Alas, no snow days for journalists! You can bet I’ll be making a snow angel tomorrow, though. Welcome back to our first newsletter of 2022, and stay safe out there.

We’ve got a lot of reporting – but some LexObserver news first: We had a fantastic first meeting of our advisory board this Tuesday! You can view our public presentation, also posted on our website, here. We’re always looking for more folks to get involved – if interested, please fill out our volunteer form.

You’ll see in the presentation a summary of the year-end survey results. You can read a PDF summary of the responses, published publicly, here on our website. We’re taking your feedback seriously: You’ll see some changes to the newsletter in the coming weeks. For instance, we’re considering shifting publication to Friday or Saturday morning rather than afternoon/evening. Whatever we do, we’ll keep you informed about what to expect as we set our goals for this year – and of course, we always welcome more feedback!

All donors should have received our stickers in the mail over the past few weeks – other merch is still on the way, and we look forward to hosting our launch party outdoors in the spring.

Last but not least: We’re delighted to have been accepted last month as accredited members of both the Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers and the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), giving us access to an exciting assortment of resources and funding opportunities which will also help us improve and grow this year. YOU are making this happen – thank you, thank you, thank you.

Now, finally, the news:
 Week of Jan. 7: Lexington News Roundup

Reported by Sophie Culpepper
With reporting from Seiya Saneyoshi

NEWSLETTER SECTIONS:

  • How is LPS handling Omicron? How are students, parents and teachers coping with school in the latest stage of the pandemic?
    • This week, we decided to include several sections on this story rather than providing short updates about different news around town but don’t worry: We plan to cover lots of news beyond the schools in next week’s newsletter.
  • Weekly COVID-19 update: Record high case numbers hitting Lexington.
  • Community announcements: Upcoming  local election deadlines, virtual event at Cary Library next week on the making of a COVID-19 vaccine.

At LPS, as elsewhere, state bungles school reentry, and Omicron takes a toll
 The snow day may have brought a much-needed moment of levity. But cases are up and morale is somewhat down at Lexington Public Schools as the Omicron variant fuels a precipitous rise in COVID-19 numbers everywhere. Teachers, students and community members continue to put on a brave face and make it from day to day; still, it isn’t easy right now. This week, we hear from students, parents and the teacher’s union president about their experiences of school in this first full week of 2022.

It may be a new year, but the common thread of 2022 resembles the last two years: Everyone is exhausted.Context: How did Lexington Public Schools prepare for and navigate this week? How did the state’s aid efforts exacerbate challenges for the local school district?

No school on Monday: On Thursday, Dec. 30, Superintendent Julie Hackett announced in a community-wide letter that there would be no school on Monday, Jan. 3, primarily to give all educators time to get tested using state-distributed rapid testing kits. In this screening, 5.5%, or 77 staff members, tested positive.
 

The state also distributed masks… but fewer & less protective than promised: Before picking up staff tests in Franklin last Friday, Lexington’s Central Office staff drove a bus to Worcester to pick up state-provided KN95 masks. Lexington was supposed to receive 45 cases of KN95 masks; they only received 21 cases. The bigger problem, however, came to light over the weekend: The masks distributed to Lexington, and to many other districts, were not medical-grade KN95s. There are actually two kinds of KN95 masks: Medical-grade KN95s, which MIT has found provide 87.5% filtration efficiency, and non-medical grade KN95s, which provide just 25-45.8% filtration efficiency, according to Hackett’s biweekly report. A Lexington educator first noticed that the KN95s distributed to Lexington were labeled in small print as ‘not for medical use;’ as of yesterday, Lexington Education Association (LEA) President Avon Lewis was not aware of any medical-grade KN95 masks being distributed to Lexington educators by the state, she told LexObserver.
 

