Protesters bracketed eastern Massachusetts Wednesday, demanding a healthy return to the school year and security for teachers and school staff members.
Three of the state's largest teachers' unions — AFT Massachusetts, Boston Teachers Union, and Massachusetts Teachers Association --- rallied outside of the State House to demand that the school year start remotely, with in-person teaching phased in later when certain health and safety standards are met. The event comes as roughly two-thirds of the state's school districts are planning for at least some in-person teaching in the fall.
Gov. Charlie Baker said at a Tuesday press conference that, since schools first closed their buildings in March, "we've learned a tremendous amount about COVID and have put together guidelines to allow for a productive and safe learning environment that adapts to the challenges that come with COVID-19."
But Hopkinton elementary school teacher David Bernstein wasn't so sure the data supported a return to the classroom.
"This is taking a toll on all of us," he said. "But when we amp up to something like this, where you suddenly throw a million students in Massachusetts back into this crazy experiment, of course I'm worried for my family and my community."
Bernstein's son Henry joined him in front of the State House and expressed concern about his father's health.
"I feel glad that I get to do remote but I'm also really nervous for my parents," Henry, a fifth grader, said. "I wish everyone would do remote. There's no reason not to save people."
Health officials have defended their metrics for returning to the classroom, saying it's based on sound data. State officials have been encouraging districts to bring as many students as possible back to the classroom, provided COVID-19 infection rates in their community are below four cases per 100,000.
"The Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed the Department’s guidance to bring kids back to school because the metrics and guidance are guided by science, and keeping children isolated has serious impacts to their education and mental health," said Colleen Quinn, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education. "The Department has set clear safety requirements guided by public health data and continues to collaborate with school officials, medical professionals and stakeholders in developing guidance for the safe and responsible return to school in September.”
About an hour south in Fall River, more than two dozen protesters gathered outside of Bristol Community College. Educators and staff from the community college and nearby UMass Dartmouth pushed for a promised end to layoffs and furloughs as schools, planning largely remote falls, face fiscal uncertainty.
If it sounds like college educators want both safety and job security, Max Page — vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which has lobbied for fully remote learning — argued that it's not an unreasonable demand.
"It is not safe, and we should not be putting people in harm’s way. We don’t want educators to get sick or die because we were chasing tuition dollars,” he said. "It’s also a terrible idea to cut jobs right now. You are taking money out of the economy at the very moment when you need it.”
Amy Blanchette worked in Bristol Community College's office of student and family engagement until May, when she and more than 130 others were laid off.
She was concerned for the many students who attend community colleges as they deal with hunger, homelessness, addiction and other challenges — and will now have to do so with less personal support.
"You have no idea how many students are struggling with one or more of these situations unless you start to engage with them," she said. "It gives the students hope when they know they can see you every day. When they know they can come to you, trust you, and believe you when you tell them 'you can do it.' "
Page said institutions of higher education should tap into reserve funds — and secure state and federal help — to retain staff as they weather the pandemic.
“They call them ‘rainy day funds.’ If ever there was a time when it is raining, this is that moment,” he said.
Material from State House News Service was used in this report.