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Brookline teachers to strike Tuesday in dispute over classroom virus safety measures

An empty classroom at a Catholic elementary school in Brookline in August.
An empty classroom at a Catholic elementary school in Brookline in August.Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg

Brookline teachers plan to strike on Tuesday, an illegal action under state law that comes as school officials have been accelerating the return of students to classrooms in recent weeks.

Union leaders said working conditions in the town’s nine schools have become increasingly unsafe with the addition of more students. While classrooms have seemingly been set up to promote six feet of physical distancing, students are often mingling too closely with one another, especially in hallways and other common areas, union leaders said.

Should Brookline teachers carry out their work stoppage they would become at least the third teacher union in Massachusetts to strike over pandemic safety precautions. (Andover and Sharon exercised work stoppages in September.)

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The move follows months of negotiations between the Brookline Educators Union and school officials over coronavirus safety measures, a process that should have been settled before school started. Talks grew particularly tense last week after school officials indicated they wanted some flexibility on social distancing requirements. On Sunday night, about 750 union members overwhelmingly approved the strike.

“The Brookline School Committee is taking a dangerously cavalier attitude toward the health and safety of students, their families, the workers in our schools, and the community as a whole,” Jessica Wender-Shubow, the union’s president, said in a statement.

“We were shocked last week during bargaining when the committee said it would no longer agree to requiring six feet of social distancing in classrooms and other areas of our schools” Wender-Shubow said.

The impending strike immediately raised concerns with Brookline school officials, who disputed the union’s assertions over social distancing.

“It’s unfortunate there will be a strike,” said Suzanne Federspiel, the committee’s chair. “We have not reneged on six-foot distancing. That is in effect now and will continue in the future. There seems to be some confusion over that.”

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The School Committee held an emergency meeting Monday morning and approved a motion to file a complaint with the state department of labor relations to investigate the matter.

Striking on Tuesday will not cause any disruption to student learning. Students have the day off because of the election, while teachers and other staffers are supposed to report to work for professional development. It’s unclear what would happen if the strike continues beyond Tuesday, said interim Superintendent James Marini.

Wender-Shubow would not say in an interivew if the strike would last beyond Tuesday, but stressed that she hoped that both sides could quickly reach agreement.

“We think the majority of parents of Brookline will thank educators for looking out for health of their kids,” she said.

In a letter to parents, obtained by The Boston Globe, however, the union stressed it would be a one-day only strike and that they specifically chose Tuesday because it was a scheduled day off for students and a professional development day for teachers.

Parents expressed frustration about teachers striking.

“It’s shocking and disappointing that they think it’s an appropriate measure to take,” said Acacia Landfield, the mother of twin first-graders in Brookline and a founder of Open Our Schools Massachusetts. “There are a lot of parents who are disappointed that kids are being held hostage for politics.”

The board for the Brookline Parents Organization released a statement voicing confidence in the ability of Brookline schools to maintain six feet of social distancing.

“While parents are choosing the educational model that best fits their family’s needs, we believe that so long as Massachusetts, following current scientific research on the virus, deems it safe, the district must provide an in-person learning option,” the organization said in a statement.

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Brookline is a low-risk community for coronvirus transmissions, recording about 2 cases per 100,000 residents, according to state data. Overall, Brookline has tallied more than 550 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, according to the town.

The town has taken a cautious approach in reopening schools, phasing in the return of students to classrooms. Preschool and kindergarten students have been attending school in person since the start of the academic year, while grades 1-9 returned at the end of last month in two waves. The remaining high school students are slated to return next week.

To keep the number of students down in the schools to maintain social distancing, Brookline has split its 7,000 students into two groups. One group reports to classrooms on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other on Thursdays and Fridays. On days when students are not in classrooms, they learn remotely.

Danna Perry, a board member Brookline Parents Organization and Brookline SpEd Partners Action Committee, said she thinks the action reflects years of strained relationships between the union and school officials. She said she hopes the action doesn’t extend beyond Tuesday. Her son relies on the school system for special education services.

“When I sent him back to school it was one of the happiest days he had and I’m terrified it will have an impact on him” if classrooms close again, she said. “We pulled [our daughter] out of Brookline schools because she couldn’t bear the thought of another remote school year. I don’t have that luxury with my son.”

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James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.