Middlesex Superintendents Critical of State’s Call to Return to In-Person Classes Without Plan

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The following letter was provided by the superintendents of school districts in the Middlesex League, including Watertown’s Deanne Galdston.

Dear Commissioner Riley:

On Friday, February 26th, the Middlesex League Superintendents discussed your announcement for a full return of elementary students to in-person learning by April 2021. Currently, our districts are engaged in conversations about what a full return might look like, as is appropriate to the local context. There is nothing that we want more than for all of our students and staff to return to schools full time; however, your declaration without a thoughtful plan only exacerbates the challenges we face in schools and belies the current reality of the situation in which we find ourselves.

We are nearing the first anniversary of the Middlesex League Superintendents’ decision to close schools on March 12, 2020, which predated the Governor’s school closure order a day later. Initially, we believed it would be a proactive two-week school closure to combat COVID-19. When it became clear that the pandemic would require long-term planning and adjustments, superintendents throughout the Commonwealth advocated for a uniform plan for a fall return. Throughout the pandemic, most of the educational decision-making has been left to local districts, creating a high degree of variability. If the State had dictated a common starting point in August, making uniform adjustments now would be far less complicated and intrusive.

During the pandemic, school districts have been left to their own devices. In the absence of concrete plans from the State, we became increasingly more reliant on one another. In a nutshell, school leaders were told by the State to cover only essential standards, reduce the maximum bus capacity to approximately 30%, “pressure test” desks at three feet, and develop three teaching and learning models: full return, hybrid, and remote learning—all of which we have done. The unintended consequence of allowing school systems to work individually has resulted in understandable variations from community to community. There was little guidance at the beginning of the school year about how districts would reopen, which may be why there are approximately 400,000 students in the State who have yet to return to their classrooms.

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.

Moreover, we have advocated strongly for vaccines for educators through the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, yet there is still no response or plan to vaccinate our staff. We need a mindful and strategic vaccination plan for our employees, which would make it easier to undertake another shift to full in-person learning for elementary students. Furthermore, we must be thoughtful about when and how public school employees will access vaccination appointments when they become available.

We, along with many others, remain hopeful that the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine will provide another option that can be more easily distributed and prioritized for educators and staff. It would go a long way if the single-dose vaccine were distributed to local Boards of Health and administered to school personnel in school buildings. To further minimize disruptions to learning, it may be wise to vaccinate educators and other staff after typical school hours, such as Friday evenings from 2:00-8:00 p.m. This type of approach would minimize the need for substitute coverage during the school day and allow employees two days over the weekend to recover, which could minimize the potential for additional classroom coverage challenges. A concrete vaccination timeline is not the only way to get students back to full-time in-person learning, but it certainly will facilitate the process for a full return of students.

As we began this journey last March, we committed ourselves to work together to support students, staff, and families. Since March of last year, we have worked tirelessly and collaboratively with all stakeholders in our respective communities, and we will continue to do so in the future. As educational leaders, we know the pandemic hasn’t been easy on anyone. We look forward to partnering with you to offer the highest quality education to our students.

Sincerely,
John Macero, Superintendent, Stoneham Public Schools
John Phelan, Superintendent, Belmont Public Schools
Glenn Brand, Superintendent, Wilmington Public Schools
John Doherty, Superintendent, Reading Public Schools
Deanne Galdston, Superintendent, Watertown Public Schools
Judy Evans, Superintendent, Winchester Public Schools
Julie Hackett, Superintendent, Lexington Public Schools
Matt Crowley, Superintendent, Woburn Public Schools
Douglas Lyons, Superintendent, Wakefield Public Schools
Kathleen Bodie, Superintendent, Arlington Public Schools
Julie Kukenberger, Superintendent, Melrose Public Schools
Eric M. Conti, Superintendent, Burlington Public Schools

5 thoughts on “Middlesex Superintendents Critical of State’s Call to Return to In-Person Classes Without Plan

  1. Thank you for posting this letter. It’s a strong case to break up the monopoly government and teachers unions have on educating our children. It highlights disfunction and lack of will to take the guidance that so many other schools received from the CDC (private, parochial and even some public) and made it work for their schools. The same leaders cautioned by doing so would be catastrophic yet were complacent with the collateral damage done to our children caused by inaction or even worse, lack of will. Unfortunately, it looking more intentional when you see others have plan in August yet here we are in March and blame is still being thrown around like a hot potatoes.

    Parents have voiced their strong science based views to safely bring the kids back yet they were ignored. We all understand last year there were a lot of unknowns early on. I don’t mean to relitigate bad decisions, hindsight sometimes is 20/20 (pardon the cliché). Fast forward to today and we have the luxury of seeing how opposing decisions played out. Some schools with decisive leadership opened schools full time 5 days a week by September 2020 so it is really painful to continue to hear the same weak or perhaps manufactured objections like “our school is different” or “we want to get the kids back to school but it’s “complicated”. First, news flash, every school is different. We now know who successfully lead and who consciously decided not to. Second, parent’s blood boils when we hear pandering comments like “we want to get the kids to go to school but.. “. What would say to that is “The road to nowhere is paved with good intentions”.

