The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association says the state should look to bring students back to schools the same way it’s rolled out the relaunch of the economy during the coronavirus pandemic: in phases.
“The science continues to change as the disease continues to change. So what we really need to do is look at a phased-in approach,” Merrie Najimy said Sunday while appearing on WCVB’s “On The Record.” “If the economy is opening on a phased-in approach, then we can open public schools on a phased-in approach.”
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last month unveiled initial guidelines for how students can return to classrooms in September, stressing the need for physical distancing, mask wearing, and planning for a mix of in-person and remote learning.
Gov. Charlie Baker has said officials crafted the guidance assuming the positive trends in key COVID-19-related health data will continue. While the state had to weigh the risk of the virus in making decisions, officials also considered the impact of not allowing kids get back to their brick-and-mortar schools, he said.
“Continued isolation poses very real risks to our kids’ mental and physical health, and to their educational development,” the governor said in June. “This plan will allow schools to responsibly do what is best for students, which is to bring them back to school to learn and grow.”
Further state guidance is expected to come this month.
Najimy, on Sunday, said educators agree that being in the classroom is the best way for students to learn.
But that goal can’t come at the expense of skirting health and safety, and as the guidance currently stands, the requirements do not go far enough to protect students, teachers, and school staff, she said.
“In an ideal situation, we want to bring students back together in the buildings but we cannot relax the standards to risk everyone’s health and safety,” she said. “We have to remember this isn’t just about kids. Kids bring the virus to their parents, who bring it back to the communities where they work in, and educators the same. If educators contract the virus in the buildings, they go home to other communities. It is just too risky not to have enough health and safety protocols.”
Taking a phased-in approach for back to school would give educators the time they need to better plan for how the school year can operate, and to meet the moment of the nationwide calls to address systemic racism by creating curriculum that’s more anti-racist and anti-bias focused, Najimy said.
“We need to be able to figure out how to set up the classrooms, and then bring kids in a little bit at a time to teach them the protocols, to teach them the new routines, to get them acclimated so that when more kids are back together, it will go better,” she said.
State guidance says schools should aim to ensure six feet of space between students when possible, although three feet is the minimum distance allowed.
The approach is backed up by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which, in its own guidance, says “evidence suggests that spacing as close as three feet may approach the benefits of six feet of space, particularly if students are wearing face coverings and are asymptomatic.”
Pointing to virus transmission dynamics, the academy says adults, meanwhile, should look to keep six feet of space from other people “as much as possible, particularly around other adult staff.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers that seating and desks be spaced six feet apart when feasible.
Najimy said meeting a six-foot requirement is a challenging prospect for schools, “but that has to be the minimum.”
Getting there is going to require that state lawmakers fully fund and fully staff schools, she said.
The MTA has called for the state to provide all of the funding set aside for the “Student Opportunity Act,” the law signed last year that re-worked the state’s school funding formula to provide for a $1.5 billion injection into districts over the next seven years.
The law also boosted requirements for more funding for schools with higher percentages of low-income students and English language learners. While the state works to budget the 2021 fiscal year — possibly with a $6 billion loss in revenue brought on by the pandemic — some have suggested holding off on funding the planned spending to alleviate expenses.
The MTA’s calls also come as at least 2,000 educators across the commonwealth have been laid off as communities look to budget for the coming year, according to Najimy.
The state is providing a total of $202 million in grants to aid districts in putting safety protocols in place, with an additional $25 million in technology grants to boost remote learning.
Najimy said that although the MTA does not have a “hard and fast number” of its own to propose, the grants aren’t the right approach.
“The money is too little and much of it is competitive grants. Now is not the time for competition,” Najimy said. “If this were a hurricane, a tornado, a flood, the federal government would step in and pay for all of what it takes to mitigate. We have to have the same expectations of the state.”
The MTA is working with over 300 local teacher unions in the state to put together its own plan, one that calls for a phased-in start to school, according to Najimy.
“I want to caution us: We did not rush into opening the state economy. We cannot rush into opening schools just because the calendar says we have to return to school by August or September,” she said.