Benchmark Blog

Mass Senate Struggles to find the Right Inflation Fix for School Funding

Two proposals would benefit Haverhill and other Gateway Cities for the coming school year

Our state Senators have offered varied solutions to a tricky problem – how to sustain the school districts that are most dependent on state funding in a tight budget year. Eleven amendments to the Senate budget have been filed that attempt to address a glitch in the state Chapter 70 funding formula. The problem arises from a cap on the inflation adjustment that under compensates for past inflation in current and ongoing school funding.

Of the 11 amendments filed, only two would clearly help Haverhill and other Gateway cities with additional funding for the coming school year. Others might address the problem in the longer run. Here is a summary of the proposed budget amendments in this area:

Amendments with appropriations for fiscal year 2025

The two amendments that would provide school districts with temporary funding relief outside the Chapter 70 funding formula for the coming fiscal year. These amendments (Moore #743, Payano, #758) specify funding amounts for fiscal year 2025. The Moore amendment provides for an “Extraordinary Relief Reserve” of $217 million for districts to account for the difference between actual inflation and inflation adjustments under Chapter 70. It does not specify how funds are to be distributed among school districts. The Payano amendment, “Inflation Relief Fund for School Districts in Gateway Municipalities,” provides for $100 million targeted to the Gateway municipalities and allocates those funds in proportion to fiscal year 2024 Chapter 70 allocation [which for these cities is proportional to the impact of the inflation adjustment shortfall].

A couple of other amendments suffer from odd or unclear specifications. Amendment #666, from Senator Lewis, would appropriate about $18.6 million to Gateway cites meeting a specific configuration of local revenue and local contribution that presumably includes Malden. #799 from Senator Feeney would appropriate $5 million for low-spending school districts, However, it is not clear that any municipality would meet the two required criteria for aid under this amendment.

Amendments for changes without appropriations

Three amendments call for 4.5 percent “inflation” adjustments indefinitely using language included in a proposal from AFT MASS MASC and MTA. These amendments (Tarr #644, O’Connor #735, Kennedy #798) However, none of these amendments include an appropriation amount for fiscal year 2025. The Tarr amendment would not affect funding for this fiscal year. Amendment 735, from Senator O’Connor, would try to bank inflation obligations and provide extra funds to make up lost districts after high inflation returns to below 4.5 percent. It calls for an escrow account, though the source of funds for this account is unclear. It make no appropriation for fiscal year 2025. The Kennedy amendment also calls for 4.5 percent inflation adjustments.

It should be noted that all three of these amendments use language that does not precisely describe what appears to be intended. The ratio of implicit price deflator for the current year to that for 2019 will always be above 1.045 because it measures inflation over a several year period.  Also, it is the inflation adjustment, not the increase in the index, that may be intended to be restricted to 4.5 percent.  The index for fiscal year 2025 is 1.0135. Increasing that by 4.5 percent would produce a new index of 1.0591, which would provide for increasing “inflation”adjustments of 5.9 percent the first year and 10.7 percent the following year. If any of these amendments are adopted into law, this language will need to be revised at some point in the future to better capture the intent and/or to clarify how long such catch-up inflation adjustments would continue.

Amendments for study groups

Finally, three amendments call for study groups to look at the Chapter 70 funding. Senator Tarr #643 calls for a “Chapter 70 Local Contribution Formula Working Group,” Senators Lewis and Rausch (amendment #660) call for a Chapter 70 Study Group, and Senator Tarr in amendment #691 calls for a Study Commission on minimum aid school districts to focus on non-rural districts with declining enrollment.

Conclusion

The best bet for Haverhill and other Gateway cities are the Payano and Moore amendments, as they would provide significant funding targeted to the communities most affected by the under-correction for inflation in fiscal years 2023 and 2024, a problem that has reduced foundation budgets and carries forward into fiscal year 2025 and beyond. See posts below.

