It has taken a deadly virus to shine a light on Boston’s poor school conditions
It wasn’t until the last paragraph of the Dec. 17 editorial, “Let public health experts guide school reopenings,” that one sees mention of one of the most critical issues for the transmission of COVID-19 in our schools: ventilation.
Most Boston schools have no ventilation systems, and many of the 30 schools with HVAC systems need upgrades. It’s common for teachers to work in overheated or freezing rooms, or in closets and basement rooms without windows.
The Boston School Committee and the Boston Public Health Commission are well aware of the air quality problems in our schools and the backlog of repairs and ventilation upgrades. It has taken a deadly virus — with its urgent need for enhanced ventilation to dilute and filter aerosolized COVID-19 particles — to shine a light on the city’s poor school building conditions. In September, officials said classrooms would be made safe by opening a window and propping up a fan.
Many of the current COVID-19 safety and health measures, such as medical-grade masks, classroom air filtration units, high-grade HVAC filters, and testing would not have been in place if the Boston Teachers Union had not demanded greater protections. Information does change as we know more about the transmission of this virus; however, the Boston Public Schools and the Globe seem to prefer to demonize the teachers union rather than vigorously implement the best COVID-19 safety measures in each of our schools.
The writer worked as a labor environment coordinator at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, where she cofacilitated the citywide Healthy Schools Task Force.
Teachers unions are right to demand a safe working and learning environment
Your editorial decries what you describe as “prolonged school closures,” claiming that there is a consensus of health experts that schools might not be major sources of coronavirus transmission. That consensus is not unanimous by any means. Even so-called minor sources of transmission of the coronavirus can feed the continuous spiral of infection cases in the Commonwealth.
It is a public health imperative to avoid situations where public spaces could be engines for spreading infections. The Globe editorial board seems to imply that opposition from teachers unions is the main reason schools are partially closed. The position of the unions seems the correct public health approach: Schools cannot be open if they are not safe for students, educators, and, ultimately, the community.
It is also abundantly clear, especially to educators, that students benefit most from in-person teaching and learning. Face-to-face contact with teachers is essential. Unions never have opposed the need for in-person schooling, but it has to be safe.
It is also clear that scapegoating unions as obstructing school openings — by accusing them of capricious and unrelated bargaining tactics — accomplishes nothing but the obstruction of the development of sound public health policies. The Globe never has been a friend of public school unions. This doesn’t inspire confidence in the Globe as an honest broker in crafting such policies.
The writer is a professor emeritus of public health at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and is a certified industrial hygienist.
We should be planning now for outdoor options
I am dismayed that the Globe continues to pit teachers and their unions against the parents and administrators advocating for an immediate return to in-person learning.
First, there is no consensus among public health officials that schools are safe to reopen and on whether younger children can transmit the virus despite being asymptomatic. In the Dec. 18 edition of the Globe, we learned from an article in the Metro section that the state had reported 591 new coronavirus cases among public school students and 418 among staff during the seven-day period that ended Dec. 16.
While it’s not clear where any of those students and staff contracted the virus, it is also clear that this not a good time to slam teachers for being extra cautious about their own, their students’, and the community’s safety.
How about if we shift the starting point for this discussion onto firmer ground, namely the outdoors? Outdoor classrooms, while not the perfect solution to our current crisis in education, may be the best way to return students safely to in-person learning.
As a retired teacher and an active member of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, I have engaged in many conversations with parents and teachers about outdoor classrooms during the pandemic. I find overwhelming support for the idea, although of course there are questions about bad weather, security, etc.
Given the current spike in cases and the natural skepticism of parents and teachers about the practicality of outdoor classrooms in the winter, perhaps we should use the next three months to prepare for initiating outdoor classrooms by March or April. This means taking the next few months for soliciting community input, planning, purchasing and installing infrastructure, and communicating the plan to all stakeholders — in other words, all the things that should have happened last spring and summer.