School districts will have an extra 10-day period at the start of the school year to plan their pandemic-era operations, under what the head of the Massachusetts Teachers Association said was an agreement between unions and state education officials.
"COVID learning is crisis learning, and it's going to be with us for a full year," MTA President Merrie Najimy told the State House News Service. "We don't need to just plan for what September and October look like. We need to redesign an entire year of teaching under a pandemic."
The two sides reached an agreement Monday and have signed a plan to have a 10-day period before classes start to give educators time to "work with each other to prepare for a new year."
Najimy wrote on the MTA's website that a memorandum of understanding the unions and DESE signed will reduce the 180-day student learning time requirement to 170 days, "so long as districts begin providing instruction to students no later than September 16, 2020." (School districts can apply for a waiver if they cannot meet that requirement.)
Najimy said the planning period will give teachers the time to reflect on the spring's sudden transition to remote learning, revise and adapt. She said students will be coming back to school "with needs that we don't fully understand yet."
"Teachers absolutely want to go back to school but number one above all else is health and safety," said Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang. "No one should have to risk their life."
Tang said about two-thirds of the Boston teachers union members have an underlying health condition or live with someone who does.
After Gov. Charlie Baker and Education Commissioner Jeff Riley released the administration's school reopening strategy at the end of June, the MTA, American Federation of Teachers of Massachusetts and Boston Teachers Union put forward their own proposal calling for a phased reopening.
Najimy said the unions and Riley had been in talks throughout July. Both Tang and Najimy said that the state canceled the rest of negotiations, which would have included issues such as building ventilation and other health and safety concerns.
"The commissioner refuses to use his influence to insist that every school building in Massachusetts be inspected to make sure they meet environmental health and safety standards and be brought up to code if they don’t," said Najimy. "We need some kind of rapid testing and contact tracing and we need to tie the opening of buildings to some kind of public health benchmark."
In a statement, a state spokeswoman said: "We continue to collaborate with school officials, medical professionals and stakeholders in developing guidance for the safe and responsible return to learning in September. These conversations have been helpful and productive, and we are glad that the MOU outlines our shared priorities, including the well-being of students and staff."
Last week, state education leaders released detailed transportation and facilities guidance, which advised schools to "work to increase outdoor air ventilation instead of using recirculated air and increase air filtration as much as possible."
It's estimated that one-third of schools nationally need to update their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.
With reporting from WBUR's Carrie Jung and Katie Lannan of the State House News Service
This article was originally published on July 27, 2020.
This segment aired on July 28, 2020.