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Boston schools and teachers union strike deal on remote learning

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

One month after Boston shuttered its schools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, school officials and the teachers union announced late Friday afternoon they had struck a tentative deal on conducting classes remotely.

The memorandum of understanding formalizes the remote learning instruction that has been taking place in various ways among the system’s 125 schools by establishing clear standards for the work, including an expectation that all employees will work remotely "to the extent possible during this extended closure.”

Remote learning will generally take place between 9 a.m. and noon or 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. It could take the form of online classes, conducted on such sites as Zoom, or it could be assignments that students can do on their own. Teachers and other educators, who will receive regular pay, will not be required to have face time with their students every day, and in fact the agreement says “video cannot be required.”

But teachers should communicate substantively with their students throughout the week and could include feedback on assignments or simply checking in with students to see how they are doing — much like teachers would in a classroom during an exercise. Communication could come via phone, e-mail, video, and other means, such as shared word-processing documents.

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The overarching goal of the agreement is to minimize “students’ learning gaps to the greatest extent possible," according to a joint statement from the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union, issued shortly before 5 p.m. Friday.

“Working remotely during this crisis is immensely challenging for all, and while we meet the needs of our own families, we jointly acknowledge that all BPS and BTU staff are dedicated public servants who care for the children of our community and we are committed to balancing these urgent priorities,” the statement said. "BPS and BTU agree to give each other flexibility, empathy and support as a means of getting through this crisis — together.”

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The deal comes on the eve of the school system’s weeklong April vacation. Classes will resume on April 27, one week before Governor Charlie Baker’s statewide school-closure order is slated to expire. However, it is widely believed that Baker will extend the closure because the state is still in the midst of surging COVID-19 cases.

Boston is the latest district to strike a deal with its teachers union over shifting brick-and-mortar classroom instruction to the Internet, a significant change in work conditions that is causing many teachers and administrators to reimagine the way they have traditionally delivered education — and with little time to prepare and train.

A spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, to which Boston teachers belong, said all of its 52 affiliates have reached remote-learning pacts with their districts, while a spokeswoman for the much-larger Massachusetts Teachers Association said about half of its locals have formal deals with their districts and the others have informal arrangements.

The Boston agreement, however, is not fully locked up. The deal requires approval from the Boston School Committee, which will likely vote at its next meeting on April 29, according to Chairman Michael Loconto.

Under state guidelines, districts are not expected to fully replicate what would transpire in a traditional school day in their remote-learning plans in recognition of the deep inequities that exist among the nearly 1 million public school students statewide, including many who live in homes with no Internet access, parents who are struggling to make ends meet, or where English is not spoken.

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Instead, the goal is to provide interested students with opportunities to continue their learning during the school closures and try to mitigate learning gaps as much as possible.

The Boston agreement, however, leaves unanswered a big question on the minds of many students and parents: How will any work assigned during the school closure be graded? Some schools have informed students they will receive grades, while others have characterized the work as extra credit.

“The parties agree to continue discussions around the subject of a district-wide remote learning grading policy,” the agreement stated.

The agreement also requires the central offices to provide up to five hours of professional development on remote learning to educators within three weeks of the deal’s execution, and educators must check in regularly with their supervisors and routinely check their school-issued e-mail accounts.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.