Boston Public Schools officials have decided to play hardball with the powerful and often intransigent Boston Teachers Union — and the beneficiaries will be some 200 students with special needs whose parents have been imploring the system to bring their children back into classrooms.
Two hundred is a tiny number, a mere fraction of the estimated 11,500 students with high needs in the district — those with disabilities, homeless students, students in foster care, and those just beginning to learn English. But for the students involved, being in class, with the structure and hands-on learning that entails, can be life-altering.
After weeks of trying to negotiate an agreement with the union, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius made the call to resume in-class learning on Monday for that small group of students. Cassellius has been between the proverbial rock and a hard place — facing pressure from parents who know their children are backsliding during this period of remote learning and from union leaders making pointed, and sometimes unreasonable, demands.
A spokesman for the department, Jonathan Palumbo, said talks with the union broke down earlier this week. There were demands for certain safety measures — air purifiers, medical-grade masks, regular air quality monitoring, and COVID-19 testing for teachers and staff — which Palumbo said have all been agreed to. The sticking point was the union’s demand that all assignments be voluntary.
“If parents are going to be asked to make this commitment, it can’t be voluntary. It has to be a commitment by teachers too,” Palumbo said.
BTU President Jessica Tang issued a statement Wednesday acknowledging the need for in-person learning, “particularly for high-needs students,” but not citing the concessions already offered by BPS.
During the first three weeks of October, some 2,600 students with special needs were engaged in in-person learning. Many were at the four schools within the system geared to their needs —the same four schools scheduled to welcome those 200 students Monday. That’s 2,600 of a total school population of more than 54,000. Even then, the union took the city to court looking to halt classes and insisting the school department was violating its agreement to suspend in-person learning if Boston’s COVID-19 positivity rate surpassed 4 percent.
A lawyer for the city argued successfully that the 4 percent threshold merely shifts the decision to a “referee” to determine a safe course of action — that referee is the Boston Public Health Commission, which approved the return of the 200 students.
But when the seven-day positivity rate hit 5.7 percent, Cassellius and Mayor Marty Walsh agreed to suspend all classroom learning on Oct. 21, giving parents of those students with special needs exactly one day’s notice.
In a recent Globe op-ed, the parents of 4-year-old Mae Colanti, who has Down Syndrome, wrote about the impact of seven months of remote learning on their child.
“Mae had been thriving at her school with the structure and therapies that it provided. Her mobility improved and she had begun to use her sign language and speech to communicate better,” wrote Michael and Cristina Colanti. “In these past seven months, she began resorting to screaming and hitting when she was frustrated or to get attention, abandoning the skills she had been working daily to improve.”
They added, “Clear harm is being done. We will not get another chance to do the right thing.”
Mae’s story is being repeated in too many homes around the city — where parents know that the risks of in-class learning are far outweighed by its benefits.
State education officials last week made their own pitch for all school systems that could safely get students back into classrooms to do so. Education Secretary Jim Peyser said that even schools in consistently red zones shouldn’t switch to all-remote learning unless the virus was found to be spreading in schools.
“It is increasingly clear that schools are not a source of transmission,” Peyser said.
Tang responded in a Facebook post that Peyser’s announcement “jeopardizes the safety of our students, educators, and our communities."
Parents of special needs students aren’t prepared to wait until union leaders wring every last concession from the city so their kids can resume real learning. Returning the first 200 of those students to the classroom is a baby step in the right direction — but it shouldn’t be the city’s last move, not with at least 2,400 more students whose lives were disrupted waiting to return.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.