine?   What safety measures are proposed for labs and other communal work environments?  i.e.  if someone in a lab tests positive will the rest of the lab have to quarantine?

8.  Is there an established threshold for the number of new cases, after which, the university will close and send students home? 

Links To Some Articles About Reopening (in addition to the articles in today’s issue).
K-12
Teachers Unions Denounce Trump Plan To Reopen Schools As Reckless, Callous, and Cruel
(The Guardian)

I’m An Epidemiologist Dad. Here’s Why I Think Schools Should Reopen In The fall.
(Vox)

Agonizing Over The Reopening Of Schools
(Boston Globe)

School Reopenings. What The US Could Learn From Other Countries
(The Guardian)

Israeli Data Show School Reopenings Were a Disaster That Wiped Out Lockdown Gains
(The Daily Beast)

LA and San Diego Schools Go On-line Only This Fall
(New York Times)

Kids As Pawns
(Popular Information)

Nation’s Pediatricians Walk Back Support For In-Person Schooling
(NPR)

Trump Pressures Schools To Reopen As Virus Continues To Surge
(New York Times)

Florida Teachers Say Reopening Order Could Be Deadly
(CNN)

Higher Education

Will Universities Be The Next COVID-19 Tinderboxes?
(Time)

Bringing College Students Back To The Classroom During COVID-19 Is A Mistake
(Medium)

Colleges That Plan To Reopen During The Pandemic Are Deluding Themselves
(The Atlantic)

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