 

Proposal to Fully Adjust Chapter 70 Foundation Aid for Inflation

This proposal calls for fully adjusting Chapter 70 school aid for recent and future inflation. Chapter 70 includes a 4.5-percent upper limit or cap on the Foundation inflation index used to calculate school aid. This cap, applied in Fiscal Years 2023 and 2024, carries forward to reduce preliminary foundation budgets by 6 percent for fiscal year 2025. It threatens to underfund future school aid as well. This cap is a flaw in the formula that presents a serious ongoing impediment to meeting the needs of schools following the recent period of high inflation and will continue to restrict aid for years to follow until corrected.

Proposal

We propose to adjust the foundation budget calculations to fully account for inflation in Chapter 70 aid in fiscal year 2025 and future years.

Specifically, we propose: In General Laws Chapter 70 section 2 (a) replace the definition of the Foundation Inflation Index with:

“Foundation Inflation Index,” For fiscal years 2024 and earlier, the lesser of: (i) the ratio of the value of the implicit price deflator for state and local government purchases in the third quarter of the prior fiscal year to its value in the third quarter of the fiscal year 2 years prior; and (ii) 1.045.

For fiscal year 2025, the ratio of the value of the implicit price deflator for state and local government purchases in the third quarter of 2023 to its value in the third quarter of 2020, divided by the product of the Foundation inflation indexes applied in FY 2023 and FY 2024.

For subsequent fiscal years, the ratio of the value of the implicit price deflator for state and local government purchases in the third quarter of the prior year to its value in the third quarter 2 years prior.

Intent and Calculations

Our intent is to replace the fiscal year 2025 preliminary Foundation inflation index of 1.0135 with an index that fully accounts for inflation from the time of the implementation of the Student Opportunity Act.

The proposed Foundation index for fiscal year 2025 is 1.0734 based on our calculations using quarter-3 U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis figures for the implicit price deflator for GDP. For fiscal year 2025 using BEA price deflators, the Foundation inflation index would be 1.0734 = (127.71/108.95)/(1.045*1.045). This change would provide a one-time adjustment in fiscal year 2025 to bring that year’s Chapter 70 aid into line with recent inflation and would eliminate the cap on inflation adjustments for future years.

Table 1 provides data used in the calculation and shows the foundation inflation index results. The righthand column shows that, cumulatively in the period of the Student Opportunity Act, the index allowed under current law accounts for inflation of only 10.68 percent; the actual inflation in that period was 17.22 percent. The last row of the table shows that the proposed applicable indexes produce the same compound adjustment for inflation for FY 2025 that would have been in place if the Foundation inflation index had not been capped and fully represented inflation in fiscal years 2023 and 2024.

Table 1

Bureau of Economic Analysis Implicit Price Deflator, State and Local government and Chapter 70 Foundation inflation index, allowed and proposed

  2020 deflator 2021 deflator/ FY 2023 index 2022 deflator/ FY 2024 index 2023 deflator/ FY 2025 index Cumulative compound % change from 2020
BEA deflator Quarter 3 108.95 116.66 126.01 127.71 17.22%
% change from prior 3rd quarter   7.08% 8.01% 1.35% 17.22%
Index allowed by current law   1.045 1.045 1.0135 10.68%
Index with proposed fix   1.045 1.045 1.0734 17.22%

Does not seek to recapture lost aid for fiscal years 2023 and 2024

This proposal does not attempt to recapture Chapter 70 aid that was curtailed due to the inflation caps applied in FY 2023 and 2024. If funds are available, districts could greatly benefit from an appropriation of funds to compensate for the inflation cap applied in those periods. However, it is much more important that we get Chapter 70 back on track, so that aid allotments for fiscal year 2025 and future periods fully reflect the rise in cost that has occurred over the period of the Student Opportunity Act. Figure 1 below shows that this proposal would bring the foundation budget for fiscal year 2025 into line with what it would be if fully adjusted for inflation, but it would not for adjust aid lost  to school districts due to the capped inflation adjustment for past fiscal years 2023 and 2024.

Full adjustment for inflation is needed this year

This year school districts are facing rising contract costs, continued recovery from COVID learning loss, and the end of federal ESSER funding. To avoid reducing services districts need the state to step forward to fully fund the Student Opportunity Act with full adjustment for recent inflation.

