Expert Advisory Panel 4 addresses recent concerns about hybrid learning

Brookline’s Expert Advisory Panel 4: Public Health, Safety, and Logistics addressed growing concerns about the newly launched hybrid model and the increase of COVID-19 cases in Brookline during their meeting on Friday, Nov. 13.

David Gacioch, a partner at the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, examined the increasing coronavirus cases in Massachusetts, and considered the Public Schools of Brookline’s response. He reviewed the panel’s predetermined metrics, which state that daily cases must stay under ten and test positivity rate must stay under 5% in both Brookline and Massachusetts. He said that if any two of the four thresholds of test positivity rates in Brookline or Massachusetts are passed, then a discussion focused on in-person schooling in Brookline would follow.

On average, 0.01% of people in Brookline are being diagnosed with COVID-19 daily. This translates to 40 new cases per week, with five of those being from the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) student body and one from the staff.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced last week that schools should continue in-person learning unless there is evidence that people are bringing COVID-19 into school and spreading it to others.

Professor of Health and Medicine Benjamin Sommers added to this statement, explaining the difference between someone obtaining the virus in school versus somewhere else.

“Last week, we ended up having seven cases in-person, which means, again, the people that were in-person at some point during the week tested positive – it doesn’t mean that in school they were symptomatic,” Sommers said.“ This week we had two cases of in-person positivity and zero remote cases, and this is now with roughly seven thousand people, students and staff, in the buildings. That’s actually below what you’d expect based on the community rates in Brookline, but in the ballpark.”

During the meeting, panel members discussed recent COVID cases within Brookline Public Schools. While there has not been a significant spread of cases in schools, the panel stressed the importance of watching case numbers in the community closely. (AUDREY GARON/SAGAMORE STAFF)

Sommers and other members of the panel also brought up the question of what the schools should do if cases continue to rise in Brookline but there is no evidence of in-school transmission. In response, Sommers recommended that they change the metrics to be one case in five thousand instead of ten thousand in order to be more cautious.

Physician and Medical Director Lakshman Swany reiterated this statement, arguing that Brookline Schools should be aware of what is happening in the community in terms of COVID-19 cases.

“The problem is when the community rates get high enough we have to worry, regardless of what’s happening in schools and not,” Swany said. “We have to accept that while other high-risk things are happening, they will affect everyone in schools even if school transmission is not happening.”

Brookline teacher Tatiana Beckwith joined the meeting and shared her experience with in-person learning. Beckwith voiced her distrust for the Brookline central administration and the expert advisory panel’s guidance on safety in schools during the pandemic, explaining that many teachers feel the panel’s advice is out of touch with the reality of being a teacher.

“I think that the educators in Brookline are not feeling safe right now,” Beckwith said. “I spend half my day saying ‘separate, you need more distance.’ To think that they’re at six feet all the time is a complete fallacy. Have you taught a fourth grader how to multiply six feet away from them? It doesn’t work very well.”

Beckwith also criticized a lack of coherent information provided by the Town of Brookline. She noted that her ventilator was left in her classroom with no information on how to use it or where it should be placed. Because Beckwith feels there is little instruction on how to operate under these new circumstances and is not confident that the administration cares about her safety, Beckwith said she fears going into school each day.

“It is scary for me to go into my building, no matter how safe you’re telling me it is,” Beckwith said.

Beckwith accused the panel of being used by Brookline’s central government to agree with whatever Brookline wants to do and the infectious disease physician Benjamin Linas quickly objected to this statement.

“There have been times where I have wanted to punch a wall because I feel like the district won’t listen to us,” Linas said. “Some of the things that we’re saying disagree with what educators are feeling, but that’s not the same thing as saying that we’re doing the bidding of the district, because that’s entirely not true.”

The panel apologized for Beckwith’s experience with hybrid but remained steadfast in their confidence in the safety of Brookline’s hybrid model.

“If you look at the World Health Organization, if you look at guidance from the CDC, these places are taking the same general approach as we are, which is that in-person schooling needs to be prioritized, that it can be done at relatively low risk with the mitigation techniques,” Sommers said. “We’re not out on a limb here, we’re very much in the broad scientific consensus.”

Beckwith’s account of her hybrid experience prompted consensus from the panel that collectively there should be better communication with educators, and resolved to improve on this matter going forward.

The panel then moved on to the issue of travel over Thanksgiving break, discussing what they can do to prevent outbreaks that the vacation might induce. Flying presents a higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19, and the panel worried this could create problems in the coming weeks as people tend to travel more during the school-provided breaks, and upon return to school will potentially be transmitting the virus to students and staff.

PSB currently requires that if a student or teacher leaves the state they must quarantine for 14 days before returning to school, and the panel recognized the issue in enforcing this rule. They also voiced concerns of people who will stay in Brookline but will attend large gatherings, claiming that these individuals will be risking the same amount of exposure as those who travel.

Members of the panel grappled with defining restrictions such as whether people are traveling by car and by plane or how many people they are gathered with, discussing the possibility that seemingly arbitrary rules would be easy for an individual to interpret and get around.

“We want to be reasonable about it,” Swamy said. “You have to give people some ability to do something, otherwise you lose the ability of what you can ask.”

Several panelists suggested that the panel’s advice should adhere to Governor Charlie Baker’s state mandated restrictions that limit indoor gatherings to 10 and outdoor gatherings to 25, and expect a 14 day quarantine for people who travel outside the state. The panel agreed to leave it at the state requirements momentarily, and resolved to further discuss this matter at the next meeting.