Opinion: Why Are Our Schools Closed?

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Wildwood School. Photo: Art Keene

Why are the Amherst Regional Public Schools closed for in-person learning when all of the schools in surrounding towns except Plainfield, and even private schools in Amherst, have brought kids back into their buildings? The short answer is that the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee and the APEA (Amherst-Pelham Education Association), the local teacher’s union, agreed on a system of evaluating the safety of re-opening that, intentionally or not, is guaranteed to keep schools mostly, if not wholly, closed to in-person learning for the year. This system is spelled out in the Memorandum of Agreement signed by the Regional School District and the union.

For schools to open, there must be less than 28 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people in Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden Counties using a rolling average over a seven-day period (80% weighted for Hampshire, and 10% each for the other two.) Once this number of cases is hit, it prevents the schools from opening, or closes them if they have already re-opened. This is lower than the 56 cases per 100,000 recommended by the state and far lower than the 70 cases per 100,000 recommended by Superintendent Michael Morris.

When the schools re-open, as they did briefly several weeks ago for special education and pre-K-1st grades, they do so using a phased system with mandatory two week gaps between phases. When schools close, the entire system restarts. This means that even if schools re-open with the very youngest students, each new shut down brings a minimum of two months before the “oldest” children–from fourth grade up–could potentially return. (Two weeks off, then two weeks for each subsequent phase.) It also means that our special education and youngest children are the ones most frequently shuffled in and out of the school buildings.

The end result: my kindergartner was in school for a few days during the only stretch this school year when the cases were below 28, and it seems impossible that she will get back to in-person schooling for any significant amount of time let alone her older brother in fourth grade. None of this, per the agreement, is negotiable, and the agreement is in effect for the entire school year. As of last week’s data, Amherst had 19.6 cases per 100,000, Leverett 24.5, and Pelham and Shutesbury had 0 cases each.

Our children are suffering. I think everyone would agree that their social and emotional needs are not being met by remote learning, and many are not having their educational needs met. There’s plenty of good science supporting the need for children to return to in-person schooling and plenty to guide us in keeping them and our teachers safe when they do. The number of COVID cases will inevitably rise as winter hits and as more UMass students return. This number should not be the absolute arbiter that keeps our students locked into remote learning for the foreseeable future. We need more flexibility and more science in making this decision.

Parents are pulling their children out of the district at an alarming rate. The financial consequences of this will have a significant effect on our district. Let’s put bad decisions behind us. Let’s get our kids and teachers back in school safely, and keep them there as long as it remains safe. Let’s have health experts who understand the science making these decisions, not teachers, administrators, unions, or elected officials. Let’s not be locked into an untenable, and frankly harmful, agreement.


 

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16 thoughts on “Opinion: Why Are Our Schools Closed?

  1. Bill, thank you for letting the Amherst community know of this issue with our schools starting and remaining closed as a result of an MOU that is not based on sound scientific data, and only based on one metric, with an arbitrarily low number. I will add to your well- written piece that this should not only be an alarm to our school community, but it should be concerning to our entire community. It actually isn’t just a Superintendent, School Committee, APEA, student and family issue because this impacts our entire community. The reputation and strength of a town’s education system impacts multiple community systems. So, despite the APEA negotiating an agreement that ensures no in-person school for the remainder of this school year. I’m hopeful this is highlighted and taken into account as our District enters into contract negotiations for the underlying contract that expires in June. The APEA is unwilling to revisit the MOU with recent additional information and scientific data provided. This refusal to collaborate for the good of public education, as the majority of other unions throughout MA have been able to do in order to prioritize in-person learning, and the good of the community, hopefully guides the new negotiations to be in favor of our public education (2,400 students, and dropping) instead of approximately 157 teachers. If Amherst remains on this track, which does not prioritize our community’s commitment to public education, then our community will no longer be revered for its high quality education. Even worse, our community will be committing social justice harms with lasting and damaging effects.

  2. I agree with much of what is said here, and I’m not disputing any facts*. But the fact remains that our student body, and our staff, do not draw solely from our four towns. Our four towns my have low positive rates, but Hampshire County is increasing at an alarming rate (up to 80 cases per 100,000 over the past 7 days as of 11/7/20). And Hampden County is up to 200 (cases per 100,00 in the past 7 days)! Even Franklin is not doing well (36 per 100,000).
    * Mr. Kaizen states that the metric is number of cases on “a rolling average over a seven-day period” (weighted by county), but it’s actually a rolling 7-day total not average).

