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School dept., teachers at odds over school plan

Union calls for remote start, BPS plans partial reopening

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
School dept., teachers at odds over school plan
Boston Teachers Union members march on City Hall to demand the school year start with remote learning. BANNER PHOTO

Tensions between Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and the Boston Teachers Union continue to simmer as the district pushes forward with plans to reopen schools over the objections of schoolteachers and staff who say they want to see more safety measures put in place.

Cassellius last week released a second draft of the BPS fall reopening plan outlining steps the district plans to take to minimize the spread of the coronavirus in school buildings and communities. The district is planning to implement what officials have dubbed the “hopscotch model,” in which one group of students attends classes in school on Mondays and Tuesdays, buildings are cleaned Wednesdays and a second group attends classes in school on Thursdays and Fridays.

Teachers are expected to deliver instruction simultaneously to students in the classroom and those logged in remotely.

In their plan, district officials say their decision to open school buildings will ultimately be guided by data and the recommendations of the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC).

“We understand that the Boston metrics may change as the virus continues to evolve,” the report reads. “BPS and its public health partner, BPHC, are monitoring the data on a daily basis specifically to determine if, and when, the numbers indicate that our planning should shift to a different approach to reopening.”

BTU members rallied in front of City Hall last week, repeating their call for a fully remote start to the school year with in-class instruction beginning only when appropriate safety measures are put in place.

“BTU educators want nothing more than to get back to working with our students face-to-face, because that is why we chose this as our calling,” said BTU Vice President Erik Berg during the rally. “But our members, our students and our families know that it would be reckless and irresponsible to reopen all of our buildings to all of our students under current conditions.”

While a survey BPS sent to families and filled out by more than 17,000 respondents found that 38% of parents favor the hopscotch model and 23% favor full-time instruction, other cities around the country are opting for a remote-only start to the school year. In Massachusetts, Worcester, Springfield and Somerville are among the districts that will not begin the year with in-school instruction.

The BPS guidelines outlined in the reopening plan call for school officials to ensure maximum air flow in classrooms. But teachers and school staff at last week’s BTU rally said many classrooms have minimal air circulation.

English High School Performing arts teacher Katina McClain said that while her building has a heating and ventilation system, windows don’t open, and in her classroom, there are no windows. Because she works with students who have multiple health issues, she said she doesn’t think it’s safe to reopen the building.

“I don’t even understand what are the procedures and protocols if someone gets sick,” she told the Banner.

McClain and other teachers say they have been given no information on the condition of the HVAC systems in the 32 school buildings that have them. In buildings that do not have ventilation systems, some classrooms have just one window, making it difficult to maximize air flow, as called for in the BPS reopening plan, Berg said.

“One operable window per classroom in buildings that were built in many cases before the 1918 flu pandemic doesn’t make the grade,” he said.

A 2016 audit of school ventilation systems undertaken during the BuildBPS planning process found that 29 BPS schools needed their ventilation systems replaced.

“Our students deserve safe and healthy facilities, and we need to be creative about how to get them there, starting with the children who struggled the most this spring,” Berg said. “That will allow us to begin when and where it’s safe.”

BTU officials are calling for remote learning to continue until they receive assurances that buildings are safe, that their HVAC systems have been tested, that state and local officials have the testing capacity and contact-tracing capacity to track COVID cases and that buildings have systems in place to manage COVID cases.

McKinley Middle School nurse Jonathan Haines said that in many school buildings, the nurses’ stations don’t have sinks, making hand-washing impossible.

“We’ve been asking for sinks for a long time,” he said.

Haines said he doubts the BPS requirement that classrooms without HVAC systems have one working window is adequate to ensure proper ventilation.

The BPS reopening plan includes contingencies for cases of COVID infections in schools, a scenario that critics believe is inevitable.

“Following the reopening of school facilities, there may be instances of COVID-19 exposure which require the intermittent closure of a BPS classroom, floor, school building(s) or the entire District for a limited period of time,” the plan reads. “While such closures will be disruptive, the CDC and the BPHC recognize that these actions are an essential and required response in our shared responsibility to limit the spread of the disease.”

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