Figure 1

Cost estimates

We are seeking cost estimates for this proposal from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. This proposal would require recomputing FY 2025 Preliminary Chapter 70 Aid announced by DESE on January 24, 2024. We defer to DESE for these calculations. However, without the benefit of DESE methodology, our very rough “back-of-the-envelope” preliminary estimate of the cost to implement this proposal is on the order of $550 million in additional Chapter 70 aid statewide for fiscal year 2025.

We Must Fix the School Funding Formula

School districts need funding that keeps up with inflation

Local officials across the Commonwealth are grappling with recent news of an unexpectedly low allocation of state funding for schools for the upcoming fiscal year. Despite the state’s well-conceived and robust system of financial support for public education, local officials this year are seeing surprisingly low aid allocations that do not keep up with costs. A longstanding, if rarely acknowledged, flaw in the Chapter 70 school aid formula is putting at risk both continued recovery from COVID learning loss and the core commitment of the Student Opportunity Act – to “ensure that every student in the state experiences high-quality learning opportunities.”  Fixing this problem should be a top priority as our legislators complete their work on the Commonwealth’s budget for fiscal year 2025.

How did this sudden shortfall in school aid sneak up on our state and local leaders? In 2020 and 2021 the attention of school officials was focused on COVID-related school closures. Then came the initial excitement over new aid flowing from the Student Opportunity Act (SOA) for fiscal year 2022, followed by an infusion of federal COVID recovery funds under the American Rescue Plan Act’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) program. As long as local administrators and officials had sufficient funds in hand and were busy organizing COVID recovery measures, they hardly noticed the latent problem being created by two years of inadequate inflation adjustments to state aid – a problem driven by a technical flaw in the Chapter 70 aid formula that imposes a hard upper limit on inflation adjustments at 4.5 percent.

In low-inflation years, this cap is not a problem. However, for fiscal years 2023 and 2024 the relevant inflation measures were 7% and 8% respectively, and the Chapter 70 formula allowed only a 4.5 percent adjustment each year. Cumulatively, the purchasing power of school aid fell behind by 6 percent over those two years. Additionally, aid in future years will be lower, as the lower inflation base from those two years is carried forward into subsequent state allocations. This represents a major setback in the funding needed to reach Student Opportunity Act goals.

The Healey-Driscoll administration proposes a 4 percent increase in Chapter 70 funding for fiscal year 2025, a figure that includes both funds to implement fourth-year requirements of the SOA and a 1.35 percent inflation adjustment. That is not sufficient for districts that now see costs rising, federal ESSER funds ending, and budget demands continuing for recovery from COVID learning loss. Only now, as districts prepare their fiscal year 2025 budgets, are local officials feeling the full effect of the shortfall in purchasing power created by the inflation cap over two successive years.

The necessary legislative fix would include two elements: (1) A bump up of about 6% to the proposed Foundation Inflation Index for fiscal year 2025, to fully account for cumulative inflation to date, and (2) Elimination of the 4.5% cap on inflation adjustments, so that school district Foundation Budgets and Chapter 70 aid would fully adjust for inflation in future years.

The Commonwealth is headed toward a major failure to meet its Student Opportunity Act promise to fund quality public education for all Massachusetts students. It is leaving local school districts, particularly those in the Gateway Cities, without the resources they need to complete their recovery from COVID learning loss, maintain their workforce in a tight labor market, and retain recent gains in education quality and equity. It just does not make sense that our school funding formula reduces school district purchasing power every time inflation rises above 4.5 percent. To fulfil the Commonwealth’s commitment, legislators need to act now to fix the Chapter 70 aid formula to provide school funding that keeps up with recent and future inflation.

Assessing Risks of School Reopening in Haverhill

Reopening schools in a world with COVID-19 presents both risks and uncertainties. We can estimate the probabilities of risks, such as COVID spread in the community, based on observed rates reported by our public health  officials. However, there are uncertainties, such as whether and how COVID-19 may spread in schools with the risk reducing methods of Haverhill’s hybrid model for reopening, for which we have little experience and probabilities are difficult to estimate. I have attached to this post slides with information on the risks of reopening Haverhill schools noting the remaining uncertainties that we can only learn with experience.

