Recent editorials of regional and national interest from New England’s newspapers:
Showdown looms in CT with anti-vax activists
The Connecticut Post
It was only a year ago that thousands stood outside the state Capitol to express opposition to mandatory vaccinations for schoolchildren.
So much has happened since then that it’s easy to forget how polarizing the issue became. The bill in question would have repealed religious exemptions for vaccines that are mandatory for children. A public hearing lasted 21 hours and drew 500 possible speakers.
The core of the objection was that parents - not the government - should make medical choices for children. Though no major religion forbids vaccinations, an estimated 7,800 children leveraged the loophole in 2018-19, according to the state Department of Public Health.
One year later, the issue is on a collision course with efforts to halt the pandemic through vaccines. Right now the focus is on distribution to seniors, but it will eventually come down to the same debate - whether the government can mandate children get inoculations for the public good.
On March 5 of last year, we wrote that “without that immunity, measles or other diseases can erupt and affect not only children but also others they come in contact with, such as family members with auto-immune diseases or health compromised by cancer treatments, for example. This is not a minuscule threat. The global coronavirus outbreak makes evident the need for government to be proactive and nonpolitical in protecting public health.”
Our stance has not changed. Ironically, it was the surge of COVID that spiked the bill last March. If we’ve learned anything in the last 10 months, it’s that it’s impossible to get everyone to follow science and logic.
As the 2021 General Assembly session begins, a revival of the stalled measure will compete with a related bill proposed by a coalition of conservative Republicans to allow parents to cite “moral and philosophical” grounds as reasons not to vaccinate school-aged children.
The perils, of course, are real. It’s vital to address concerns from both sides quickly. A COVID-19 vaccine hasn’t even been rolled out yet for children, but must become part of the debate. In the meantime, children are lagging in getting their traditional vaccinations. Rolling over the religious exemption would not require a child to receive any vaccine, they just couldn’t enroll in school without them.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chairman of the legislative Public Health Committee that led the last round of hearings, predicts the revival of familiar arguments. But the anti-vax crowd may not have counted on the likelihood of harder pushback from peers, families that want to ensure their own children are entering safe environments.
If this were truly about addressing religious exemptions, lawmakers would be wise to do outreach by hosting community discussion with houses of worship throughout the state. But the “moral and philosophical” argument is an admission that this was never about faith.
Either way, when kids are able to return to school, teaching science will take on a new urgency.
Lawmakers should find a way to get together
Portland Press Herald
With the COVID circulating widely and the vaccination effort still in its infancy, most people are trying to do the right things to limit the spread of the virus - and the Legislature is no different.
Lawmakers were sworn in Dec. 2 at the Augusta Civic Center, rather than the State House, to allow for safe distancing, and when they start the real legislative work this month, it will be done virtually.
But while Zoom can with a click of a few buttons bring legislators from all over the state, and allow lobbyists and other residents to weigh in on bills from their own living rooms, it cannot replace the face-to-face discussions and offhand conversations that often move legislation forward - and help keep things civil in the sometimes contentiously divided Legislature.
Legislative leaders should keep this in mind for the coming session. They should do everything possible to get lawmakers together - safely - in order to keep open something resembling the normal lines of communication.
And there is every reason to think legislators can meet safely in person, in some form. According to research conducted over the last 10 months, schools have been able to safely conduct in-person instruction without accelerating community transmission of COVID-19, as long as measures mitigating the spread are closely followed by everyone involved.
That, of course, includes universal face mask use, an area where some Republican lawmakers have fallen short. Legislative leaders this week tightened the policy for members governing COVID prevention, though it still allows legislators to use less-effective face shields instead of masks.
The concern over the virus is not academic - Gov. Mills and Sen. Rick Bennett missed the Dec. 2 swearing-in ceremony because they were quarantining after being exposed.
If it’s important to lawmakers to meet in person in some capacity, then all of them should commit to taking the steps to keep everyone safe.
And it should be important. In-person meetings help legislators build the relationships that allow legislation to move forward. They keep positions from hardening and misconceptions from ballooning into something more destructive. They are an antidote to the strict partisanship that stops work in its tracks.
All that will be necessary if the Legislature is to tackle all the important issues in front of it this year, including the two-year budget, the response to COVID, and the need for more high-speed internet in parts of Maine.
So much gets done in the halls of the State House, in between hearings, work sessions and votes.
But those halls now, for the most part, are empty. Legislators should find a way to make up for it.
Walsh’s departure leaves beleaguered schools still in the lurch
As he departs for Washington, Mayor Marty Walsh leaves a public school system that’s little improved from the one he inherited in 2014. Indeed, in some ways Boston has slid backward: Despite spending more per pupil than almost any other district in the state, Boston Public Schools has seen its graduation rates fall for the first time in a decade on Walsh’s watch. Meanwhile, a third of the district’s students attend subpar schools. The state, which said in an audit last year that “the district does not have a clear, coherent, district-wide strategy” for fixing its struggling schools, was stepping up its oversight of the system just before the pandemic hit.
