The state’s largest teachers union is pushing to continue with only remote learning this fall, contending that many older school buildings have aging ventilation systems that are inadequate to protect students and staff from the coronavirus.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association urged its more than 350 local affiliates to refuse to return to school buildings until state and local officials can prove the ventilation and other operating systems are working efficiently and communities have met unspecified public health benchmarks. MTA leaders noted that many of the worst buildings are in chronically underfunded urban districts hard hit by the pandemic.
“Sending people back into the buildings only increases the risks of our most vulnerable students contracting the virus, and it puts staff members at risk, too,” Merrie Najimy, the association’s president, told the Globe Thursday.
The push puts the Massachusetts Teachers Association squarely at odds with Governor Charlie Baker, who has directed local districts to bring back as many students as possible this fall, arguing the risk of COVID infection among children is low while the academic, social, and emotional harm of remote learning for many students is far more severe. Baker closed schools in March due to the pandemic.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association made its pitch at a virtual meeting Wednesday night that drew about 7,500 members and other observers. The association is asking its affiliates to vote over the next week on a resolution supporting a remote-only approach to learning — at least for the first few weeks of school.
More than three dozen of its local affiliates had already voted on such a resolution prior to Wednesday’s meeting, although the MTA did not name them. The locals will use the resolutions as a basis for negotiating working conditions this fall.
The MTA represents tens of thousands of teachers in almost every school district statewide, including Cambridge, Lexington, Milton, Newton, Springfield, Somerville, and Worcester. Teachers in Boston belong to a different union, the American Federation of Teachers. Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the group is surveying members and plans to take a position soon on school reopening.
The MTA’s push comes as the political atmosphere around school reopening has been intensifying around the nation, fueled by President Trump’s call for a full return to classrooms. The national AFT has directed its local affiliates to engage in safety strikes if necessary — an action prohibited under Massachusetts law, forcing local teacher unions to find other avenues to ensure their members’ safety.
The MTA’s reopening stance immediately drew a range of reactions from parents around the region.
“It’s devastating news,” said Natallia Hunik, a Lexington mother whose son will be entering kindergarten. “We shouldn’t be making decisions based on fear. It should be driven by science.”
Hunik was among a small group of Lexington parents who rallied last Friday night for a full return to school. Some Winchester parents planned a similar rally Thursday night.
Often a critic of teacher unions, Keri Rodrigues founder of Massachusetts Parents United, an advocacy organization, said her organization partially agrees with the MTA this time: The conditions are not right for children and adults to return to classrooms, adding that local school officials lack the expertise to develop appropriate safety measures.
“Too much precious time has already been wasted attempting to turn education officials into infectious disease experts,” said Rodrigues, whose children attend Somerville public schools, in a statement. “Our focus needs to be on making remote learning worth doing.”
But she added the unions shouldn’t use the pandemic as an excuse to advance longstanding political agendas, such as abolishing MCAS testing, which the unions have incorporated into their school reopening platform.
Dr. Lloyd Fisher, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which endorsed the state’s school reopening guidelines, said he was disappointed the MTA wants to keep students at home this fall, noting many are suffering immense and potentially permanent harm.
“There have been significant increases in depression, anxiety, and undiagnosed child abuse and neglect, and social isolation in children,” said Fisher, a pediatrician in Worcester. “We have also seen a dramatic regression in educational progress — in typical children and especially those with developmental delays and disabilities.”
Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley declined to comment.
The impending showdown over classroom instruction is heating up as districts are racing to submit preliminary reopening plans to the state Friday. Districts must draft three options: a full return to classrooms, a mix of in-person and remote learning, or a continuation of only remote learning. Final plans are due on Aug. 10.
Districts have been struggling to accommodate a full return. Many school buildings are already at capacity, making it difficult to practice social distancing, while many teachers have indicated they are in populations at high risk for COVID-19.
A growing number of superintendents, such as those in Boston and Lexington, have signaled a preference for a mix of in-person and remote learning, while keeping remote-only as a backup.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said a continuation with only remote learning could make students feel even more alienated from schooling because with a new year beginning they will be assigned new teachers and classmates, breaking any bonds from the previous year.
“Do we really want kids and teachers to be introduced on the first day of school in a remote session and say we are concerned about kids’ social development?” he said.
Schools have a golden opportunity this fall to build new relationships — and under the safest conditions — by bringing teachers and students outside when the weather is good. Many school district leaders, he said, are questioning why students shouldn’t return to school when COVID infection rates in their communities are below 1 percent.
The rollout of remote learning in the spring was rocky. Districts had little time to prepare, many teachers lacked the technical skills to conduct lessons online, and many poor students lacked devices. The state, worried about achievement gaps widening, initially told districts to not teach any new material. In May, the Globe reported that 10,000 Boston students, representing about one-fifth of overall enrollment, had not logged into classes that month.
The MTA agrees that remote learning has had its pitfalls, but says safety remains a big concern even under a hybrid approach.
The organization wants the state to oversee a rigorous environmental and safety assessment of school buildings and address deficiencies before reopening, such as ensuring ventilation systems can effectively circulate air in and out of the buildings. They are particularly concerned about emerging research that coronavirus particles can linger in the air in crowded and poorly ventilated spaces.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said district leaders also have concerns over building safety. He said some districts are already exploring the idea of doing remote-only instruction for the first few weeks to give them more time to get their buildings in order.
Gabrielle Jacquet, whose 6-year-old daughter is a first-grader in Somerville schools, said it would be a mistake if students were not able to return. As an emergency room physician, she said, she has seen the toll of school closures on young patients, showing up in the ER with severe depression or after attempting suicide or injuring themselves at home because they are unsupervised.
Jacquet was among more than two dozen Somerville parents who sent a letter to Baker this week urging him to reopen schools.
“People think there will be a miracle vaccine in January and things will be normal again,” she said, “but there never will be a zero-risk situation.”