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Boston teachers union sues superintendent, Walsh over right to teach remotely when virus positivity rate is above 4 percent

The Boston Teachers Union held a caravan and rally at City Hall in August to deliver the Boston Teachers Union Plan for a Safe Restart to Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
The Boston Teachers Union held a caravan and rally at City Hall in August to deliver the Boston Teachers Union Plan for a Safe Restart to Mayor Martin J. Walsh.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Boston Teachers Union sued city and school district leaders Thursday over their decision to continue requiring some educators to report to school buildings, saying the district is violating an agreement that schools would transition to fully remote learning if the city’s coronavirus positivity rate rose above 4 percent.

In its suit against Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, and the School Committee, the union asked for an injunction that would make educators' presence in school buildings voluntary, not mandatory.

Boston officials delayed the next phase in the school reopening plan Wednesday as the coronavirus positivity rate hit 4.1 percent, but kept school buildings open for high-needs students who already have returned. Those students, who began coming back on Oct. 1, include those with severe disabilities, limited English background, and those facing homelessness or involvement with child protective services.

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Following the announcement, Cassellius told educators and staff members that anyone who has been providing services for high-needs students is expected to continue reporting to school. But union president Jessica Tang, citing the agreement the union made with the district last month, said in-person work for members will be optional until the positivity rate falls below 4 percent again.

“We strongly object to the superintendent’s message yesterday which threatened disciplinary action towards members who exercise their rights in the MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] agreement that the city and district negotiated and signed on to,” union leaders wrote in a statement Thursday as they filed their suit in state court. “It is our belief that such actions, if taken, would be an illegal violation of the MOA agreement.”

In a statement Thursday night, Cassellius said the district’s top priority is the safety of students, staff members, and their families, but she did not directly address the lawsuit.

“BPS deeply appreciates the hard work, dedication, and public service of all our educators and staff,” she wrote. “We will continue to evaluate public health information with our City of Boston colleagues to keep our community safe and informed.”

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Walsh, speaking at a Facebook Q&A session hosted by WCVB-TV, acknowledged that the school district is in a “really difficult situation” trying to balance the needs of different groups. He added that all the decisions regarding the school district — including the one to keep schools open for high-needs students — are made based on the guidance of public health experts.

The district could not say exactly how many teachers taught remotely on Thursday, but said it was not aware of wide-scale absences at any schools.

School officials and the teachers union disagree on the interpretation of a clause in the back-to-school agreement that reads: “If the citywide COVID-19 positivity rate rises above 4% citywide, BPS will transition to full remote learning for all students and BTU bargaining unit members will have the option to be remote as well. When the Boston Public Health Commission or other City or State authority determines that the school district can reopen, BTU bargaining unit members will be expected to return to BPS buildings.”

The teachers union argues that because the rate has risen to 4.1 percent, all educators should have the option to teach remotely. The district, however, argues that because the Boston Public Health Commission determined it is safe for schools to be open, staff members providing services to high-needs students must be there in person.

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“We feel that the superintendent’s threats of discipline constitute an effort to intimidate educators — and that those efforts are at odds with our agreement, and highly inappropriate at a time during which positivity rates are as high as 8% in some of our Boston neighborhoods and when we have confirmed positive cases in our schools,” union leaders wrote.

In his Facebook session, Walsh noted that “a lot of teachers did show up today. Our intention is not to get into a fight.”

Walsh, a former construction labor leader who has received union support throughout his political career, said that since in-person instruction resumed last week, the district has averaged about 1,300 students attending each day. That works out to about 10 students per school every day, he said. Walsh added the highest average daily attendance rate for a district school has been 50 students.

“We’re talking about handfuls of students,” he said.

But having only a few students in a school — and requiring many staff members to be there to support them — is part of what concerns some teachers.

At Fenway High School, where Allison Doherty teaches students with autism, only about 15 high-needs students have returned during the first week of reopening. Doherty teaches a self-contained class of eight students, and two of them decided to stick with remote learning. Of the other six, one student was put in the Monday-Tuesday group, and the five others were put in the Thursday-Friday group. (No students attend school in person on Wednesdays.)

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Allison Doherty, a Fenway High School teacher, decided to stay home and teach remotely on Thursday to "stand in solidarity with people who didn't want to go in because they were afraid."
Allison Doherty, a Fenway High School teacher, decided to stay home and teach remotely on Thursday to "stand in solidarity with people who didn't want to go in because they were afraid." Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

That means that on Mondays and Tuesdays, several staff members can be in her classroom — all to teach a single student. Those can include paraprofessionals, a behavior analyst, a speech and language pathologist, and an adaptive physical education teacher.

Boston Public Schools should be “allowing schools to be able to staff in a way that makes sense so you’re not having six teachers come in for one class or 60 teachers come in for a small amount of students,” Doherty said. “We want to prevent the spread.”

Doherty decided to stay home and teach remotely on Thursday to “stand in solidarity with people who didn’t want to go in because they were afraid.” She and her colleagues coordinated to ensure that two staff members would be there for the students.

“We feel completely betrayed,” she said. “They’re trying to pit parents and teachers against each other, and that’s just not fair. We want to be there for the kids.”

Roxbury father Marvin Tutt, whose 16-year-old son Maurise has been attending Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in person over the last week, is empathetic to teachers' health concerns. But Tutt said students like his son need to be allowed to continue learning in person unless the virus rates rise significantly. Maurise, who has been learning auto mechanic skills, has a learning disability that his father says makes it harder for him to learn remotely.

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“The virus is here, and you can’t let it dictate your life," said Tutt, who thinks more widespread testing for teachers, school staff, and students would help. “You just have to be more aware and better protected. Kids learn better at school.”

Boston parent Leah Wu, whose fifth-grade son has autism, said she can see both sides.

“Virtual learning is very difficult for students and teachers. It’s almost like we’re trying to make something work when it isn’t really working,” Wu said, speaking in Cantonese through an interpreter. “The parents know the difficulty the teachers have to deal with. We just want the virus hopefully to be contained and want the kids to go back to school soon, but in a safe environment.”

At the William E. Carter School, nurse Sharon Harrison went to school Thursday, ready to don her face shield, mask, gown, and gloves for any student who needed her. The odds were low, though. Just one one student showed up at the Carter on Thursday.

Harrison wants the school district to implement widespread testing of students and staffers, similar to the frequent testing being performed on college campuses.

The district has committed to testing up to 5 percent of union members on a weekly basis, giving high priority to those working at schools in neighborhoods with high positivity rates.

“All Boston Public Schools are not the same environmentally," she said. “When these numbers go up, you need another reassurance, and the reassurance is the testing.”

Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans. Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.