School struggles getting worse amid virus surge

Amid the surge of COVID-19 cases, Cambridge Public Schools closed Monday and Tuesday to test 3,500 students. Superintendent Victoria Greer wrote to families Tuesday that 157 of 362 pools tested positive – meaning somewhere between 157 and over 1,000 students had COVID. But the district had not received individual results, so no one knew which students had the virus.

With no remote learning option, Cambridge opened Wednesday anyway, hoping some results would arrive overnight.

Cambridge may be extreme, but school districts throughout Massachusetts have been grappling with virus-related conditions that make it highly difficult to teach.

CommonWealth reported Monday that schools were anticipating severe staffing shortages, leading to a small number of delays and closures. That has panned out.

Around 1,000 teachers, students, and staff were absent in Worcester Wednesday, according to MassLive. According to the Boston Globe, there were nearly 1,000 staff, including 461 teachers, absent in Boston on Tuesday, leading Superintendent Brenda Cassellius to teach a fourth-grade class. There were more than 200 staff absences apiece in Lawrence and Lowell.

Weymouth High School closed Wednesday due to staffing shortages, and Watertown schools closed Tuesday to process pooled test results. Taconic High School and Reid Middle School in Pittsfield are closed for the remainder of the week due to staffing shortages. 

Students are absent in large numbers, too. More than 30 percent of Lawrence public school students were out Wednesday, along with 319 staff. New Bedford reported 261 student absences Monday.

Unlike last year, when schools were quick to switch to remote learning, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has made clear remote learning is not an option this year. Schools that cancel in-person days must use snow days or make up time in June.

Westfield Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski summed up the conflict when he told CommonWealth there is no question in-person learning provides a superior education – but that’s no longer true if he is combining classes for a study hall or making up a day this summer in a building without air conditioning because the district lacks enough healthy, non-quarantined staff to teach in person right now.

Baker’s decision has angered teachers’ unions, who say schools need flexibility to teach remotely for a short time.

Baker’s decision is rooted in a strong belief that last year’s remote learning was disastrous. Last year, teachers’ unions pressured the administration and districts to continue remote learning. Many districts spent most of the year in a hybrid model, and some spent months fully remote.

There were reasons to use these models. For much of the year, state-imposed social distancing requirements made it almost impossible to fit all students in classrooms or buses. Some classrooms did not have good ventilation, and there were logistical concerns about where students could safely remove masks for meals. With vaccines not widely available until the spring, many teachers and students feared returning.

But in many ways, the result was devastating. Standardized test scores dropped. Doctors and public health experts warned of a mental health crisis among students. Nationally, rates of attempted suicide increased for adolescents, which experts attributed to pandemic-related crises like the death of caregivers, but also the loss of social supports like a stable school routine. A February 2021 poll found that Massachusetts high schoolers far prefer to be learning in-person, while a majority of parents in Massachusetts last March wanted schools to focus on bringing more students back. Many parents were forced to leave jobs to care for their children.

The Herald News reported Wednesday that experts are still seeing upticks in pediatric depression and anxiety. Younger children have increased separation anxiety, teenagers are getting into more fights, and many students are demonstrating behavioral problems. “It’s like they’ve forgotten how to be in school,” one teacher was quoted as saying.

We’ve said for quite awhile since the beginning of the school year it was critically important for kids to be in school for a number of reasons,” Baker said Monday. “Some has to do with their educational development, a lot has to do with social development, human development, and especially for older kids their mental health status generally.”

The Baker administration does not appear to be distinguishing between closures of a few days and the months-long remote learning of last year, and the debate has devolved into the predictable dispute between unions and the Republican governor.

Perhaps there is also some element of the boy who cried wolf. Unions pushed so hard for lengthy remote learning last year, with some troubling consequences, that this year, despite many legitimate reasons, schools are seeking a short period of remote learning and the governor is no longer willing to listen.

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

A COVID twist: A new poll indicates those who are unvaccinated largely feel safe eating in restaurants, attending public places and events, and are hesitant to introduce more restrictions. By contrast, those who have been vaccinated or boosted are cautious to partake in many public activities and are calling for more strident stances on COVID-related mandates. Read more.

Split decision: A divided  commission on qualified immunity – a controversial legal doctrine that often shields police officers and other public employees from liability from civil lawsuits – threads the policy needle, recommending no change in the law for two years while making it easier to file suits.

