I was concerned that this was too long and crazy to share, but friends have convinced me it's worth sharing some of my thoughts about the draft reopening plans with the community. I posted this on nextdoor where it is visible to about 150k people in our community, and in 24 hours....not one negative comment or disagreement from anyone.
I'd like to first share a personal response to the recent editorial by BVSD Superintendent Dr. Rob Anderson in the Daily Camera (https://www.dailycamera.com/2020/08/01/guest-opinion-rob-anderson-how-do-we-become-appropriately-fearful/).
Then, as someone who has spent innumerable hours volunteering at our neighborhood school over the last 8 years, and I'd also like to walk you through my best understanding of what "cohorting" would look like for students at one elementary school under the proposed plan to open in Phase 3. BVSD hasn’t released many specifics, but after digging into as much detail as I can about the BVSD plan this is my best estimate of how this is going to look. I don’t think it’s going to look like most people seem to assume it will. There are a lot of gaps and unknowns about the proposed draft plan to reopen schools this month, I'm particularly concerned about how safety and equity issues are shaping up.
Even though I am a PTA Co-President at Whittier Elementary, these views are completely my own and don't necessarily represent the views of the PTA or anyone else but myself.
A Response to Dr. Anderson's Letter about Fear
Again, he mischaracterized legitimate practical concerns and questions from parents, community members, staff, and professional educators, many of whom are experts with advanced degrees and decades of experience working in our schools. He describes their concerns as, "feelings", and "fear". He says those who would like him to address the questions and concerns about the reopening plan should instead try harder to use logic and data to mitigate our fear. He implies those who seek to understand, clarify and collaborate to ensure there is a safe practical plan for our schools, are illogical, overreacting, and their real problem is their inability to control their own emotions.
This is a sentiment addressed to his employees in the woman-dominated profession of education, as well as the primarily female-identifying members of our community who have been attempting to engage with BVSD over the last few months. I find his entire letter quite divorced from the reality that the consequences of poor planning, or prematurely opening schools, include the actual deaths of people in our community.
The suggestion that opening schools with the currently proposed plan won’t result in severe illnesses with life long health consequences and deaths in our community is bizarre. If that's not what's he's suggesting, it's even more troubling that he may be asking our community to not be so deeply troubled by the prospect of unnecessary suffering and deaths among our neighbors and loved ones.
BVSD has publicly acknowledged on multiple occasions that they fully expect there to be multiple cases of Covid-19 in our schools, and they have no plans to ensure health screenings other than nicely asking the parents of 30,000 students to be able to discern an asymptomatic child from a healthy one and keep them home accordingly, and there is absolutely no indication that there will be strict cohorting. He's hiring high school students, who according to Margaret Crespo will be in "cohorts" of over 1,000 people, to staff the BVSD childcare.
His letter feels tone-deaf and wrapped in toxic-positivity. Insisting we can safely open schools if we just think positively and work together to figure it out as we go, is reckless. Wanting it to be possible doesn’t make it so. Describing concerns from parents, staff, teachers, and the community as nothing more than problematic, “feelings”, is dismissive and belittling at best.
BVSD is not honoring their commitment to transparency and collaboration with the community. Schools are being bombarded with questions, but it appears they have been asked by BVSD to not send out ANY school-wide emails. I had to submit a CORA request in order to see the public forum in which BVSD teachers and staff were directed to share their questions and comments about the current draft plan, and I've seen no evidence that they are receiving answers from BVSD. There are over a thousand questions and comments on the public forum BVSD has instructed parents and community members to use to engage with them about the reopening plans, in the last Board of Education meeting, BVSD representatives said they would answer those questions. Almost none have been answered. I've personally submitted over 50 questions there and received zero responses from BVSD.
If you're interested in viewing or participating in the public feedback forum that is easily accessible to parents and community members here's a link: https://letstalk.bvsd.org/2020-2021-school-year-return/forum_topics/please-let-us-know-any-questions-concerns-you-have
Here are some of the questions and concerns teachers have raised in the "public forum" that was not accessible to the community, this document I'm sharing was obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1m5L5awedcNx7_tbFDt1-mY6mLXPzJIyZ/view?usp=sharing
What Cohorting Will Look Like in BVSD
- a best guess-
Child A, and their sibling B, are in grades 1 and 4 respectively. They are both in Group A under a Phase 3 reopening plan, so they attend school in person on Tuesday and Wednesday. They are wearing whatever masks their parents happen to chose or make, but the first-grader has a hard time keeping theirs on and struggles to put it back on by themselves.
They ride Bus 1 to Whittier, there would be 2 kids per seat on the bus. School busses usually have a capacity of about 72ish students with 3 to a seat, so at the BVSD proposed capacity of 2 to a seat, there would be 40-50 kids and a bus driver together between home and school. I think there are usually 3ish school busses at Whittier each morning and afternoon, due to custody agreements, some children alternate which bus they take.
