The state’s labor relations board ruled Tuesday that Andover teachers who refused to enter school buildings last week for professional development days, citing safety concerns related to COVID-19, participated in an illegal strike.
The Andover School Committee instructed the district’s legal counsel to petition the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations last week after about 45 percent of the members of the Andover Education Association — which represents school educators, guidance counselors, and social workers, among others — refused to enter school buildings on Aug. 31 for in-person professional development training. Instead, the teachers stayed outside the building, doing the work outdoors.
In its decision, the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board found the Andover Education Association, or AEA, and its leadership “unlawfully induced, encouraged and condoned that strike.” The board ruled that the union’s claim that its members were able to perform all the duties required of them on those days remotely “is inaccurate.”
“The record demonstrates that AEA members who worked outside were unable to participate in [professional development] activities that could only be performed inside school buildings, such as Wi-Fi testing, wayfinding, classroom set up and tagging furniture,” the ruling states, elaborating later, “In this unique 2020-2021 school year, where safety and health concerns dictate social distancing, masking requirements and internet-based lessons, we view activities that require teachers to familiarize themselves with these new protocols and ensure that they work properly as intrinsic to the teachers’ duties.”
Andover Public Schools are set to begin the school year on Sept. 16 with a hybrid learning plan, with each student attending for in-person instruction two full-days per week. The teachers union, like others across the state, has pushed for the district to start the year fully remote, with a phased-in approach to bringing back part-time, in-person learning, amid concerns about the potential for the spread of COVID-19 in school buildings.
After the school committee took legal action against the union, the AEA ended what it called a “workplace safety action” and held a vote of no confidence in Andover Superintendent Sheldon Berman.
The labor board determined in their ruling that “there is no dispute” that teachers were required to participate in the professional development days “as a matter of contract” given they were regularly scheduled workdays to which they were expected to report.
“These are unprecedented times and we are not unsympathetic to the Union’s concerns over the health and safety implications of requiring its members to work inside school buildings or its desire to bargain to resolution with the School Committee over these issues before its members return to work inside school buildings,” the ruling states. “However, the Union cites to no legislation, permission, reasonable accommodation or bargained-for agreement that permitted its members without consequence, to unilaterally dictate where they perform their work.”
Andover isn’t the only district where teachers have taken action over their concerns about reopening classrooms this fall.
The Sharon Teachers Association announced at the end of August that educators would only begin work remotely to start the school year, in opposition to district plans for implementing a hybrid learning model to begin the year. The union initially planned to hold a protest Wednesday but in a message to supporters Wednesday morning said a rally would no longer take place.
“The STA is disappointed that the School Committee and superintendent were not thorough in their planning for a hybrid learning model,” Sharon Teachers Association president Bernadette Murphy told the Boston Globe in a statement on Tuesday. “Educators remain committed to working with the administration to ensure that students have a successful year — academically, socially, and emotionally. Because of the School Committee and superintendent’s inaction, that work will have to begin remotely.”
According to the Globe, the Sharon School Committee filed a petition with the Massachusetts Labor Relations Board saying the refusal of district teachers to work from their classrooms is “illegal job action.”
The Lawrence Teachers Union is protesting Wednesday, gathering at the Parthum Complex at 6:30 p.m., to raise concerns about the district’s plans to have teachers return to classrooms despite the number of COVID-19 cases in the city.
“Protecting staff and students should be our top priority,” a flyer for the protest reads. “The bargaining team needs your help to make our collective voices heard. We are demanding reasonable benchmarks before students and staff are forced back into buildings.”
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