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Massachusetts Teachers Refuse to Enter Unsafe Schools

Teachers across the country are fighting against unsafe school reopenings. In Massachusetts, educators and staff are engaging in work safety actions and refusing to enter school buildings without safety measures guaranteed.

Nina DeMeo

September 15, 2020
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Student wearing mask and hat sits outside on laptop
Tim Jean / Staff Photo

The number of Covid-19 cases in Massachusetts is again on the rise. The uptick prompted Gov. Charlie Baker to roll back limits on outdoor gatherings — from 100 down to 50 people and postpone indefinitely the second step of Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.

Despite the rise, public schools are reopening in communities around the state, many with hybrid models of remote and in-person learning. The Massachusetts Teachers Union advocated throughout the summer for remote learning exclusively for the start of the school year until districts could ensure fully safe reopenings. Teachers have expressed concern that school districts, underfunded for more than a decade and with many buildings in desperate need of repairs, won’t be able to supply classrooms adequately with the fresh and ventilated air that has been shown to mitigate the spread of the virus. Despite this, about 70 percent of school districts in Massachusetts have settled on plans that would bring students back into the classroom part- or full-time.

As one teacher in Methuen, a small city north of Boston, told Left Voice, “The schools have vacillated back and forth with scheduling and whether things will be hybrid or just remote. The only thing certain in the planning seems to be making sure we’re around to fulfill our daycare function, without real concern for teachers’ or students’ health.”

Last week, teachers in Andover, Massachusetts, north of Boston, held a work safety action. On their first day of work, in advance of students returning, nearly half of Andover’s teachers refused to enter school buildings for training sessions, citing unsafe conditions and no confidence in the superintendent. Teachers set up chairs and laptops outside of the high school, with every intention of completing a full day of work. Matt Bach, president of the Andover Teachers Union, said, “We don’t believe that the district has prepared the buildings for a return to in-person learning.” 

This action is similar to ones taking place in other cities and states around Massachusetts and the country. Teachers in Sharon, Massachusetts, south of Boston, are also refusing to enter school buildings, and the district is seeking to have their action declared a strike as well. On Monday, September 14, teachers set up pickets outside of New York City schools to protest unsafe reopenings. Although NYC schools had only been open for a few days and students had not yet returned, 55 people already tested positive for Covid-19. 

Massachusetts law forbids strikes by public sector employees, and the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board declared the Andover work-safety action an illegal strike. In its decision, the state labor board found the Andover Education Association “unlawfully induced, encouraged and condoned that strike,” saying the union’s claim that members were able to perform all the duties required of them on those days remotely was “inaccurate.” 

Gov. Baker applauded the board’s decision to pursue legal action against the union and its striking teachers, demonstrating his disdain for teacher, student, and staff safety. The board and the state have clearly positioned themselves on the opposite side of workers. 

More than six months into the pandemic, it is glaringly obvious that Massachusetts state officials have dealt with school reopenings haphazardly and insufficiently. Although state officials asked for plans from superintendents regarding in-person and remote learning details, they neglected to ask where students would be on the days they weren’t in school. As a result, paid child care centers are opening in some school buildings and community centers that are supposed to be closed due to the pandemic. And in some Massachusetts districts, parents are required to pay upwards of $346 per week for this glorified daycare! Meanwhile, teachers who are giving lessons “remotely” are required to come to the school buildings to do so. 

Gov. Baker has commended school districts on their reopening plans despite the absurdity of having in-person “remote” lessons, both for students and teachers, which will inevitably cause cross-contact and a rise in cases within schools and their surrounding communities.

The planned opening of schools in Dedham, on the south side of Boston, has already been pushed back because of a spike in coronavirus cases. “We have been telling the school administration this is a huge mistake for weeks,“ a Dedham elementary school teacher told Left Voice in a brief phone interview.

As teachers, students, and staff members are forced to go back to school in unsafe conditions, we must support their fight for remote learning until schools can truly reopen safely for all teachers, students, staff, and community members. As one retired Massachusetts teacher wrote in a letter to the Boston Globe, “I taught for 35 years in Massachusetts as a proud union member. And, yes, my daughter is a teacher, And, yes, my grandsons are assigned to attend a school that is 115 years old with no HVAC system, and the windows don’t open. Let’s disrupt that death trap.”

Let’s indeed disrupt this capitalist death trap — with the strength of the working class!

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Nina DeMeo

Nina is writer and editor for Left Voice. She lives in New York.

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