New LPS COVID-19 protocols released Thursday: Yesterday, Jan. 6, Hackett released another schoolwide communication outlining a new set of COVID-19 protocols and updates “developed in collaboration with Superintendents and Nurse Leaders in neighboring districts who came together to discuss how best to deal with the rise in the number of COVID-19 positive cases in our schools,” she wrote, including by making protocols “that are sustainable and manageable for our school nurses and staff.” Perhaps the biggest news in her letter is that staffing shortages are a concern “that may force a school closure.”More below.
 You can also read our Twitter summary of this Tuesday’s School Committee meeting here. (We always post Twitter summaries of School Committee meetings the evening they take place; follow us to get those @ObserverLex.)
How are community members holding up? What challenges are students, parents and teachers currently facing, and what are their hopes and needs moving forward?
Student Perspectives 

Thank you to our newest intern, Lexington High School junior Seiya Saneyoshi, for interviewing three LHS students yesterday about what school is like right now. Since these students are minors, we identify them by their first names and last initial. The following interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
 How safe did you feel this week during school?

  • Ria V.: I entered this week a lot more precautious than in normal weeks. Especially given the numbers that we’ve been seeing, I was really surprised we had school on Tuesday, and [that] we’ve continued to have school; I assumed that after they gathered the students testing kits yesterday, that they would take some action. But…I didn’t really feel that safe even with the testing kits being collected, knowing that the school’s policies are becoming more lenient when it comes to COVID.
  • Srija G.: I felt really unsafe coming back to school, especially after we hit a million cases for one day; it was scary looking at the statistics and realizing how quickly Omicron spreads. I think that it puts [me] a little at ease that the fatality rate is much lower than the Delta variant, but it is still concerning. I was feeling that school is kind of [reminiscent of] how it was in March 2020; everyone was kind of on edge, everyone was a little scared, we didn’t really know what to expect….I definitely think that in order to feel fully safe, they should offer a remote option.
     
  • Sarah J.: I felt all right; I think people are definitely being a lot more careful with pulling their masks up and keeping them over their nose. But, lunch of the first day, I was a little bit uncomfortable, but I think people – and teachers – are definitely trying their best as well. Also, it’s definitely more personal now. I know more people who’ve had it, and even some friends, which is a little bit scary. But it all is a matter of keeping yourself personally safe and getting tested when you can.

Do you think there’s a sense of frustration that this pandemic will never end?

  • Srija: Definitely. I feel like COVID is dropping versions of itself, almost like Taylor Swift….This is going on for so long. I feel it especially because I haven’t seen 90% of my family, because they all live in India, for two years, which is really tough. And it’s starting to feel scary thinking about how long it’s going to be before I see them again. It helps that everyone is going through it, so you can’t really complain that much. But it feels like there’s no end, almost.

What’s one thing, if anything, that you wish LPS had changed in their response to COVID this week? Schools aren’t allowed to go remote according to state guidelines, but is there anything else that you wish had been done differently?

  • Ria: I think a half day where students aren’t closely packed in the lunchroom and eating together, especially when you look at Commons one or Commons two, [could have been helpful]. Opening a new cafeteria area, a good idea in theory, isn’t really going to work because I don’t think anyone’s interested in walking all the way to the Field House. Then I also think that the school could have done a better job with the absence policy; it seems to really disincentivize students from staying home if they’re feeling sick.
  • Sarah: It is complicated, and they could not do it, but having a remote option – or even just making kids remote for this week – could have been a very strong idea, because people traveling over winter break would have been able to take more precautions and be more careful.

So this is the third year we’re dealing with COVID-19. What are your hopes for how the pandemic will play out this year?

  • Srija: The biggest thing I want as soon as possible is to go back to India. In Lexington, I definitely want to reach a stage where… numbers are going down, where you feel generally a little safer to go back to school. And I especially hope that by the time the class of 2023 goes to college, it will be almost back to normal. Because I feel like a lot of college students, their experience has been taken away. So it’s less about what I want to happen this year and more of what I want to happen in the future.
  • Sarah: I don’t want to change my expectations because of COVID. But they definitely [are] a factor in terms of summer plans and being able to interact with other people. My goal is to stay as close to the plan that I have as I can with…precautions taken.

What do you think about the mental health and learning benefits of being in person versus the safety risks?

