BY REID PRIEDHORSKY
Dear LAPS leadership and community:
I write regarding many deep, ongoing concerns with the Los Alamos Public Schools COVID response. Briefly, I see five serious problems that have needlessly caused excess illness and suffering, emotional burdens, and extra work on the part of students, families, and LAPS staff over the past two years:
1. LAPS leadership has not listened to informed feedback.
2. LAPS leadership is not proactive.
3. LAPS communication is bad.
4. LAPS administration does not understand the virus.
5. LAPS administration does not understand COVID testing.
Much of this is rooted in long-standing organizational culture problems dating back at least three superintendents. I am asking LAPS leadership for an immediate and comprehensive reset in strategy.
The first part of this letter discusses background and some some specific high-level requests for change, while the later parts go into detail about LAPS’ COVID problems I see as most important.
I write now because over the past week or so I have become slightly optimistic, because I do see some meaningful change happening. I am concerned, however, that LAPS leadership may see these changes as sufficient. They are not. Much remains to be done, and I feel that explaining now the numerous problems I see in detail will help LAPS leadership, including the incoming new superintendent, and the community understand what is still needed.
I write as a well-informed parent. I have a Ph.D. in computer science, with a focus on the sociology of computing. While not formally trained in epidemiology (the science of disease outbreaks), I have had the privilege to collaborate and publish with world-class epidemiologists at LANL and elsewhere. This doesn’t make me an expert, but I believe it does make me well-qualified to comment on these matters.
I recognize that COVID in the schools is an incredibly hard problem. No one needs to or is able to solve it on their own. No one should pretend they can do so, or that they have all the answers. I also understand that there are many constraints in play, and it’s not always possible to implement best practices. But LAPS is responsible for the health and safety of our children, and it’s critical for such an organization to understand what the best practices are, and be transparent about what is not a best practice and why. It’s clear that LAPS leadership has no such expertise or understanding, and transparency has been consistently asserted rather than demonstrated.
The main reason I am a little optimistic is that within the last week, LAPS has added appropriate expertise to its COVID team. It is infuriating and shameful that it took two years for LAPS leadership to do something so obvious. However, I know some of these experts, and they are smart, practical folks that I respect a lot. If LAPS leadership takes their advice seriously, consistently, and with humility, we will be in a much better place.
I also recognize that everyone involved, including LAPS leadership, is working really hard and wants the best for our kids. My ask is for leadership to work smarter; there are lots of ways to be more effective with less work. Also, in my view, for grown-ups, we should appreciate people’s hard work but judge their results.
In particular, teachers are busting their butts, going far above and beyond. In my experience, LAPS teachers have been almost uniformly amazing, particularly during COVID. They are heroes! The thing is, though, they shouldn’t have to be. It’s a recipe for burn-out, and individual heroics are hard to make effective. They should be able to just be professionals, backed by proper institutional policies and support.
Finally, everyone wants kids back in school as soon as practical, including me. Remote learning sucks. Those liberal snowflakes you may have heard of who want schools closed indefinitely? They don’t exist. My view is that a better COVID response will make stable in-person school happen faster and with less suffering by our children and community.
So what should be done?
The correct response to a once-in-a-century global pandemic is proactive, evidence-driven, institutional, and informed by public health and sociology experts. For the first two years of the pandemic, LAPS policy did not met this standard, not even close. Over and over, LAPS leadership has told me and others that they take our concerns “very seriously”, and they “assure [me] … that we will do all we can”, but then very real problems are not effectively addressed, and often not even acknowledged.
Another reason I am (extremely cautiously) optimistic is Acting Superintendent Guy’s letter to families on January 21, which was another step in the right direction. It showed a notable change in attitude, e.g. admitting that whether to return to in-person was a hard decision. I also observe that for most of the pandemic, LAPS newsletters largely ignored COVID; now COVID consistently leads them.
