Boston school nurses, teachers, and bus drivers demonstrated Wednesday at City Hall against reopening schools in the fall, saying conditions amid the pandemic would be too dangerous without massive investments in protective gear, new staff, rapid coronavirus testing, and air ventilation systems.
Chanting, “We want to go back when it’s safe,” dozens of school staffers said they missed interacting with students in person but felt returning to classrooms without adequate safety measures would jeopardize their lives and those of their families, students, and students’ loved ones. The demonstration, which came amid national threats of teacher strikes this week, was among many signals of growing tensions in the increasingly political fight over the safety of reopening schools as the fall draws near.
“Honestly, it is not safe. We can’t go in,” said Esther Onuoha, a school nurse at Community Academy and Greater Egleston High School. “We are willing to go back, but it has to be safe for us.”
She said she has no space to isolate students exhibiting possible coronavirus symptoms from other students while they await a ride home. Many nurses’ offices are converted closets and lack sinks for basic hand-washing, she said.
In a statement, the school district insisted its plans for the fall are predicated on shielding children and employees from the coronavirus. “The health and safety of our students and staff remains the top priority of the Boston Public Schools,” the district said.
Schools across Massachusetts abruptly shut down in March because of the pandemic. In Boston, officials are considering a hybrid approach for the fall, with students coming to school two days a week and studying remotely three days a week. The start date is still to be determined; earlier this week, the state and teachers unions agreed on a plan that gives districts permission to delay their openings, setting Sept. 16 as the latest students should return to classes.
Wednesday’s rally came as educators protested across the state and the country against reopening schools. Educators from Malden and other districts, along with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, plan to rally Thursday outside the offices of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education asking for reopening decisions to be rooted in public health standards with full funding.
On Tuesday, the American Federation of Teachers, a national union, threatened to authorize limited “safety strikes” among teachers as a last resort if their safety needs aren’t met.
Public employee strikes are prohibited in Massachusetts. But school bus drivers, who work for private contractors, echoed the federation’s warnings of strikes if their safety demands are ignored. USW Local 8751, which represents Boston school bus drivers, said Wednesday that four drivers who worked in the school district’s food-delivery program died in April of coronavirus, which the union blamed on unsafe working conditions.
The local bus drivers union said it “raised 1,000 fists of Solidarity” with the national teachers union’s warning of strikes if health and safety demands “remain unmet.” (Transdev, the bus drivers’ employer, said it had not heard about threats to strike, but said it maintained communication with workers and prioritized the safety of passengers and employees.)
The Boston Teachers Union said to return to school safely, its members want to see policies consistent with best practices in nursing and approved by school nurses; accessible rapid testing for staffers and families; adequate protective gear; sufficient air ventilation in all schools, with strictly enforced cleaning policies, isolation rooms near health offices, soap in all bathrooms, and windows that open.
The teachers union also requested air quality and ventilation assessments in schools, with the results made public. And it demanded the district hire more substitute nurses and teachers, psychologists, social workers, custodians, and other staff to support all students and keep everyone safe.
From a public health perspective, those requests make sense to reopen schools safely, said Helen Jenkins, an epidemiologist at Boston University.
“I think their demands are totally reasonable,” she said.
But the lack of funding for such efforts is also a reality schools must contend with. An average district of 3,700 students can expect $1.8 million in pandemic-related costs during the upcoming year, or roughly 3 to 4 percent of its annual budget, according to the AASA, the School Superintendents Association. Boston Public Schools serves about 54,000 students.
Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, agreed that the demands were valid — and echoed years of pleas from parents and teachers in Boston Public Schools. As the Globe reported last year, city public health inspectors found problems — from nonflushable toilets to obnoxious odors — in 89 of 111 Boston Public School buildings they visited, and many school bathrooms routinely lacked basic soap and toilet paper.
“People are feeling super anxious because we haven’t received those things for 20 years, so why would we expect it to suddenly happen now?” Reyes said. The district’s instructions for its dozens of schools that lack proper air ventilation systems were to open windows, she said, but many windows don’t open more than a few inches, if at all, which is “not comforting” when dealing with a potentially airborne virus.
“It totally makes sense that people are feeling like the school district isn’t ready to reopen,” Reyes said.
District superintendents and principals across the state agree with teachers unions about wanting to ensure the safest schools possible, said Tom Scott, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. But he disagreed with the unions’ approach.
“It does feel as if at this point they’ve organized in a way that is more making a statement than looking for: how do we build a plan based on the desire to bring students back to school as reasonably as we can?” Scott said.
The unions’ strategy, he added, “feels to me a little more confrontational than trying to work together.”
Jonathan Haines, a school nurse at Boston’s McKinley Middle School who helped organize the rally, said the district hadn’t included any school nurses on its planning committee, so they had to demonstrate publicly to make their wishes known. He said at least one school nurse should have a voice in the district’s decision-making meetings, as school nurses have crucial health expertise and will play an integral role in implementing the final plans.
“They should’ve come to us,” Haines said. “We shouldn’t have to hold an event like this to come to them.”
Boston Public Schools in a statement said Superintendent Brenda Cassellius has sought school nurses’ input and met with them multiple times while planning for the fall. BPS is also working with the Boston Public Health Council to ensure students and staffers will have access to the most timely coronavirus tests available. And the council and Boston Children’s Hospital are advising the district on minimizing risks.
In a statement, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said, “As this public health emergency is rapidly evolving, the Boston Public Schools is taking the time needed now to prepare for several different scenarios, including: remote learning, in-person learning, or a hybrid model. The Superintendent and her team are continuing to do everything possible now to prepare for each scenario to put our students in the best possible position for the next school year.”
Velma Glover, a school nurse at Mattahunt Elementary School, said she would love to return to school, but she doesn’t believe safety measures and resources would be adequate. For instance, she said, she had made progress in advocating at her school for a brief hand-washing period in students’ schedules after recess and before lunch, but she wasn’t confident other schools would follow suit.
“What’s common sense to me has not been common sense to the system,” she said. “I’m coming from a health perspective. Please allow me to be at the table with you.”
Sharon Harrison, a school nurse at William E. Carter School, said her office lacks a sink, so she uses the sinks in classrooms. But her biggest concern about reopening schools is air quality and lack of adequate ventilation systems. She echoed the union’s demands for air testing.
Many of her students and their families had serious health issues before the pandemic, and now are more at risk, she said, which deeply worries her.
“I need to keep them safe,” she said.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.