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Newton teachers strike adds stresses for Metco families

Ramon Downes Jr., a Metco student, and his father, Ramon, a former Metco student in the Newton Public Schools, were part of a rally at Newton City Hall.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Most teenagers would welcome an unexpected break from the rigid school routine, especially one that requires an early wake-up to make a one-hour bus ride, and then another home at the end of a long day.

But for Jaylon Phifer, a Metco student from Dorchester who attends Newton South High School, the nearly two-week-long teachers strike has come at an inopportune time: the walkout has delayed the submission of second-term grades, which he and his classmates need to send to colleges.

“I’m still waiting on two major schools that can be life-changing — Rutgers and UMass Amherst,” Phifer said. “So it’s like really stressful waiting for my grades.”

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While he supports the teachers quest for a better contract — enough to journey out to Newton during the break to attend a rally on their behalf — he is nonetheless shocked to see adults unable to come to an agreement and not disrupt crucial class time.

“This is Massachusetts, you’re supposed to emphasize education,” Phifer said. “Especially in Newton, this is something that we’re proud of.”

Phifer is one of 415 Boston students who attend Newton schools through Metco, the voluntary integration program that enrolls students from the city in suburban schools. Newton has the highest number of Metco students in the state.

By dint of distance and, in some cases, income, the Metco families have their own unique challenges finding child care during the interruption.

Linda Barros, who serves on Newton’s district-wide Metco parent council, said some families have relatives helping out while others are taking their children to local YMCAs and paying fees.

The City of Newton and Metco are providing free breakfasts and lunches for children, Barros said, but they are only available for pickup twice a week during hours that aren’t convenient for most parents.

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“If the food is being distributed only from 9 to 12, they are at work. How can they just go and pick it up?” she said.

Why did the Newton teachers strike?
WATCH: As reporter Mandy McLaren explains, educators say they'd rather be in the classroom but working conditions make it difficult for them & their students.

Barros, 56, said she initially expected the strike would end “within a couple of days or so,” but now, her 17-year-old daughter, who attends Newton North High School, is ready to get back to classes.

“For her, of course, just like every teenager, the first few days it’s exciting because you get to sleep late and hang out with your friends,” Barros said. “But now it’s reality setting in to say, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ It’s just, ‘Now I really have to be in school until probably the very last day of June.’ ”

On Wednesday night, district officials announced that schools would remain shut Thursday for a 10th school day, despite hopes earlier in the day that the School Committee and Newton Teachers Association were close to a deal. Thus far, the two sides have agreed to more fully paid parental leave, but continued to remain apart on salaries, among other areas. The work stoppage is the state’s longest teachers strike in decades with contentious public battles between the two sides.

Metco chief executive Milly Arbaje-Thomas said Wednesday that she was “deeply concerned about the accumulation of learning loss for all Newton students, our Metco students included,” especially as they continue to recover from pandemic-era deficits.

“The ripple effects from canceled school days are many: families struggling with missed work, additional child care costs, or even having trouble finding child care on a day-by-day basis,” Arbaje-Thomas said in a statement. “This lack of certainty exacerbates an already stressful and complicated situation for students and their families.”

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For Christopher J. Worrell, the strike means sleeping in a little later these days, since he doesn’t have to get his son, 9, and daughter, 6, ready for a 7 a.m. bus pickup. A state representative from Dorchester, Worrell said his job affords him enough flexibility to extend his parenting duties later into the morning, and, moreover, he has family close by to help out. But he has had to move multiple meetings online and cancel appearances at public events so he could be home with his kids.

And like so many other families, the long interruption is wearying, with Worrell saying his wife had just called him, telling him: “ ‘We need to do something to get the kids back in school.’ ”

Many Metco students support the teachers and their Metco counselors, who are also in the union. At one rally at Newton City Hall on Monday, several Metco counselors were joined on stage by a handful of students and parents.

Metco counselor Daniel Arroyo said he spends “a lot of my own money for the programs I run for Black and brown kids in Metco.”

“We’re not asking for more money so I can go and shop,” he said. “I’m asking for more money so I can feed my kid.”

Wykeem Price, a sixth-grade Metco student at Brown Middle School whose grandmother works in the district as an in-school substitute teacher, said he wants a fair contract so she can be paid better.

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“It would mean a lot to me,” he said. The strike “affects some of the students, but they’re fighting for a fair contract.”

His grandmother, Darlene Atkins, said the 13-year-old stays at her home in Dorchester during the school week so he can ride to Newton with her, and he is mature enough that she can leave him alone while she’s on the picket line.

“He’s a very responsible kid, and where I live at, my neighbors know if I’m not here, they look after him,” she said Tuesday. “It might be a different story if he was younger.”

Atkins, 65, said Price spends his days texting friends, playing games on his phone, and reading. She wants to see him back at school but also wants an acceptable contract, she said.

“I’m concerned about all of the kids, not just my grandson,” she said. “But I mean, what are you supposed to do? . . . This our last resort. This is not something we decided to do the last two months.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him @jeremycfox. Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.