Andover teachers refused to enter school buildings on their first day of work Monday, officials said, spending a professional development day outdoors to highlight safety concerns as the district prepares to bring students back Sept. 16 for a mix of in-person and remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move drew a swift rebuke from the Andover Public Schools, whose spokeswoman called it an “illegal work stoppage” that could lead to litigation.
In a statement posted on Facebook over the weekend, the Andover Education Association, the union for teachers and other school personnel, said the decision to stay outside was a “workplace safety action.” The move came in response to the school district’s “lack of good-faith bargaining” over how to keep students and staff safe when schools reopen, the union said.
“It is simply not safe at this time for students and staff to be working together in crowded settings inside these buildings,” union president Matthew Bach said in the statement. “Members have decided they will not risk the health and safety of students, staff, or the community by walking into buildings that for decades have been underfunded, understaffed, and poorly maintained.”
Bach could not be reached for comment Monday.
District spokeswoman Nicole L. Kieser criticized the union’s action.
“It is unfortunate that some our educators did not report to school buildings for their first day of work,” Kieser said in a statement. “Each school in the district communicated with their staff to check in inside their respective buildings for professional development. Over the summer, the Andover School Committee, all district administrators, and the Return to School Task Force spent thousands of hours and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars planning for the 2020-21 school year with health and safety of our students and staff as a top priority.”
Kieser said the teachers’ decision was an affront to students and parents.
“Today’s action by the Andover Education Association (AEA) shows a disregard for our families and students, who have confidence in the district’s work to ensure our buildings are safe for our students and staff,” Kieser said. “Our families overwhelmingly chose the hybrid model for their children to return to school this fall. The AEA’s actions appear to align more with the state’s union leadership than with the needs of our students.”
The School Committee was slated to discuss “options for litigation” in private session Monday afternoon, she said.
“The Andover Education Association might believe this is a ‘workplace safety action’,” she said. “It is, in fact, considered an illegal work stoppage.”
Under Andover’s hybrid model, students will learn online on Wednesdays to allow for cleaning, according to the plan the district submitted to the state. On the other days, half of the students will learn in-person and the other half will learn remotely. A “remote academy” will also be available for students who are required or choose to learn remotely full time.
Each Massachusetts school district was required to submit a reopening plan to the state. About 70 percent of districts plan to bring students back to the classroom at least part time this fall, even as teachers unions have lobbied aggressively to keep buildings closed.
Christine Bronson, a sixth-grade math teacher at Wood Hill Middle School who lives in Dover, N.H., said in the union’s statement that her city’s School Committee had said it wouldn’t “put students and teachers in harm’s way” despite low COVID-19 case counts there.
“It’s really sad that Andover teachers are being put in a position of having to fight to protect ourselves and our students,” Bronson said in the union’s statement. “Bringing everyone and their germs into these buildings right now is just too risky.”
Another Wood Hill teacher, Julian DiGloria, who serves on the union’s bargaining team, said in the group’s statement that about 20 percent of Andover families have chosen to begin the year remotely.
“We all agree that in-person learning is far better for students than remote instruction,” DiGloria said. “We want nothing more than to be in our classrooms as soon as possible, but only when it’s safe.”