On this hypothetical Tuesday, per the information provided by Margaret Crespo from BVSD, we can anticipate 45% of the normal school population being there. There are usually 382 students and maybe 30-40 staff. Let's estimate that we end up with 175 people in the building.
When students A&B arrive, the 40-50 kids on Bus 1, will distribute themselves into their class cohorts by lining up with their teachers on the playground, or in inclement weather, they walk straight inside to find their own classrooms. It is not clear if or how there will be distancing during arrival and departure, or if there will be staggered arrival times. There are probably about 15 classes across 6 different grades. The students will stay in what BVSD has called "strict cohorts" of approximately 10-12 students per class, with masks, distancing, and other precautions....
With some or all of the following exceptions:
Not everyone will really be wearing masks. There are definitely going to be some exemptions that really are necessary for medical reasons, and probably some others that are less medically necessary as well. The process for obtaining an exemption is as yet undefined. If it is the same as or similar to the process for vaccine exemptions, please know that there are multiple schools in the district with less than 2/3s of their students compliant with the requirement to be vaccinated. We do not know how many students and teachers will ask for exemptions to masks altogether, or accommodations allowing them to substitute use less effective plastic face shields instead.
Every classroom has students on the free and reduced school meal program, and students eat school breakfast in their classroom without masks.
There may also be children from Group B who attend classes on Thursday and Friday in the building, as part of the new 100% custodial care daycare option, it is unclear.
We will somehow have desks instead of the larger tables that usually seat many children together, and they are set up so students are sitting 6ft apart. However, to go to the bathroom, or go see the teacher, or sharpen a pencil... students walk down the aisles between the desks, while doing so they only 3ft from students seated at their desks along the aisle. Little kids are not going to sit at desks all day, it's not a reasonable expectation, there is no clarification about what Student A's first grade class will look like when students are not at their desks.
There is a 24x36 inch rectangle of plexiglass on the front of the teacher's desk, for protection. It is unclear if this 2x3 ft of plexiglass is there by default or only provided upon request. BVSD has not shared the details of the other PPE that will be provided to teachers and staff.
It is 90 degrees outside. The air conditioning is off as a safety measure, and the windows that are still able to open after all the safety and security upgrades a few years ago, are open. It's now 90 degrees in the classroom, the students have to take off masks to drink water, there's no clear plan for this. In the past before the AC was installed, students would sometimes have heat exhaustion in classrooms, they'd be hot, with headaches, and nausea, so assuming it's about the same temperatures this fall, some kids will go to the health room, and interact with the office staff, the health aid, and maybe other kids in the health room. Do they have heat exhaustion or Covid-19? The health aid is not a nurse, and even if she were, she doesn't have any way to know for sure.
During the day, there will continue to be something called, "pull-outs", for specialized small group support. This includes stuff like, ELD (English language development support for emerging English speakers), TAG (the gifted support program), counseling, literacy interventions, special education, extra math help, etc....In those pull-out groups, a specialist will pull a few kids, from multiple classes out of their homerooms to bring them together in small groups for focused supports and interventions. Some but not all of those interventions are legally required by IEPs or other rules/laws. Let’s guess that on this day, about 10 kids per grade are pulled out of class for one or more of those small groups. These small groups usually include students from multiple classes. Let's say student B is in literacy intervention with 5 kids, and the younger student A is in ELD with 5 kids, between those two groups there are kids from 5 classes. The small group kids meet for half an hour at different times throughout the day, then return to their classroom cohorts.
Math, Student B is in advanced math, usually about 1/3 of each class in 4th grade will leave their homerooms to go to their math class with students from all of the other 4th-grade class cohorts. This will also happen in 5th-grade math classes.
Morning Recess, and Morning Snack: Most kids eat snacks, especially the younger kids, they will do this with their fingers, without masks. Student A plays on the k-2 playground, student B plays on the grades 3-5 playground at recess, it is unknown which other children may have been touching those playgrounds within 15 minutes of Students A and B. The students are not required to wear masks outside. It is unclear how distancing will work at recess, who will be enforcing it, and how.
Younger children will have masks fall off, and not be able to put them back on independently, so sometimes kids just won't have them on, and an adult will need to be within 6 ft to help them.
Specials, usually each class has two specials each day, rotating through Art, Music (or Band, or Orchestra for 5th grade), and PE. Each class also visits the library each week. There is a different teacher for each of their specials. There is no information from BVSD about this. I've spoken privately with a music teacher at another school, they don't know yet if BVSD is cutting music or band programs yet, but it is widely understood that choir and band are very high-risk activities. If they aren't canceled, band and orchestra kids from 3 different class cohorts will meet together for those classes.
