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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

NTA EBulletin, August 2, 2020

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

Quick Links:
Member Action to Support the NTA Negotiating Team sign a petition addressed to David Fleishman and the School Committee
Ben Cohen's Education Fund (Molly William's son)
NTA July 12th proposal of remote and hybrid models
NTA Request for Information
MTA/AFT/BTU phased approach to reopening schools

Thank you to all who contributed to Ben Cohen's Education Fund (Molly William's son). Over 200 people clicked on the link to his go fund me page, and over 600 people clicked on the link to Molly's obituary. These numbers give an idea of the tremendous outpouring of generosity that so many of you expressed towards Molly and her family. I am sure it is much appreciated.

COVID-19 Negotiations Update

On Wednesday, July 28, your NTA Negotiations Team met again with members of the School Committee and central administration. For the second time, the tone of the meeting was more collaborative. The district presented us with a written plan, with more, though not enough, detail.  In a time when collaboration could hardly be more important, it saddens me to report that the NTA Negotiations Team is very doubtful that this process will bear fruit if it remains on its current path: it has become clear we are light years apart, divided on fundamental principles.  I shared the specifics of the NTA proposal in a July 12th update; it is available to read again online by clicking here. Before turning to the details of negotiations, I know that what is foremost on members' mind right now is whether we will be returning in person in the fall. I will again state:

  • The NTA's position is that we should return to school in the fall in a fully remote model, focus first on doing remote learning as well as possible, and only transition to hybrid in person learning when it is clear we can do so slowly and safely.

  • As far as we can tell, the district is proceeding as if we will be returning in a hybrid in person learning model.

