A Midsummer Night’s Plea to the Rose Tree Media School District Board

Hope springs eternal, so I sent the following plea to our school board in the hope that, this year, they will actually try to reduce the amount of COVID in our schools instead of consistently reducing protections every time there’s a surge. It’s past time for them to display some actual courage and do the right thing instead of the thing that appeases the most irrational members of our community.

Dear Dr. DiMarino-Linnen and members of the Rose Tree Media School District School Board,

I’m writing as a concerned parent of a child at Rose Tree Elementary School. I want to encourage you to use the remaining weeks of summer to prepare for a safe and healthy school year by overhauling the Health and Wellness Plan and by placing HEPA air filters in each classroom.

I tried to review the current Health and Wellness Plan before writing this message and was concerned to find that it no longer appears to be available on the District’s revamped website. In fact, I could not find a single mention of COVID on the new site. A number of hits come up in the site’s search function, but all of those links appear to be broken.

As I am sure you are aware, though, the BA.5 variant of COVID is surging across the country, hot on the heels of BA.2, which itself replaced BA.1, the original omicron variant that hit early in 2022. Each of these variants demonstrated a great ability to escape prior immunity from vaccinations or earlier infections. Many people, including my own family, have been infected twice in just a few weeks because prior infection offers so little protection against another infection. Worse, only about 30% of eligible children ages five through eleven have been vaccinated nationally, making students in our schools exceptionally vulnerable.

In other words, there is no meaningful, widespread immunity to the currently dominant variant, much less any other variants that may soon follow. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have all been trending upward across the country this summer and are actually higher than at the same time last summer. The CDC estimates that as many as 20% of all those infected will experience long COVID (a serious condition that has resulted in permanent disability for multiple people I know personally). In short, the pandemic is not over, much as we all wish it was.

I therefore hope you are using this time to improve the ventilation in our school buildings, and at the very least, place HEPA air filters in each classroom. HEPA air filters will go a long ways toward keeping our students, teachers, and community safe. These filters and restoring universal use of quality masks are the two most effective things you can do at the board level to prevent further spread of this dangerous disease and protect our kids.

Ed Cottrell

On Not Seeing Each Other in the Abortion Debate

I wrote this and shared it publicly on Facebook on June 24, 2022, the day the Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case in which it overruled Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, among other things. I feel strongly about what I wrote here, so I’m also sharing it on this blog.

However you’re feeling today…

Whatever you think about abortion…

Whatever you think of the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Roe

…or Casey

…or Dobbs (today’s opinion)…

Whatever you think about the life in the womb…

Or about the life circumstances of the women who consider or obtain abortions…

Whether you know anyone who has had an abortion (or, more accurately, know that you know someone who has)…

I think it’s pretty safe to say a few things are probably true. You…

…probably didn’t change your mind today…

…probably don’t know and will never know anyone whose mind changed today…

…probably have seen some posts on social media from “the other side” that you thought were stupid…

…may have seen some posts from your “side” that you thought were stupid…

…probably have seen some posts from “the other side” that you thought were bigoted and hateful…

…may have seen some posts from your “side” that you thought were bigoted and hateful…

…probably feel like “the other side” has never really had any moral, legal, scientific, or medical ground on which to stand…

…probably know and love people who are rejoicing and relieved right now, even if silently, and…

…probably know and love people who are grieving and angry right now, even if silently.

What I know for sure is that we’re never going to get anywhere good with the kinds of straw-man, bigoted, cheap-shot, intellectually bankrupt arguments that have dominated my own social media feeds today. There have been some kind, thoughtful comments, including by some people who may be reading this, but wow, there have been some awful ones, from all parts of the political spectrum.

How are we going to heal if we don’t even try to understand each other? If so many of us paint with such broad strokes that we spend 1000x as much time calling each other murderers, torturers, slavers, theocrats, and other hate-filled slurs as we spend listening to each other? Truly caring about each other means, among other things, finding what is good in each other and giving each other’s opinions the respect they deserve.

One good thing about having trained and practiced as a courtroom lawyer is learning just how incredibly hard it is to craft a truly good argument, especially when the other side has super-sharp lawyers committed to ripping your argument to shreds, piece by piece, and building a rhetorical Fort Knox on its ruins. In every difficult or divisive question, the other side always has some really strong arguments. And no one gets “laughed out of court” in those cases because those cases are hard. Cases that seem easy and obvious to one side often seem just as easy and obvious to the other side, yet they can drag on for ages. That’s (usually) not because the lawyers are greedy or unethical; it’s because winning hard cases is, well, hard.

When was the last time you gave someone from “the other side” a full opportunity to present their best arguments?