Lunch & Lunch Recess - Usually an entire grade level at a time due to scheduling, so 30-45 students. Students will have their masks off for lunch, it is not clear if lunch will be in their classrooms, outdoors, in the cafeteria, or in some other as yet undefined location. Masks will not be possible during lunch, it is not clear how distancing will be enforced, or how things like school lunch service, the salad bar will work, and cleaning up will work. Children are usually very close together during this time. There are usually at least two people working in the kitchen and at the register, and 3 different adults supervising lunch while homeroom teachers have their own break to eat their lunches. At recess students will be outdoors and not required to wear masks, there is no information about how distancing will be defined or enforced outdoors at recess. Many children will want to go to the bathroom around the same time, especially if they need to wash their hands before and after lunch.
There are 2 copiers in the school which the teachers share, and one in the library. There are other "pinch points" for staff, where they may not find it easy or possible to effectively distance.
After school, Students A and B go to the BVSD aftercare which is open until 6pm. This is a mostly different group of kids and adults than their classroom cohort. Adults working there part-time may work other jobs as well. There will probably be kids like Students A & B who are assigned to Tuesday/Wednesday in-person classes group as well as kids assigned to the Thursday/Friday in-person group, which would also have 175 people.
There are 15 bathrooms spread out across 4 floors, with approximately 28 total toilet & urinal fixtures. 11 of which are single-occupancy bathrooms. If each person uses a bathroom 3 times a day on average, there would be about 525 bathroom visits a day. No matter how this is organized, the traffic through those 15 bathrooms is significant. Especially since students, staff, and teachers will also be stopping in to wash hands more regularly. There is zero chance the bathrooms would be cleaned and sanitized between uses, if proper sanitizing procedures take only 4 minutes, during this single 7 hour school day it would take 35 hours of labor to sanitize the bathrooms between each use. Parent volunteers are prohibited from entering the building until further notice, which is 100% reasonable, but it means there can be no parent volunteers helping with this.
Mask breaks, there isn't much information about what this looks like, but BVSD says there will be "frequent mask breaks".
BVSD is actively hiring for the child care positions, they are hiring high school students to staff the aftercare program from 2:15pm until 6pm M-F for about $11/h. (https://jobs.bvsd.org/school-age-care-sac-student-worker/job/13142344) Let’s say there are 4 high school students at this childcare, they are from both Boulder High and Fairview, representing 3 distinct cohorts of about 1,500 people each, before we begin factoring their other day to day interactions outside of the approximately 4,500 total people in those 3 "strictly defined cohorts". One student child care worker is in the 12th grade, and they participated in the bilingual program at Casey Middle, they are now at Boulder High where the advanced language students take their language classes on campus at CU with the students there.
At the end of the school day, the children who aren't headed to some kind of BVSD aftercare, regroup into their bus-cohorts or leave school to walk or bike home, alone, with friends, siblings, and/or guardians. The kids who are biking will go to the usually pretty full bike racks, where social distancing will be challenging. Even if the students are effectively prohibited from playing together on the playgrounds after dismissal, some groups of students will have afterschool playdates, or go to after school sports and activities where they will likely mingle with students from other schools.
Students A & B are picked up from child care around 5:30, by their mother who works at Boulder Hospital, they stop by Target, and go home to have dinner with their dad who works at the library, and their high-risk grandmother.
Students at Whittier have siblings and family members who spend their days in many different preschools, daycares, middle schools, high schools, colleges, and other environments with a lot of public interaction.
Whittier's attendance zone includes CU on-campus housing, some students live on campus at CU with parents who attend in-person classes there.
Nearly all of the 175 people who would be at Whittier on Tues and Wed in this phase three reopening plan, live with other people, most of whom work or otherwise interact with the community themselves. If the average household of those 175 people at Whittier on that Tuesday, includes a few other people, and half of THOSE people interact with a few people outside of their household without distancing or masks, at work, extended family, pods etc..... the human surface area, of one of these "strict cohorts" of 10-12 kids in a class at Whittier includes a LOT of people.
If students A and B have Covid, but are asymptotic and contagious, and they go to school and aftercare on Tues & Wed, and attend BVSD's full-time child care on Mon, Thurs, and Fri, how many people are potentially exposed in the first week of school before anyone shows symptoms?
What if 1/300 people in Boulder have Covid on the first day of school? 1/200? 1/150?
Given the current Covid data what is the likelihood of students A&B or someone in their household being exposed to someone with Covid? What is the likelihood that someone who was in contact with a member of that household was also in contact with someone with Covid?
Whittier is one of the smaller schools in Boulder. I've thought through the proposed plan over and over and reached out to BVSD for clarification, but every single one of my questions and concerns has been ignored and dismissed as illogical feelings. I can't help but conclude, the current draft plan for reopening schools later this month in Phase 3 is not possible to do safely.
Yours in These Uncertain Times,