As COVID-19 infection rates creep up in Massachusetts, a second statewide teachers union is now calling for a continuation of remote-only instruction this fall, citing concerns over a lack of hot water, adequate ventilation, and space for social distancing in many school buildings, union officials said Monday.
The American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which represents 23,000 educators in Boston, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, and other districts, said it was also troubled by the recent uptick in coronavirus cases and delays in testing.
In making the announcement, the AFT joins the much larger Massachusetts Teachers Association in urging its local affiliates to push their districts to begin the school year with instruction continuing at home, at least for the first few weeks.
The united stance could potentially lead to school reopening showdowns in districts across the state, as many districts, including Boston, have been leaning toward offering students a mix of in-person and remote learning in the fall. The moves also put the statewide unions at odds with Governor Charlie Baker, who has been calling on districts since June to educate as many students as possible in classrooms this fall.
“We miss our students terribly, and we all wish we could be back in the classroom with them,” said Beth Kontos, the AFT president, in a statement. “But it’s become clear in the last few weeks that an in-person return to schools would unacceptably put the health and safety of our students, their families, and educators at risk. Parents, grandparents, and educators — maybe even students — would die.”
The Boston Teachers Union has not taken a formal position yet on remote learning, said its president, Jessica Tang.
“We have not seen the health and safety or facilities plans from [the Boston Public Schools] so until assurances are made and the plans are shared, it is difficult to support any in-person schooling at this time,” she said.
The Boston union’s membership also doesn’t support a return to the classrooms this fall, according to a union survey, released on Friday.
Some three-quarters of members favored remote-only instruction, many citing safety as a top concern. Most Boston school buildings are decades old and are plagued with antiquated ventilation systems and rickety windows, and the school system struggles to provide schools with such basic items as soap, paper towels, and toilet paper.
The survey also revealed that two-thirds of members said they were at high risk for COVID-19 or live with someone who is, making teaching from home more ideal.
Boston schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius is expected to update the School Committee on her reopening plan at a virtual meeting Wednesday night.
A school spokesman said Monday night that school officials have been consulting union leadership and teachers in developing a plan that ensures the safety of students and staff.
“We are continually adapting our school reopening plans based on feedback we received from the BTU, our families and staff through our surveys, and recently updated guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, together with the latest public health information,” the spokesman, Jonathan Palumbo, said in a statement.
Anxiety over reopening schools comes as many questions linger about whether they could emerge as hotspots for coronavirus infections. A study released last week found that infected children carry the virus at high rates, although the researchers added it’s unclear if the children are contagious.
Over the past month, sporadic cases have popped up in public school districts in Massachusetts that have given many pause.
A Westwood summer school program employee, who initially was told incorrectly by her health provider that she tested negative for COVID-19, received accurate results hours into her first day on the job in early July. In Quincy, more than a dozen students and five staff members had to get tested and quarantined after three staff members in separate schools tested positive.
And last week the Weston School Committee revealed during a remote meeting that their superintendent had tested positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the state’s overall uptick in coronavirus cases has prompted some experts to urge Baker to roll back the reopening of the state’s economy.
State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley couldn’t be reached for comment.
Since releasing school reopening guidelines in June, state education officials — backed by medical experts — have been saying it is safe to reopen schools, emphasizing research that indicates young children contract and transmit the coronavirus at lower rates than adults. The Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics has endorsed the guidelines and told The Boston Globe last week that keeping schools closed carries greater harm for students’ academic, social, and emotional development than the risk of contracting the virus.
The AFT’s executive board formally approved the union’s stance on continuing with remote learning on Friday. Kontos said in an interview Monday the majority of their local affiliates asked AFT leaders to take a position on remote learning. The locals, she said, will use the stance to persuade superintendents and school committees to ditch their hybrid plans.
It remains unclear what will happen if teachers are unsuccessful in their lobbying. State law forbids teachers from striking.
The union, however, says members will not return to school buildings until state and local officials can meet several criteria, such as getting community transmission of COVID-19 under control, improving the speed and availability of testing, and ensuring districts have adequate funding to practice 6 feet of social distancing, purchase face coverings for all students, and personal protective equipment for staff.
The union is also calling for building improvements, such as updating ventilation systems, repairing hot water systems, and providing nurses with safe work spaces.
“It’s clear that a period of remote learning will be necessary before those criteria are met,” Kontos said. “Now, we must focus on working with our local school teams to redesign remote learning so that it works for all students.”