First, whatever you may have heard about student and staff health and safety being the district's top priority, that is clearly NOT the guiding principle that is driving the planning for reopening schools. From top to bottom, from beginning to end, health and safety are sacrificed to other values. The district has offered hybrid plans for in person learning that run a high risk of the schools becoming accelerators of the spread of COVID-19, endangering staff, students, and families.  Tents are not enough! Second, the NTA and the NPS are guided by different priorities. The NTA prioritizes health and safety. The NPS has prioritized a full day schedule, both remote and hybrid, of six to seven hours each day, in order to comply with DESE and Federal regulations. Two weeks ago we proposed remote and hybrid models that we believe offer the appropriate amount of time on learning, well thought out schedules, and the possibility of smoothly transitioning from remote learning to hybrid learning in careful, thoughtful phases. In order to insure staff and students safety, the NTA has insisted that we keep students and educators in small cohorts and eliminate student and educator contacts outside those cohorts to the highest degree possible. In our plans, educators who work cross team or grade (middle), or cross classroom or grade (elementary) teach remotely in order to protect their safety, their students' safety, and the safety of ALL students and staff who would be put at risk by these regular off cohort contacts. We believe this must be a priority if hybrid in person learning is going to happen safely at some point later in the school year. (A similar plan for high schools to keep students in small cohorts would require a very radical restructuring of how teaching and learning happen there. This proposal met not only with administrative resistance, but also much staff concern. It is the NTA's current position that in the high schools students and staff will interact with far too many people in a given day and over the course of a week for the schools to safely transition most classes to hybrid, in person learning. For this reason, we believe that the high schools must not only reopen remotely, but also continue to provide remote learning only for the 2020-2021 school year, or until such time as there is a medical solution to the COVID-19 pandemic. The only exception could be substantially separate programs....but this must be negotiated!) To date, as far as we can tell, district leaders have not taken the NTA proposal into serious consideration. They do not have to agree or disagree with the details of our proposal, but they MUST accept the fundamental priority that guided our thinking: the health and safety of staff and students comes first. But the district is guided by a different priority. They have insisted on a rigid interpretation of DESE guidelines on both general education and special education, particularly the latter. Specifically, they have insisted that the only way for special education students to receive all of the services they need is for the school day to be its normal, pre-pandemic length. They insist on this at all levels: pre-k, elementary, middle, and high, and for both hybrid and remote only learning. Students and educators in their plans would be "in school" (hybrid) or "doing distance learning" (remote) 6 to 7 hours on most days.  I believe most NTA educators would agree that the amount of educator contact time with students last year was neither sufficient nor well enough structured. But to go from there to a plan that has students engaged in remote learning some six or seven hours per day nearly every day is unreasonable and unsustainable...and forces the district to de-prioritize health and safety. This insistence has precluded district leaders from either seriously considering the NTA's proposals, or developing reasonable plans of their own for remote and hybrid learning. In all ways it puts strains on what can and cannot be done, and from the perspective of health and safety, it severely limits the district's ability to keep students and staff in small cohorts. (Ironically, this is especially true for special education students, for whom these schedules must be so long. They will come into contact with the largest number of adults and other students outside their classrooms, have the greatest difficulty social distancing, and receive services in the smallest, most cramped and poorly ventilated spaces in their buildings. Our most vulnerable students will be put in the riskiest position. And what does this mean for the staff who work with these students?) Third, at all levels, the plans for transitioning from a remote model to a hybrid model are mind-bendingly ill-conceived.  The district only has incomplete proposals for how their hybrid models will work, but here are three examples to illustrate their thinking: 1. The remote plans under consideration for high school and middle school only have students meet with each of their classes two days a week. This creates a dilemma if you need to split students into A and B groups who learn in person only two days a week and could only attend one of their two scheduled class periods per week. The district's proposal: Teach the in-person classes remotely...even for the students who are in the building. Everyone would come to class and sign in on Zoom: teacher, students at home, and teachers at school. The whole class would do exactly what it was doing when it was learning remotely, only some of the students would now be in school. Leaving aside the logistics of how poorly this would work, think about this implication: At great risk to everyone's health, the district brings students back to school. They will come to school in person for a precious two days a week. Hurray! That's better for their social and emotional well-being, right? That helps us build connections, right? But wait: What would the district ask us to do? Put the students back in front of a screen for a large part of the day. 2. In elementary school, the district agrees that it is not safe to have special subject teachers working with students in person. But if students do not have specials in school, and students take lunch in their classrooms, classroom teachers would be with their students from 8:20 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon, with no break. The district's solution: Have the special subject teachers "Zoom in" their classes, and have somebody other than the classroom teacher supervise these students in their classroom. There is of course the obvious question: Who are they imagining would do that? But then there is the further question: where would the classroom teacher go? Because if they stay in the classroom, they are not really "off duty." The faculty room? Is that safe? Outside? Maybe, when it's not too hot, not too cold, not raining or not snowing. How often is that? The tent! Along with all the students out there taking a mask break? Their car? That just sounds depressing. And how, in any of these locations, is the teacher supposed to do professional planning? Get things ready for the next lesson, or the next day?  And of course there is the question: Who is teaching your students on the days they are not in school? You? Because in the NTA plan, you would be with your students four to five hours when they are in school. On the days they are not in school, they would be taking PE, Art, Music, or Library and, if needed, receiving any services that could be delivered remotely. Your day with students would definitely be hard and draining...but it would be a reasonable length given that it would be "straight through," both for you and for your students. And someone else would be responsible for your students when they are not in school, so you could focus on the other (small group of) students in front of you. (Our middle school plan is quite similar. As I said above, we do not think under the schedules being contemplated, high school students should return to hybrid, in person learning anytime during the year.) 3. The district gets its guidance on how to determine a "close contact" from the public health department. That guidance defines a close contact so narrowly that if a student is in a room at least six feet from other students, and they are wearing a mask, the other students in the room are not close contacts. It gets worse: If a students is wearing a mask while they are in the halls, and come closer than three feet to other students or adults for fewer than fifteen minutes, that too is not a close contact. What this means, practically speaking, is that, if a student does test positive for COVID-19, miraculously, by definition, they have not been a close contact to anyone else in the building! We don't need contact tracing or testing! Fourth, we have still not received the district's response to our request for information on pandemic preparations, which, as you can see by clicking on the link, is quite comprehensive. Finally, you must know: the NTA will not agree to any plan that does not put the health and safety of our membership, our students, and  everyone's families first. But if we fail to reach an agreement, the district does have the legal right to impose their "last best offer," and force us to work remotely under conditions that are not educationally sound, or to go back into buildings under conditions that are not safe. So what do we do? 1. We must continue to insist, along with the MTA/AFT/BTU, on a phased approach to reopening schools. 2. This means, first of all, that we must insist that when schools first reopen in the fall, they must do so remotely, with a plan that allows for a slow, safe, and phased in return to the buildings. 3. We must insist that they open with remote learning plans that are reasonable, sustainable, and permit a gradual, titrated switch to a hybrid plan.  4. We must treat these negotiations much as we treated our contract negotiations. We cannot count on the district to do what we think is right, nor work collaboratively with our negotiations team members, unless they know that our team has the full support of our membership. Perhaps they are doing what they think is the right thing. Or perhaps they are simply acting out of fear of litigation for compensatory services. Or both. In any case, they need to be aware of how much they have lost our trust and confidence, and how strongly united we are in our resolve. 5. As a next step in this process, I will ask our joint Executive Committee and Negotiations Team, which is now meeting every week, to reconvene our Contract Action Team (CAT).  6. We ask every member of our Association to click here to sign this petition, which we will give to the School Committee and David Fleishman: "We miss our students, and long to have education look like it did before this pandemic, but it cannot and will not for some time to come. Health and safety of students, staff, families, and the larger community must be the primary drivers of all decision making. We insist that students and staff not be sent back into buildings this fall until and unless we, through our union, have agreed that the plans, protocols, and school infrastructure provide for this to be done in a way that is safe for students, staff, families, and the larger community. Moreover, we insist that the remote learning plans to which we return be guided by what is best for students, staff, families, and the larger community, and not by adherence to a rigid interpretation of state and federal regulations." 7. We will also encourage our building reps to hold building meetings, and will develop protocols for monitoring those meetings so that you can speak together and share your thoughts and concerns with one another. We will develop these protocols at our Tuesday Executive Committee/Negotiations meeting. 8. Through our building reps and our CAT members, we will also reach out to members individually or in small groups to have conversations with you about what you think we should do, and, most importantly, what you are willing to do individually, should the district move forward with a plan to which the NTA cannot agree. Thank you for your time. "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." Please take care and stay well. Mike  



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