  • Ria: Remote learning was more convenient; you could sleep more, you could disengage with class – as a result, it didn’t take a toll that apparent on your mental health at first, but then later, it became more visible because then you have this ability to disengage in class and zone out a lot. I never really had this until I came back in person this year, and I realized I was zoning out a lot during classes, and tapping my notes page thinking it was an iPad or something … We’ve gotten so used to just being alone in a room listening to someone speak to us and having the ability to turn off our camera and not raise our hand.
  • Sarah: Remote learning had its perks in the sense of it was a little bit more relaxing. And I personally found that I had more time to pursue my own interests. But I feel like I didn’t learn the material as well. Being in the classroom just thinking about [when] I took AP World History last year, I felt kind of behind on the information, versus in AP U.S. History this year in person, I feel like I’m actually able to keep up [now]. Frankly, because it’s junior year, staying in school and being able to learn the material for AP tests and even just to know it, I think it’s good to stay in person.

Parent Perspectives

Reactions to the latest school guidance:

  • A personal anecdote from the testing nightmare: Yuan Zhou, the mother of an eighth grader at Clarke and a third grader at Bowman, expressed “a mixed feeling of relief and confusion” in an email to LexObserver at yesterday’s guidance from Dr. Hackett allowing initial negative antigen tests to be accepted for school attendance in asymptomatic individuals, given her personal struggle finding a PCR test.
  • Zhou’s eighth grade daughter, after having some symptoms on Wednesday, was sent home at noon, and was told she would have to show a negative PCR/molecular test result to return to school. The pediatrician’s office had run out of test kits, and the earliest available PCR testing time was not until next Monday. Zhou spent the entire afternoon looking for a rapid PCR test appointment, and found one for Thursday – but when she showed up on time yesterday, she was told the facility had run out of rapid PCR test kits, so her daughter had to take one which would take three to five days to be processed. Her daughter, who had no symptoms by Thursday, “cried on the site, because if it comes out on the 5th day, she will have to miss her idol’s workshop for Clarke’s musical production,” not to mention her best friend’s birthday party on Sunday, Zhou wrote. “She felt so terrible and cried so loud.”  In the meantime, she kept her younger son home too, in case her daughter tested positive.
  • Despite her relief about the acceptance of antigen results in some cases, which alleviated the stress of searching for a rapid PCR test, Zhou still has concerns about being forced by shortages to rely on the lesser accuracy of antigen tests compared to PCRs. “I’m pretty exhausted to think about any better solutions/support. I only pray for my kids and all kids to be as healthy and happy as possible,” Zhou wrote.
  • Concern about understaffing, disagreement with 10-day isolation: To avoid and minimize closures due to staffing shortages moving forward, LPS parent Jeanne Desanto would like the district to “look at pay to attract staff and make sure we are competitive with peer schools within a 15 mile radius,” especially for substitute teachers, she wrote in an email to LexObserver. “LPS needs to be proactive if we stand a fighting chance of attracting what few people there are to hire.”
  • Additionally, Desanto disagreed with making school isolation guidance more stringent than federal guidance. “Look what it will do – it will cause more people to not test their kids…and keep their infected kids in school because the time out of school is too much for them to bear (plus…draconian when you compare it to cdc guidance),” she wrote. “We’re just so behind here – behind on pay, behind on hiring and now behind on Covid rules. And I say all this with a high risk person at home and great respect for intelligent mitigation.”
  • Dr. Hackett could not be reached for comment by press time.
     

Teacher Perspectives: Avon Lewis, Lexington Education Association (LEA) President

Did you agree with the decision not to hold school on Monday? 

  • Yes: “I think it was essential for the districts to be able to open on Tuesday and have a productive day,” Lewis said. Without the testing, the district would have had no idea how many educators would be absent Monday; while Hackett and Lewis also considered a late start Monday, according to Lewis, they concluded that “it would just be really hard to deal with the staffing,” and used Monday to make staffing contingency plans in addition to testing all educators. Additionally, “We’re a large district, and the logistics around distributing [all of the tests and masks] are not small – [administrators] went to pick stuff up, not in a van, but in a school bus, to give you an idea of the volume of stuff we’re talking about.”