However you feel about the ideas at the top of this post, I’d encourage you to remember that you know people tonight who are convinced lives have been saved today and others who are convinced lives have been sacrificed to an ideology, people who are weeping from joy and relief and people who are weeping from sorrow and fear. None of them changed their minds today. But all of them have been unfairly painted by somebody’s brush as some sort of monster today.

And that’s cause for some somber reflection on all “sides,” I think.

Email to the Rose Tree Media School District School Board, 5/19/2022

Because I continue to believe in open communication with elected representatives and that sunshine is the best disinfectant, I am sharing here my email to the Rose Tree Media School District school board. I sent this tonight in the wake of our county jumping (both predictably and as predicted) from the “Low” CDC community level to the “High” level today.

Dear Dr. Dimarino-Linnen and members of the Rose Tree Media School District School Board,

I am a parent of a child at [REDACTED], as well as another child too young to be in the district’s schools and thus too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Delaware County is now in the “High” community levelaccording to the CDC. So are all of the neighboring counties in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey, with the lone exception of Philadelphia County, which is currently at “Medium.”

This comes three days after the Board voted to remove the 2% threshold for mandatory masking in our district’s schools. That change was proposed to the Board and presented to the community as being based in large part on our community’s “Low” community level according to the CDC’s criteria. Obviously (and predictably), we are no longer at that level. And as was the case before the Board’s vote, our district’s schools had transmission rates more than 8 times the rates in Delaware County as a whole, equivalent to 2,196 cases per 100,000 over the course of a week.

Dr. D., I am asking you to reinstate mandatory masking in our district’s schools for the remainder of the school year. We have known since early in the pandemic that two-way masking is far more effective than one-way masking, especially given that individuals may not always know they are contagious. It is simply not enough for those who are concerned to wear masks or asks their kids to do so, not with so much virus in the air. This remains a very serious illness, and a potentially life-threatening one for many parents, staff, and students in the district. Please help us protect our kids, family, and community.

Please also let the community know where parents and community members can find the recording of Monday’s meeting. In your email last Friday, you stated that a livestream link would be sent out before the meeting, as required by Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law and Board Policy No. 006.1. Neither my wife nor I received that link.



Ed Cottrell

Public Comments on My School District’s Response to Rising Cases of COVID-19 in Our Schools, Part II

Last week, I shared my comments regarding my school district’s proposal to eliminate the trigger it set for reinstituting mandatory masking in a given school. The school board decided on February 24, 2022 to go “mask-optional,” but would require masks again in any particular school if that school’s five-day case rate exceeded 2% of the student population. Last week, three schools crossed that line, and the others came close.

Combined COVID Rates across All RTMSD Schools
Combined COVID Rates across All RTMSD Schools. The week ending 5/13/2022 saw a 165% increase across schools over the week before, to a 2.2% total incidence rate.

The school board responded to this crisis by proposing to eliminate the 2% threshold. This is not a rational response but clearly driven by fear and frustration. The board plans to vote tomorrow, May 16, on this proposal. Below are my public comments, sent to the board, regarding this vote.

I am a parent of a child at [REDACTED] and am writing to oppose removing the 2% threshold for making masks mandatory in a building. Such a move would be unscientific and dangerous in the light of the current outbreaks in all six of our RTMSD schools.

First, the board is apparently relying on incorrect definitions and misused terminology to make the wrong decision. The email to the community on Friday, May 13, refers three times to “community transmission” and describes our current level of community transmission as “low.” The presentation to the board on Thursday, May 12, refers to our “community spread rates” as “very low.” These statements are simply inaccurate. The CDC has defined both “community levels” and “community transmission” levels. This is confusing, but they are different things. We are currently in the “Low” community level, but in the “high” community transmission level. Our county’s transmission level of 189 cases per 100,000 over the last 7 days is so high that it is about to push us back into the medium or high “community level,” which will happen if we cross 200. This could happen as soon as the weekend data comes in on Monday.

The presentation also contained misleading graphs which made it look like only Indian Lane Elementary School had a large uptick in cases this week. But every school in the district had a huge increase this week. Week over week, Glenwood was up 700%, Indian Lane 1,000%, Media 100%, Penncrest 25%, Rose Tree 120%, and Springton Lake 183%. Combined, the six schools have a 2.2% incidence rate, up from only 0.8% last week. These are alarming changes and precisely why the trigger was put in place. I have assembled graphics making clear how dramatic these increases are at https://www.edcottrell.com/rtmsd-covid-statistics/

The presentation also referred to CDC guidance and said, “Universal wearing of masks is no longer recommended in areas of Low or Medium transmission.” That is true but completely irrelevant. The board is not discussing “universal masking” for a geographic area but only masking inside particular RTMSD school buildings. Our schools do not currently reflect the broader community; the outbreak in our schools puts them at more than ten times the rate of spread that the CDC considers “High.” Universal masking in these buildings is absolutely necessary at this moment to protect our children.