Assessing COVID Risks for Haverhill Schools 2020-08-27 COVID-19 Risks for Haverhill Schools 02

High schools are different, and so should be their reopening plans

We nearly all benefited from the varied learning experiences that our high schools provided – with a diverse set of classes with teachers, expert in their subject areas. However, the way such experiences are provided needs to be reconsidered in the era of COVID-19.

Recent evidence suggests that COVID-19 risks in high schools are greater, in part because the students are older, and in part because in rotating among classrooms students share space with many more persons in the course of a day. These risk could be reduced by changing the structure of student class assignments and/or schedules. While such changes would be difficult, they may be necessary to avoid uncontrolled outbreaks that could lead to disruptive school closings and/or extended periods of remote learning.

Haverhill Public Schools Opening Plan of August 11, 2020 calls for Haverhill High School students to attend classes in seven periods each in-person school day. The plan seems to presume that student class schedules and assignment to classrooms will be largely unchanged from prior practice. This presents an area of vulnerability to spread of the coronavirus.

Here are is the argument in a nutshell:

  1. We can expect spread of COVID-19 from the community to the schools.
  2. We need to contain these events in the classroom to avoid schoolwide and districtwide spread.
  3. The high school presents much greater risks of schoolwide spread.
  4. These risks could be greatly reduced by altering class rotation in scheduling.
We can expect spread of COVID-19 from the community to the schools.

In Haverhill community background rates for COVID though lower than many other states are currently higher than in many countries that have successfully opened schools. I am looking at the average of new cases per day in Essex County, as Haverhill statistics are based on fewer cases and produce more variable numbers. Also, many Haverhill residents engage in work, shopping or other activities beyond Haverhill’s borders that present COVID-19 risks.

How many new COVID-19 cases might we expect in a semester at HHS given our current local environment? We can only estimate this in very rough terms because we do not have good evidence-based estimates of COVID-19 spread  among children. New COVID-19 infection rates in Essex County are currently about 0.079 per 1,000 population per day in Essex County; Haverhill’s most recent (August 12) average daily incidence is .024 per 1000. We have about 2,400 students and teachers in Haverhill High School; assume 75% (1800) enroll in the hybrid in-person program. If student and teacher infections are similar to Essex County rates we might expect 0.079 x 1.8 x 30 days = 4.26 cases per month. [This would be 0.024 x 1.8 x 30 days = 1.30 with Haverhill numbers.] We might estimate about 61% of this or (0.8 to 2.6 cases per month) if most students only contract from a parent and do not work or have other activities outside the home and school. So roughly we might see on average about 1 to 4 COVID-19 cases per month arrive from the outside in each Model 2 cohort of the high school. If the rate of new cases in the community rises — perhaps due to local reopening, seasonal factors, or spread from states with higher infection rates – the rate could become higher.

We need to contain these events in the classroom to avoid schoolwide and districtwide spread.

Dr. Maddox’s told the School Committee that he was not much worried about individual “contained events.” Greater risks to health and educational disruption can come when the virus is spread more widely throughout schools and the district.

An infected student arriving in an elementary school a will be in contact with just one or two teachers and a small number of students in the elementary school classroom (of maybe 10 or 12 in the hybrid model). Even if the child remains asymptomatic and attends for several days the number of people will be small and the risk largely confined to one class room of students. Once discovered by testing or symptoms in one or more students the 10-12 students and their teacher can be quarantined without major disruption to the school. This is very likely a “contained event” such as Dr. Maddox noted.

The high school presents much greater risks of schoolwide spread.

It is important that school reopening plan recognize differences by age. Bill Gates, for example, has been speaking in favor of school reopening for students up to age 14 or 15. In Haverhill we have seen greater numbers of COCID-19 cases among those of high school age (14 to 17) than among other school age children. See chart.

