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Hopkinton Teachers Association issues statement questioning safety of returning to school

by | Aug 13, 2020 | Education, Z-Lead Image Front Page

Editor’s note: During Thursday’s School Committee meeting, the following letter from Hopkinton Teachers Association president Becky Abate regarding school reopening plans was read. Editor’s notes/explanations are in brackets [].

To the members of the Hopkinton School Committee,

Up until now, members of the Hopkinton Teachers Association have stayed silent on the issue of school return as we engaged in, listened to and contemplated the same conversations, debates and sources of information you have. There have been several School Committee meetings with public comments from parents, Hangout Hours and Facebook threads where you’ve heard from many of the stakeholders in the HPS [Hopkinton Public Schools] community and it is important that you also hear from us, the members of the Hopkinton Teachers Association. Hopkinton educators want two things: the best educational experience for our students, and a venue to provide quality education that is safe and lends itself to the physical and mental well-being​ of all students and staff​. In a situation where these two “wants” are at odds with each other, we must demand that health and safety be the priority above all else. We must find a way to educate our students in the best way possible that does not compromise the wellness of students and staff. This is our stance and we will remain steadfast in accepting nothing less.

At this point, HTA members have been unable to have their questions about safety answered in a satisfactory way by the Department of Health: questions must be answered completely, and subsequent answers should not contradict previous answers; questions should be answered with confidence and in ways that are based on science and not simply in a way that is convenient to whatever the preferred school reopening plan may be. Using the guidelines put forth by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], we know what we need to do, but for Hopkinton educators the question remains: ​“Can we do what we need to do to be safe? And can we provide a quality education while we do it?”​ These two questions have yet to be answered for Hopkinton educators, and just as we are concerned about it, we feel that everyone in the HPS community should share in those concerns. We are turning to you in the hopes that you can help facilitate answers to our many questions which have yet to be answered:

1. How do we protect teachers with physical conditions that put them in a high-risk group when remote assignments are not available? Allowing parents to make choices on hybrid or remote has dictated whether or not our teachers can be given these necessary accommodations. How do we ask them to take a year or partial year of unpaid leave, and without insurance, because there is no remote assignment available to them?

2. How do we meet the needs of FAPE [Free Appropriate Public Education, for students with disabilities] laws while also providing a safe place for educators to work? How do we ensure safety for educators who work with students who cannot wear masks and who cannot maintain distance?

3. How do we ensure safety in all of our classrooms, especially in Elmwood and the middle school where the MERV [Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value] ratings for air filters are below the standards as prescribed by OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]? (Both schools have MERV 8 filters as opposed to 13 which is the recommendation.) We must take all steps to improve overall air quality and mitigate viral transmission.

4. How do we ensure that educators are able to stay home if asked to quarantine or become ill due to a school exposure without loss to their salary or sick days?

5. How do we ensure safety for educators at the secondary level, and specialists at all levels, who will be exposed to over 100 students per week?

6. How do we ensure safety for students and staff at the high school who will be unable to remain in cohorts as prescribed by DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] and the CDC? Are we sacrificing the health of all in doing so?

As teachers, we share the feelings of loss that Hopkinton students have been grappling with since March 10th. We, too, are mourning the loss of being in the classroom with our students; the experience of in-person teaching and learning cannot be replicated elsewhere. The social emotional benefits of the in-school experience is experienced not just by students, but by all staff members as well. But, as we consider a return to school, we know that a hybrid approach will not bring this back for us or for our students and brings with it additional questions. The questions we have about the impact on the learning and social emotional well-being of students are as important as those about safety:

1. How will the quality of teaching and learning be impacted with a schedule that includes dramatically shortened classes along with frequent disruptions for mask breaks and cleaning?

2. How will the quality of teaching and learning be impacted by the loss of valued Hopkinton educators who will be forced into an unpaid leave of absence due to health or childcare issues?

3. How will the quality of teaching and learning be impacted with frequent absences by teachers who must remain out for any COVID-19 symptoms, or who may be out to care for family members, or provide care to children whose own schools may enforce a quarantine or COVID-related closure? Do we have substitutes available? Or will we need to transition to remote? Are we prepared to do so? Will we add to the stress of our students when their teachers are sick or absent on a frequent basis?

4. How will we provide training for teachers on a brand new Learning Management System so that their remote learning is ready to go? Despite being given extra days for professional development prior to the return of students, do we have enough time to learn this program in addition to learning safety protocols, redesigning curriculum to meet the schedule of a hybrid plan, and planning for how we will meet the social and emotional and academic needs of students who have experienced great stress and possible learning loss?

5. Should we be using this time to ramp up our remote learning plans given the relative certainty of another school closure, rather than struggling to find answers to what are seemingly unanswerable questions about operations in a hybrid plan?

While we are insisting on answers to these questions about safety and teaching and learning, we are not opposed to any one school return option. We just want it to be safe for all and we want it to give us, as educators, a chance to deliver the quality instruction our students deserve. We believe there is not a one size fits all approach in how we return to school and that the district should be creative in their approach to meeting the academic and social emotional needs of our students no matter what model we are in. We would like to see students, even in a remote learning situation, be able to participate in after-school activities like clubs and sports — all of which can be achieved in small groups or outside and without the health and operational complications of a full day in school. We want our students to be happy and healthy, and we must find a way to do this that does not jeopardize their well-being or the well-being of educators.

In closing, we want to reiterate that there is plenty of information out there from experts at the CDC, the World Health Organization and beyond, but this information does not come with answers to the questions being posed by Hopkinton educators: Can we, within the operational and staffing realities of Hopkinton Public Schools, adhere to the rules of safety AND provide a quality education to our students while serving their social emotional needs as well? When these questions can be answered with certainty, we will celebrate a return to the school building, hybrid or otherwise. But until then, we implore the decision-makers of Hopkinton Public Schools to explore other paths and find creative solutions to achieve the excellence that our students and staff deserve and demand.

Written with respect on behalf of the Hopkinton Teachers Association,

Becky Abate
President, HTA

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