9 minute read

(UPDATE 2/8: there is a Special Board Meeting Tuesday February 9th 2021 - tomorrow! Public encouraged to offer comment via email)

Here’s where I’m currently at on reopening for the remainder of this school year:

I still don’t support it, right now.

While we are being told that we must reopen in-person, there continues to be a lack of evidence being offered from public health and JCPS officials that we can safely do so.

In addition, I am seeing a disturbing there is a lack of acknowledgement about the risks teachers and families are being asked to accept.

If I had to put it into a metaphor, here it is:

There’s a big wave coming, and it’s gonna hit the beach. Most folks in power have their back turned to it. The first people it’ll hit, though, are JCPS teachers and their families.

Reopening is going to happen - and frankly, needs to happen - but when and under what circumstances is the current debate.

The attitude that I read from officials is that this choice has been made for them and that it is inevitable, and we are to move forward at all costs. Costs that even our own public health officials cannot claim to understand.

If this decision moves forward and is wrong, those directly in the path of it are teachers and their families. Yes, COVID affects the whole community, but teachers are not being given the same option of in-person or NTI teaching, effectively making the choise between their health and their jobs - a choice they did not sign up for. And worse these teachers being made scapegoats for having the same concerns we all share.

All of of this stems from a lack of leadership at the federal level - which if today’s announcement holds true will be addressed somewhat by President Biden’s approval of CDC guideliens.

But - the federal government does not make JCPS decisions. Those at the state and city level will make the decisions.

So What Has Changed

Since I last wrote about it - nothing has changed in the JCPS plans and guidelines for reopening. There are still considerable, concerning gaps and unfair treatment of teachers.

What has changed is that the public conversation around this has grown louder. Superintendent Pollio and public health officials are responding, and the risks teachers are being asked to take are coming into sharper relief. All in all, there is mounting public pressure - especially on teachers and their unions - to return to in-person school.

This includes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who openly chastized JCPS Board vice-chair Chris Kolb after he voiced the concerns of teachers. This is ignorant, unfair and unbecoming of a man of McConnell’s stature - but on par for his political record.

But I digress. A decision from the Board rapidly approaching and the largest teachers union in JCPS are taking a poll of their members regarding reopening. So this will be coming to a head, and soon.

The good news is that JCPS is on track to have all teachers vaccinated fully by early March (lord willin’ and we get the second round of vaccine doses!)

A Poor Argument for Reopening

Returning to the local and state defense of reopening - the most recent JCPS Board of Education meeting (February 2, 2021) featured a marathon 3-hour question-and-answer session with Dr. Sara Moyer, Chief Health Strategist and Dr. Connie White from the Kentucky Department of Public Health.

Concerns and tensions were high, Board members were prepared, and the answers from Drs. Moyer and White were thorough and lengthy. But I would characterize the responses on the whole as heavily favoring reopening, supported with little evidence, failing to acknowledge the known risks and without adequately addressing the detailed concerns of the Board.

It appears as though local and state public health officials are resigned to reopening and are working to support an incredibly shaky defense while not acknowledging areas of CDC guidance that JCPS can’t achieve.

It pains me great to hear what I heard, but it’s there.

Three response from that conversation stuck out to me:

I’m not a scientist or a public health expert but I was taught (in JCPS) that anecdotes are not evidence and correlation is not causation. If you don’t know the answer or don’t have data, you don’t claim it.

On the whole, I was not convinced because I didn’t think these public health officials were entirely convinced. This leaves me feeling the argument here was weak and possibly influenced by forces outside of their control (see the wave metaphor above).

Regardless of how you personally read the responses in that meeting, the summary is this: Our local and state public health officials consider the threat to mental health as far larger than the impact of COVID, when it comes to reopening schools.

Which means that they feel that less harm will come from the total effects of COVID - physical, mental, economic - if we reopen schools.

Backing this decision is years of professional experience but woefully little data - which you can’t blame them for. COVID illnesses is easy to meausre in the short term. Mental health and other long-term effects are not.

Let’s be honest and up-front about this. It’s OK. We want scientist to do this.

Are the concerns still here?

Yes, the gaps are still here - even with the vaccine.

A growing body of US and European studies(1) - including the guidance from the CDC still say safely reopening schools rely upon things like social distancing everywhere, airflow and a detailed approach. President Biden made it clear tonight that two of my biggest concerns with reopening - social distancing in classrooms and on buses - will be a part of the CDC guidance they are expected to push this week.

But the response from JCPS and public health officials I heard did not even acknowledge those as requirements. It was instead a consistent refrain was that “every precaution” was being made, and that safety was “like stacks of swiss cheese”. But there are real, serious gaps, the CDC knows it and the President is likely to back it. On packed buses and crowded, stuffy classrooms with windows that won’t open and doors that the state says you can’t open. And let’s not forget that the community itself is complicit in the success or failure. We are “in the red zone”.

In this situation, and with these gaps, there are risks.

Closing in … on Reopening

The gaps aren’t being closed. The risks are not being acknowledged. Teachers and their families - and therefore the whole community - is possibly being put at great risk.

I tend to trust Dr. Moyers and Dr. White. They have real experience and knowledge and have access to data and resources we do not. That’s a cornerstone of public trust. But when you offer no evidence and couple it with not addressing or worse - brushing aside - real, black-and-white concerns, it erodes that trust.

I’m not sure what’s behind it exactly. These people of science appear to be brushing aside what many in the community see as real, demonstrable risk. I assume they, too, are caught up in the coming wave. Vaccines have been allotted. Teachers have been given the shot. There is a real mental health crisis right now. There is also a real pandemic that uses our whole community as its network to spread.

Right now, if the data is to be believed, I and many others think we can’t reopen safely by the measures available to us. Do we want to? Definitely. But somewhere, the risk assessment has been made that these real risks are worth reopening and possibly spreading the disease further. But the evidence for it hasn’t been shown.

Pressure continues to mount. This is failure from the top-down, and it’s falling on the schools.

I’m disappointed in that lack of leadership - but hopeful with President Biden’s announcement today that that will change.

But I still can’t support reopening from March-June 2021 until JCPS and the community take the risks more seriously.

Looking Forward

But after all that - I am hopeful that after we’ve vaccinated enough people to bring our infection rate down, and the gaps we have in our reopening plan have been mitigated, we will be able to safely reopen.

Optimistically, I hope that means the fall term at the latest. I’d love for it to be this summer.

In the meantime - wear a mask, get tested if you have to be in contact with others, and keep an eye out when you or your loved ones are eligible for the vaccine.

The next Jefferson County Board of Education meeting is slated for February 16th at 6PM. If you have concerns or questions, review the JCPS Reopening Plans if you haven’t already, and contact the Board to have your voice heard.

The emails for the current JCPS School Board are here: porterschoolboard@gmail.com, chris@kolbforschoolboard.com, james.craig@jefferson.kyschools.us, joseph.marshall2@jefferson.kyschools.us, lindadduncan@live.com, corrie.shull@jefferson.kyschools.us, sarah@sarah4jcps.com

Finally, Louisville is not the only city struggling with reopening. In this article from the New York Times, The Union Leader Who Says She Can Get Teachers Back in Schools, the parallels from Lousiville - from the strong teachers union right down to how the public opinion on reopening breaks along racial lines - are stunning. Highly worth the read.

(1) Three studies indicate that safe opening requires adequate social distancing plus a low infection rate in the community, among other things: JAMA, EU, CDC