The Haverhill Education Association will be having an all-member meeting regarding reopening on Monday, August 3rd, at 4pm via Zoom. Please save the date. Earlier tonight Superintendent Marotta presented the 3 plans requested by DESE for this fall’s resumption of learning. Below are my prepared remarks. The Reopening Bargain Team is meeting tomorrow to draft a proposed bargaining platform to present at our general meeting on Monday. It is imperative that every member attend, if possible.
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Ladies and Gentlemen of the School Committee, I come before you tonight to talk to you about the reopening of our schools.
We all know that Commissioner Riley has asked all Superintendents to submit to DESE three reopening plans – 1 for 100% in-person, 1 for 100% remote, and 1 for a hybrid model. Ultimately however, the HEA and the School Committee will have to come to the bargaining table and determine the working and learning conditions for this year. Already, hundreds of parents have indicated that they have no intention of sending their children back into our buildings, especially in their current conditions. Likewise, many educators are having a difficult time deciding whether their own condition, or that of the people they care for, may make returning to the school buildings too quickly too risky to attempt. This is why, HEA members and other teacher unions across the Merrimack Valley and state also demanded that DESE call for an environmental health and safety assessment of every school building and tie the reopening of those buildings to public health benchmarks supported by the latest peer-reviewed science and data. Unfortunately, Commissioner Riley unilaterally terminated negotiations at the state level and left those problems for you to solve on your own, while we were only able to win the 10 days to start the school year without students and use the time to redesign learning to meet their needs in a pandemic.
Like our colleagues across the state, Haverhill’s educators want nothing more than to return to their classrooms to be with their students and provide them the best possible education. However, that same concern for our students’ well-being and education which pushes us to return to the physical building, is also pulling us to stay home for them and for each other – at least for a little while longer. As much as it pains us, current scientific data and public health guidelines tell us that it is not possible to return without hurting our community
The latest guidance from the CDC still holds that 6 feet is the necessary safe distance, even in a building with adequate airflow, environmental health and safety conditions, and proper PPE. This 6 foot recommendation is also recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics who say, “States and the federal government will need to help. Purchasing and installing updated air filter systems is beyond the capacity of most school districts but is also an ideal opportunity to put millions of unemployed Americans to work on securing the future of our country.” Since that has yet to happen, it’s not yet possible to put anyone back into these school buildings.
Despite recent claims by Trump, Betsy DeVos, and our own Commissioner Riley that “children, particularly younger children, are less likely than adults to be infected with COVID-19…and… if infected, children may be less likely to transmit COVID-19 to others,” new research, released July 20th in the CDC’s Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases, published a report out of South Korea that found “children between the ages of 10 and 19 have the ability to spread COVID-19 within a household at the same rate as adults. Those under the age of 10 can also spread the virus, but the rate at which they do so is significantly lower.” On July 18th, the New York Times wrote that “Other studies have also suggested that the large number of contacts for schoolchildren, who interact with dozens of others for a good part of the day, may cancel out their smaller risk of infecting others.”
The more we understand about the virus, the clearer the dangers of in-person reopening become. Regardless of my own personal feelings, and deep desires to return in person right away, I have to make data driven decisions. I side with science, not the Trump administration and I hope this School Committee chooses the same side.
As I said, I am deeply committed to returning to in person learning, but Only When It’s Safe. In order for us to reopen safely, we need to commit to BOTH a deliberate phased-in approach that gradually increases the number of people in our buildings over time AND promise to make critical infrastructure improvements. A great deal of updating is needed to ensure that all who enter our buildings are adequately protected by improved air flow and filtration, in addition to PPE and social distancing. We also need effective, established protocols for when, inevitably, a student or staff member becomes exposed to the coronavirus.
Recently, the Association asked our members, “Do you believe your school building has the adequate environmental health and safety standards in place for staff and student safety, even with reduced class sizes and proper PPE?” Only 8% said “yes”, while a resounding 63% responded with “no” (the rest were “unsure”). Additionally, when we asked our members if 3 feet of social distancing, which is the most we can assure if every student returns to school at once, is adequate even with reduced class sizes and proper PPE, 65% again said “no”. For years leading up to the pandemic, the condition and maintenance of our school buildings has been a regular issue for discussion in our community. Now more than ever, we must make the investment in our schools or we will be just as unprepared to keep them open during the next pandemic as we were during this one.
