Public comment on transparency to the Northampton School Committee meeting 12/10/2020

I’d like to first thank the school committee for their incredibly hard work on making public schooling succeed in this tremendously challenging time. The purpose of my comment today is to ask for more transparency on the weekly decision making process on whether in-person schooling should continue, including the data that are being considered.

As the school committee members – and some of other attendees of this meeting – already know, there is a committee that meets every Friday to make a recommendation to the superintendent about “whether to pause or unpause in-person learning”. This information was shared with caregivers in a town hall meeting in November.

Slide from the November 17th Jackson Street School town hall.

As background, I’ll start by sharing the current publicly available COVID-19 data for Northampton and Hampshire County. The city provides current and historical data on the number of Northampton residents with COVID-19 diagnoses. As of Dec. 6th, there had been about 495 cases, on Nov. 22nd about 425, and on Nov. 8th about 365: about 70 new cases in the last two weeks, and about 130 in the last month. This translates to a daily new case rate of 17.26 per 100K over the last two weeks.

Northampton cumulative case numbers from “Residential clusters” refers to cases in long-term health care facilities, as can be inferred from Health Director O’Leary’s comments to the Dec. 3rd City Council meeting reported in the Hampshire Gazette on Dec. 7th (

The MassDPH releases daily new case data for counties in spreadsheet form, and the New York Times website publishes daily updated interactive graphs based on the MassDPH data.

Screenshot of the Hampshire County interactive graph on December 10th from

As the NYT website states, Hampshire County is now at its highest new case rate ever: there were 311 cases in the week ending Dec. 9th (from “County.csv” in COVID-19 Raw Data – December 9, 2020) . There were 240 in the week ending Dec. 2nd, 232 in the week ending 11/24th, and 225 in the week ending Nov. 17th, for a 4 week total of 1008. The New York Times gives the daily new case rate as 28 per 100K (7 day average).

We also get city and county data in the weekly MassDPH public health report, which came out just before this meeting started, and which has new case totals and positivity rates for the two weeks ending Dec. 5th (note that the positivity rates are affected by the high rates of asymptomatic testing in the Five Colleges, including Smith in Northampton – case counts are also affected of course).

As Health Director O’Leary emphasized in a presentation to the school committee in the summer, the new case data released by the state don’t tell the whole story. In particular, she pointed to the fact that the cases then were mostly in long term care facilities, as can be seen in the Northampton graph above. As can also be seen in that graph, the current cases are mostly in the wider community, and as O’Leary explained to City Council last week, this creates challenges for contact tracing.

It would be tremendously helpful if the COVID-19 advisory committee and the Superintendent could share the basis for each week’s decision, including the data on which it is based. Presumably there are data on contact tracing capacity and results, test turnaround time and other factors that are not currently being made public and that are important in making this decision. If there is a finding that there is currently no need for a pause, it would be very helpful to know under what conditions a pause would be recommended or put in place, and conversely, if the committee and superintendent decide that a pause is necessary, it would be helpful to know what would enable the pause to be lifted.

This increased transparency would be helpful for a number of reasons. It would help to decrease the uncertainty that caregivers and school employees are facing, and it would increase the community’s awareness of the current situation with respect to the spread of the disease, and how this relates to decisions about in-person schooling.

I have also made this request directly to the COVID-19 advisory committee and the Superintendent in an e-mail on Dec. 8th.

Thank you again for all your work and for considering this request.