Recent evidence suggests that children over age 10 can spread COVID-19 in a manner similar to adults. Compared to those in elementary schools, a similarly infected high school student may not only be a more effective spreader of COVID-19 but could be in contact with perhaps six or seven times as many students. These say 80 to 100 students will not all be in one class and they will in turn each be in contact with others in other classes, perhaps over several contagious but asymptomatic days.  So the virus could spread throughout the school (or cohort in the hybrid Model) in a matter of days. Not everyone would be infected but a majority of students in the high school (or cohort) could have at least on class, restroom, or hallway contact with an infected or suspected infected person.

This type of event, as soon as it is recognized, would probably be beyond capacity to timely identify trace and track hundreds of students. So it likely would necessitate shut down of the school for at least those in the infected cohort.  Such an event could be repeated as a newly infected students enter the school.

Such events are not just theoretical possibilities. As noted at the most recent school committee meeting, just this month North Paulding High School in Georgia which had to close after only one week of school when 9 students tested positive for COVID-19. HPS needs to find a way to avoid such school closures even if that means altering course assignments and schedules to avoid in school rotation among classes. Many of the largest reported COVID outbreaks in schools so far have been in high schools and middle schools.  This includes an outbreak in New Zealand (known for doing a good job on COVID control) that infected 96 persons, an outbreak in Israel where 153 students and 23 staff were infected, and a high school in France where 38% of pupils, 43% of teachers, and 59% of nonteaching staff had been infected. (Science Magazine, July 7, 2020).

These risks could be greatly reduced by altering class scheduling.

To avoid school-wide spread we need to keep kids in smaller groups (e.g. pods) that don’t interact with others. The challenge is high school students have multiple classes with different teachers. Here are a couple illustrative suggestions; you may come up with others. These methods, could be structured within the Hybrid Learning Model 2, would keep high school students involved in in-person learning in a single classroom with the same students all day, with teachers rotating among classes.

Option A: Group students in pods, each with the same core schedule. Students would choose among core course packages (e.g., Math, English Science History) generally grouped by level with some variation.  Those in academies could take core courses together. Core courses could be taught in-person, other classes such as languages and electives would be conducted on remote learning days scheduled for each cohort.

Option B: Intense Single-Subject Days. An alternative way to reduce contacts in high schools would be for students to stay in one class all day.  Students would have the same classes as traditionally but have only one subject and be in only one classroom each day in school. In the hybrid model students could meet in person for a full two days on one subject then meet the following week on another subject, rotating through classes week by week.

Option C: Sequential Courses. In a third such option, students might take classes sequentially one subject at a time. Courses would be taught much as an intensive summer school course over a few weeks.  Students would have only one subject for a month, rotating classes through all classes over the school year.

Any of these course scheduling approaches would reduce the number of high school students to come in contact with an infected student or teacher who enters the school building. Risk of spread, though perhaps higher among the older students, would be contained in a single classroom, as in an elementary school.

Conclusion

High schools are different and we need to address risk differently there. In implementing the Model 2 Hybrid plan for reopening Haverhill Public Schools should consider adapting student class schedules to reduce risk of school wide spread of COVID-19 in Haverhill High School. The choice may be between making such changes and disruptive closings throughout the school year.

It is possible, of course, that when students return to school community COVID-19 rates will be low enough, in-person attendance will be restricted enough, distancing will work well enough, masks will be effective enough, ventilation improvements will be complete enough, and compliance will be great enough that class schedule changes will not be needed. But all that seems uncertain at this point. In any case, the District should fully consider these issues and implement strong strategies to prevent schoolwide and districtwide spread that recognize different risks among the schools.

Reopening Schools and American Democracy

Real and terrible choices must be made to reopen schools. Very consequential choices with risks and uncertainty. The kinds of choices made in war and disasters. Choices to be made by those unprepared to make them.

Mayors, school boards, and committees elected to make local policies and budgets, are now asked to make very real and tragic choices about who is exposed to contagion and who is not, who will be educated and who will not.

Blame, if you will, an interconnected world, in which a Wuhan “wet market” can send disease around the world. Or blame underfunded international health organizations. Or blame an electorate who chose a national leader for his bluster, over competence and character. Or blame a President who crippled the federal response with weak appointments, distraction, and inaction. Or blame his enablers in Congress who discount science and government as solutions.