  3. Re. the second point, I’ll directly quote the MOA as a correction in case I got anything wrong: “Metrics – Provided there are fewer than 28 new cases per week per 100,000 (using a 7-day rolling average) in Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties, with a weighting of .8 for Hampshire County, .1 for Franklin County and .1 for Hampden County, and the PCR positive test rate (using a 14-day rolling average) in Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden, with a weighting of .8 for Hampshire County, .1 for Franklin County and .1 for Hampden County, is less than 2.5%…”

  4. According to the latest data from the NYTimes* (November 7, 2020, 8:29 P.M. E.S.T.), the 7-day rolling averages per 100,000 population in Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties are as follows:

    Hampshire = 63

    Franklin = 37

    Hampden = 183

    This implies that the weighted average agreed to in the APRS/APEA memorandum is presently above 70 new cases per week.

    But a more serious concern for all of us should be the upward trend in the number of case— its change over time — which is also increasing. Because viral transmission in an epidemic is an exponential process, one can infer from this that the transmission rate — sometimes called R_0 — is presently greater than 1, meaning that each COVID19 infection is likely to generate more than 1 new COVID19 case.

    This empirical observation is retrodictive, reflecting recent changes in behavior, like laxer social distancing or mask wearing, and increased gathering indoors — including the resumption of some area schools this fall. It is also predictive: the inevitable — or as Jennifer Page writes “alarming” — exponential increase in cases, as seen in many other communities around the country, like the Fox River valley/Green Bay area of Wisconsin. And that exponential growth in cases can easily begin here as well, unless those behaviors are throttled back, lowering the R_0 to at most 1 (meaning a steady or declining number of new COVID19 cases).

    There are centuries of good science — and ruthlessly incontrovertible mathematics — behind our understanding of pandemic outbreaks, and unfortunately no amount of medical care can handle an uncontrolled exponential increase in a serious, possibly fatal, illness like COVID19.

    As much as we may all like to get “back to normal” in whatever we do — and with particular empathy to the parents and guardians of young children, which I was once one too — the growing demands to “change the numbers” and make it easier for schools to remain open are contraindicated by the evidence around us: the increasing COVID19 infection rates here and throughout many parts of the country.

    Can’t we please just be patient till there are safe and effective vaccines against COVID19? Just as no thoughtful parents would of send their kids to schools without the MMR vaccine (some of us remember getting the measles component of that vaccine when it was first widely available in the early 1960s, and some of us may also recall the rather unpleasant experiences of being infected in our youth with wild mumps and rubella too, before there were vaccines available for those viruses), so it should be with COVID19. While our kids may be at low risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID19, is it conscionable to place the lives and long-term health of our school teachers and staff at risk?

    *https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/massachusetts-coronavirus-cases.html

  5. P.S. Almost as if to illustrate how exponential growth works — the rate of change is (positively) proportional to what’s being measured — the new 7-day COVID19 case rates (per100,000) in Hampshire and Hampden counties increased to 77 and 203, respectively, during the time I was composing my previous comment….

  6. Actually, due to some rounding of the numbers at the NYTimes website, a more careful look suggests this morning’s 7-day infection-rate numbers are 81 and 202 per 100,000 in Hampshire and Hampden counties, respectively. Today’s numbers are higher than yesterday’s, and they do jump around a bit because of the daily sampling and reporting. But the point is that these rates are now increasing again (which is clearer if one looks at the graph of this rate). And they mean that the number of infections is not just increasing, but increasing *faster* than before — it’s accelerating, or the graph of infection numbers is bending upwards — and it’s that acceleration which is being “forced” by the behaviors (lax social distancing, too many thing re-opening too soon…) which need to be throttled back to bend the infection numbers graph the other way before things get out go control quickly.

    Keeping schools closed — at least for now — is kind of like like putting a foot on the brakes of a vehicle whose accelerator pedal sometimes gets stuck to the floor: we don’t usually drive like that, but to avoid an deadly crash ahead, sometimes it’s a good idea….

  7. In person learning for younger children is an essential service. I haven’t seen any evidence that kids returning to school, with proper COVID protocols, increases transmission rates in the community. Nor have I heard of high rates in employees of convenience stores, liquor stores, or other businesses that have been open throughout the pandemic (and are far less essential than kindergarten for 5 year olds), again, as long as proper protocols are followed. Germany is shutting down just about everything else and keeping schools open for young children, which is what really makes sense.

