We need a safe school reopening

Municipalities across the Commonwealth who have taken steps to protect teachers and students in absence of leadership from the governor or the Legislature by mandating remote classes, were undercut on Friday when Education Commissioner Jeff Riley sent a memo recommending teachers working in remote school districts hold classes from inside their classrooms. Educators across the state have made it clear that physically going back to school is just not safe right now, and the state has responded in turn to prioritize returning to normal as soon as economically feasible over the safety of our children, of our teachers, and of school employees.

This recommendation doesn’t just go against the wishes of educators - it’s also fundamentally anti-labor. The teachers’ unions across Massachusetts have made their position clear: no in-person schooling or in-person responsibilities until the pandemic has been contained and proper social distancing measures and PPE are readily available. Last week, three of the largest teachers’ unions in Massachusetts — the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Boston Teachers Union, and AFT Massachusetts — protested outside the state house to demand a fully remote start of the year, and a gradual phasing in of in-person activity once stringent and adequate health and safety standards are met. Despite the vocal discontent of teachers’ unions statewide and extensive organizing around the issue of reopening, more than two-thirds of the school districts in the Commonwealth have reported plans to re-open that incorporate some form of in-person learning, whether on a hybrid model or fully in-person. It’s clear that local control over re-opening is not going to guarantee any measure of safety for teachers and students, and the Legislature’s inaction on this is a stark failure of leadership

In particular, Boston Public Schools recently announced their intention to re-open in-person schooling in waves, beginning with remote learning and then gradually phasing in students a couple of days at a time. While BTU President Jessica Tang called it a “step in the right direction”, this still does not meet the standards that teachers have demanded, and does not guarantee the health measures necessary to ensure that any form of in-person learning will be safe. Anything less than a guarantee of full PPE and social distancing measures puts students and teachers at risk, and as we anticipate a second wave of the virus in the fall, the risks could be deadly. No matter how schools end up re-opening, there is no guarantee of child care available to families across the Commonwealth to make sure that re-opening the school system is not a financial burden to any family.

With just a couple of weeks left until our students go back to school, concerned parents, teachers, and other staff will be scrambling to ensure their school districts have a safe re-opening plan.

It didn’t need to be this way: The Legislature could have stepped in and mandated a fully remote start to the school year for all school districts, instead of leaving this up to Baker’s administration.