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Teachers are wary of returning to classrooms, and I don’t blame them

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

Why would schools that are unsafe for students be deemed safe for teachers?

That’s a reasonable question raised by the state guideline issued on Friday that called for teachers to return to their classrooms in a few weeks, even in the absence of students.

Education Secretary Jeff Riley maintains that there is an educational benefit to students in seeing teachers in regular school settings, even if that’s through the magic of Zoom.

But teachers aren’t buying it, and it isn’t hard to understand why. Lots of school buildings in this state are old, dilapidated, and poorly ventilated. Sure, there’s nothing new about that. But the coronavirus has added a huge element of risk that understandably leaves teachers wary, if not downright terrified.

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I don’t think many people would try to convince you that last spring’s experiment with remote learning was a rousing success. It wasn’t. But this doesn’t feel like the right way to fix the problem.

If the appearance of being in school is so important, figure out how to let every teacher use a picture of her classroom as a virtual background and call it a day.

The proposal was denounced by teachers’ unions, which will ultimately hold great sway over working conditions.

“The safety issues that are leading a growing number of districts to start the year remotely may include lack of adequate ventilation, lack of personal protective equipment and training on how to use it, lack of frequent testing and contact tracing, high rates of community transmission, or all of the above,” said Merrie Najimy, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association, in a statement. “This move to expose both students and staff must be reversed.”

That was typical of the reaction of teachers.

Of course, this is just a piece of a larger, more complicated fight. The real tension is about sending kids back to school this fall — and when and how that can happen.

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In Boston, for example, the current plan is for school to open remotely on Sept. 21. Students are to begin returning to classrooms, gradually, just 10 days later, with everyone back two days a week — in theory - by mid-November.

In other words, there isn’t a lot of time to figure this policy out.

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius insisted Sunday that the schools will be safe. She pointed to extensive custodial work over the past few months — including the replacement of 7,000 windows — to upgrade conditions. She said teachers will soon be able to enter school buildings to judge the upgrades for themselves. Cassellius said it is imperative to return to in-person schooling as soon as possible.

“If we don’t return children now, I’m not sure that we would return children until we have a vaccine,” Cassellius said.

I don’t believe there are any villains in this scenario. Teachers are rightly concerned about a public health menace that is nowhere near subsiding. At the same time, who can doubt that children should go to school — if they can do so safely? It’s obviously better for the 54,000 Boston students (and their peers around the state) than virtual instruction.

Glossing over real issues of health and safety doesn’t serve anyone.

Teachers have made no secret of feeling vilified throughout this process — blamed for the failings of a new instructional model improvised on the fly, accused by some of intransigence for not wanting to serve as guinea pigs — as government sorts out how to address this pandemic. I certainly have had my differences with both the MTA and its Boston equivalent, but I’m not sure how excited I’d be to report to work at an old, poorly ventilated high school a couple of weeks from now.

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There are no easy answers in this bizarre time. But I think there is one common-sense standard: “Safe” should mean safe for everyone. If that means that teachers and students start the school year at home, so be it. I’ll take the side of caution over regret anytime.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.