Unions say in-person learning plans not a done deal

Disputes with teachers could derail school reopenings

THE SHARON SCHOOL COMMITTEE voted to start the year with a hybrid model of education, where students will return to school in person two days a week.

Sharon teachers, however, have not yet agreed to the plan. In fact, the Sharon Teachers Association voted to only teach remotely at the start of the school year.

“They jumped ahead with a hybrid model we don’t think is educationally sound,” said Bernadette Murphy, president of the Sharon Teachers Association. Murphy said the teachers do not believe the schools are healthy and safe yet. They have not been told, for example, how the district will fix problems with ventilation or how a single school nurse will handle a child isolated with COVID-19 and other children at the same time.

A Sharon school committee member referred questions to the superintendent, who did not return a call for comment.

The debate leaves district families mired in uncertainty as the teachers’ union and the school district continue negotiations, weeks before school is set to begin.

Sharon is not alone. Gov. Charlie Baker and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have urged all communities with a low prevalence of COVID-19 – marked green or white on a new state color-coded map – to start with some form of in-person learning. When Baker issued that guidance August 11, all but 33 communities were in that low-prevalence category.

Sharon is one of the 70 percent of school districts where officials have told the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that they plan to bring students back to school in person, at least for part of the time.

But while the state released a list of school districts’ plans on Tuesday, many of those plans have not yet been negotiated with the teachers’ unions. And unions have been pushing strongly to start the year with all-remote learning.

Teacher disputes now have the potential to derail local districts’ plans.

Teachers rally outside the State House asking for a remote start to the school year on Aug. 19, 2020. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

Nationally, the American Federation of Teachers has authorized its members to strike if they believe a local school district is reopening without proper safety precautions.

On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, and the Boston Teachers Union held a rally outside the State House calling for a remote start for the school year until certain health and safety standards have been met. Hundreds of teachers joined a car caravan and a socially distanced protest, carrying signs reading #onlywhenitssafe.

Although school districts have submitted their plans, they are “not a fait accompli,” said Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy. “Nothing’s a done deal yet.”

In interviews, both Najimy and AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos hesitated to use the word strike when asked if teachers could strike to avoid going back to school in person.

“Educators are saying they are anxious to be back in the building with their students. They will start working virtually until the districts can demonstrate the buildings are safe,” Najimy said.

“We always have an option for a remote start, and that’s really what we’re hoping for is a remote start until we’re sure the buildings are in the shape they need to be,.” Kontos said.

Kontos said while many communities submitted plans to start the school year with a hybrid model, “That doesn’t mean it can’t change.”

The teachers’ unions are asking for all school buildings to have adequate air transmission and ventilation; for free, rapid, on-site COVID-19 testing at schools for students and staff; and for local and state transmission rates to be under control. They want the school year to start remotely, then phase in in-person learning later in the year as their requirements are met.

Meet the Author

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.

Baker has said he will provide more information about testing in schools this week.