Amid rising COVID-19 infections among school staff members in Massachusetts, local and statewide teachers union leaders say they continue to support in-person learning, but urge state leaders to strengthen mitigation measures.
State education leaders last Thursday reported 558 coronavirus cases among public school staff members for the week that ended Wednesday, a record-high number of single-week cases and a 46-percent increase over the prior week’s 381 cases.
The cases in schools reflect a larger spike in cases statewide ahead of Thanksgiving and other holiday celebrations.
But teachers union leaders told the Globe Friday that the coronavirus spread shouldn’t prompt a widespread return to remote-only learning. Last year, hundreds of thousands of students statewide were in remote learning models through much of the year.
“Our number one goal is to have everybody in the buildings learning together in safe conditions,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “But given we’re not there yet, there does have to be flexibility where there is a high need for remote learning.”
Najimy criticized Governor Charlie Baker and Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley for prohibiting schools this year from counting remote-learning hours as part of their mandatory instructional days. Though remote learning should not be adopted unilaterally, Najimy said, schools that have an outbreak spreading throughout an entire class or the whole school should be able to offer families that option.
Riley recently rejected Boston public schools’ request to count seven days of remote learning — instead approving just four remote days — amid a COVID outbreak infecting dozens of students and some staff at the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain. The district kept the school building closed for seven school days anyway, citing local health officials’ recommendations.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education “continues to [have] a reckless approach that’s inflexible, just saying we have to return to normal. It’s the wrong approach,” Najimy said. “What we need instead is a far more cautious and flexible approach.”
Both Najimy and Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said state education leaders need to strengthen mitigation measures that can prevent spread in classrooms altogether.
For instance, they both said, districts need to prioritize fixing old ventilation systems. And, they said, the state’s universal masking mandate, currently set to expire in January, should remain in place. Najimy also said that Riley should not allow certain schools to drop their mask mandate if 80 percent of students and staff are vaccinated, as he currently does.
“It’s the wrong standard,” she said. “It needs to be a statewide standard.”
Kontos, who estimated that at least 90 percent of her members are fully vaccinated, said she’s concerned to see the rising coronavirus case numbers among staff members, but she’s especially worried about young children who remain unvaccinated.
“I feel like our members are fine, but if there’s that much virus going around the schools, are all these kids who aren’t vaccinated fine?” she said.
Erik Berg, executive vice president of the Boston Teachers Union, called for more COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and transparency from state leaders to “make our schools as safe as they can be.”
“We really believe that they need to up their game,” he said.
Families at Curley and another Jamaica Plain school recently affected by a coronavirus outbreak told the Globe recently that they received news about which students were infected or potentially exposed through other parents, rather than through the district.
Berg emphasized: The union isn’t calling for “a widespread return to remote learning.”
But the state can be doing more to make sure both educators and students feel safe at school, he said.
“Educators want to and need to be there for their students and are working hard,” he said. “They just want to be assured that every layer of safety measures that can be taken is there.”