I hope that this reflects the deeper shift in strategy that is so urgently needed, in no small part because Omicron really is different. Specifically, I believe this shift must include:
First, the school board must assert its responsibility and legal obligation to exercise vigorous oversight. The superintendent reports to the board, and board members should not forget this. The school board can and must require that the administration follow evidence-based best practices to the maximum extent practical. It must ask hard questions and press for real answers until they are given. While congratulating the administration on a job truly well done is necessary and appropriate, these congratulations should reflect reality, and criticism and negative feedback are essential for any organization to improve.
Second, the administration needs to correct its organizational culture to prioritize proactive problem solving as well as true transparency and collaboration. The pandemic has been with us for two years, and for this entire time LAPS has been almost purely in a reactive mode, missing obvious approaching problems (e.g., Delta, Omicron, supply shortages) and unable to get ahead of the situation. LAPS’ communication is consistently disorganized and incomplete, and appears from the outside to be highly focused on public relations, rather than what is actually happening and why decisions are made.
Third, LAPS should appoint a public health officer who has sufficient authority within the organization to be effective. Currently, Ms. Guy serves as COVID coordinator on top of being both acting superintendent and deputy superintendent; it’s clearly too much for one person. This would let families have a public health point of contact whose information and incentives are uncontaminated with the myriad other complexities of running a school system.
Fourth, LAPS should appoint a public health advisory committee populated with local experts, whose advice is taken seriously (in actions, not just words). I understand from talking to knowledgeable people that Ms. Guy’s rather vague statement in her 1/21 letter that appropriate experts have “join[ed] our LAPS COVID team meetings” reflects an indefinite arrangement, which is good. However, these experts should be empowered to provide assessments and other reports directly to the public, whether or not they make LAPS leadership look good, and the arrangement should be permanent. Public health is always relevant in the schools. For example, seasonal flu kills 200 American children in a bad year and causes myriad lost school days.
I believe these changes would be highly effective at the urgent matter of improving LAPS’ COVID response, as well as addressing long-standing organizational deficiencies that impact our children’s education in many different areas.
The rest of this letter goes into detail on the five problems I opened with. I realize it is long, but I feel it is important for families and the community to understand at least a little bit of the numerous and complex problems that in my view LAPS leadership must urgently address. The first three sections cover organizational culture problems that I see and how they’ve impacted LAPS COVID response, and the final two cover failures specific to COVID.
Problem 1: LAPS administrators have not listened to informed feedback
I’ve already raised most of the criticisms in this letter directly with LAPS leadership. What I get back is thanks for raising my concerns and that they’re taken “very seriously”, followed by nothing actually happening. Or, I get back long explanations that only sort of relate to the concern I’ve raised.
This is a long-standing problem. In my experience over the past seven or eight years I’ve dealt with them, LAPS administrators are extremely happy to meet with you, nod and smile, and then do nothing. I call it “pretending to listen”. This has not just been my experience, but one I hear consistently from other parents.
For example, several years ago I was mistakenly sent a draft e-mail from a former board member to a former administrator that said LAPS needed to let me “feel that he’s making valid points”, to look for “simple and sensible things we can do to pacify him”, and otherwise “nod our heads up and down, and go on our merry way”. While the board member did apologize sincerely, this gave an eye-opening internal view on LAPS leadership culture at the time. It’s unclear to me what has changed.
Something readers can check themselves are the public comments of others (for example in the Google Group that LAPS maintains), many of whom are relevant experts. As far as I can tell, most of these thoughtful comments have been effectively ignored.
This makes the recent inclusion of experts on the LAPS COVID team an important positive change, and it’s critical that it be a long-term change. Again, however, it’s ridiculous that it took LAPS two years to figure out they needed expert help to deal with an incredibly complex and difficult public health problem.
Being a true professional involves a lot of humility. One must listen to the relevant experts. Public health is not the expertise of LAPS administration, and they can’t expect to get everything right. (For what it’s worth, I had this letter fact-checked by three independent experts. Of course, all remaining errors are my responsibility alone, and these people had no hand in my crankiness.)
