Finger-pointing abounds in school reopening debate 

Gov. Baker criticized by unions, school officials 

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER is increasingly finding himself the target of frustration from a variety of school officials, who are themselves weighing difficult reopening decisions amid the COVID-19 surge.  

The Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees lashed out at Baker – and the state’s teachers unions – in a strongly worded letter to the governor, released publicly on Thursday. The letter criticizing Baker’s rhetoric on school reopening comes days after the state’s largest teachers’ union accused Baker of failing students by not providing schools with surveillance testing.  

Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the letter stems from the frustration school officials feel being told by the governor to bring kids back to school in person, but hearing conflicting opinions by boards of health and needing to negotiate with teachers’ unions, who are reluctant to return in person. 

“Local communities don’t have the ability to just pivot the way the governor is suggesting,” Scott said. “He’s setting up a conflict, energizing the parents, putting more pressure on that to happen…but our ability to respond to it without having the tools to do it is pretty limited.” 

Baker has been a strong proponent of returning students to school in person. He often says during his press conferences that he believes students need to be in school, citing national pediatric organizations and public health experts who have said it is generally beneficial for students to attend school in person, despite the pandemic. Currently, many Massachusetts school districts are in a hybrid model, with students in school part time, while some districts are fully remote. Very few are meeting fully in person, due to logistical difficulties like fitting students into buses and school buildings with social distancing requirements. 

According to state education officials, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has released 225 pages of health and safety requirements for schools and distributed air purifiers, 1.5 million masks, and more than 22,000 Chromebooks to districts. The administration has allocated nearly $1 billion to municipalities and school districts to cover COVID-19-related expenses.  

“The health and safety of students, faculty and staff in schools throughout Massachusetts is the department’s top priority,” said Colleen Quinn, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education. Quinn said since the spring, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley has been in daily contact with superintendents and school officials, and he will continue collaborating with them. “In-person learning is the best option for children’s educational, emotional, and overall well-being, and national public health experts, including Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, have stressed the importance of children being in school,” Quinn said. “The administration will continue to push to do what is best for all children of the Commonwealth.”   

The problem is while all school officials say they want students to return to the building safely, there is little agreement on what is required to get students back and how that can be accomplished. 

The letter by the presidents and executive directors of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees says that state-issued guidelines – particularly rules requiring distancing between all students and teachers – make it impossible for most schools to return fully in person. Scott says one problem is the inconsistency among federal guidelines, state guidelinesand local boards of health regarding how many feet of space is needed between students.  

“You want more kids back? Tell us we can put more kids on the bus… Tell us we can bring more kids into the classroom,” Scott said. 

Another major problem is the difficulty districts and unions are having negotiating reopening agreements. Teachers’ unions have generally resisted returning to schools, citing safety concerns. 

Scott said his organization wants Baker to give superintendents relief from having to renegotiate collective bargaining agreements with teachers’ unions in order to reopen. The letter says that in many cases, districts preparing to reopen in a hybrid model “faced such strong resistance from the unions that they had to shift to full remote learning, despite parents’ explicit preference for some in-person instruction.” 

The district officials say Baker should put more pressure on unions. The letter criticized Baker for not loosening collective bargaining rules; not convening teachers’ unions to urge them to back in-person learning; and not publicly objecting when unions force “no confidence” votes against superintendents due to reopening plans.  

But Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Massachusetts, said Baker has no legal authority to waive collective bargaining rights. Kontos said in order to open schools, Baker should allocate money for surveillance testing of teachers and students. “I think the governor needs to put his money where his mouth is and help us do preventive viral testing in school,” Kontos said. 

Kontos said the governor must also do more to stop virus transmission in the community – including closing indoor dining. “You want us in school, stop the spread everywhere else,” Kontos said. 

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the state needs to provide resources so every school can have functioning ventilation systems, enough staff to reduce class sizes, and surveillance testing. “The real problem is the state and federal government haven’t provided enough resources to teach students safely in person,” she said. “Lashing out at educators and unions doesn’t solve the problem or enhance public safety, it just increases the tension and animosity.”  

The debate has frequently devolved into finger-pointing among school officials, teachers, and government officials – leaving parents and students stuck in the middle.  

Officials from superintendents and school committee organizations wrote in their letter to Baker that their members “have expressed deep disappointment, frustration and at times outrage at the messaging you have repeatedly delivered in news conferences and the press” urging school districts to bring students back. They write that after Baker delivers this message, school officials immediately hear from parents demanding that their children return full time. 

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said he thinks teachers are using COVID-19 to push their own agenda, while Baker lacks understanding of the dilemmas district officials are facing on the ground. “There’s enough blame to go around,” he said. 

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Koocher said parents are listening to Baker and demanding in-person learning, teachers’ unions have their own concerns around safety, and some people are genuinely fearful – leaving school officials to balance competing interests. “The pressure on superintendents and local elected officials has been made more difficult than it already is because the state is telling them one thing, the teachers are telling them another and nobody’s getting everyone in the same room at the same time to try to create Camp David-style peace,” he said.