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Boston teachers overwhelmingly prefer remote-only instruction

In a new survey, a large majority of Boston public school teachers say they favor remote learning this fall.
In a new survey, a large majority of Boston public school teachers say they favor remote learning this fall.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Further complicating the Boston school system’s planning for reopening classrooms this fall, three-quarters of teachers in a union survey released Friday said they favored remote-only instruction while two-thirds said they were at high risk for COVID-19 or live with someone who is.

“Overwhelmingly, our members are not comfortable returning to school in-person in the fall for a myriad of reasons,” Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, wrote in an e-mail bulletin to members Friday morning. These numbers are staggering but not surprising. We are actively working on negotiating options to be available for high-risk staff.”

Many members in high-risk groups, she said, have been asking the union whether they will be able to take leaves of absence from their jobs.

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Nearly 2,000 of the union’s 7,500 active members have completed the survey, while the union is continuing to encourage other members to do so. The union, which has not taken an official position yet on reopening school buildings this fall, will use the results to help inform that decision.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Superintendent Brenda Casselliusreaffirmed their desire to pursue a mix of in-person and remote learning for the start of school at a City Hall press conference Friday afternoon, emphasizing a full-scale return is off the table.

“We know that we will not start school this year with all in-person learning. That’s a given,” Walsh said.

Boston teachers, who belong to the American Federation of Teachers, released their survey results amid stepped-up union advocacy across Massachusetts around school reopening. Two days earlier, school nurses, as well as some teachers and bus drivers, converged on City Hall plaza — with lawn chairs — for a sit-in, concerned about poor ventilation, cramped offices without windows, and other safety issues.

Separately, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which doesn’t represent Boston teachers, urged its members on Wednesday to pass resolutions advocating for a continuation of remote learning this fall, deeming the conditions in too many school buildings unsafe. The resolution will serve as a basis for negotiating changes in working conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Unions are taking action as school districts race to complete their reopening plans. The state has asked districts to create three separate plans for this fall — a full return, a continuation of remote learning, or a mix of the two — although Governor Charlie Baker has called on districts to educate as many students as possible in person this fall.

Preliminary plans were due to the state by Friday, while districts must settle on a final plan and submit it to the state by Aug. 10. Boston school officials are leaning toward a hybrid model that would allow students in alternating groups to attend classes in person two days a week, while completing the rest of their work from home.

However, only 22 percent of the union survey respondents supported the idea.

“It’s not too late to get this right,” Tang said in an interview. “If we are wasting time, energy, and resources on a plan that is unfruitful at best and jeopardizes people’s live at worst, we are missing an opportunity to have a better school year despite the pandemic.”

Adults at higher risk for severe COVID infection include those older in age. Almost a third of the 8,200 teachers, administrators, and other educators in Boston are 49 years old or older, according to state data.

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Adults are also at increased risk if they have such underlying medical conditions as obesity, cancer, chronic kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, and serious heart conditions, according to the CDC. Adults might also be at some elevated risk for other reasons, such as if they smoke, are pregnant, have moderate or severe asthma, and type 1 diabetes.

The mayor, in defending a hybrid approach, stressed that Massachusetts isn’t experiencing a surge in COVID-19 like Florida, Texas, and California but emphasized that the city and school department will rely on public health data in making the final call on whether it’s safe for students to return to classrooms this fall.

“Safety is our number one priority,” Walsh said. “We are not walking away from that.”

Walsh added, “Let’s not make it political. Let’s keep our kids at the forefront.”

Cassellius said the school system is fixing up buildings to reduce the spread of infection, including replacing rickety windows and air ventilation filters. She added that parents will have the right to keep their children at home and continue with remote learning full-time. The district, she said, will allow those children to remain enrolled at their current schools.

Both said they were concerned about the amount of learning loss students have experienced since schools closed statewide in March.

While teachers are worried about their students falling behind, they also are concerned about students’ health and their own. Some 87 percent of union members responding to the survey indicated that safety issues were driving their reluctance to go back inside the city’s deteriorating school buildings, many of which were built decades ago and have antiquated ventilation systems. Boston schools are notorious for lacking such basic supplies as soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels, and toilet paper.

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Deteriorating conditions inside school buildings — the city has built only a handful of new schools in the past two decades — as well as health conditions of adults and students are increasing concern around City Hall.

“Our children need and deserve every opportunity to learn and excel, but I don’t see how that can happen safely in our school buildings,” City Council President Kim Janey said Friday. “Remote learning is not ideal but we have to make sure children and staff are safe.”

City Councilor Andrea Campbell said her top priority is the safety of children, families, and educators and that they must be at the table in developing the school reopening plan.

“Given the national COVID-19 landscape and many unanswered questions, I am deeply concerned about fully reopening in the fall,” Campbell said in a statement. “We must immediately ensure our remote learning experience is working for all families including our special needs and English language learners, and any in-person plan or hybrid approach must equitably serve all students.”

The Boston School Committee will discuss the school reopening plans at its next meeting on Wednesday, being held virtually. But the board is not expected to take a vote because reopening schools falls under the purview of the superintendent, according to the chairman.

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Teachers plan to turn out in force — remotely — to testify.

“It’s not that people don’t want to go back,” Tang said in the interview. “Everyone would rather go back in person. The only thing that is holding them back is concern that health and safety won’t be prioritized, which unfortunately has been our experience in Boston schools.”

Felicia Gans and Meghan E. Irons of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.