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Cassellius, teachers at odds over opening

Teachers union votes ‘no confidence’ in superintendent

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Cassellius, teachers at odds over opening
Demonstrators at Justice Edward O. Gourdin Memorial Veterans Park in Roxbury call for services for students with special needs. BANNER PHOTO

The Boston Teachers Union Sunday took a vote of no confidence in Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius after they say she refused to sign an agreement extending safety precautions to 28 schools that reopened for high-needs students Monday.

“This was completely a rank-and-file-led resolution that was passed with overwhelming support,” said BTU President Jessica Tang of the vote, which passed with 97.5% of teachers voting in favor. “It’s the culmination of a lot of frustration with the superintendent.”

Boston schools initially reopened in October for high-needs students including English Language learners, students with learning disabilities and students experiencing homelessness, but then closed Oct. 21 as rates of COVID infections in the city began to rise precipitously. On Nov. 15, after negotiating an agreement on safety protocols with the BTU, the city opened four schools serving the district’s highest needs students.

That agreement dictated protocols on provision of personal protective equipment, air filtration, room temperature, the number of people allowed in a classroom and other safety precautions. BPS and BTU officials issued a joint press statement hailing the agreement.

In advance of Monday’s reopening, however, Tang says BPS officials refused to sign an agreement guaranteeing the same safety precautions at the 28 schools that are expected to accommodate as many as 1,700 students.

“We want students back in the classroom,” she said. “We had agreed upon conditions for how that can happen. We did not ask for a single additional provision.”

In a statement sent to news media, Mayor Martin Walsh said the city remains committed to in-person instruction.

“The vote the union took last night does not help our collective efforts at this critical time, but it also does not deter us from the promise we made to families to do everything we can to get kids back in schools where they have the support and therapies they need,” his statement reads. “The best place for our students is inside the classroom, learning from their teacher with their peers.”

Neither Walsh nor Cassellius responded directly to the teachers union contention that BPS refused to agree to safety standards for the 28 schools that opened Monday. The agreement the union reached with the district in November only applies to the four schools that opened then.

How it’s going

Madeline Doherty, who teaches preschoolers with autism at the Jackson/Mann school in Allston, questioned the safety standards in her building, which BPS officials in 2018 said would be closed due to structural issues. Doherty said teachers in the school received only vague assurances that the air filtration in the building is safe.

“We were told we have the highest quality filter available for the unit we have,” she said.

In her classroom, she said, she taught three high-needs students Monday accompanied at times by two paraprofessionals, three therapists, a lunch monitor and a recess monitor.

“It just feels like there’s too many interactions within the building,” she said.

While Doherty teaches in a classroom with walls, many of the classrooms at the Jackson/Mann do not have walls.

Doherty acknowledged that many of her students cannot learn without supervision, but she expressed frustration also with the district’s requirements that teachers who are teaching in-person must simultaneously teach students remotely on Zoom.

“Two of my students weren’t able to keep masks on,” she said. “They weren’t able to respond to verbal instructions. The whole day we were within six feet of each other. To manage all that and to be present on Zoom, while trying to teach a kid who has autism how to make the sound for the letter ‘k’ when he can’t see my mouth or hear me very well — it isn’t going well.”

Demonstrators at Justice Edward O. Goudin Veterans Memorial Park. BANNER PHOTO

Demonstrators at Justice Edward O. Goudin Veterans Memorial Park. BANNER PHOTO

Parents rally

Monday’s vote brought to a head simmering tensions between teachers and the superintendent, who has come under pressure to resume in-person education for the district’s high-needs students, many of whom are unable to receive instruction remotely.

On Sunday, a group of parents, students and activists rallied at Justice Edward O. Gourdin Veterans Memorial Park in Roxbury, calling on BPS to safely reopen schools for the district’s more than 11,000 high-needs students.

Soraya Harley, who is raising three grandchildren with special needs in third, fourth and fifth grades, said the children are experiencing learning loss.

“They are having a hard time with remote learning,” she said. “Normally they do good. But having three children on remote learning at the same time is very hard. I can’t cut myself in three and deal with all three of them. They need a teacher to help them out.”

But when asked whether she would send them back to school now, Harley said she would not.

“They really need to get back into school, but when it’s safe,” she said.