In a decision that could upend efforts to disrupt the opening of school across Massachusetts, the state labor relations board has ruled that Andover teachers engaged in an unlawful strike when they refused to enter school buildings last week over fears of unsafe working conditions.
The ruling comes at the end of a turbulent summer in which the state’s largest teachers unions have been urging their members to stay out of school buildings if local and state officials can’t prove they have the appropriate measures in place to protect students and staff from contracting the coronavirus. Instead, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts have instructed staff to work remotely.
But in Andover — one of the first testing grounds of the unions' workplace safety strategy — the labor relations board determined the Andover Education Association overstepped its authority by instructing its members not to go inside school buildings on Aug. 31 for staff training, deeming their actions an “unlawful strike.” About 45 percent of union members complied with the request, including some who attempted to do their training remotely from outside Andover High School.
State law forbids unionized public employees from striking and the labor relations board noted that many of those who didn’t go inside the high school were unable to perform all their training activities that day, including setting up their classrooms, testing WiFi connections, and learning procedures to ensure physical distancing.
Classes are scheduled to begin in Andover on Wednesday, under a model in which students will rotate between days of in-person learning and remote instruction at home.
“These are unprecedented times and we are not unsympathetic to the Union’s concerns over the health and safety implications of requiring its members to work inside school buildings or its desire to bargain to resolution with the School Committee over these issues before its members return to work inside school buildings,” the board wrote in its ruling. "However, the Union cites . . . no legislation, permission, reasonable accommodation or bargained-for agreement that permitted its members without consequence, to unilaterally dictate where they perform their work.”
The board immediately ordered leaders of the Andover Education Association and its members to desist from engaging in any strike, work stoppage, slowdown, or any other kind of action that involves withholding services.
Shannon Scully, chairwoman of the Andover School Committee, said the district is grateful for the labor board’s timely decision.
“We recognize this case has implications for public school districts across the Commonwealth and their efforts to provide students with in-person instruction during this unprecedented time,” she said in a statement. “We are fortunate to have so many talented educators in Andover and we are pleased they have returned to work focused on important preparation to welcome students back to school next week.”
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which represents Andover teachers, disputed the decision and expressed disappointment over it.
“Our educators in Andover were working; they were just working outside the building and not inside the building,” she said in an interview. “We vehemently disagree with the decision and educators won’t remain silent. This decision unfortunately aligns with the Baker administration’s reckless drive towards normalcy. The Baker administration needs to stop putting risk-taking over prudent planning.”
She blamed Governor Charlie Baker for the work action, saying it could have been avoided if he ordered all schools to continue with remote learning until ventilation and other safety issues get resolved at schools statewide. Instead, Baker pushed schools to educate as many students in person as possible.
Across Massachusetts, about 70 percent of districts are planning to do a mix of in-person and remote learning, while most others are planning to offer only remote instruction. A handful of districts are attempting full-time in-person learning.
At a press conference Wednesday, Baker said he supported the ruling.
“I applaud the decision,” he said. “It was the right one.”
He voiced frustration about teachers refusing to go inside buildings for training, noting the state had negotiated a deal this summer with the statewide unions that allowed districts to convert 10 instructional days for students into teacher training days in recognition of all the changes in workplace and teaching conditions brought about by the pandemic.
The ruling comes as tensions are rising in a number of districts across the state that are still in negotiations with teachers about reopening school, just days away from when classes are expected to resume. Teachers in Newton and Andover have voted no confidence in their superintendents, while state mediation broke down between Sharon teachers and administrators last week and the case is now before the labor relations board.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the ruling should aid districts in their negotiations by disarming one of the more powerful tactics unions have been employing to get their way, and perhaps lead to more amicable talks.
“We hope it will cause some second thinking on the part of unions on taking additional [workplace] actions and help them realize we are all trying to work together on what’s in the best interest of kids,” Scott said.
Not all local unions were on board with their statewide organizations' plans to orchestrate statewide workplace safety actions. The Quincy Education Association rejected the move, arguing the Massachusetts Teachers Association was potentially asking members to engage in an illegal statewide strike.
Since Andover teachers announced their plan for a workplace safety action on Aug. 31 — arguing school officials were not negotiating in good faith — tension between them and school district leaders quickly escalated. School officials deemed the action as an illegal work stoppage and filed a complaint with the state. Union officials countered, taking a vote of no confidence in Superintendent Sheldon Berman.
Teachers are currently taking part in training inside buildings. Berman said it’s going well.
“I have had the opportunity to visit our educators in their classrooms where they are actively engaged in professional development,” he said in a statement. “They are excited to be with their colleagues and look forward to seeing their students.”
Tara Dunham, mother of a sixth- and seventh-grader in the Andover schools, said she is glad that officials are pushing to reopen classrooms. As a licensed mental health counselor, she said, she has seen the devastating effects the closure has had on her adolescent clients and worries about the long-term implications.
“When kids become depressed, they don’t know they are depressed. They just want to stay home and not do anything,” Dunham said.
But she said she wishes there was less animosity around school reopening, likening the atmosphere to a “dysfunctional family.” And while there are philosophical differences between teachers and administrators, she said many teachers are still thinking of their students.
“Teachers have been great doing a lot of tutorials and orientations,” she said. “I know a lot of teachers are dedicated and want to go back.”
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.