  8. Rob, western mass has high anti-vaccination rates (https://www.gazettenet.com/Which-local-schools-have-the-highest-vaccine-exemption-rates-24713994). So while I appreciate that you would not send your kids without an MMR vaccine there are many in our community who do. I passed a sign in front of a home in Amherst just last week against mandatory flu shots. The vaccine will not be the answer, and further, even when it is available it will not be 100 % effective so we will still need to continue doing other measures for the foreseeable future, like masks and social distancing. Jennifer, I think there are better ways to deal with students and employees from other communities than our current approach. For example, I think we first need to really understand how many students and employees from those communities would be in-person as a result of in-person school. Some families may have already chosen all remote. Some staff may already be in school regardless – for example, many food service staff have been in school the entire time. Hopefully, we have something in place to support staff members in the event their community has an outbreak, I would like to understand this better and perhaps we can apply it to the other staff that will be impacted when they return. Perhaps we can set up a way for students from outside the ARPS towns to have more flexibility in remote versus in- person. In general, if we were able to approach in-person school in a more collaborative, problem-solving manner we could isolate issues and solve them. Finally, everyone keeps saying we want to prioritize education but to do that, we need to be open to a flexible approach that is not based on metrics outside of local context and the most recent understandings of the virus. Many other countries are weathering new case surges without closing schools. My nephew in the UK has been in school the entire time, through 2 lockdowns, because my sister in law is a single parent. We are failing so many in our community by not approaching this in a more thoughtful and collaborative way. I also think the union is failing its members — I am a strong supporter of unions but we can’t blindly assume what they are doing is right. They have had three presidents since July. Many are quitting. Teachers are having to work so much harder to teach remotely and many have kids of their own to deal with – are those teachers actually able to participate and be represented by the union? Wanting a more thoughtful approach to all of this does not mean anyone wants people in school if it’s not safe. Perhaps it’s not safe now, although given how many other schools are open for at least some in-person learning, it is hard to understand why Amherst is different.

  9. Thanks for sharing the anecdotes, Laura, as well as the Gazette article. Although the article headline suggests that 3.7% immunization non-compliance is alarming, that may be misleading readers how vaccines actually protect the public health..

    Vaccines do not need to be 100% effective, nor must there be there 100% immunization compliance: the point of vaccines is to limit the spread of infection, and that’s why (as is pointed out later in that article, and which involves more subtle mathematical ideas, like percolation theory) the goal is to get near-100% effectiveness and compliance.

    In the near-term, without an effective vaccine, all we have to stem the spread of COVID19 is masks and social distancing — and clearly the infection rates show that’s not working.

    All three measures — masks, social distancing, and vaccines — will be part of the mid-term COVID19 solution in the near-term; in the long term, as vaccine effectiveness improves.

    And once COVID19 immunization is widespread (the physicians interviewed in that article are working toward the same goal for other immunizations), the masks and social distancing can go away, schools can re-open, and other in-person activity can take place again in a more normal way….

  10. Rob, Your comment on the current rate in Hampshire county also ignores that there have been at least 70 new cases among UMass students in the last 7 days. As we have seen previously and as we also see at UConn/ Storrs– those cases are isolated among college students. Storrs-Mansfield has been in person since September with no reverting to remote due to UConn student cases. We aren’t operating on an island– there is ample data about how school reopening is going in CT and Mass. The elementary schools 30 minutes away in the Hampshire Regional District have been back for months and none have gone back to remote yet. I can’t understand choosing to ignore those data and scientific recommendations of top experts like Fauci who said to CT “The default position is in person learning.”

    To Jennifer, Surely we are not the only district in Hampshire County that has students who have choiced in and teachers who live elsewhere. Yet, how are Hadley, Ware, Belchertown, and every other district in the county except Mohawk Trail (who was cited by DESE in Sept. for planning to remain remote) providing some in person learning? Again, there’s nothing but data around us. As a hypothetical, remote learning is a fine idea; as an actual reality for 5 year olds and special education students, it is completely developmentally inappropriate.

  11. There was an editing error in my last comment; the penultimate paragraph should have read:

    “All three measures — masks, social distancing, and vaccines — will be part of the mid-term COVID19 solution, as vaccine effectiveness improves.”

