Stefanos N. Kales is a professor at Harvard Medical School & Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health
Newton students are receiving little to no “in person” instruction at NPS. Middle school is 100% remote until at least November, as are high schools for the “foreseeable future”. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) recognize that remote schooling creates a certainty of psychosocial, educational and physical harms to students. Therefore, AAP, WHO and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) recommend a 3-foot minimum distance between masked children’s desks to balance adequate infection control and feasible classroom logistics. Thus, allowing schools to open. Likewise, the CDC permits masked students in a classroom to be 3 feet apart. On June 25, Superintendent Fleishman encouraged Newton families “to read the [DESE] Guidance for detailed information that we will be utilizing to develop our plans.”
Somehow, Newton Public Schools (NPS) subsequently refused to follow the science and DESE Guidance and is therefore, unable to offer any “full-time, in-person” options.
Publicly, NPS attributed its deviation from DESE Guidance to Newton’s Department of Health and Human Services (NHHS). On July 21, Superintendent David Fleishman described “the thoughtful guidance that we have received … about … maintaining 6 feet of distance… We’re going to follow this guidance from NHHS. That means … we cannot fully open with all students in the building.” On July 31, NPS stated, “Please note that NHHS now recommends a minimum of 6′-0″ between student desks, making it impossible to return to school at full capacity.”
But internal emails reveal that Superintendent Fleishman was directly involved in HHS’ decision-making and even managed NHHS’s messaging.
- On Friday, July 10, NHHS Commissioner Deborah Youngblood emailed Superintendent Fleishman to set up a meeting, with the first agenda item: “We need to decide … What [is] the appropriate physical distancing measurement (3 vs 6 ft).” (Neither is a medical doctor.) According to the email, Dr. Karen Sadler, NHHS’s only contracted school physician was not included in this meeting.
- By July 14, Superintendent Fleishman emailed NHHS and offered to “create” slides for NHHS. He wrote: “We can create a couple of slides for you so you can discuss your risk reduction pillars and the 6 feet distancing.”
- On July 20, NHHS’s Youngblood confirmed Superintendent Fleishman’s role in another email: “David [Fleishman] emphasized again that the very most important message to say strongly, we recc using 6 feet of distance and in our discussions with the sup that’s the plan for NPS.”
Meanwhile, Newton leadership was ignoring the advice of public health experts and medical doctors:
- On July 17, after the 6-foot decision was already made, NHHS heard from Dr. Sadler. Consistent with public health consensus, Dr. Sadler wrote “It is possible it will be >/= 3 feet for children and 6 for adults.”
- The same day, Mayor Fuller emailed Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Harvard Professor of Medicine and Chief of Infectious Disease at MGH: “On a policy issue, we are leaning to 6’ of separation in our classrooms rather than the 3’ that DESE/WHO allow. Thoughts?”
- Walensky’s reply was immediate and unequivocal: “if people are masked it is quite safe and much more practical to be at 3 feet.”
- Mayor Fuller immediately forwarded this email to NHHS’s Youngblood.
- Nevertheless, NPS and NHHS ignored the 3-foot guidance of AAP, DESE and WHO as supported by NHHS’s own Dr. Sadler, and Dr. Walensky of MGH.
NPS’s decision to ignore the 3-foot expert recommendation prevented Newton from fully opening schools. Newton owes taxpayers, parents and children some explanations:
Why did NHHS ignore the advice of national and international medical/public health experts, and ignore suggestions from Dr. Walensky and even NHHS’s own medical staff (Dr. Karen Sadler) that consistently recommended the 3-foot minimum? Why was Superintendent Fleishman involved in the decision making, but apparently never disclosed his own role in the process?
Why did NPS fail to follow the DESE Guidance as it originally promised? Why did NPS reject the world-class recommendations of AAP, CDC, WHO and other experts?
Newton parents and taxpayers deserve the answers.
NS should follow the science and adopt the more practical 3-foot guidance that will allow it to safely and fully open schools.
You can read here our full letter to City Council and the accompanying email documentation.
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