– Two proposals would make it easier to file civil lawsuits in Massachusetts courts. One would eliminate the threshold requirement that a police officer who improperly shoots or tases someone must first threaten them. The other would help build precedents. Current law says judges cannot hold police officers liable for violating civil rights unless the right they violated is clearly established. Many cases get dismissed because there is no precedent, but the proposed change would require judges to determine whether there is a civil rights violation even if the case doesn’t move forward for lack of precedents. The proposed change over time would build a framework of precedents.

– The commission, which included members from law enforcement as well as civil rights advocates, voted 10-4 in favor of delaying action on the law for two years, 8-6 on eliminating the threat requirement, and 8-5 on the precedent-building provision. Read more.

DAs on the move: Two long-serving district attorneys, Michael O’Keefe from the Cape and Islands and Jonathan Blodgett from Essex, say they will not seek reelection. Meanwhile, Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins notified Gov. Charlie Baker she is taking over as US Attorney on Friday, and urged him to name an interim replacement with an ideology similar to hers. Read more.

Taking on the boss: Sandy Zamor Kalixte said she intends to challenge her boss, Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, in the Democratic primary in the fall. “It is clear to me the only way to implement the change that we need for the community and the employees at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department is new leadership. I am that new leadership,” she said.

Allen’s democracy agenda: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Danielle Allen unveils a democracy agenda for Massachusetts that includes some ideas that are part of the current policy debate on Beacon Hill and others that are fairly novel, including resources for local officials to poll residents on policy matters and a rebuild of local news coverage. Read more.

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

The Worcester fire department is struggling to maintain operations, with COVID cases or exposures sidelining 110 firefighters. (MassLive)

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Dorchester and Martin Richard Foundation unveiled plans for a privately financed $50 million multipurpose fieldhouse in the Columbia Point section of Dorchester. (Dorchester Reporter

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Some child protection lawyers are unhappy with a policy at the Department of Children and Families in which DCF decides to vaccinate children in its care against COVID, regardless of the wishes and consent of the child’s parents. (Telegram & Gazette)

The number of people hospitalized in Massachusetts who have COVID-19 – 2,426 – now exceeds last year’s high. (MassLive) Baystate and Cooley Dickinson hospitals are full amid omicron surge. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

Nursing homes in the state are nearing a breaking point, with many freezing admissions because of staffing shortages, a move that is rippling through the health care sector and causing some patients to be kept in hospitals even though they are ready to be discharged to long-term care facilities. (Boston Globe

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

North of Boston Media Group’s Christian Wade takes a close look at the false narratives and partisan divide that affects how Americans recall the January 6 Capitol riots. (Eagle-Tribune) A year after the riots, US Rep. Jim McGovern recalls the frightening attack and says he sees similar attempts at undermining democracy in efforts by states to restrict voting rights. (Telegram & Gazette) Sen. Ed Markey says the US is in a “daily struggle” to protect democracy. (MassLive)

ELECTIONS

State Rep. Paul Tucker, a Salem Democrat, plans to run for district attorney now that Essex DA Jonathan Blodgett does not intend to run for reelection. (Salem News)

The two declared Democratic candidates for governor are both going green with robust climate policy agendas. (Boston Globe

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

An insurance company is suing the maker of recalled hoverboards, after two hoverboards caught fire while charging and burned an Abington home. (Patriot Ledger)

EDUCATION

The state education department says some masks the state provided teachers are non-medical and were not tested by MIT, contradicting earlier statements by Gov. Charlie Baker. (MassLive)

Medical schools across the country are seeing a record increase in Black enrollment. (GBH)

ARTS/CULTURE

The National Labor Relations Board gets involved in a contract dispute at the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, ordering the orchestra to pay $276,000 to its unionized musicians on condition that they produce two concerts. The union offers to forgo the settlement and put the money toward next year’s concert season on condition that symphony board members resign. (MassLive)

Secretary of State William Galvin opens an exhibit at the Commonwealth Museum on how Massachusetts helped shape American democracy. (WBUR)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A year after the Capitol insurrection, Boston police say they are still investigating possible involvement of officers from the force in the rioting. (Boston Globe)

A retired Methuen police officer crashed his car Christmas Eve. The crash is being further investigated amid allegations that the man was drunk and given preferential treatment by police at the scene. (Eagle-Tribune)

Following a similar decision by Massachusetts state courts, federal courts postpone jury trials until February. (MassLive)

A clerk magistrate has denied a request by New Bedford Light for public access to a January 10 show cause hearing on possible charges of illegal possession of gun magazines against Southcoast Health CEO Keith Hovan. (New Bedford Light