Teachers want to be able to get back into classrooms this fall — but only if officials can ensure schools are safe amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Massachusetts Teachers Association says.
This week, the state’s teachers’ union released its principles for reopening schools as Massachusetts awaits the release of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s guidance for bringing school, back to school.
“The best way to educate our students is when we are together in our school buildings,” the union said in a statement. “MTA members want to be back in our public schools with our students and their families. But we can only do so if we create safe conditions for returning, in accordance with the recommendations of our public health institutions.”
The state DESE released some guidance on the subject earlier this month. The guidelines say students must wear masks and classes will be limited to 10 students with desks spaced six feet apart, among other protocols. The MTA criticized the plan, particularly its point of having each district responsible for securing personal protective equipment on its own.
The association’s directives, published Wednesday, say the state must consider funding resources, expand staff and avoid layoffs, provide personal protective equipment, and, among other requests, allow for a reimagined approach to curriculum — one that is “actively antiracist to reflect and affirm students of color, their cultures and their histories — and fight against xenophobia in all of its forms.”
“Now more than ever, we must transform public education to show — through structures, policies and practices — that Black and brown lives matter,” the union said, a reference to the social upheaval around the need for racial justice and equity that has sparked demonstrations across the country in recent weeks.
Here are a few key parts of the MTA’s reopening platform:
Fully fund the ‘Student Opportunity Act’
Signed into law last year, the “Student Opportunity Act” re-worked the state’s school funding formula, providing for a $1.5 billion injection into districts over seven years. The law also boosted requirements for more funding for schools with higher percentages of low-income students and English language learners.
But as the state budgets for the 2021 fiscal year — potentially with a $6 billion loss in revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic — some have raised the notion of holding off on funding the planned spending in an effort to alleviate expenses.
“After the fiscal impact of COVID-19 … policymakers may need to modify the implementation schedule for this new law,” Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Eileen McAnneny wrote to lawmakers in late April. “For example, lawmakers may postpone the start of implementation until fiscal 2022, presumably after the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has abated.”
The MTA pushed back on the idea this week, saying full funding of the act is a “baseline expectation” and adding that the increased funding is needed “across all districts for the myriad needs of our students” and to pay wages.
“The state and local school districts have an obligation to make our school communities safe for reopening,” the association said in a statement. “The state also has a constitutional obligation to fund public education adequately and equitably. The ‘Fund Our Future’ campaign and the COVID-19 pandemic have brought into sharp focus the fact that our education system — as it is currently structured — manifests and reinforces the racism and classism that pervade our society. The ‘Student Opportunity Act’ was the starting point — not the endpoint — for fully funding our public schools to begin to address the inequality caused by systemic racism. What is clear is that our public schools need more, not less, in the aftermath of the pandemic.”
The union also reiterated its call for “progressive revenues” in order to make reopening schools feasible.
Last month, MTA President Merrie Najimy said in a statement that the union was putting together tax proposals that involve closing tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthy “that have been profiteering — even during the pandemic.”
Najimy also urged MTA members to help get their senators to back the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion coronavirus response package currently in the Senate that would push $1 trillion to local and state governments and help fund education.
Furthermore, the MTA wrote Wednesday that funding should be removed from policing and security to be funneled into emotional, social, and mental health and public health initiatives. Personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing materials should also be provided by the state, the union says.
Prioritize hiring — not laying off — educators
As districts across the state have already begun to issue pink slips to teachers and school staff, the MTA says this should be the time to prioritize hiring and retaining teachers, not putting them out of work.
Funding problems and lack of investment even before the pandemic left schools struggling with lack of counselors and large class sizes, especially in areas where many students are people of color and come from low-income households, according to the MTA.
“The increase in student needs — health, safety, social and emotional and academic — will require additional staff,” the union wrote.
Provide teachers and students who are vulnerable to COVID-19 with alternatives
The MTA says state regulators should have schools provide teachers and students who have compromised immune systems “and those statistically more likely to contract the coronavirus, such as our older educators with alternative ways to work and/or medical leave.”
“It is time to redefine safety,” the union said. “Districts must change how they meet the emotional health and safety needs of students and identify and obtain the necessary resources to keep students, educators and communities safe. We must end the presence of police in our public schools and instead invest in social support systems.”
The association is also calling for “trauma-informed discipline policies and practices” for students and for state funding and mandates to support schools in providing antiracist education.
Eliminate MCAS tests
The MTA is calling for an overhaul of how students and schools are assessed and for allowing educators to craft curriculum that reflects community values alongside students and families.
Part of that work would entail creating lessons and coursework that is actively antiracist and that also reflects and affirms LGBTQ+ students, according to the association.
“Educators must be supported with professional development on project-based learning; trauma-informed and antiracist pedagogy, curriculum and practice; and effective practices for crisis learning remotely,” the MTA said.
The union also called for eliminating the state’s MCAS exams. Officials canceled the standardized tests for the spring semester this year in April as classes were held remotely during the public health crisis.
The union also affirmed the need to provide every educator and student with a computer and reliable internet access, as well as technology support for families.
The MTA said its directives and report are living documents and will be revised as teachers, students, and families weigh in, with a more detailed set expected in the coming weeks.
The directives published this week were created based off of conversations with thousands of parents, teachers, and other community members, according to the MTA.
“Over the summer and beyond, we will engage in a collective process involving educators, families, and students to build a shared vision and expectation for what our schools can and must be,” the association said.