Debate over whether classes should resume in person this fall and how to accomplish that safely is heating up, weeks before the start of a new school year amidst the pandemic.
The Somerville Teachers Association is calling on the district to have fully remote instruction this fall. The union said it's the safest option for students and staff.
"That is a very tortured position to take," union president Rami Bridge said of the members' consensus on remote instruction. "They don't want that, but given the constraints and given the situation we’re in, it’s the only safe option."
Constraints include the evolving understanding of the transmission and effects of COVID-19, poor ventilation in multiple school buildings and a myriad of logistical concerns, such as securing enough personal protective equipment and substitute teachers.
Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone said he doesn't yet know what September will look like for district schools.
“I actually agree with what they’re advocating for," said Curtatone. "The task of understanding and recognizing the challenges before us as we try to open up schools is daunting, to say the least."
Somerville recently pushed back phase three reopening in the city until at least Aug. 3, even as other municipalities have resumed indoor dining and reopened gyms and other businesses. He hopes to present his final plans to the community "as soon as possible."
"Because of the unknown nature of the virus and its trajectory, we need to be ready for a continuum of possibilities," Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said in an interview with WBUR.
“We might need to pivot from model to model throughout the year,” Riley noted. If schools take the time to plan now, it should be easier to adapt, particularly if there's a second wave of viral infections in Massachusetts.
California recently rolled back its reopening plan as cases begin to rise again. Its two largest public school districts will now be online-only in the fall.
Districts have until Aug. 10 to finalize plans for three basic scenarios: fully in-person learning, fully remote learning or a combination of the two. But releasing district plans just three weeks before the school year begins cuts too close for many teachers and parents.
“That is not acceptable," Curtatone said of the Aug. 10 deadline, adding that he won't wait until then to share the district's plans. "Whatever we decide to do ... in this crisis we have to be transparent. We have to be upfront. We have to give people an opportunity to prepare.”
Massachusetts parents are divided over returning to in-person instruction. White parents are more likely than Black or Latinx parents to favor reopening with a modified schedule, according to a recent survey by the MassINC Polling Group. Parents from higher income households were also more likely to favor reopening than parents from low-income households.
Bridge said Somerville should make its decision now so that teachers and families can prepare, and the district can improve remote learning and services.
"What happened in the spring wasn’t good enough," Bridge said of the rapid shift to remote pandemic education. "The bottom line is that to make that work, we need time. And that’s why it’s so important that we make a decision now so we can begin planning about how to ensure that our most vulnerable students are getting the education that they deserve.”
There's not yet a statewide consensus about what equity looks like during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black, Latinx and low-income communities.
This article was originally published on July 23, 2020.