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Parents/teachers left out of COVID-19 back-to-school decision making?

By Richard Asinof, ConvergenceRI.com, contributing writer

An outbreak of anger by parents and teachers, many who claim they have been left out of decision-making around plans for schools to re-open for in-person learning, threatens to disrupt the narrative that Gov. Gina Raimondo and her communications team have promoted to the national press about the excellent job they’ve done so far in responding to the coronavirus threat

The Chiefs for Change commanders in charge of education policy in Rhode Island, state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters, are now confronting their biggest challenge to date: how best to reopen public schools in Rhode Island and in Providence for in-person learning this fall, in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

But an apparent lack of clarity by state education officials about policies around masks, testing protocols and transportation to and from schools has stunned many teachers and parents alike, creating a growing crisis of confidence, with doubts being expressed by many who had previously voiced cautious optimism about reform efforts underway for the past year to transform the state’s educational system.

Much of the confusion apparently rests with Governor herself, according to reporting by Steph Machado of WPRI in a Friday, July 17 story, which found that Raimondo’s June 10 pronouncement about her desire to bring students back fully in person in the fall took many superintendents by surprise, such as North Providence Superintendent Joseph Goho, who had been preparing a hybrid return model, mixing both distance learning and in-person learning for the fall. The Governor’s statement had contradicted previous advice from the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Many parents are irate about not having their voices heard. “We’ve been asking questions about testing capacity,” a frustrated mother and a father who are active in a local education community design team told ConvergenceRI, saying that they were doing a “slow boil” about not being able to get any answers. “We’ve been asking why testing for teachers is not mentioned in the re-opening plans for the schools. Not once. That’s a problem.”

A top local teachers’ union official was even more scathing in her assessment of the current deficiencies in state plans, following a Zoom meeting with state officials. “We DID learn that masks were not required in ‘stable groups’ for students, and we cannot mandate masks nor can we consequence students for not wearing masks in class,” she wrote in a memo to her membership. “We learned that the health and safety of our children and our membership is dependent upon the cleaning ability of the organization that couldn’t even keep up with reasonable dinginess.”

Despite the recent promise by Gov. Gina Raimondo that her team will “continue to put public health first and to rely on facts and science in making the best decisions,” findings from the most recent large-scale study suggest that if and when schools reopen, “communities will see clusters of infection by the virus take root in children of all ages.” Those were the findings of a new study conducted in South Korea, as reported by Apoorva Mandavilli in The New York Times on Saturday, July 18.

The study found an 18.6 percent infection rate of household contacts of 10-19 year olds, versus 5 percent of kids aged 0-9, with an 11 percent overall rate of transmission of the virus.

Translated, the reopening of schools in Rhode Island could easily devolve into a “deadly experiment” – unless proper public health precautions are taken. But what are those measures and who will be tasked with enforcing them?

Dr. Ashish Jha, the incoming dean at the School of Public Health at Brown University, was quoted in the newspaper story as praising the South Korean study, saying it “is very carefully done, it’s systematic and looks at a very large population. It’s one of the best studies we’ve had to date on this issue.”

Dr. Megan Ranney, an outspoken emergency room doc, also praised the Times story, tweeting that the findings do not change the public health solutions: “1. Masking of all, always; 2. Ample random testing of asymptomatic teachers and students; [and] 3. Prep for distance learning – inevitable as Covid-19 rates rise.”

The question is: Why aren’t Drs. Jha and Ranney being included as public health experts as part of the planning efforts for reopening schools in Rhode Island? Who has more credibility: the highly paid, hired-gun experts from Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey, or the public health experts such as Drs. Jha and Ranney?

Further, Rhode Island’s apparent capability to manage the coronavirus pandemic in the state to date may be jeopardized by the major resurgence now occurring in other parts of the country, in places such as Florida, Texas, Arizona, Alabama and Georgia, according to three public health researchers interviewed by The Providence Journal.

For example, the Rhode Island Health Care Association, a nursing home advocacy group, reported that six workers in a local nursing home found out that they tested positive for the coronavirus – seven days after being tested, while they continued to work, a delay blamed on the increased demand for testing nationwide.

Assuming that kids go back to in-person schooling, as one local pediatrician posed the question to ConvergenceRI, “What happens when the inevitable outbreak happens? Does the whole school go home for a month? Do parents [that are] back to work need to stay home again? How do you re-enter the school again safely without testing 1,700 kids at the high school plus every teacher and janitor?”

Standard labs are all overwhelmed with testing, the pediatrician continued, saying that the previous week, she had sent out 37 COVID-19 tests to labs for results and had gotten only 24 back, after a week. “One positive result came in – for a 30-year-old,” the pediatrician said. “That is a lifetime of contacts.”

Warning signs
Warning signs about the total lack of planning first appeared a month ago, when, on June 23, Infante-Green and Peters had released the long-awaited Turnaround Action Plan for the Providence Public Schools, a 69-page document, “Turning Hope Into Results,” that did not include even a single paragraph discussing how the coronavirus pandemic would influence the new action plan. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Churning hope.”]

In the last week, there has been a frenetic scramble of activities to patch together parent and teacher buy-in for a full in-person reopening strategy – including a boisterous Zoom meeting held on Wednesday, July 15, for parents with some 900 participants, a subsequent tightly controlled Zoom meeting with teachers, and a flurry of proposals prepared by school districts to meet the Friday, July 17, deadline to submit their plans for reopening schools for in-person learning to the Rhode Island Department of Education. [No final decisions on the plans are expected to be announced for at least two weeks, the first week of August, according to state officials.]

