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As teachers unions rally against a return to classrooms, critics see little effort to improve virtual school

Sue Doherty, a school librarian in Needham, dressed up to send a message during a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges."
Sue Doherty, a school librarian in Needham, dressed up to send a message during a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges."Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The president of the state’s largest public teachers union tallied up its recent wins in an online meeting with thousands of members earlier this month: Schools around the state will start later. State funding won’t be cut. Worcester, Swampscott, Lawrence, and many other districts will open remotely.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped and redefined the discussion around how best to educate the state’s children, the state’s three influential teachers unions have played a key role in elevating health concerns related to reopening, including pointing out that many schools have inadequate ventilation systems and advocating for the state to provide masks and testing.

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They have harnessed the anger and fear of their nearly 140,000 members to fight against Governor Charlie Baker’s calls for students to go back to in-person schooling.

But several observers say in their single-minded emphasis on safety, the unions have missed an opportunity to lead the conversation on how kids will actually learn this fall — regardless of where. The unions are accused of using the crisis to advance their longstanding agenda against education reform: calling to suspend standardized testing, opposing the use of technology for learning, and not committing to enough time with students during the spring’s remote learning experiment.

Teachers and supporters didn't let the rain stop them during a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges."
Teachers and supporters didn't let the rain stop them during a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges." Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

For union leaders Merrie Najimy of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Jessica Tang at the Boston Teachers Union, and Beth Kontos at the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, the battle lines are familiar. While the union campaign to keep school buildings closed affects teachers more universally, it in some ways mirrors previous and long-running disputes with the Baker administration over school funding and the proliferation of charter schools.

So when Baker announced Tuesday that nearly 70 percent of districts plan to bring students back to in-person classes in some capacity, it was simply the latest salvo.

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“No decision is final until it’s final. We’re going to make it different,” Najimy said during the MTA meeting earlier this month, during which the union provided a script for educators to call parents and tell them how the in-person school experience would be inadequate with social distancing rules and a sterile environment. “And we’re going to make it final.”

But some say advocacy that does not focus on improving education carries some political risk.

“Unions ... need to put their best face forward and show the public that they can deliver high quality public education through this period,” said Paul Toner, senior director of national policy for Teach Plus, which runs leadership training programs for teachers, and former head of the MTA. Otherwise, Toner said, “they’re putting themselves in jeopardy.”

Izabel Depina, Student Organizer and Vice President of Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts chanted during a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges."
Izabel Depina, Student Organizer and Vice President of Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts chanted during a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges." Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

For their part, union leaders have said remote learning will be different this time.

The MTA, AFT Massachusetts, and the BTU proposed overhauling the curriculum this fall to include ethnic studies to address concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. They also proposed injecting more so-called “project-based learning” into lessons, allowing students to choose the topics and angles they pursue along with a focus on teaching children how to manage their emotions, show empathy, and set goals.

“But the state,” she continued, “has to shoulder the responsibility for providing the necessary resources to make it work in the pandemic. The state needs to step up and do its part. They have to take the responsibility to upgrade the buildings so that we can get back into them as soon as possible.”

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Filling a void

This summer, school and state leaders took a wait-and-see approach to reopening schools. Governments were “paralyzed,” said Brad Marianno, assistant professor of educational policy at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. States have been unwilling to give clear guidance because “they know the funding required to implement school safely” wasn’t there.

Without clear direction and polls showing many residents, especially people of color, were uncomfortable sending their children back to brick-and-mortar school buildings, the unions stepped into the void with their own research and experience.

“Absent another interest group or organization that can really step up to add a second voice to this conversation, the teachers unions voice will tend to win the day,” said Marianno. “Particularly in situations where decisions have to be made quickly.”

Sue Doherty, a school librarian in Needham dressed up to send a message during a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges."
Sue Doherty, a school librarian in Needham dressed up to send a message during a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges." Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Teachers worked in their own communities to talk to concerned parents and school committees about the state of school buildings and their ventilation systems — or lack of them. Many teachers fear that the often-decrepit heating and ventilation systems are inadequate for removing the microdroplets of the virus that can linger in the air.