Blame or not, this year we ask our local leaders to make real and frightening choices. With tightened budgets and persistent coronavirus threats, students, families, and teachers will all face risks – many that could have been avoided.

If it is true that “Every nation gets the government it deserves,” then America must show it deserves better this November.

This post appeared as a letter to the editor of WHAV on July 24, 2020.

Trends in COVID-19 cases for Essex and other eastern Massachusetts counties

(with data to June 13, 2020)

Trends in new COVID-19 cases will be important for state and local decisions about when and how to reopen schools. Here we look trends for the largest eastern Massachusetts counties using case counts come from Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) and county population figures come from the UMass Donahue Institute. Keep in mind that counts reflect not only the incidence of the disease but also the amount of testing that is done.

Chart 1 shows cumulative COVID-19 cases counts per 1000 population. These are cases as reported by DPH and consist of only confirmed cases to May 31, 2020 but include both confirmed and probable cases from June 1, 2020 forward. Essex County and the other non-Boston areas are on lower paths of cumulative case counts than Suffolk County. Essex County confirmed case counts per capita are now consistently well above the statewide average after tracking very near the state average up to April 2nd.  Essex County cumulative cases per capita are now 29 percent above the state average, and 37 percent above neighboring Middlesex County.

Chart 1

Chart 2 presents daily new cases as a seven-day moving average. This smooths out the day-to-day variation and avoids any day-of-the-week reporting effects. From mid-April to mid-May Essex County daily COVID-19 cases per capita tracked above other eastern Massachusetts Counties excepting Suffolk County and was higher than Suffolk County at times in May. Recently the most populous eastern Massachusetts counties have had fairly similar rates for new COVID-19 cases. These rate have been trending generally downward in May and for the first part of June.

Chart 2

Notes on reported case count methods and data: (1) The change in reporting of probable cases added to case counts on June 1 and increase the seven day moving average significantly for counts on June 1 to June 7; (2) The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) on April 24th noted a reporting error that reduced case counts for data from April 13 to April 23 due to a backlog in reporting cases from Quest Diagnostics. DPH provided revised case counts for that period for Massachusetts, but not for individual counties. The results reported here thus reflect under-reporting of COVID case counts for April 13 to 22 and increased case counts for April 24 to account for the previous under-counts

Reopening Haverhill Schools: Challenges and Possibilities

On May 27th the Haverhill Education Coalition conducted an online panel discussion on reopening Haverhill Public Schools (HPS). Panelists included Dr. Margaret Marotta, HPS Superintendent, Katie Vozeolas, Director of HPS Nursing and Health Services, HPS, and Anthony Parolisi, President of the Haverhill Education Association (teachers union). This event provided an opportunity for serious public discussion of the difficult choices facing Haverhill and other school districts looking to move back from distance learning to in-school education. A video of the 98-minute discussion is posted here on Facebook.  The event presentation slides identify some of the reopening issues facing schools and include charts on COVID-19 in our local eastern Massachusetts area. The presentation is available here:  HEC Reopening Haverhill Schools 2020-05-27

This type of public discussion is important for communities facing difficult public choices about education and public health. Broad understanding and participation is needed from students, parents, teachers, staff, and taxpayers, because all be asked to share in sacrifices for our system of public education to continue its important role in preparing our next generation for the future.

Schools reopening? Not so fast.

Around the world and around the country “Post-COVID-19” re-openings are in the news. What does this mean for reopening Haverhill Public Schools and other nearby districts where plans and budgets are now being developed for the summer and for the 2020-21 school year?

First, it is important to be clear that nowhere in the world is yet in a post-COVID-19 period. We will not be post-COVID-19 until an effective vaccine is widely available and this is most likely many months or even a year or more away. The continuing threat of COVID-19 needs to be effectively addressed in any school reopening plan.

Second, we need to realize that here in Haverhill, in Essex County, and in Massachusetts overall, we have been hit harder by COVID-19 than most other places around the country and around the world. Our own Essex County ranks 24th among the more than 3,000 counties in the United States in total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Around the world, many of the countries that are reopening schools have had many fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths on a per-capita basis (see Chart 1).  Compared to other communities, confronting the higher case levels in our area will take more resources for tracking and tracing, and it will probably take longer to control COVID-19 sufficiently to permit safe return to schools.