There was even a joint statement issued by Infante-Green, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the R.I. Department of Health, and Gov. Gina Raimondo, attempting to calm the roiling waters and to reassure Rhode Islanders that the process of re-opening schools was firmly under control.

“Every step of the way, our state’s response to COVID-19 has been driven by science,” Gov. Gina Raimondo, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott and Infante-Green claimed in a joint statement issued on Friday, July 17. “As we look toward reopening schools, we will continue to put public health first and to rely on facts and science in making the best decisions for the mental, physical, and intellectual needs of our students.”

Many parents and teachers, however, are not buying it. They have been vociferous in their complaints about being left out of the decision-making. Many are not thrilled about the prospects of sending kids back into the classroom in these uncertain, risky times, given the exponential rise in coronavirus cases in other parts of the country.

At the same time, parents who spoke with ConvergenceRI acknowledged that the prospects of delaying in-person education and relying instead on distance learning would place great stress on students and parents alike, with the heaviest burden falling upon high-risk populations in urban core schools.

Translated, the future of education in Rhode Island under the leadership of Infante-Green and Peters [and Raimondo] does not appear to be very bright. Parents and teachers are unhappy about being asked to make difficult, life-and-death decisions about their children, without public health safeguards in place around masks, testing and transportation.

And, judging from the angry reaction of parents and teachers, there has been a clear vote of “no confidence” to the current proposed plans. Whatever happens may prove to be a “ deadly experiment,” as one couple with a seven-year-old daughter put it – one that promises to put children’s lives at great risk.

License to kill?
In a tweet on Friday, June 17, Maya Chavez, a civics teacher in Providence, did not mince her words: “The current plan to reopen Providence schools WILL KILL PEOPLE.”

Parents are angry and worried: Cortney Nicolato, the president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, who was just appointed by the Governor to be a member of the University of Rhode Island board of trustees – and who is also a working mom with children in public schools, tweeted on Friday evening, July 17: “While I truly appreciate all the hard work that is going into planning school re-openings in such an uncertain time, parent feedback and participation should be part of the planning BEFORE plans are submitted to @RIHEALTH and @RIDeptEd, not after.”

Maribeth K. Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union, in a message to her membership, began by saying she did not know how to title her memo: “Haphazard Friday, Harried Friday, Frenzied Friday, [or] Freak-out Friday.”

Calabro wrote: “It is mid-July, plans are being made by human beings trying to control an out-of-control situation. They think they have thought of everything; they haven’t.”

She continued: “They could have plan A-Z and AA-ZZ contingencies, but the reality is every single plan that is made is based on the false assumption that you are planning for an event that is within their power to control.”

Calabro said further: “Reality and science tell us differently. Reality and science tell us that this is a virus, a virus that could give a rat’s ass about this plan, or any plan for that matter. A virus that has already changed, and mutated. A virus that presents differently.”

Calabro challenged what she perceives as the lack of planning by state education officials. “So, while everyone is all up in arms about the brick-and-mortar return, I would be more up in arms about the fact that we have seen hide nor hair of a Virtual Learning plan-full implementation plan. Because, at the end of the day, the truth is, based on the behaviors of thousands of other people in this state and visiting this state, if we continue to spike and get to a place like Florida or Texas, we will not be going back to school and there is NO plan for that!”

Tyranny of the urgent
Call it the tyranny of the urgent. So much of our news reporting seems to get caught up in covering the obvious, the urgent and the absurd. Did the Republican Governor of Georgia really sue the Democratic Mayor of Atlanta to prevent her from instituting an order mandating the wearing of masks?

Here in Rhode Island, one of the strongest undercurrents, not necessarily being reported by the news media, is the palpable concern being voiced by parents about plans to reopen schools.

Last week ConvergenceRI met, talked and listened to four professionals, all executives, all women, all mothers, all with school-age children, who, in the midst of other topics of conversation, unsolicited, expressed strong concerns about the lack of preparation for the coming school year and the uncertainties they faced as parents about what to do.

The voice of the parents, it seemed to ConvergenceRI, has been missing from the conversation – they all complained about not yet having had a seat at the table in the decision-making.

All lamented the lack of a coordinated federal plan for school re-openings under President Donald Trump, with the burden falling on state and local officials. The President’s press secretary, in her artful way of “telling the truth” under the current regime, said: “Science should not stand in the way” of schools reopening. To quote WPRO’s Steve Klamkin, “Really?”

What the four top-level professionals – in health care, in education, in philanthropy, and in social services – shared was a need to bring in public health expertise to help prepare guidance. One of the key bugaboos, it seems, is around transportation: how do children get to and from schools, and what happens to after-school activities?

Finally, the pediatrician who had complained to ConvergenceRI about the growing lag in testing results, making it difficult to contain the spread of the coronavirus, offered a prediction that no one seemed to be talking about yet: “Watch for the December baby boom,” she said. “They will need bunk beds for the moms delivering.”

Efforts to combat teen pregnancy “are most certainly in the toilet again,” she said.

Full story:  http://newsletter.convergenceri.com/stories/a-deadly-experiment-in-rhode-island,5879

Richard Asinof

Richard Asinof is the founder and editor of ConvergenceRI, an online subscription newsletter offering news and analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation in Rhode Island.