“We’ve always had buildings that have had issues ... mold, rodents,” said Kontos, whose union represents teachers in Boston, Chelsea, Salem, and Springfield, among others. “But now it’s life or death.”

Members from all three unions rallied in front of the State House and elsewhere Wednesday to urge Baker to open schools remotely.

While educators and the unions have immersed themselves in the nuances of air filtration, they’ve provided less detail about how students should learn this fall and what they’re willing to do to make sure students get the support they need.

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In the spring, when Boston switched to remote learning, Boston Teachers Union members could be asked by their principal to spend up to 15 hours a week meeting with students or school staff. Another 5 hours were to be spent on planning and grading by themselves. They were also required to spend more time checking in on a designated group of students.

When the general public is used to a standard full time job including 40 hours a week, most people “would have a hard time understanding 20 hours a week,” said Paul Reville, professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and former state education secretary.

Eric Jackson, a science teacher in Dracut, took part in a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges."
Eric Jackson, a science teacher in Dracut, took part in a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges." Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Former MTA president Toner said it would make him more “comfortable” to see teachers required to spend 25 hours per week on full class and group instruction and 5 more hours for checking in with students and one-on-one tutoring.

A group of education advocates have come together to urge districts to start putting together strong remote learning plans that would provide at least five hours of contact with teachers through direct instruction, call-in office hours, or small-group tutoring. (Boston in the spring asked for students to receive at least 3 hours of contact with teachers each day.)

Last spring, many students “were really hungry for that personalized feedback and contact with teachers and weren’t getting it,” said Natasha Ushomirsky, state director for Massachusetts at The Education Trust, a national education think tank.

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“There are teachers who went above and beyond, but there’re also lots of kids who went for days or sometimes weeks without contact with teachers, and that just can’t happen again.”

Tang called those guidelines “reasonable,” but wouldn’t say what this fall’s expectations will look like since the union just started discussing work hours with management for the fall. (Boston still hasn’t decided whether students will come to school buildings a couple of days a week.)

No matter the required hours, many teachers worked harder than ever during the spring, said Tang, who said it would be much easier for students and teachers to go back to work in person.

Beth Kontos, head of the AFT, spoke at a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges."
Beth Kontos, head of the AFT, spoke at a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges." Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“We are giving ourselves more work in a harder situation in order to keep everyone else healthy and safe,” said Tang. “And we are certainly open to figuring out how to do remote better.”

Old battles

The unions have also proposed suspending the MCAS, the state’s annual standardized exam. Long opposed to the tests — Kontos readily admits she’s “always hated the MCAS” — teachers now argue that test prep during the pandemic will add stress and boredom to an already challenging environment, with results that won’t arrive until they’re of little practical use.

But some observers see the move as a way to reignite old battles with education reformers and avoid responsibility for what students learn during the pandemic. “Now’s not the time to be launching an attack on accountability and reformulating that whole system,” said Reville, who acknowledged the test might not be necessary or possible this year. “We’re in a crisis.”

Katie Murphy, a nurse, stood in solidarity with teachers during a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges."
Katie Murphy, a nurse, stood in solidarity with teachers during a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges." Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The MTA has also come out against using videos and software such as Khan Academy and i-Ready to help deliver, reinforce, and assess student learning.

“It’s a little bit hypocritical to be calling for all remote learning in the public arena,” said Toner, while also rejecting education technology. “That technology is what’s going to get people through this,” he added.

Learning software, says Najimy, will never be as responsive to students as teachers are. “Those online platforms are transferring the decision making of the educator to the machine. ... They don’t don’t know anything about the student, or why the student is performing the way they’re performing.”

Observers hope teachers might be more flexible when it comes to negotiating how students learn this fall. “If we can’t show that we’re nimble enough to pivot, adapt, and provide high quality service remotely, then people are going to increasingly migrate away,” said Reville. ”And that’s going to put the public education system as we know it out of business.”

He added, “It’s in everybody’s interest to figure out how we deliver the best possible response to this fall, no matter what it takes, by all means.”


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.