Mass. Teachers Association responds to Baker-Riley school reopening

To the Editor,

The state’s plan to fully reopen most schools in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic shows callous disregard for the health and safety of school employees, students and families and rides roughshod over the rights and interests of local communities. 

Governor Charlie Baker and Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley should go back to the drawing board. This time they must actually talk to the educators, educators’ unions, parents, school committee members and other community leaders most impacted by their surprise and unwelcome announcement, which seems timed largely to distract public attention from the administration’s failed vaccine rollout.

Educators, through their unions, have been working tirelessly for a year to win the CDC-recommended mitigation strategies needed so that everyone can return safely to Massachusetts classrooms and buildings. That is where we all want to be. 

In fact, many districts already have some level of in-person learning because the unions have been able to make progress in creating safe schools to benefit all. But the process has to be done right – not by once again putting the thumbscrews to districts to reopen regardless of what their communities want or need during this dangerous time.

Governor Baker today selectively cited CDC guidance to make his case while ignoring the substantial body of CDC guidance that is contrary to the administration’s plan.

The CDC recommends vaccinating school employees during Phase 1[1] to give an added layer of protection to school employees, making in-person teaching and learning safer. The governor keeps pushing school employees further down in Phase 2 and has yet to provide a date when they will be eligible. By contrast, 28 other states are already vaccinating school employees. 

The CDC recommends vaccinating school employees close to their worksites to reduce obstacles to vaccine access and, therefore, increase participation.[2] Unions representing all school employees and firefighters have submitted the Last Mile Vaccine Delivery Plan to the state, which would do just that. The governor has failed to approve this plan – or offer any plan of his own. Educators, from preK through college, appear to be an afterthought in the state’s deeply flawed vaccination program.

The CDC still recommends six feet of distancing. The governor and the education commissioner chose to ignore the science and are saying three feet is good enough. In addition, they fail to acknowledge that many classrooms cannot accommodate all students even at three feet, let alone six.

In its updated guidance in February, the CDC recommended detailed considerations of local COVID-19 transmission rates in making reopening decisions. The commissioner said the new plan is to require schools to reopen without regard to local transmission rates.

The CDC recommends ensuring ventilation to control infection in school buildings, as COVID-19 is an airborne disease. The governor says educators should just open a window, despite freezing winter temperatures. This “solution” is out of touch with reality.

School employees have been working harder than ever to educate students during the pandemic and negotiate safe learning plans that work. These local plans change and evolve based on new information and in response to COVID-19 outbreaks among students and staff. The state’s new reopening plan threatens to upend much of that hard work and further disrupt an already disrupted school year. 

We appeal to the Legislature to intervene to protect the health and safety of students and educators across the state and to stand up for the basic principle that local communities know better than the state how to run their schools safely.

Merrie Najimy, president

Massachusetts Teachers Association

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