The coronavirus outbreak created huge short-term challenges for schools everywhere, understandably relegating Boston’s longer-term problems to the back burner. But now that the race to succeed Walsh is picking up, and school buildings are slowly reopening, the unfinished work at BPS can’t be forgotten. The next mayor needs to do what Walsh would not or could not do: empower strong, reform-minded leaders - and have their back when friction inevitably arises.
At least initially, that task will fall to City Council President Kim Janey, who will serve as mayor once Walsh is confirmed as President Biden’s secretary of labor. (Janey has not publicly said whether she will seek a full term.) As a former education advocate, Janey knows the public school system and city education policy deeply. And that’s a good thing, since she will be tested almost immediately.
There is a perfect storm brewing on the K-12 horizon. Walsh leaves his schools superintendent, Brenda Cassellius, on vulnerable footing after she was subject to a no-confidence vote from the Boston Teachers Union. A December Boston magazine story detailed her difficulties, some of her own making. Plus, the school committee is lacking a member after a controversy over racist comments prompted the chair to resign last fall.
Right now the district is preparing to reopen buildings and resume in-person classes in waves. Earlier this month Cassellius and the BTU announced a much-anticipated tentative schedule that is starting to bring more students and teachers back to the classroom on Monday, with the last group of students returning April 1. Beyond that, budget season is upon the district. If all of that weren’t enough, there’s the pending three-year agreement between BPS and the state education department, signed in response to the 2020 audit, demanding improvement in the city’s lowest-performing schools.
And there will be funds available for transformational change. As part of the stimulus package Congress passed in December, the federal government is sending a fair amount of money to public schools: more than $50 billion for K-12 districts, mostly through Title I funding. Boston’s share could be about $123 million, according to the state’s department of education. That means more than $2,000 extra per pupil. The idea is for schools to use that money for post-pandemic recovery and improvements such as summer school or after-school programming, better ventilation systems, or remote instruction technology.
These funds will become available to districts next month, according to the state. So how is Boston planning to spend that money? Kids will need tutors, counseling, and other extra programming to address learning loss and pay for additional emotional and mental health supports. The last thing Boston needs is to use the $123 million to fund the status quo or - please, no - pay a consulting firm for a study to assess needs or gaps. (In fiscal 2022, Boston will also receive new state funds from the Student Opportunity Act, passed in 2019.)
All of these challenges represent a promising opportunity for Janey and for the next mayor. Even if Janey doesn’t end up running for a full mayoral term herself, she would be well served by learning the lessons of the Walsh era, particularly his triangulated relationship with Cassellius and the BTU. While Walsh publicly stood by Cassellius, he undermined the superintendent by negotiating directly with union president Jessica Tang. Walsh probably thought he was being helpful in mediating, but it’s hard to blame the union for thinking it can bypass Cassellius after the mayor abetted that process in the past. If Janey truly wants Cassellius to succeed, she’ll need to let the superintendent manage the city’s relationship with the teachers union. This is a time for maximum partnership, not extreme micromanaging. Cassellius deserves to fully own her successes and her shortcomings, and to be empowered to do her job.
But it also may be time to summon back a fourth person to the leadership team reforming BPS: state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley. He must step in to resume the implementation of the pending agreement with the state. His intervention is warranted to ensure that the most vulnerable students, in the schools that struggle the most, get the support, programming, and funding they need.
Walsh’s departure couldn’t come at a more consequential time for Boston Public Schools, placing maximum pressure on Janey and, after her, the next mayor. For the sake of 51,000-plus students, whoever is in the mayor’s office will need to marshal a level of coordination, support, and compromise that has been missing in local education leadership in recent years.
The Caledonian Record
For various reasons, small states are doing a better job than big ones at distributing the nation’s precious supply of vaccines.
Over the weekend we saw one of the biggest reasons embodied in a last-minute, large-scale mass vaccination effort at Littleton Regional Hospital.
Based on Rob Blechl’s report it went like this.
On Wednesday LRH got the news that an additional 400 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were available from state stockpiles but they had to be administered before the end of the weekend or they’d expire.
At 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, vice president of patient care services Karen Superchi put out an all-staff email asking for help with a weekend, drive-thru clinic.
By 8 a.m. Friday morning, an army of staff signed on. They came from every department and agreed to work wherever they were needed.
By Friday afternoon a team was calling patients who lost their appointments earlier in the week. By Friday night over 300 patients were booked for Saturday.
By Sunday afternoon, 425 local people received doses.
“Everybody pulled together,” said Superchi. “On Saturday, we had four lanes of patients, 80 patients in each lane scheduled throughout the day, from 8 to 4. Greeters were directing patients to the lane they were assigned to.”
Patients came bearing gifts (cookies, doughnuts, chocolates, coffee, hand warmers) and were grateful to the point of tears. On an otherwise brutally cold day, those heartfelt gestures warmed the volunteer staff as much as the propane heaters donated by the Littleton Freehouse.
“It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” Superchi said.
We wholeheartedly agree.
As we said, there are a lot of reasons (logistics, bureaucracy, money, communication) why small states are doing a better job on vaccines. Watching our friends and neighbors spring into action this weekend at LRH, we’d say a good-old-fashioned ‘can-do’ spirit may be the real secret to getting this critical job done.
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