Boston Public Schools returned to in-person learning on Jan. 4 amid the Omicron surge of COVID-19 with negligible safety measures in place for students and staff. In response, the Boston Teachers Union is demanding medical-grade KN95 masks for all students and staff, and that remote learning days count towards required instruction.
The BTU is also demanding modern HVAC in all new school buildings, faster responses to work orders, established air quality standards, a ban on evictions of BPS students during the school year, requiring developers to consult with school site councils and turning unused spaces into housing.
The Boston Globe reported that over 1,000 staff members and 30% of students in BPS were out on the day of reopening. Schools scrambled to find coverage for classes in order to adapt to the amount of absences. “Everybody is getting sick and it’s not safe to be in-person right now,” JD, a teacher who asked to be identified by first name only, told Liberation News.
“One of the very first things a student asked me was if I heard there are hundreds of teachers and staff out today across the district. Multiple students also asked me why they can’t go back to remote learning. And many expressed a sense of concern, frustration and even dread at being back in-person given what’s happening.”
‘It feels like a lose-lose situation‘
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sent inadequate “non-medical” KN95 masks to teachers across Massachusetts. Other educators reported being provided expired rapid tests, leaving many staff responsible to find and buy their own.
DESE officials argue “returning all students to the classroom full-time this school year is a crucial step to stem student learning loss,” but the lack of a remote option and a 30% absence rate makes any meaningful learning difficult. Educators cannot move forward with new curriculum content while a third of their students are out of the classroom. The many students required to quarantine have no learning opportunity either, because of DESE’s blanket ban on remote learning.
These challenges compound on an already difficult year. A school counselor in Somerville who asked not to be identified noted that absences and behavioral challenges are spiking: “Last week we had about 400 students absent, out of about 1,300. Aside from the testing lines, it’s a ghost town.
“It feels like a lose-lose situation. Many of my students already face serious financial, language, and legal barriers. When schools were remote, many started working to help pay the bills. Some had to share a single computer with two or three siblings to attend their Zoom classes. If computers were provided and bills were covered, it might be a different story. The transition back hasn’t been easy … being in-person right now is scary.”
Boston Teacher’s Union ‘Common Good’ demands
Educators and public schools have struggled to support students with trauma for decades, but the pandemic has highlighted the need for effective social-emotional services. The Boston Teachers Union is advocating for more counselors, social workers, and school psychiatrists in their new contract package.
The BTU is also pushing the state to address the crumbling infrastructure of many school buildings. Outdated buildings have been a problem for years, but the issue is magnified during an airborne pandemic. The lack of ventilation in these buildings can contribute to the spread of COVID-19. The new contract includes demands for modern HVAC in all new school buildings, faster responses to work orders and established air quality standards.
The BTU is demanding that the school committee advocates to ban evictions of BPS students during the school year. It would also require developers to consult with school site councils if they are building within a half-mile of a BPS school. Additionally, they are forming a committee dedicated to turning unused spaces into housing.
Other teachers unions across the country are demanding safety measures for their schools. Chicago Teachers Union recently voted to work remotely until their demands for in-person learning are met, including a metric for closing all schools during a surge of COVID-19. The BTU expressed their support of CTU educators, “BTU stands in solidarity with Chicago Teachers Union.”
‘We need to address the inequity that existed before the pandemic‘
Students created a petition to advocate for a remote learning option: “Forcing students to attend in-person learning simply isn’t safe. In packed conditions such as the hallway, lunchrooms, and auditoriums, and given the alarming infection rate of the new Omicron variant, schools have become a literal COVID-19 breeding ground,” wrote William Hu, a student at Boston Latin School.
The BTU’s contract package preamble states, “Now more than ever, we need to address the inequity that existed before the pandemic and was further exacerbated over the last year and a half. With thoughtful usage of federal funds and a full implementation of the Student Opportunity Act (yet to be fully honored by the Commonwealth), we have a unique opportunity to reset the foundation for our students post pandemic and beyond.”