Finally, the presentation has a “Medical Guidance” slide which has nothing to do with this proposal. It certainly does not support dropping the trigger. If anything, the AAP information about “reinstituting face mask requirements” would support keeping the trigger. And the CHOP Policy Lab bullets are misleading if they are meant to imply mask mandates in our schools would not help. We are not trying to destroy the virus globally; we are trying to protect our kids, school staff, and their families during an intense outbreak in our schools. And our schools are major sources of community spread right now.

We all want this to end. But acting like it is over doesn’t make it so. I urge the board: have some courage. Be willing to do the right thing, even if it disappoints some parents. Stop surrendering to the virus because it is inconvenient, and start standing up for our kids.

Ed Cottrell

Sources referenced above:

Update 5/16/2022: Our school board went ahead and watered down the Health and Safety Plan. In the process, they also gave the superintendent sole control over changes to masking policies in the future (a change they didn’t preview last week).

Edited 7/7/2022 to note that the school board recently launched a redesigned website. As of this date, the links above to pages on the district’s domain (rtmsd.org) are all broken. Moreover, the district has not made the content of those links available anywhere on the site. In fact, it appears that they have removed all COVID-related content from the site, at least temporarily.

Public Comments on My School District’s Response to Rising Cases of COVID-19 in Our Schools

I am the father of a child who attends a local, public school. Our school district recently dropped its mask mandates, opting for a masks-optional scheme. Masks would become mandatory again in a given school if cases reported or detected in that school over a five-day period exceeded 2% of that school’s population of students, faculty, and staff. (The plan only calls for the board to “determine” whether masks are necessary if the entire community moves back into “high” transmission.)

Today, two of the schools in our district hit the 2% threshold. The school board responded immediately… by requiring masks in those two schools effective tomorrow and by issuing a proposal for tomorrow night’s board meeting, under which they would drop that 2% threshold and keep all of the schools mask-optional.

Because this strikes me as about as reasonable as cutting off your parachute because you don’t like how it pulls on your shoulders when it’s slowing you down, I wrote the following.

I am a parent of a child at [REDACTED] and I am writing to express my opposition to any further weakening of the Health and Safety Plan. Nothing has changed about the virus or its risks that makes the current environment safer than when the 2% trigger was adopted. If anything, the opposite is true; the variants circulating now are the most contagious we have seen, and each is much more contagious than Omicron or other, earlier variants.

The only thing that has changed this week to prompt this conversation is a surge in new cases in RTMSD schools this week. This was entirely predictable—and actually predicted—but at least we planned ahead for what to do when cases went back up. Now that we’ve tripped the threshold we set for ourselves to go back to mandatory masking in a school, we apparently don’t like that decision so much.

The whole point of the 2% threshold was so we would have an agreed-upon (if far too high) trigger to initiate a more vigorous response to an outbreak. But instead of responding with increased safety measures as planned, we’re contemplating simply dropping the trigger and ignoring the rapid spread of COVID in our schools unless and until the entire community is engulfed. Even having this conversation at this moment is absurd, scientifically unsound, negligent, and shameful. To follow through by further gutting the plan in direct response to a surge in cases should be unthinkable.

I urge you to have the courage to do your duty and provide the children and staff of this school district a safe learning environment. Retain the trigger and keep masks mandatory in those schools that have reached it.

Ed Cottrell

Update 5/11/2022:

A third school—my daughter’s—hit the threshold today with a 1.8% one-day incidence rate, putting it well over 2% for the five-day period. But I fully expect our school board to respond to these numbers by dropping the trigger so that “parents [can] make decisions that work best for their family circumstances,”* as if “family circumstances” have anything to do with how easily a virus spreads through the air in a crowded building.

* This is a direct quotation from the district’s message to parents yesterday.

Update 5/12/2022:

It’s moving to a vote on Monday, the soonest the board can legally vote on it. The rationale is that other school districts in our region have also eviscerated their health and safety plans recently, so we should, too. No mention of scientific or medical guidance or support. We “know how to respond” and “have a plan,” so that apparently makes it okay to remove the plan. Our school superintendent blessed parents who are uncomfortable sending their kids to school with a mask in the meantime to keep them home. She didn’t have any suggestions for parents who are uncomfortable with the rapid spread of COVID in the schools or the fact that the vast majority of people in the buildings are no longer masking.

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