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State criticized over calls for teachers to work from empty classrooms this fall

A classroom at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School building in Mattapan.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

New state guidelines calling for K-12 educators to work from empty classrooms while students learn remotely from home was blasted Saturday by teacher unions who said the plan needlessly risked public health as schools move to reopen amid the pandemic.

That guidance, rolled out by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Friday, was aimed at districts that had responded to pandemic public health concerns by keeping staff and students at home.

But the guidelines, coming after months of planning by educators and local school officials, would unnecessarily risk school educators’ exposure to coronavirus, said Erin Nerlino, an English teacher at King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham, which is scheduled to open remotely next month.


“If my students were there, then absolutely it’s worth the risk, as long as my school is following all the guidelines to make it a safe building,” Nerlino said in a phone interview Saturday. “For me to go in, and expose myself to 100 more staff ... for not a lot of payoff doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Jeffrey Riley, the department’s commissioner, said in Friday’s published guidance it is the department’s expectation that in districts opening remotely teachers and critical support staff will report to schools daily and work from classrooms and educational spaces.

“Having teachers and critical support staff in the school will be beneficial to students, teachers, staff, and administrators for several reasons,” he said in the guidance.

In a strongly worded statement, Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy said the new state guidance is “clearly designed” to force local educators’ unions to agree to in-person learning regardless of the condition of school buildings, indoor air quality, testing capabilities, or area COVID-19 transmission rates.

Najimy said the new guidelines demonstrate Riley’s “fundamental lack of trust of educators,” most of whom are women.


“It is paternalistic and punitive and has no bearing on the quality of education that the real experts — the educators — provide so masterfully,” she said in the statement.

The MTA and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusettshave both called on districts to reopen with remote learning in the fall.

Najimy said as the guidance is not a requirement, it must be negotiated with local teachers unions. The MTA is “100 percent behind” any union that rejects the recommendation, she said in the MTA statement.

The guidance issued by Friday was the department’s expectation for school districts and not a mandate, said Colleen Quinn, an agency spokeswoman.

“The department has consulted with school superintendents, school committees, and teachers throughout the process of developing guidance for reopening schools,” Quinn said in an e-mail.

On Friday, Riley said the guidelines allow students to maintain a familiarity with a classroom environment that will help them transition back to in-classroom teaching. It also offers more consistency for students and gives teachers access to a broader range of instructional materials, he said.

Other benefits included in-school Internet access, easier collaboration between teachers and colleagues, and the ability for administrators to oversee the level and amount of instruction students receive during the day, according to the guidance, he said.

The new state guidance also recommended districts that implement remote learning allow teachers to bring in their own children so they do not have child-care issues.

Friday’s state guidance came the same day as an announcement from Boston city and education officials that the city’s schools would reopen Sept. 21 with remote classes and bring students back to classrooms in phases.


Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said Saturday that the state’s guidance risked exposure for thousands of educators across the state unnecessarily and contradicted Baker’s request that people should work from home if they can.

“Instead of focusing time and energy on the logistics of that — when so many of our buildings have rooms with no windows or air ventilation — we should be focused on spending time, energy and limited resources on how to provide in-person services for our highest needs students,” Tang said in the statement.

In Wrentham, Nerlino, 29, is entering her eighth year teaching at the regional school, which is planning to reopen fully remote this fall. But her concerns over returning to teach in an empty classroom led her to post an open letter to Riley addressing the issue.

In an interview, she criticized Riley’s guidance: “It sends the message that the local districts — teachers and administrators — can’t be left to decide or negotiate based on the complexity of their own student demographics,” Nerlino said.

About 30 percent of school districts in Massachusetts will reopen remotely this fall. But the new guidelines could make life harder for officials in some of those communities, including Framingham.

Adam Freudberg, the chairman of the city’s School Committee, said officials and the city’s teachers union were negotiating an agreement that addresses working from home or in the school buildings when Riley’s new recommendations were released.


The new posting was like “throwing a major curve ball” during those negotiations, Freudberg said, and he has reached out to Riley to clarify whether the state was mandating the recommendations.

“We need certainty, and this is not helping us give our community certainty,” he said.

Stephanie Sweet, an Andover mother of a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a 1-year-old, criticized Friday’s state guidance for recommending that districts using a remote model provide child care for teachers working in classrooms.

She said she sympathizes with teachers, but it is not equitable to give teachers access to child care while other working parents have to fund it themselves.

“I understand teachers’ need for child-care solutions, but we also have day cares across the state that are fully operational, and they can take advantage of those like the rest of us,” Sweet said.

The state guidance was harshly criticized in statements issued by unions representing workers in districts that will open remotely this fall.

In Lawrence, Kimberly Barry, the president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, said it “defies common sense” to require teachers who live in communities with low levels of COVID-19 to go to work in a school located in an area where more cases of the disease have been reported.

“It increases the likelihood that we will have another surge and, frankly, has zero impact on teaching and learning,” Barry said.


Gina Garro, the Revere Teachers Association’s president, noted that her city has one of the state’s highest COVID-19 positivity rates and said the city had launched an enforcement team to combat the spread of the disease.

After Revere took such steps and closed parts of the city to gain control over the disease, why would it reopen school buildings, she said.

“We have to get this right,” Garro said.

James Vaznis of the Globe staff and Globe Correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.