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Let public health expertise guide school reopenings

As long as schools are taking adequate safety precautions, superintendents should continue steadily reopening school systems.

A child holds a sign that reads, "I can't learn from a screen," during a rally held in Boston Sunday afternoon to demand in-person services in safe spaces for students with high needs.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

As evidence mounts that schools can reopen without worsening the coronavirus pandemic — and that keeping them shut has stunted the educations of millions of children — Boston Public Schools superintendent Brenda Cassellius is working to restore more in-person education across the city. For her efforts, she’s received furious pushback from the teachers union. But as long as schools are taking adequate safety precautions — as determined by public health officials — she should continue steadily reopening the school system.

There’s no longer much doubt that remote instruction, delivered over computer screens, is inferior to in-person learning. The setbacks for younger pupils, students of color, and low-income children have been especially acute. On Sunday afternoon, a group of more than 80 parents, advocates, and teachers rallied in Nubian Square in Roxbury to demand more in-person learning for high-needs students. Similar protests have sprung up around the state. Prolonged school closures risk deepening racial inequalities and could do lasting damage to the public school system; enrollment is already plummeting in Massachusetts and nationally.


At the same time, schools have not proved to be major sources of coronavirus transmission. Many charter and parochial schools in Massachusetts have been open for in-person instruction without major incident.

Yet after Cassellius announced plans to open another 28 Boston schools — on top of the four already open — the Boston Teachers Union passed a vote of no-confidence in her. Cassellius raised the union’s ire by relying on school safety measures approved by the Boston Public Health Commission — which included new handwashing and sanitizing stations, rules limiting the number of people in a classroom, medical grade PPE for staff, and increased access to testing, among others — rather than signing an agreement that would have applied the same set of safety provisions in place at the first four schools to the 28 additional school buildings.


Unions have to stand up for their members, but not everything belongs on the bargaining table. Whether individual school buildings — or restaurants, or hotels, or offices, or anything else — are safe enough to open during the pandemic is ultimately a public health question. “We don’t let restaurants decide when they want to open or not,” said Marty Martinez, the city’s health and human services chief. (Nor, for that matter, is the public health commission consulted on how to teach reading.) It’s especially strange to insist that standards ought to look exactly the same in every school, when the district’s buildings differ so greatly in age and physical configuration.

After the union’s vote, Walsh hurried to Cassellius’s defense. “Brenda has done nothing in the district to earn a no-confidence vote,” he said in an interview with the Globe editorial board. On the city’s reopening, Walsh says he listens to BPHC guidance. “This isn’t us waking up one day saying, ‘Oh, we should open these schools today.’ ”

Teachers outside the Mattahunt Elementary school in Mattapan waited for students, and for school to start Monday, when 28 public schools in Boston reopened for high-needs students.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In an interview, BTU president Jessica Tang emphasized that the union has been pushing the district to come up with a reopening plan for months, and criticized Cassellius for rebuffing her repeated calls to meet and collaborate consistently on ideas and solutions for reopening throughout the pandemic.


The clash in Boston comes against the backdrop of a statewide efforts by teachers unions to slow or stop school reopenings — or, in the case of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, conditioning support for reopening on unrelated demands such as abolishing the MCAS exam. Cassellius is the sixth superintendent to receive a no-confidence vote from a local teachers union in the past few months following disagreements over reopening plans, according to Thomas Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

“How unfortunate that in these profoundly challenging circumstances . . . these union leaders resort to the same old intimidation tactics simply because they did not get their way,” said Scott and Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, in a joint statement supporting their members, “who continue to face resistance and insulting rhetoric from union leaders who would rather criticize than compromise.”

It’s one thing for unions to worry about the safety of their members in a pandemic. But the local no-confidence votes make clear that these fights are about power and politics as much as ventilation systems and COVID-19 testing. Massachusetts municipalities need to make reopening decisions based on the science around COVID-19 — and the science around how lost learning time harms kids.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.