Najimy: ‘This is not the right way’ to reopen schools

Najimy: ‘This is not the right way’ to reopen schools

MTA President Merrie Najimy submitted the following testimony to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education this morning in opposition to Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley’s forced school reopening plan. At their afternoon meeting, BESE members voted 8 to 3 to adopt the regulations. In addition, Riley announced that MCAS tests that had been scheduled to begin on April 5 would be postponed until May 10 for grades 3 to 5. The MTA does not believe this delay goes far enough. MCAS tests should be canceled for all students this year.

Commissioner Riley and members of the board, thank you for considering my testimony. I would have delivered these comments to you in person but was told that all of the slots were filled. No accommodations were made, despite the urgency of the matter, so I am releasing this to you and the public at the same time.

I am Merrie Najimy, president of the 116,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, writing in opposition to the proposed amendments to the Student Learning Time Regulations. Our opposition is not to reopening schools. In fact, it is because of a full year of union advocacy by our educators across the state that we have made significant progress in the rigorous implementation of CDC guidelines in schools so that we could have in-person learning to the safest degree possible. We all share the ultimate goal of giving all students the opportunity to learn in person, but it has to be done right. This is not the right way.

First, however, the good news. We won a very important victory on Wednesday, when Governor Baker at long last agreed to make school employees eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine as of March 11. Vaccinating school staff will make in-person learning safer, both for those already providing it and those who will be starting in the near future. That is why we had asked the state to make school employees eligible earlier, in accordance with CDC guidance. We are gratified that the process is now getting underway. We caution that without a localized on-site vaccination program that creates maximum efficiency for school employees and minimum disruption to the school day, reopening plans already underway will be undermined.

"This hastily conceived top-down mandate would violate local decision-making and be extremely chaotic."

Now, the bad news. The forced school reopening regulations you are voting on today do not hold the same promise as vaccinating school employees. Requiring schools to reopen faster than local communities have decided is safe will increase stress on already stressed students and staff, disrupt lesson plans and teaching models, throw bus schedules to the wind and blow a hole through CDC health and safety guidance. This hastily conceived top-down mandate would violate local decision-making and be extremely chaotic. The arbitrary timeline rejects the work that many districts have already begun to move from a remote model in a responsible way, based on the particular circumstances of their communities, students, families and schools.

We share the very same concerns that so many school committees and superintendents have expressed, including the Middlesex League Superintendents. Here is a quote from their recent letter:

“Many unanswered questions and concerns must be addressed, such as a lack of guidance around lunch and other unmasked activities (3 ft. v. 6 ft.); the possible disruption of Special Education services already scheduled; potential issues with existing Memorandum of Agreements with our teachers and other collective bargaining units; and disparate recommendations between local Boards of Health, State health agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization that have yet to be addressed.”

Students and educators alike will be impacted. Especially vulnerable will be students of color, whose families and communities have been hit hardest by the pandemic. The disparities in the social determinants of health for our students and families of color are growing deeper because of COVID-19, and not just because their children are not in school full time. Families of color are forced into higher-risk situations daily. They have greater experiences with family and community members having contracted COVID-19, all while having lower rates of vaccination. If our school buildings are not safe for them, they will be subjected to one more area of risk in their lives, but this time at your hand.

Parent surveys show that many will want their children to remain remote because they experience daily the devastating impact of the coronavirus up close. Getting their children back into school according to your arbitrary timeline and without intensive resources to address their trauma isn’t going to change the loss they face. We are deeply concerned that these regulations would further disrupt the education these students receive by undermining carefully developed remote instructional plans that are being held together by a thread.

We wonder why there is such haste to adopt these “emergency” regulations. It can’t be because of the vaccines, since this plan was announced before the new educator vaccine plan was created. In any case, the governor acknowledges that school staff will not be fully vaccinated by early April. Could the planned launch of MCAS testing on April 5 be the real motivation? It is cynical for state officials to claim they want to bring students back in person for the sake of their emotional well-being and then require them to take a pressured, meaningless and tedious test the minute they walk through the schoolhouse door.

My last point circles back to local decision-making. The vast majority of states recognize what key stakeholders in Massachusetts have long agreed on: Cities and towns must have the final say over important reopening decisions based on the needs of their students and educators and the conditions in their buildings and communities. What’s good for a small town in Berkshire County may not be good for a big city in the Pioneer Valley. One size does not fit all.

The state and federal governments should instead play a strongly supportive role during these traumatic times. They must provide districts with the resources and clear guidance they need so that communities, families and educators can make the best possible decisions concerning education during the pandemic. We strongly urge you to reject these proposed regulations.