Problem 2: LAPS leadership is not proactive
In a public health emergency, it’s imperative to be proactive, and LAPS has the flexibility to do so. LAPS parent Lauren Coupland in recent public comments to the board notes that “Districts are free to revise to increase safety measures without waiting for PED approval”, based on her 1/11 phone call with NMPED. However, throughout the pandemic LAPS has failed to be proactive, and it has severely hampered LAPS’ effectiveness with respect to COVID.
For example, when schools re-opened statewide last April, LAPS was utterly surprised by the announcement. It had been obvious since the beginning that this was coming eventually; the administration should have had a plan ready to go with just a few tweaks.
It has been well-known in the public health community for most of the pandemic that COVID is airborne, and thus ventilation and/or air filtering is highly effective in curbing spread. LAPS has finally purchased air filters, but they were delayed in a bureaucratic mess for months and are now stuck in the general supply problems of buying at peak demand. Ms. Guy tells us in her 1/21 letter that “we are pushing to get the air purifiers as fast as possible”, but the core problem is failure to address the issue in a timely manner. Filters should have been deployed by the beginning of the school year.
LAPS’ COVID testing is also presently inadequate in part due to “the terrible constraints on the availability of [rapid] tests” (Guy 1/21). Again, this should have been proactively addressed as soon as the Delta wave became clear last summer.
Problem 3: LAPS communication is bad
Another long-standing concern is communication and transparency, as well as compliance with the Open Meetings Act. The administration appears to be aware of this, and is clearly trying, but so far it’s still ineffective. A few examples.
Principals and assistant principals send out notice of positive cases. Different individuals sent notices that are similar but not the same; it looks like a web of copy-paste in various directions with various re-ordering, editing of content, and formatting changes. These notices appear to change over time but are so long and varied it’s extremely difficult to tell what’s actually changed. Some principals link to the district case counts document, some don’t. Some link to the current NMPED COVID Toolkit, some link to an old version, some don’t link at all. There should be a standardized format with the key information at the top and the boilerplate at the bottom, and changes highlighted.
LAPS administrator e-mails very often contain “attachments” which are really links through at least two different tracking systems that aren’t particularly reliable. For example, it took Ms. Guy only 25 minutes to resend her “attached” 1/21 letter as the text of a normal e-mail, so the number of recipients with problems must have been high. LAPS should lose the tracking and instead put text in the body of the e-mail with files attached using the standard feature.
Often, substantive errors are pitched as simple oversights. For example, the LAPS case counts document as of January 8 read that it “only reflects lab confirmed [i.e., PCR] cases reported to LAPS and positive tests identified through the ‘Test to Stay’ program”. A parent complained and Ms. Guy promised to fix the wording and “We are reporting any self-reported home tests in our numbers. Any positive is considered a positive”. Even if this is true, the erroneous wording could discourage families from reporting positive rapid tests, depressing case counts to make the situation seem better than it was.
I understand from talking to insiders that LAPS has in fact considered ventilation and upgrades of existing HVAC systems reasonably well, and I was given a name to call if I wanted details. However, it’s ridiculous to call individuals to obtain this information. LAPS should have simply provided a clear report. (It’s possible they did send out a report and I missed it in the mess described above.)
Ms. Guy reported low absenteeism on the first day back from break on 1/5: “There were some rumors today that we had a large number of students absent. This is not true. According to attendance data, we had 91% of enrolled students at school today.” I find this number quite dubious, because I did a quick survey among my social circle and counted ten classrooms with attendance ranging from full to 41% present. Ms. Guy also does not state whether LAOLA students (fully remote the whole year) were included, which would have no concern with attendance due to high COVID. That is, the 91% quoted is misleading at best; there’s clearly more to the story.
