On an online forum with Massachusetts educators and advocates Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren voiced support for more federal and state funding for school reopening efforts in the fall, and criticized Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration for its demand that schools reopen for full-time, in-person instruction or risk losing federal funding.
“The Trump administration's response has been cruel, heartless and incompetent,” Warren said on the Zoom call. “Teachers, school staff and families have worked so hard to try to keep kids learning during this crisis, but Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos have failed our students and failed our schools.”
Leaders from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the Boston Teachers Union joined the discussion, including BTU President Jessica Tang, who spoke out against teachers returning to school campuses in the fall.
“We have to get remote learning right first,” Tang said during the call. “We know in any iteration of what's going to happen in the future, it's likely there's going to be another surge. And we cannot just scramble and try to get remote learning right, like we did in the spring.”
While Tang was speaking, representatives from Boston Public Schools were holding a separate public meeting to discuss a tentative draft plan for the fall semester. A BPS spokesperson told WGBH News the final decision about schools this fall won’t be decided until next week at the earliest.
The current likely model, the school said, is a "hopscotch" hybrid attendance plan that would alternate groups of students and teachers to combine remote and in-person teaching simultaneously, and require social distancing and face masks for all in-person classrooms. Special education classrooms are being considered as an exception to the alternating schedule, providing that all students could safely social distance in one classroom.
In an interview with WGBH News following both calls, Tang said the teacher’s union was not consulted about the new proposed reopening plan, which she says raised questions about resources and safety.
“It's not that we don't want our students to go back to school and it's not that we don't want to go back,” Tang said. “But safety is critical for our families, our students and also our educators. Many of our students and our educators either have underlying health conditions or live with loved ones who do.”
Tang said the plan needs to consider training on new technologies, providing technology to students remotely, and ensuring the safety of people inside school buildings by improving air quality and ensuring safety protocols are being enforced.
“I think we're unnecessarily putting lives at risk,” Tang said. “That is not acceptable for our students, our families and our educators.”
In response, a BPS spokesperson said BTU and all employee unions have been “engaged” in the process.
“BPS educators are key partners in this planning process and we have solicited their feedback through our most recent staff survey, in a previous remote learning survey for educators, in smaller stakeholder group meetings, and in our larger community meetings,” the BPS spokesperson said in a statement to WGBH News. “Their critical input will continue to inform our decision-making as we gather additional community feedback in our discussions of the three reopening scenarios.”
During the call with Warren, a teacher at Dorchester’s Henderson Inclusion School, Sam Texeira, asked the senator what policymakers will do to support families who require child care. “Parents are going to have to go back to work,” Texeira said, “especially given that we've already seen Congress unwilling to pass another round of stimulus, and with unemployment benefits drying up.”
In response, Warren touted what’s being called the “Child Care Is Essential Act,” a bicameral piece of legislation co-sponsored by Warren and Rep. Katherine Clark that would give $50 billion to child care providers in the form of disaster relief funds.
“If we don't support these child care centers and treat them like basic infrastructure in the economy, then that's going to mean millions of parents simply can't go back to work, even when it's safe for them to do so, even when they're called back to go in to their jobs,” Warren said.
Warren also advocated for child care jobs to be unionized. “The only way they're going to have power to be able to negotiate for better working conditions and to be able to advocate on behalf of the children they take care of,” Warren said, “is if they have a union that will speak for them.”
During the call, Tang thanked Warren for taking part in the conversation while simultaneously criticizing the ongoing BPS meeting.
“I don't think enough elected leaders and policymakers and district leaders are listening to those of us who are most expert on these topics and need to be a part of the conversation of any reopening,” Tang said. “In Boston, for example, we have not been able to share our thoughts and opinions. … We are the ones who are closest to the ground, and we don't have policymakers who are willing to work with us and listen to us and actually value our expertise and our knowledge. Then we have plans that have huge gaps in them and don't keep our students safe and haven't thought through all the little details that we, as teachers, have to think through.”
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy pointed out that these conversations between educators and families highlighted pre-existing issues, which could potentially lead to a new perspective on education from both parties.
“COVID-19 just further exposed the detriments to our communities of color, our low-income communities. And we have seen the pandemic bring out the worst of people, the worst of our worst elected officials. But we've also seen it bring out the best, from the beginning,” Najimy said. “We have seen this pandemic actually transform how educators understand the power that they have, because they are coming together in ways they've never come together before to talk to each other about their hopes, their dreams, their solutions. They are talking with families in ways they've never talked before about those same things.”