What do you think of how the state handled the testing distribution?

  • There should have been more foresight, and forewarning, from the state level, Lewis said; even if no one knew just how contagious Omicron would be, “Everyone knew that there was going to be some kind surge after break because that’s what happens after you send people off to go spend time in social groupings. And so the fact that the state…comes in the middle of vacation week and you know, ‘surprise, we have all this equipment and you’ve got to come drive to random spots…to come pick this stuff up, and then distribute it before school’…it was so mind-blowing that that was the answer that we came up with.” On the other hand, “if we had the equipment before break, or even if we had known that the equipment was coming before break, we could have launched things differently. But instead…everything was rush, rush, rush…It was a circus.” And this was before it came to light that some of the state-distributed tests were expired – though Lewis was not aware of any specific reported incidents of expired test distribution in Lexington.
  • “The district’s done the best we can with a tough situation, and the state didn’t definitely didn’t make it any easier,” she summarized.

What’s the deal with these non-medical masks distributed by the state?

  • As explained above, the state-provided masks were supposed to have medical-grade filtration – but did not. How did Lexington staff make this discovery? When the state tweeted out a photo of the masks, showing their brand name and model number, an LEA teacher doing research on masks for their own family looked the masks up – and discovered that the model being distributed corresponded to the non-medical version of the masks. After this “first red flag,” around Saturday night, over the next 48 hours Lexington teachers and others pieced together that there were two different kinds of KN95 masks with almost identical packaging and labeling, but dramatically different filtration efficiencies and authorizations for emergency use. 
  • Lewis doesn’t resent the state for messing this up, because “the labeling [difference]  is subtle” – but thinks they should apologize and fully own up to the mistake. “I don’t blame anyone for that; this is a crazy time. I just think that they should stand up and say, ‘Hey, we screwed this up. And we’ll make it right.”

How are you handling staffing shortages?

  • “We have 11 buildings, and they’ve been solving these problems in different ways,” Lewis said; “at this point, we are doing pretty well without any major disruptions that I am aware of.”
  • “Obviously, we’re using every sub we can get our hands on;” some classrooms are being run by hourly staff who usually work one-on-one with special education students; at the high school, some, “but not many,” classes were canceled, “but that’s only something you could do with the high school because your average 17-year-old is different than a 12-year-old.”

Do you think paying substitute teachers more, including with available pandemic funding, would help the district address its staffing shortages? If not, what strategies do you think could help fill these positions?

  • “I don’t think anybody pays substitutes enough,” a problem not unique to Lexington, Lewis said. “Considering what you’re asking folks to do, especially during a health crisis…you’re asking people paid in the low 100s [hourly rates]…to be in a building, you’re offering them no benefits…they may or may not be trained to do what they’re being asked to do; they may or may not get any time during the day to have lunch or go to the bathroom depending on what situations you’re dropped into” – not to mention that “challenging authority is part of what kids do. It’s a tough gig.”
  • But she isn’t certain that paying substitutes more alone would fix the staffing shortage at LPS. For one thing, “[educator] retirees who like kids” often serve as substitute teachers, Lewis explained, because this gives them the chance to work just a couple days a week. “Retirees don’t want to be subbing now, because [of] the health risks, and it’s a tough job made tougher by COVID.” More money might not solve the problem in part because “there’s only so many actual humans out there.”
  • What might help more than higher pay, in Lewis’ opinion, is making more substitute teacher positions benefits-eligible: “Using some of that pandemic money to make building-based subs. So people who are on payroll and are [in] benefit-eligible positions, with the expectation that you are now in that building every day for the rest of the school year.” Lexington already has some of these positions, Lewis said, but could use more – and “​​if you make positions benefits-eligible, it becomes something that is interesting to a broader range of people,” she said.

Do teachers want remote learning to be an option right now?