    Punting blame onto the Governor for providing guidance is truly rich. Did any of you for once pick up the phone and call the school districts that figured it out? I seriously doubt it because the School Committee meetings abruptly dismissed any notion of comparing other schools.. wonder why that is really… could it be that there was either no union or you would actually have to listen to leaders who have the courage to push back? I also find it truly amazing the schools that have opened successfully, have done so without a single vaccination.

    You need to know the parents all see this nonsense for what it is “A War on Children”. Now we know it can be done balancing risk with unintended harm. A plan should have already been in place to go back the very next day at any point in time. Now the lies have been been exposed as it becomes clear now there were never any intentions to open. Parents don’t believe you anymore and public confidence and trust is destroyed along with the last year our children’s education. Finally, continuing with this plan to cause more harm to our children could not be characterized any other way than a “Crime on Humanity”.

    Despite this disaster, there is is some good news. Parents are waking up and it’s clear we have to do a better job vetting our school administrators who will put the children first and not bend the knee to the teachers union who do not (despite what they claim) have our children’s interest first.

    1 of an Amy of Parents Fighting Back

  2. Is it the Town Hall union that is keeping the Watertown public library from opening at full capacity? How about the fact that the town council and school committee meetings are all remote through zoom? What union is preventing the use of town buildings for those public meetings?

  3. Bottom line is no one wants to be responsible for the “decision.” Parents, you are the best and only advocate for your children. Do what you have to do to get them what they need to succeed in this dysfunctional world. Government, school administrators and teacher’s unions have failed your children and unfortunately will continue to do so.

  4. AFTER WATCHING THE SCHOOL MEETING THE OTHER NIGHT
    IT IS SO OBVIOUS THAT THE PARENTS WANT THEIR CHILDREN
    IN SCHOOL, THAT WAS LOUD AND CLEAR.
    IT WAS EQUALLY OBVIOUS THAT OUR SCHOOLS HAVE NO PLAN.
    THE UNION HAS ITS OWN AGENDA, BUT
    IT IS THE CHILDREN THAT MATTER MOST HERE
    GET THE KIDS BACK IN SCHOOL!
    AND REMEMBER THIS AT ELECTION TIME,

  5. There is a lot to unpack here, but I’ll just address the “Many unanswered questions and concerns” that the Superintendents letter says “must be addressed.”

    1. “a lack of guidance around lunch and other unmasked activities (3 ft. v. 6 ft.)” The CDC has guidance for lunch in the classroom or the cafeteria and many districts all over the world have already addressed this. DESE has said since the beginning of the school year that 3 feet was safe and the released a letter last week signed by more than 150 physicians and public health experts saying that 3 feet is safe.

    https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/safely-distributing-meals.html#classroom

    https://www.doe.mass.edu/bese/docs/fy2021/2021-03/item1b.2-2021-0228physician-letter.pdf

    2. “the possible disruption of Special Education services already scheduled.” Fitting all the students in school, including special needs students, should already have been part of the planning process for each district. Districts were supposed to create plans for remote, hybrid, and in-person last summer. It is not reasonable to expect the Commissioner of Education or the state Department of Education to handle scheduling for individual districts.

    3. “potential issues with existing Memorandum of Agreements with our teachers and other collective bargaining units” This is a surprising concern because the Department of Labor Relations came out with a decision in early February that is directly on point to today’s situation. The decision clarifies that the choice to move between modes of learning (remote/hybrid/in-person) is the “exclusive prerogative” of School Committees and is not subject to collective bargaining. Further, portions of existing agreements that would impede a shift of learning mode are not enforceable. Districts do need to negotiate in good faith with local unions about certain things, but no agreement or lack of agreement or local union can legally prevent a district from entering in-person learning. Here is the relevant portion from p.9 of the decision (legal citations removed for readability) and a link to the entire decision:

    “Some managerial decisions cannot be delegated by public employers or be made the subject of collective bargaining. For example, school committees have the exclusive prerogative to determine certain matters of educational policy without bargaining. To determine if a decision falls within the core educational policy exception to bargaining, the CERB ascertains whether the “predominant effect” of a decision is directly upon the employment relationship or is upon the level or type of education in a school system. The School Committee’s decision here, regarding which learning model to utilize during the COVID-19 pandemic, i.e. all in-person, remote, or hybrid, predominantly affects the level or type of education in the school system and is therefore insulated from the bargaining process. When parties do negotiate over a nondelegable right of management, the resulting agreement is not enforceable.”

    https://pubinfo.dlr.state.ma.us/ViewDocument.aspx?view=P:\TM%20Documents\Case%20Docs\ULP\MUP-20-8369\Dismissal.PDF

    4. “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.” It’s not clear how this could be resolved or how the state Dept. of Ed is expected to stop 200+ local Boards of Health much less the World Health Organization from having somewhat different opinions. Riley did address differing opinions on distancing in the recent press conference and it is discussed on the DESE website. What is consistent is that a broad majority of public health experts and organizations recommend that schools be open- as did the Watertown School Committee this week.

    https://youtu.be/r1_cncW2Tqo

    https://www.doe.mass.edu/covid19/faq/fall-reopening-faq.docx

    https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20210212/cdc-says-schools-can-safely-reopen-but-will-they

    https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/11/upshot/schools-reopening-coronavirus-experts.html

    https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/30/us/aap-kids-physically-in-school-wellness-trnd/index.html

    May we please get our children back in school now?

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