In her 1/21 letter, Ms. Guy says that LAPS “will make remote learning options available for families that prefer to keep their students home for two more weeks”. It turns out this “remote learning” is just excused absences with standard out-sick procedures, i.e, teachers make assignments available and are available to answer questions. One parent called this gaslighting, and I’m inclined to agree.
On January 20, LAPS put out a press release that “It has been brought to the attention of the district that the January 15 Los Alamos School Board meeting where the new superintendent was selected was not properly noticed to the public”, requiring an embarrassing do-over. This is the most classic use of the “exonerative case” passive voice that I have seen in some time. Healthy organizations rarely make serious mistakes like this one. When mistakes do happen, such organizations take responsibility, explain how it happened, and explain what has been done and will be done to ensure it doesn’t happen again. They do not use the exonerative case.
This isn’t the only Open Meetings Act problem. School board minutes on the website are not current. As of 1/22, the latest minutes posted on the board website are October 12, over four months ago. This is entirely unacceptable and I can’t imagine how it doesn’t violate the Act.
Finally, LAPS families have an extremely vigorous rumor mill, and the reason is that official communications are incomplete, hard to parse, and untrustworthy. If this is fixed, the rumors will fade naturally.
Problem 4: LAPS administrators do not understand the virus
One of my biggest concerns is that LAPS administrators are ignorant of how COVID works and public health principles in general. On its own, this is not a problem; that’s when to engage relevant experts. But, as I mentioned, for the past two years until a week ago, the LAPS administration has not been engaging relevant experts and has seemed to put on a facade of expertise. I’ll give several examples.
It’s been well known in the public health community for many months that the quality of mask wearing is important. Staff and students need consistently and correctly worn, well fitting, genuine, high-filtration masks (not cloth or surgical). I saw no indication that the administration had any clue about this critical issue until Ms. Guy’s 1/21 letter, where she said “we are providing our staff with KN95 masks”. Is the administration aware that in addition to KN95 (China) there are three other reasonable government standards (N95, US; KF94, Korea; FFP2, Europe)? Does the administration know how to identify genuine vs. counterfeit masks? How does LAPS train and ensure good fit, without leakage? What is the plan for ensuring students, not just staff, have good masking? How does LAPS measure compliance and mask quality? Again, all of these questions should have been answered many months ago.
As I mentioned above, COVID is airborne, and thus the 6-foot distance used for the LAPS close contact definition is irrelevant in well-mixed room air. On top of that, there’s a special rule only for children and only at school that between 3 and 6 feet does not count as a close contact. This makes no sense and is clearly based on something other than virus behavior. The bottom line is that in reality, everyone in a classroom with an infectious person has been exposed.
Further, if families do want to use a more appropriate exposure definition, LAPS conceals the information needed to do so. (A commendable exception here is pre-K, who does in fact notify the entire class when there’s a positive in the classroom.) I understand the privacy reasoning here, but does LAPS even ask the people whose privacy they are protecting whether extra information can be shared in order to help others? Many would be happy to do so.
Ms. Guy’s January 21 letter states that “[w]e … ask you not to send children to school if they are ill or have any symptoms of COVID” (emphasis added) and “we also ask that you not send your child to school if there is a positive case in the household, regardless of vaccine status.” Both of these should not be requests but rather mandatory. It is not acceptable to send your child to school when known or suspected to be infectious with something as nasty as COVID.
Recently the school closure threshold has been in the news a lot, that is, if a school has more than 5% positive during a 14 day rolling window, it closes. This was used for the district-wide closure that ended Monday. There are two significant problems with this. First, I have received three separate explanations of how the window is computed: the count resets to zero when the closure begins, it resets upon return to in-person, and the rolling window continues regardless of whether a school is open or closed. In no case was any epidemiological justification given, though only the latter makes sense. If there is too much virus to be in school, there is too much virus to be in school, period. Second, the policy ignores community prevalence, which also strongly affects infection risk at school. It’s worth noting that we are going back to in-person almost precisely when known cases have never been higher in Los Alamos County.
