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Concerns growing on back-to-school plans

Teachers unions call for remote learning until safety is ensured

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Concerns growing on back-to-school plans
Boston School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius says the district on Aug. 10 will release plans for a return to school. PHOTO: Isabel Leon, Mayor’s Office

With days left before school districts are required to submit plans for reopening schools, school teachers and staff are pushing back on plans for in-person classes, citing factors ranging from the state’s lack of COVID-19 testing capacity to school buildings that lack well-functioning HVAC systems or windows that open.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts are calling on state education officials to call off in-person instruction in the face of growing numbers of COVID infections in the state.

Tobin School Nurse Katie Mallon addresses school nurses gathered on City Hall Plaza who are calling for schools to remain closed until safety protocols are in place. BANNER PHOTO

Channing School teacher Katie Mallon addresses school nurses gathered on City Hall Plaza who are calling for schools to remain closed until safety protocols are in place. BANNER PHOTO

“We long for the day when it is safe to return to working with our students, as there is no substitute for students and educators relating to one another in person,” said MTA President Merrie Najimy. “But in most, if not all, schools right now, the health and safety concerns are insurmountable.”

MTA members demonstrated outside a meeting of the Malden headquarters of the state Department of Education last week demanding cancellation of in-class instruction until the state is better equipped to deal with the pandemic.

While Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley and the 11 members of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education have been meeting over the summer, those meetings have been taking place through online meeting platforms, not in the meeting room where such meetings traditionally take place, noted AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos.

School nurses gathered on City Hall Plaza. BANNER PHOTO

School nurses gathered on City Hall Plaza. BANNER PHOTO

“There’s irony right there,” she said. “Their plan is to continue meeting remotely all fall. If they don’t want to put 11 people in a room that large, imagine putting 15 students in a classroom.”

Kontos said she thinks Riley has made the right choice with the board members and the wrong choice with students.

“I’m very afraid that putting adults and children in a room together is a disaster waiting to happen,” she said.

Around the world, more than 1 billion school children are remaining home during the pandemic. In-school instruction has resumed or is planned for the fall in some countries. Yet no country in the world has more COVID cases than the United States, where the infection rate has surged over the summer in many states.

Massachusetts, which had the third-highest rate of infections during the spring, has largely contained the outbreak. But that may have changed in recent weeks, as Massachusetts residents have returned to gyms and congregated at beaches and in other areas without masks. Data from last week showed a five-day span in which the average number of new cases was above 300 — the highest rates since June.

That recent spike in cases has some public health experts calling for a return to greater restrictions on public gatherings and indoor activities. Because the virus is thought to spread more easily indoors, many educators are concerned infections could spread among students and staff when schools reopen during the fall.

Those developments come as local districts, including Boston, are putting the finishing touches on their possible plans for the coming school year. Riley ordered districts to submit three sets of reopening plans: one for in-school instruction, one for remote learning and one for a hybrid of both approaches. Districts are required to submit their plans to the state by Monday, August 10.

Although the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) has not come out against in-school instruction, school nurses demonstrated at City Hall Plaza last Wednesday, calling on district officials to include them in planning for the reopening of schools. The nurses called for safety precautions including rapid testing, contact tracing in instances where students get infected, personal protective equipment, adequate cleaning and sanitation, isolation rooms for students who become sick, and functioning windows and HVAC systems.

“Safety has to be prioritized in any plan for reopening,” said Channing School second grade teacher Katie Mallon, speaking during the demonstration.

The school nurses joined a growing number of education professionals who are questioning whether the state even has the capacity to provide a safe learning environment and adequate testing for the 1.5 million students in Massachusetts and the more than 150,000 school staff responsible for them.

The Legislature approved a substantial funding increase for school aid for the coming school year, yet that funding is now in question as state revenue projections plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve long neglected so many of our school buildings and districts,” said Kontos, whose union represents urban school districts across the state. “We’re going to feel it worst in cities like Lowell and Brockton, the places we have intentionally ignored over the last 50 years because we don’t value the people who are in those buildings.”

In-school instruction in Boston

Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said district officials are pressing forward with plans for a hybrid model, with one cohort of students coming in on Mondays and Tuesdays, a deep cleaning of school buildings on Wednesdays and a second cohort of students coming in on Thursdays and Fridays.

“It will depend on the science and where we’re at with the virus,” Cassellius said. “We are still giving the option to parents for all-remote instruction.”

Beyond broad outlines, district officials have shared few details with teachers, students or parents, notes BTU President Jessica Tang.

“We’ve had no information on what’s being done to ensure health and safety in school buildings,” she said. “We do want a return to school in which our students can be educated in person as soon as possible, but safety comes first. We have no assurances that our safety concerns are being addressed.”

Cassellius said district officials have assessed the state of the city’s school buildings and are making needed repairs in advance of the start of school.

She told the Banner that only 32 schools have HVAC systems. The rest rely on windows for ventilation.

“We’re fixing the last of those windows that need to be fixed,” she said. “If there are any schools that aren’t able to open due to facilities, they won’t open. We’re looking at those equity issues and what we would need to do in terms of the students’ education.”

Cassellius said the district also is grappling with many of the usual concerns it faces at the start of the school year, such as assessing how many teachers are returning and making sure there are enough nurses — the district needs to hire five more. Transportation is also a perennial concern.

“We’re really trying to figure that out with social distancing,” Cassellius said.

When BPS officials announced last month that teachers would be expected to provide instruction in class and remotely simultaneously, the idea was widely panned by educators in the city who said it would be nearly impossible to split their attention between students logged into their laptops at home and those in a classroom.

Cassellius said the district is still planning to implement the strategy.

“We are working through different models,” she said. “We will have many different models of hybrid as we move into this and try to learn and figure out what the best model is. We’ll be studying it throughout the fall.”

Tang said she’s still waiting to see the district’s plans.

“We all want a safe return to school,” Tang said. “Nothing can replace in-person instruction. We want to see a thoughtful, comprehensive plan where everyone is getting the resources they need.”

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