Weekly WPS 8.22.2020

By L.E.

It seems like everyday Worcesterites are asking: “WTF is going on with our schools?” It’s a great question because it can be so hard to keep up. Here is the first of many round-ups of all the WPS news and drama that I can think of in no particular order. This is your space to catch up on everything – being informed is the first critical step towards taking action to ensure justice for our students, families, and WPS employees.

1. The state just cut the WPS budget by $15.5 million

For months, there has been an enormous lack of clarity from the state on what funds school districts will receive for the coming year. The state hasn’t passed a full budget since everything shut down in the spring, so WPS officials were forced to make decisions based off of the January proposed budget. This budget included the implementation of the Student Opportunity Act (SOA), whose purpose was to tackle education funding inequities across the state. Then, a temporary budget was passed in July that covered through October, but suddenly there was no Student Opportunity Act implementation (meaning, none of that extra money to support our underfunded schools was coming our way). The only changes to school aid are adjustments for inflation and enrollment. As of Friday, we now know this leaves WPS with a $15.5 million funding decrease. You can read up on the details of what is being proposed by officials to keep the schools afloat in the midst of this significant cut in the very, very long document from WPS (start at page 264). It looks like the cuts will be coming largely from salaries for unfilled positions as well as support positions like Instructional Assistants and substitute teachers, plus transportation costs, security costs, facility maintenance costs, supplies costs, and more. 

This is a last-minute reveal that local officials have been waiting on for months. They’ve been forced to make decisions without knowing these numbers, having to leap before they can even get a chance to look – an issue that was covered in this Telegram article. This ongoing lack of leadership and guidance from the state is especially concerning given the fact that a recession is likely about to hit cities across the country. Worcester School Committee Member Tracy Novick highlights these state leadership failures in this CommonWealth article, saying: “In terms of local government being left to fend for itself, that’s really been the experience of all of us in local government over the past several months.”

2. DESE guidelines keep changing after districts are forced to make decisions – including teaching from classrooms and vaccinations.

Despite districts across the state, including Worcester, having to make calls already about how teachers should be working this semester, on Friday DESE decided to give their latest “guidance.” Namely, that teachers should only be teaching remotely from their classrooms. This comes on the heels of the teachers union fighting the district on this front and winning the right to teach from home. How else are they supposed to stay safe or take care of their children? Oh, but DESE has offered a solution to the childcare question – just bring your kids with you to the school while you teach! No word on how any of that could possibly work safely. And, those children of teachers should be added to the “high needs” cohort that will be phased back into in-person learning first. What a cruel recommendation to bounce around at the end of August, mere weeks before schools re-open – but then again, this reeks of Trumpian “the cruelty is the point” directives. Luckily, DESE doesn’t dictate exactly what the districts do, but they are intimately connected. This is a great Twitter thread on why this guidance and its timing are so messed up.  

There were other guidelines issued by DESE earlier this week. You can view them here. I don’t have all the details on this one yet or completely understand the implications this has for Worcester. Many are upset because (as has been happening all summer) they’ve made plans, created presentations, made decisions, and given advice much of which is now rendered irrelevant. An especially notable component of these changes is that flu vaccines will be legally required for all students returning to school. More information on this decision will likely come out as the weeks go on.

3. There is also no clarity on Congress’ support for schools

Now that state funding has been somewhat cleared up, and now that we know that it is not looking good, there is also no sign from Congress about whether they’ll be handing out any aid for schools. This Chalkbeat article is a good overview of these issues.

4. A gross op-ed that probably reflects the views of many Worcesterites 🙁

The Telegram & Gazette published this op-ed this week entitled “Introducing anti-racism training into schools would be a bad idea.” This is in response to many people pushing this type of training, including Racism Free WPS, which was founded recently by WPS students and alumni. They’ve come out with a list of demands based on feedback they’ve gotten from other students and alumni (you can also sign their petition to show you endorse their demands), including cultural competency training for all WPS faculty and staff. In this almost comically racist and completely unfounded piece, the author proceeds to advocate for the continuation of what we’re doing right now and penalizing any person of color who doesn’t fall in line with her view of what “correct” is. She has also been a historically very powerful figure in the city – she is the founding Executive Director of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau and ran it for 28 years (highly influencing many of Worcester’s current policy choices), she’s been on the Massachusetts Board of Education, she’s involved with Greater Worcester Community Foundation and the Worcester Art Museum, and she’s sat on the Mayor’s Task Force on Job Growth and Retention. I’ll let this response to the piece from Bill Shaner, an incredible local reporter whose newsletter I recommend subscribing to for a small fee of $5/month, speak for itself. Even City Councilor Sean Rose condemned it on his Facebook. Not a great look!

5. The schools are getting a $15 million upgrade for their ventilation systems.

There outlined well in this Telegram article. Some are skeptical about how this will be accomplished by November 16, given it is such an arduous task. Others are concerned about the cost. This project was actually supposed to be $9 million, but the price just went up because they have expanded the number of schools that will be targeted. From Brian Allen, the district’s chief financial and operations officer:  “[The ventilation systems] will likely be paid for through a combination of the district’s own federal coronavirus stimulus money, possibly some of the city’s stimulus aid, and some debt to cover any remaining expense.” So, we don’t really know how to pay for it, we just know that we need it. With the news on our state budget cut, this will prove to be an even greater challenge. 

In the recent Massachusetts Jobs with Justice event on School Reopening, during which Worcester’s own Nelly Medina of WEJA and the Parent’s Union spoke beautifully, it was raised multiple times that so many issues that have existed in our school systems for decades are coming to light because of the pandemic. These long-standing failures leadership were not being addressed by leadership despite their knowledge of them and their power to make changes. That so many of our schools had no ventilation system at all or ventilation systems that are completely outdated is pretty horrifying and definitely fits into that analysis!

6. There’s a confirmed WPS English Language Arts online learning pilot program

The School Committee has voted to move forward with an ELA pilot program from McGraw Hill called Study Sync. You can read more about this decision in this Telegram article. This platform has excerpts of texts, full novels, and quiz questions. One notable feature is that you can choose a language and receive a summary of the text you’re reading in that language (but primary texts will not actually be available in other languages). It also claims to have a more diverse selection of texts, which is a good place to start for many instructors who have not been incorporating diverse literature into their curricula. This system effectively checks all the boxes for the curriculum standards, meaning it also heavily relies on standardized testing-style questions. So… is it actually a good idea? First of all, teachers were not involved in the process of making this decision and seem split on whether this will be a good system or not. In some ways, this technology might be a cop-out – a way for WPS to say they’re doing work to support English Language Learners (ELLs) plus kids with IEPs and 504s without making a significant effort to actually do so. This is compounded by the fact that many of their texts are in the public domain – making them easy to access but also potentially not the most unique or appropriate texts for students. The cost is also quite steep ($256,500 – just over what City Council voted to increase the police budget by… hm…), which is not the best thing for WPS right now given all the funding issues outlined above. The School Committee passed this program with only one “no” vote from – you guessed it – Tracy Novick. You can read her blog post about why she voted against it here.

We’ve got to stick together here, folks. A lot of this is bad news and can’t be spun to make us happy, but that necessitates that we care for one another and those of us who have privileges be ready to sacrifice them for our most vulnerable students, families, and staff. Collectivism over individualism – now’s the time.