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OPINION

Reopening schools requires better state support

The Baker administration should acknowledge the local experts that we are listening to, or at least help us understand what’s driving the discrepancies among experts.

People waited in the parking lot behind the City of Lynn Fire Department headquarters, Dec. 3, for COVID-19 testing.
People waited in the parking lot behind the City of Lynn Fire Department headquarters, Dec. 3, for COVID-19 testing.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Even as coronavirus cases spike in the state, Governor Baker is calling for schools to be back in session. I agree that we need to prioritize returning to the classroom, but we need better state leadership to help us get there.

According to Baker, if you do not come to the same conclusion balancing the risks of in-person and remote learning, you are not following the data. You are not listening to the experts.

As a member of the Lynn School Committee, I can attest that we are following the data and listening to the experts. Our experts — the city’s Department of Public Health and the Lynn Community Health Center — are strongly advising us not to bring students back until January.

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While we have followed our experts’ advice, the Baker administration has rushed public exhortations about schools ahead of offering actual guidance and support for schools.

In the latest instance, recognizing that certain communities have been hit so hard by COVID-19 cases that remote learning might be appropriate, the state created a new category described as “communities with the highest COVID-19 caseloads and test positivity rates” and defined this new category by listing just three communities — Chelsea, Lawrence, and Revere — as examples. This new category comes with “customized strategies to reduce in-school health risks.”

By any reasonable interpretation of our numbers, Lynn should qualify. But the state has given us no indication of whether we do, so it has been of no use for our planning. It must clearly define this new highest risk category and provide the customized strategies to reduce in-school health risks that would come with it. Those customized strategies might include the kind of testing that is allowing colleges to stay open so far. It might also include help with fixing school ventilation issues or even the construction of temporary outdoor spaces, depending on the timing of the vaccine rollout. Lastly, it should include coordination between state and local experts on the right thresholds for various activities.

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It’s not just the Baker administration. A national media narrative has emerged in which top public officials and experts want students to return, but teachers unions are blocking the way. As the pandemic rages, fueled in this country by absent and incompetent federal leadership, this narrative finds the real culprit behind the woes of working parents to be teachers unions.

But those experts assume the presence of certain conditions that would support reopening, like indoor airflow, space for social distancing, and manageable community spread.

In Lynn, close to a third of the schools had their ventilation systems intentionally blocked during the 1970s oil crisis to save on heating costs (which we’re fixing now). Overcrowding in out-of-date buildings would make 6-foot social distancing impossible, even with alternating shifts. Our densely packed city, heavily populated with working people for whom working from home is not an option, has a positivity rate of more than 10 percent.

It is decades of disinvestment in the public education of our most vulnerable students that’s keeping students out of classrooms, not teachers unions or uninformed school boards disregarding the experts.

Viewed charitably, the Baker administration is making a point about districts that have better space options and lower transmission rates.

Viewed skeptically, the Baker administration appears to be more interested scoring political points with frustrated parents than doing the work to reopen schools.

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If the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education were ready to send students back, they would. The state ultimately has the tools to give the final word or at least make it challenging for school districts. But that would require a level of investment that the state is not prepared to make, including the kind of robust testing regime that has made it possible for colleges to open.

Instead, by targeting teachers unions, Baker is banking political benefits from taking the position that schools should reopen while skirting political costs from the trade-offs required to actually reopen.

Let’s put the guidance and support ahead of the exhortations. The Baker administration must acknowledge the local experts that we are listening to or at least help us understand what’s driving any discrepancies among experts. That’s what will help students get back safely as soon as possible.

Jared C. Nicholson is a member of the Lynn School Committee.