The Boston Teachers Union overwhelmingly approved a vote of no confidence Sunday night in Superintendent Brenda Cassellius over her handling of reopening schools during the pandemic, marking the first time in decades that the city’s largest labor group has resorted to such an action.
Some 97.5 percent of the more than 1,300 members who turned out for the virtual meeting endorsed the no-confidence vote, the culmination of months of growing frustration between Cassellius and educators who have repeatedly criticized her for poor planning, a lack of communication, and an unwillingness to collaborate.
The vote came just hours before the school system opened 28 additional schools on Monday morning for 1,700 students. Many educators who are returning to buildings say they are worried about their safety and that of their students because they don’t trust school officials will have the appropriate measures in place to protect them from the coronavirus. Teachers showed up to school as planned.
“We have bent over backwards since schools closed in the spring to help the district and they have not wanted to meet and work with us,” Jessica Tang, the union’s president, said in an interview Monday morning. “What is most frustrating is that we want what’s best for students and the plans could have been better for students if they listened to us from the start.”
Union officials couldn’t recall the last time members voted no confidence in a superintendent. Boston Globe archives indicate it likely occurred in September 1970 against William Ohrenberger, following budget cuts and a teacher strike.
Cassellius is at least the sixth superintendent this fall to receive a vote of no confidence from their teachers union in disputes over school reopenings, joining Newton, Andover, Sharon, Wachusett, and Tewksbury, according to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh expressed disappointment over the union’s vote, characterizing it as unnecessary. Walsh made his remarks at a press conference as he announced a series of restrictions on in-person gatherings across the city, including the closing of gyms, museums, and movie theaters, in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. He also unveiled a new COVID-19 testing program for BPS students and staff.
“I am empathetic to their concerns about COVID safety,” he said. “One hundred percent of the safety measures that the teachers union has requested are implemented in all of the schools we reopened . . . We are going to continue to support our teachers and our school staff in this work . . . we are going to keep the promise to the families of our children that we will do everything we can to get their kids safely back into school where they belong.”
Walsh also reaffirmed his support for Cassellius, describing it as unwavering.
This is the second time in six months that Cassellius has faced public criticism from within her ranks. In July, the heads of the city’s approximately three dozen high schools sent the superintendent a scathing letter openly criticizing her efforts to overhaul their programs as “deeply flawed” and “a top-down exercise in poor planning.” But later pledged to adopt a spirit of collaboration.
Cassellius, who is in her second year, defended her performance.
“This year has not been easy,” Cassellius said in a statement. “However, I am heartened and encouraged to see students returning to their classrooms . . . It is of critical importance that our highest needs students have access to their caring teachers, supportive staff, and time with their friends who they have missed.”
Alexandra Oliver-Dávila, chair of the Boston School Committee, voiced support for Cassellius.
“I know that nothing is more important to Superintendent Cassellius than ensuring the health and safety of our students and staff,” she said in a statement. “She keeps the focus on students and I know she and her team have done the right thing to open these schools today with all of the additional health and safety protocols in place.”
The school system has experienced repeated delays and setbacks in reopening classrooms, which have been closed since mid-March. Schools opened briefly in October for a few thousand students with high needs before COVID-19 rates increased sharply in the city, forcing them to close again. Last month, the district reopened four schools for fewer than 200 students.
A big challenge in reopening schools has been the age of the buildings, two-thirds of which were built before World War II. Just 35 of Boston’s 125 buildings have full-scale ventilation systems and most are more than 40 years old.
Over the summer and into the fall, school officials took steps to upgrade the antiquated ventilation systems, such as installing more efficient filters, and repaired or replaced thousands of windows in other schools to ensure that most classrooms had at least one that could open.
Union officials and teachers repeatedly criticized the efforts as lackluster and in October unsuccessfully sued the district in Suffolk Superior Court to close classrooms after the city’s weekly COVID-19 positivity rates exceeded 4 percent — a rate at which the city said it would close schools in an agreement with the teachers union. A judge, however, sided with school officials who argued that another provision in the agreement allowed them to keep schools open with the permission of the Boston Public Health Commission.
In the current dispute over the 28 schools that reopened Monday, Tang said school officials were refusing to provide educators and students in those buildings the same level of protection from the coronavirus as educators and students at the four other schools that previously opened. Cassellius also repeatedly refused over the course of last week to negotiate an agreement with the union that would guarantee those protections in writing, Tang said.
Without having a written agreement, Tang said there is no way for the union to know whether school officials will follow through on all the safety measures..
“It didn’t have to come to this,” Tang said of the no-confidence vote. “That’s my biggest frustration. We have always wanted to work with the district.”
School officials are installing air purifiers in classrooms; equipping HVAC systems with the highest grade filters; providing medical grade personal protective equipment for staff and disposable masks for students; limiting the number of people in a classroom and their interaction; and inviting staff to participate in free COVID-19 testing at or near their school.
BPS, in partnership with the city’s public health commission, is also providing access to on-site COVID-19 testing for students in grades 9-12 who are learning in-person. The plan to open schools was reviewed and approved by the commission.
Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, expressed frustration about the continued disagreements between the union and the school system, saying it shows a lack of leadership on both sides that makes students collateral damage.
While she said she appreciated the hard work teachers are doing to serve students as best they can during the pandemic, she questioned the timing of the union’s vote — the night before the 28 schools reopened, when members hadn’t had a chance to see if the promised safety measures had been implemented.
“As parents, when you put your children on a bus or drop them off at the front door, you’re trusting the school to provide for them and keep them safe,” she said. “If you say don’t trust our school leaders, where does that leave our children?”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.