    Concerning Allecia’s thoughtful comment, nobody is being ignored: most of these UMass students live in our community, and are not “isolated” on campus; furthermore, the comparison with the UConn situation is at best anecdotal, though my own anecdotal experience with the Storrs campus in the past suggests its students are much less intermingled within the surrounding community than our situation in Amherst. And I sincerely hope the situations with elementary schools there and in the other places she mentions continue to go well….

    However… most of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island now have rapidly increasing COVID19 infection rates, and there are only three counties in Massachusetts — in fact in all of southern New England — which aren’t above 56 new weekly cases per 100,000 or rapidly rising: Barnstable, Berkshire, and Franklin.

    That sounds pretty grim — not only for parents of young kids, but for all of us — yet I’m hoping the recent news of a 90%-effective COVID19 vaccine from Pfizer proves accurate, and that more safe and effective COVID19 vaccines will soon be ready for distribution.

    In the meantime — and in conclusion — let’s return to our “COVID19 vehicle” metaphor:

    There’s a mess on the road ahead, and we have good reason to believe it will clear up soon, but our speed is now increasing, and we don’t want to crash.

    Which pedal do we press?

    The accelerator?

    Or the brake?

  12. I have a grandchild in the West Palm Beach system. They went back three weeks ago and announced their first three cases of COVID-19 among students today, I have two grandkids in the New Haven schools system. They were supposed to return to in-person learning this week but the District has decided to continue with remote learning indefinitely as a result of surging COVID numbers in the state (and this, even though New Haven has some of the lowest case counts in the state). https://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/covid_schools_update/

    With Covid numbers surging throughout New England and with predictions for the winter growing bleaker by the day, it would seem prudent to proceed with caution. A broad survey of epidemiological opinion on school reopening strikes me as quite diverse on the hazards of reopening. Good decisions will not result from cherry picking data that suit one’s particular take on the issue

  13. Who is cherry picking? This is the best dataset in the country at the moment. It is also a very real fact that almost all of Hampshire County elementary schools are currently open.
    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/10/schools-arent-superspreaders/616669/

    The point is not to blindly open schools. The goal is to use science and expert recommendations to make decisions— not my feelings or yours. Regardless of what is happening on the ground at this moment, the MOA needs to reflect expert recommendations so that we are prepared to have in person learning when our local context permits. It currently does not reflect the recommendations of any scientific body. As a scientist, that is deeply troubling.

  14. Hi Art – Cases in schools and transmission in schools are two very different things. It is important that we are clear on the facts as well as the ramifications. No one is saying that we should have children going to school if there is uncontrolled community spread or if there is transmission within the school. No one is saying that if there is a case or cases in school that the class or the whole school shouldn’t return to remote for a period of time to quarantine. We know that for what could be many many more months, we are going to have to live in this transient reality. What we are saying, however, is that the MOU that the APEA and ARPS district agreed on takes an all or nothing approach that does not allow for any new knowledge about the virus and how it works, or the very negative and real impacts prolonged remote has on students. As Allecia said above – we learned from the first UMASS caseload that it did not impact the wider community. The State has agreed to adjust metrics to show when numbers are inflated due to a case at a college, nursing facility or jail to avoid sending a message that the wider town is at a higher risk. This all happened AFTER the MOU was agreed on and because we can’t renegotiate, we can’t take this new understanding and guidance into consideration. Parents aren’t asking to renegotiate so we can send our kids and teachers/staff to school if it unsafe, we are asking to renegotiate so that we can have a plan that allows us to make decisions based on the real scenario. I take from your comment that you see the New Haven decision as smart, while I see it as very, very troubling. New Haven is a poorer part of CT and news reports have shown that many poorer districts are not reopening at rates much higher than more wealthy districts in the same state – at some point this is not COVID related but related to the real problems we have in this country around equal access to quality public education. We don’t want anyone to be unsafe but we also should not let districts use COVID as an excuse to not educate our children.

  15. Talking with a LI relative yesterday, her grandchildren’s elementary and preschools are open. All kids wearing masks and parents given the choice of remote learning. Kids who get sick or are exposed to Covid 9 have to stay home and isolate for 14 days. So far, it’s working out in an area that was a hotspot this spring. It would be good to find out why schools that are open are successful — and what mistakes have been made.

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