Governor urges schools to open
Administration puts emphasis on keeping schools, businesses running
In August, Massachusetts instituted a color-coded system for assessing COVID risk in reopening schools, labeling school districts green, yellow or red based on the rate of COVID infections in the surrounding community.
While schools in red districts were originally meant to stay closed, Jeffrey Riley, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education (DESE), later announced that schools in communities labeled red should not close unless the district had been in the red for three consecutive weeks.
Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker, Education Secretary James Peyser and Riley further modified the DESE guidance, advising that schools remain open regardless of the infection rate in the surrounding community.
“The time to get kids back to school is now,” Riley said during a Nov. 6 press briefing at the State House. “It’s become increasingly clear that this virus is going to be with us for a while.”
The push to reopen schools mirrors a national trend in which governors and mayors are urging school districts to resume in-person learning at the same time COVID rates are spiking around the country. Under pressure from business groups eager to see workers freed from child care obligations and from many white parents who live in communities that haven’t suffered the adverse impacts of COVID that Black and Latino communities have faced, school officials are increasingly opting for in-person instruction, often over the objections of teachers unions.
In Massachusetts, Baker convened a reopening advisory board in April comprising mainly business executives along with several municipal officials and no labor leaders. His administration then released a phased reopening plan, with its color-coded risk assessment for communities.
Last week, Baker updated that color-coded system, raising the rate of infection at which a community is declared red. Two weeks ago, 121 of the state’s 351 communities were in the red, meaning they were experiencing case rates of 8 per 100,000 or higher. Under the new methodology, which sets the threshold at 10 per 100,000 and also requires that the positive test rate be 4% or higher, just 16 communities are now considered red.
The changed color-coding system doesn’t sit well with Worcester School Committee member Tracy O’Connell Novick, who questioned in a blog post the studies Baker administration officials cited in the assessment of the risk of opening schools. The four studies, conducted in Europe and Britain, were undertaken in countries and at times of the year when the spread of COVID infections was contained.
One UK study examined schools there at a time when school was optional and only 1.6 million of the 8.9 million students were in class. That study, nevertheless, found a “strong correlation” between COVID infections in schools and COVID rates in the surrounding communities.
O’Connell Novick said Massachusetts, now in the midst of a new COVID surge, is not where Britain was in the spring and summer when the study was conducted.
“The Governor can change the map colors any way he’d like; we still aren’t controlling the spread of the disease in our communities,” she wrote.
In Massachusetts, rates of COVID infection vary widely from one community to another within Boston and across the state. Latinos, for example, make up 20% of Boston’s population, but account for 34% of COVID cases in which race is identified. Whites make up 45% of the city’s population but just 26% of COVID cases. Blacks, who make up less than 25% of the city’s population, account for 29% of COVID cases.
Predominantly Latino and Black neighborhoods including East Boston, Mattapan and Dorchester all have positive test rates above 10%, compared to the city’s overall rate of 7.2%.
When school began in September, most districts with large Latino and Black populations opted to remain remote. In Boston, Lawrence, Springfield, Worcester, Brockton, Lynn, Lowell, Fall River, New Bedford and Lawrence, school buildings remained closed or were open only to limited numbers of special-needs students.
Then, last month, as the city’s COVID rates grew, even those students were switched to remote-only learning.
Last Friday, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius announced students at special education day schools would return to in-person learning and said the district would be in conversation with the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) about bringing more students back into classrooms.
BTU President Jessica Tang said the BPS and DESE push for a return to in-school instruction should include access to regular testing, contact tracing and upgraded air quality in the schools.
“While we absolutely want to see our students back in person as soon as possible, too, they’re just saying ‘open the schools,’” she said. “Where’s our testing for students? Where’s our testing for teachers? Where’s the funding to provide air purifiers and personal protective equipment?”
In his response to the recent surge in COVID cases, which now are has high as they were in May, Baker has focused attention on social gatherings. Last week, he announced a 10 p.m. curfew aimed at curbing house parties.
Public health professionals, however, maintain that the state’s own data show a high incidence of COVID transmissions at workplaces. Of the 8,000 cases that have been traced by state officials, only 67 are related to social gatherings while 1,000 were traced to workplaces.
Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, said that despite a state law that passed in June requiring stringent data collection on COVID cases, the Baker administration has not tracked where cases are originating.
“Eighty to 90% of the data is missing,” she said. “It’s not clear how the governor could come to the conclusion that social events are driving the increase in COVID infections. The limited date points to work playing a pretty big role.”
The fact that Latinos in Massachusetts are largely concentrated in so-called essential worker occupations — working as custodians, supermarket workers, restaurant staff and gig economy workers — may go a long way in explaining why the Latino community is suffering higher rates of COVID infection than any other group.
Like those in the service economy, teachers are in public-facing jobs with a constant threat of COVID exposure. The Mass Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts and the BTU have all raised concerns about the governor’s push for in-person instruction, calling for greater testing, contact tracing and access to personal protective equipment, including air purifiers.
BTU President Tang says teachers want to return to in-school instruction, but not without adequate resources.
“There’s literally no other profession where you’re in the same room with the same group of people six to seven hours every day where oftentimes the other people you are with cannot socially distance or wear masks,” she said. “The risks are real and can’t be ignored.”
Sugerman-Brozan says the governor’s reliance on business leaders to advise on reopening the state’s economy left out critical perspectives from workers advocates and public health professionals.
“It’s very business-focused,” she said.