About 60 Boston Public Schools teachers, staff, and parents sharply criticized Mayor Martin J. Walsh at a Dorchester rally Saturday afternoon for directing some in-person learning to continue as the city’s COVID-19 positive test rate increases.
“We are tired of sitting by and watching as our leaders prioritize politics over lives," said Callie Liebmann, a Boston elementary school teacher who organized the rally.
On Thursday, the Boston Teachers Union, which supported the Saturday rally, sued the mayor, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, and the School Committee a day after the mayor announced that the city’s positive rate had reached 4.1 percent.
The mayor delayed the second wave of students returning to in-person learning, but said that high-needs students who returned the week before would continue to come into school buildings.
Speakers and protesters at the rally expressed frustration and surprise that the school district had broken what the union said was an agreement that a positive test rate of 4 percent or above would halt all in-person learning.
“Four percent is what we agreed upon and that’s what it should be,” said Liv Chaffee, an art teacher who has taught in the BPS system for a dozen years.
She said the district is pressuring teachers by advancing the false narrative that those who choose not to teach in person are abandoning their students. Those teachers would prefer to be in the classroom if it was safe, and will be still teaching online, she said.
“We miss our students dearly,” Chaffee said. “The whole thing is heart-breaking.”
Liebmann called for the mayor to shut down in-person learning while the positive test rate is up, move high-needs students to only the safest facilities, dedicate teachers to in-person-only teaching, and “start showing teachers, families, and students some respect.”
A spokesperson for Walsh said in an e-mail Saturday, “The Mayor wholeheartedly believes that special consideration must be given to our highest needs students who rely on the in-person instruction and support offered by their teachers in a classroom setting, and that we cannot take this away from them when there’s an opportunity, backed by public health, to have them in schools.”
The superintendent also defended the decision in a statement calling the health of students, staff, and families a “top priority.” Representatives for Walsh and Cassellius said the district is not violating its agreement with the union.
Demonstrators also criticized a hybrid teaching model that they said is not working well and carries increased risks.
Liebmann described how special-needs students were still learning through laptops and getting little additional attention from teachers who simultaneously have to teach students watching from home.
“There’s all this safety risk, and they’re not even getting [a higher level of] instruction,” she said in an interview before the rally.
A Hyde Park parent, Grace Morrell, said she felt misled by the school district when she decided to have her kindergartner attend some in-person classes.
“My husband and I chose hybrid learning for our son without knowing that the building isn’t safe and that he will be in front of his Chromebook even when he does go there,” she said to the crowd, as a car caravan organized by the demonstrators drove by, horns honking.
“This is absolutely outrageous and we will not be sending our child to school in this scenario,” she said.
Some speakers said the mayor’s position belied his stated support for racial justice, since the risks of in-person learning could disproportionately affect Black and brown students and their families.
“If we try to go back to business as usual, to try to open up the economy, to try to once again treat teachers as merely being baby sitters, the outcome is more Black and brown folks will get sick, more Black and brown folks will die,” said J.D. Davis, a first-year history teacher at Charlestown High School. “No amount of ‘I’m sorrys’ or ‘thank yous’ or ‘coulda shoulda woulda’ is going to bring people back.”
Lucas Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.