Chart 1

Third, high rates of new cases persist in our area. While daily new cases in Essex County have recently been declining, they are continuing at a higher per-capita level than in other Massachusetts counties and the state average (see Chart 2). As of May 13, Essex County had 1,359 new confirmed COVID-19 cases identified in the preceding seven days. At this rate, we would see more than 70,000 new cases per year in Essex County alone.  As businesses begin to reopen, the decline in new cases may not continue or new case counts may rise.

Chart 2

These statistics should be unsettling for cities and school systems, which have not received specific guidance on when to reopen schools. While we are nowhere near herd immunity, a seasonal or episodic decline in coronavirus infections and increased control of the virus might enable a return to school for the fall semester. On the other hand, if rates of new cases remain near current levels or resurge with business reopening, it might be advisable to continue remote learning for most or all students into the 2020-21 school year. Reopening safely will require that our local COVID-19 prevalence falls low enough so that (1) COVID-19 cases entering schools are rare and (2) the capacity to test, track, trace and quarantine grows high enough so that any outbreak is assured to be contained without spreading widely. 

A fourth factor to consider is whether detailed plans are in place and sufficient resources are allocated for schools to operate safely under new COVID-19 requirements. Local school districts must consider whether and how much to move away from the current remote learning model. Districts will need to implement procedures to minimize student contacts during transportation and throughout the school day. This could include testing of all students plus daily health screening, perhaps with temperature checks. School committees will need to make decisions and commit sufficient funds early enough so that facility and operational changes can be developed and put in place before students return to school.

Coordination is needed between schools and the public health system, particularly to facilitate community tracking and to ensure that the virus is not spread from the community to the schools or from the schools to the community. When new cases emerge it will be necessary to follow up each case, identify recent contacts, trace those contacts, notify them of COVID-19 exposure, and ensure 14-day quarantine. The new Massachusetts COVID-19 Community Tracking Collaborative (CTC) announced by Governor Baker on April 3 includes Partners in Health, which is hiring and overseeing a workforce for contact tracing within Massachusetts. It will be important to verify that their efforts are sufficient to detect new cases and to quickly contain any new outbreak in our area.

These difficult times will continue for some months ahead – until an effective COVID-19 vaccine is found and made widely available. There is no guarantee that this will happen any time soon. Our local school districts face difficult choices and implementation challenges for teachers, administrators, and staff. Shared sacrifices by workers, parents, and taxpayers will be required.  We will need to continue social distancing and refrain from high-contact shopping, entertainment, and businesses interactions. Parents will need to play a greater role in their children’s education. Taxpayers will need to support additional COVID-19-related budget requirements to keep our schools and our community safe.

Every generation faces challenges, and our current challenges can be overcome by maintaining our commitment to the education of our next generation as we contend with the health threats and economic adversities brought on by COVID-19.

Note: This piece also appeared in the Eagle-Tribune.

COVID-19 in Haverhill and Other Gateway Cities

(Updated to May 13th)

  • Gateway Cities have been hit harder by the COVID-19 virus than has Massachusetts statewide.
  • The number COVID-19 cases has been growing faster in Haverhill than in other Gateway Cities.
  • Haverhill is now in the middle of Gateway Cities ranking 12th among 26 Gateway Cities in cumulative COVID-19 cases per capita.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health recently released COVID-19 case counts by city. Cumulative COVID-19 case per capita are on average 46 percent higher in the Massachusetts Gateway Cities than state wide (see Chart 1).

Chart 1

Among the 26 Gateway Cities Haverhill ranked 12th, up from 15th on April 29th and 19th on April 14th. This puts Haverhill just above the middle of this group of Massachusetts cities, many with diverse populations and facing economic challenges. While many factors affect case counts (including the amount of testing), moving up in the cumulative case-count-per-capita ranking raises some concern.

Chart 2 below shows the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population, as identified by May 13, 2020.

Chart 2