  • “A little bit, but not a ton,” Lewis said. “Everyone hated it.” 
  • That said, Lewis is hearing that some staff across buildings are having to miss school right now “not because they’re sick, or their kids are sick, but because their preschools have closed. Those staff are healthy, and they are capable of contributing, but they’re in a situation where they can’t, and so I think that having flexibility around being able to engage as much of the workforce as we could would be really helpful right now.” 
  • Educators are in a fundamentally different situation from 2020; given the high vaccination rates, “this is very different than where we were before, where people were really scared for their own safety,” Lewis said.

How are educators and staff holding up? What are you hearing from staff about the kind of support they need right now from the community and from the state?

  • “I think the single word is just exhausted,” Lewis said.
  • “More than remote learning, I think staff would really love it if the state would back off on the number of school days [required], just so that you could have time for staff to sit down and do work. Because the demands of teaching this year are enormous. And they are very different than the demands of teaching last year, which were completely different than the demands of teaching the year before.” 
  • “In essence, we’re now in our third year of everyone being a first-year teacher. At least that’s what it feels like to a lot of people,” Lewis summarized. On top of that, supporting students with mental health issues, as well as grappling with personal mental health issues, “takes a toll.” 
  • Teachers want to do the best job they can for their students, Lewis stressed: “They really care enormously. But I think many of the staff are at capacity, and they are beyond, and it’s a struggle, it’s not fun anymore, and this is not why we became teachers.” It was painful, she said, to see parents upset on Twitter when Hackett announced that there would be no school on Monday. Lewis is “really looking for people to just cut each other a break a little bit, and know that everyone’s doing the best they can with a really, really difficult situation. I would say that’s what people need right now — just some respect for each of us as human beings.”
  • Lewis worries about the long-term consequences of current teaching demands for staffing: “In a year or two years from now, how many additional people are we going to have leaving the profession, and will we be able to replace them?”

COVID-19 Weekly Update: Record high case numbers hitting Lexington

  • Our last newsletter was Dec. 17, but our last weekly case number update was Dec. 10, since the latest Lexington numbers weren’t up by the previous newsletter. That means we have four weeks of case numbers to recap, which as it happens, is a tragically useful timeframe for showing the exponential growth of Omicron. On Dec. 17, the town was up to 50 new cases; these more than doubled to 103 new cases for the week of Dec. 23new cases were up to 176 by Dec. 30; and finally, as of yesterday, there were 328 new cases. Those are the highest case numbers recorded in Lexington as far back as the town dashboard and graph appear to go, to March 4, 2020.
     
  • At press time, this week’s Lexington Public Schools case numbers still weren’t posted on the dashboard, though we know that there are cases in every building, and that 77 staff members tested positive before school started this week. Given the holiday break, the most recent school case numbers posted are from Dec. 23: That week, there were 38 staff or students on quarantine, and 49 staff or students absent who had tested positive.

Community Announcements

  • Upcoming election deadlines: Next Thursday, Jan. 13 is the deadline to apply to serve on a Town Board or Committee. You can find a list of Select-Board appointed committees with vacancies hereJan. 13 is also the deadline to obtain blank nomination paperwork for new candidates for town office. Finally, Monday, Jan. 10 is the deadline for incumbent Town Meeting Members to file with the Town Clerk. You can learn more about running for local office here.
  • Also on Jan. 13: Cary Library is holding a virtual event at 7:30 p.m. about ‘Making a COVID-19 Vaccine’ with Dr. Melanie Ivarsson, who oversaw the development of the Moderna COVID mRNA vaccine. You can register for the event here.

That’s a wrap for today. Was this roundup useful to you? What do you want to see in this email next week? Let us know, and please ask your friends to sign up and donate too! Reach out to sophie@lexobserver.org with tips and questions anytime. As always, you can also check out and share our websiteTwitterInstagram and Facebook pages. Thanks so much for reading and have a great weekend.

With gratitude,
Nicco Mele, Sophie Culpepper, Sarah Liu, Vivian Wang and Seiya Saneyoshi
LexObserver Team

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