I should note that it is not lost on anyone that while the School Committee considers not just one, but two plans that call for large numbers of staff and students to be in our school buildings in just over a month’s time, this body continues to meet remotely. If 3 feet of distance is acceptable for our students and educators for 6 hours a day with masks on, why aren’t you willing to sit 3 feet apart from one another on the dais of the City Council Chambers where you traditionally meet? The answer is obvious. Because it isn’t safe. Not yet.
When you are ready, I suggest you follow a model similar to what we are proposing, and which has been used to reopen businesses and restaurants safely and successfully here in Haverhill – gradually phase in in-person public participation with opportunities to pre-register and wait in a socially-distant line to speak during public comment. Maybe residents can even sit in designated, physically-distant seats in the audience. Surely, I’m not the first to suggest moving public meetings to the City Hall Auditorium, just across the hall from your regular meeting space, where the public could actually watch, in person, and remain 6 feet from one another from the audience? If I am, I don’t need to take the credit for it. Once you can do that, maybe then we can seriously discuss how to return staff and students to the school buildings.
Once we reopen our schools, we want to keep them open. Rushing this process and putting too many people back in the buildings too soon will very likely cause the infection rate to spike and trigger another shutdown. This would only disrupt the learning process even further and exacerbate the well-known inequities that existed in our schools both before and during the pandemic – not to mention endanger the lives of our entire community
It is clear that we will never get 100% agreement on the right way to do this. But it’s also clear that we can’t afford to get it wrong. There’s so much wrong with remote learning, both in terms of the crisis learning we were forced into in the spring, and even with the most thoughtful and intentional planning. We know that this may be a hardship for families, and we hope that Haverhill helps to provide more support for parents who work and need daycare, or who are struggling with rent, or who are dealing with other fallout from COVID. Unfortunately, Haverhill’s buildings aren’t safe enough to go back into yet. And the hard truth is there is no hardship greater than the unnecessary loss of life.
I oppose remote learning as a solution to this pandemic because it is a treatment for the symptoms and not the disease. I oppose remote learning as a substitute for making the local and state investment needed to make our buildings truly safe for all. I oppose remote learning as a curriculum-in-a-box program that takes the professional teacher out of education and replaces them with “remote learning management” software. But I do not oppose remote learning if that means returning to the buildings in their current condition. I support remote learning, if it is designed by our educators in collaboration with one another, during the first couple weeks as a way to resume learning IF the district commits to making the infrastructure improvements needed to eventually safely return.
I do not want to see yearbooks at the end of this school year with pages of “In Memoriams” dedicated to the educators and students we may lose to Covid if we return to the buildings too quickly. I don’t want to reflect back on this process and be complicit in rushing Haverhill educators and students back into an unsafe environment. I’ll also never be the type of leader to tell my Union siblings what is best for them and overrule the democratic wishes of our rank-and-file organization. This decision isn’t mine to make in a vacuum anymore than it is the Committee’s or the Superintendent’s. At this time, it is my opinion that the only way to safely reopen schools – and keep them open – is to start remote and gradually work our way to a full reopening based on scientific data and public health benchmarks. Anything else would be reckless, irresponsible, and counterproductive.
So, tomorrow and next week our members will continue to debate the merits of each of these plans in an open and democratic process until we reach consensus as a union and in solidarity with our fellow union family members throughout the Merrimack Valley and the Commonwealth. We hope the School Committee will be just as engaging with us and the public over the next couple of weeks as our community must work together to fully reopen our schools in the best and safest way possible. I hope that all of you, as well, do not look back on this decision and wonder – “If I had done something differently, how many people would still be alive?”
I thank you for your time, and I look forward to continuing these discussions in an open forum where educators, parents, and residents concerned about these issues and how reopening may impact community spread of the virus going forward can participate throughout.
Anthony J. Parolisi
Haverhill Education Association