A related concern is that LAPS points to NMPED as the source of this policy, e.g. “We are required [presumably by NMPED] to watch a 14 day rolling total of cases in each school” from Ms. Guy on 1/18 or “Since we will return on Monday, January 24th from a 10 day quarantine, the time frame resets; per the recently updated COVID toolkit” from Barranca Principal Jones’ letter to families on January 21. However, this policy does not appear anywhere in the NMPED COVID-19 Response Toolkit dated 1/11. It must be an LAPS policy. If LAPS feels I am wrong, where specifically does the policy appear in the Toolkit?
LAPS administrators also tell us how much cleaning and sanitization the schools do, which is not a good use of limited resources because COVID spreads mostly through air, not via surfaces. Again, this has been well known in the public health community for a long time.
Finally, LAPS started off strong with vaccinating teachers early but seems to have lost its way. Vaccination is another crucial tool to limit the spread of COVID. What are the vaccination rates in LAPS, including how many of those eligible are boosted? (Booster shots greatly improve effectiveness against Omicron.) Why has there not been any vigorous vaccination campaign? Why not offer vaccinations at school? Why is vaccination not mandatory for staff?
Again, COVID policy should be driven by sound knowledge about the virus, not intelligent but inexpert administrators.
Problem 5: LAPS administrators do not understand COVID testing
Testing, despite its imperfections, is an effective tool to limit the spread of COVID. However, LAPS is deploying it incorrectly. Testing must be frequent, trivially easy to access, aggressively promoted, and as close to universal as possible. It also needs to be timely: particularly with Omicron, rapid tests signal lack of infectiousness for only a short period. PCR tests have the opposite problem, because results take too long to be actionable. This has been well known in the public health community almost since the beginning.
For example, returning from the holiday break was a time of great concern, due to vigorous social mixing over the holidays and Omicron spiking across the country. The best practice would be to require a negative rapid test the morning of arrival at school. Instead, LAPS tested a small fraction of those who would be in the building multiple days before the start of school.
While it’s good that LAPS provides a rapid testing program, the administration has bungled its logistics by focusing on a single testing location downtown. This requires umpteen people to spend time getting there, waiting (i.e., loss of learning time!), and standing around in the cold in a crowd of people at especially high risk of COVID. It also privileges students whose families have the time and transportation to go downtown.
When I raised this concern directly, Ms. Guy told me on 1/18: “Premier Medical Group is the company providing testing at the district location. They have had some staffing challenges. We will continue to communicate any changes or shortages as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, there were days we had no notice they would be late or understaffed. I spoke to the area manager today and she assured me that they will have adequate staff and tests in the future.” (Ms. Guy also told me that you can in fact get tested at the individual schools, but it’s by appointment only.) This misses the point: while staffing and supply shortages are real, LAPS is responsible for the contract and therefore for whether the procedures are good or bad.
Best practice would be to do testing at the schools, or better yet provide students and staff the tests to perform at home (rapid tests are approved for use by laypeople).
LAPS should also have been aggressively testing during the 10-day pause, instead of stopping it entirely. This suppressed the case count, biasing the data supporting the decision whether to return to in-person.
I also understand that LAPS does not count symptomatic students with a positive family member as positive. Common sense as well as the CDC and LANL define this as COVID. I have a hard time understanding any motivation other than a desire to artificially keep case counts low.
PCR tests are more accurate than rapid tests but difficult to act on because the results take so long (3–4 days in my experience lately). In particular, anyone with a pending PCR test due to symptoms or exposure must stay home. I know multiple families that were exposed because someone took a PCR test and then went to school until the positive result came in. They do not know why these people needed tests, but they was extremely unhappy to get contact tracing phone calls 3+ days out of date.
Again, testing policy should be driven by sound public health knowledge, not intelligent but inexpert administrators. Perhaps the new expert advisory arrangement will improve the situation.
I hope this all helps. Thank you for your time.