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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

NTA EBulletin December 6, 2020

We are in a most difficult place right now. Please bear with me; what I offer you here is not just a recitation of those difficulties, but also a proclamation of who we are as a union and what we can rightfully expect from the community in which we work. But first, that difficult place we are in. Even as the news tells us that vaccines will likely be made available to educators sometime this spring, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts surges, with 3,073 new cases recorded on December 1st, 5,027 on the 2nd, 6,675 on the 3rd, 5,491 on the 4th, and 5,619 new cases on December 5th (NYTimes). And we have not yet seen the full effect of Thanksgiving on the number of cases. Even as the School Committee promises "continual improvement" in response to constant community pressure for more in person learning, educators in Newton, like their colleagues across the country, say what we are doing now is unsustainable. And even as the COVID-19 Data Dashboard for the Newton Public Schools tells us that so far this year there have been 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff who teach in person and 0 confirmed cases among staff who only teach remotely, public health experts tell us that there is little evidence that COVID-19 spreads in schools. "Schools are safe" is becoming a mantra. And yet: The dataset referred to most often to buttress the claim that schools are safe, Brown economist Emily Oster's "COVID-19 School Response Dashboard", records a cumulative staff daily average case rate of 35 per 100,000, versus a cumulative community case rate where they work of 27 per 100,000 over its latest reporting period. In other words, staff who work in person in schools are almost 30% more likely to contract COVID-19 than members of the general population in the communities where they work. Safe for whom? Do educators not count? One Boston Medical Center doctor, Elissa Perkins, is quoted in the Boston Globe saying: “What is happening in our district (Milton) and others is that people are making decisions based on fear, not science.” No, Dr. Perkins, fear is a highly rational response to the danger that teaching in schools poses in the height of this pandemic. To deny this is simply not helpful. In fact, the claim that "schools are safe" does considerable harm. It frames our conversations about safety in all or nothing terms: Schools are safe, schools are not safe. Schools are safe enough if we just do X (wear face masks, socially distance, practice good hygiene, quarantine when we have COVID-19 like symptoms--that is, practice the "four pillars") because, well, schools are safe. --But what about Y (improved ventilation) or Z (surveillance testing), or A (keeping students in small pods to limit exposures and facilitate contact tracing)? --We don't need Y, Z, and A, because, well, schools are safe. And since they're safe, maybe we only need three feet of social distance--six feet is a worthy "goal," but three feet is "safe." Why? "Schools are safe. The evidence tells us they're safe." This conversation is deadening, destructive, futile. We need a conversation in which we--the members of NTA and the leaders of NPS--acknowledge two fundamental facts: (1) Our students do much better when they are in school. As educators, we can see that children are happier, less anxious, less depressed, and more joyful, when they are in school. They need to be in school. We owe this to them. (2) It is less safe for educators to teach in person than it is for them to teach remotely, especially as the pandemic worsens. This pandemic is knocking on our school house doors. Maybe not as loudly as we thought it would...but it comes knocking. 3,073 new cases recorded on December 1st, 5,027 on the 2nd, 6,675 on the 3rd, 5,491 on the 4th, and 5,619. Knock, knock, KNOCK, KNOCK. The fear we feel is real, grounded, true. If we can sustain a conversation guided by these acknowledgements, not allow the conversation to be short circuited by the facile claim that "schools are safe," perhaps we can find common ground. The truth is, the NTA holds enormous power, and this School Committee, and this central administration, at some level, know it. They have defied that power, they have thwarted that power, they have stepped on that power, they have been frustrated by our exercise of that power, they have tried to appease that power. If they continue to defy, thwart, be frustrated by, step on, and appease our power, they will fail. The NTA is the means by which we express our voices. We hold the power to speak in anger, frustration, or unmitigated fear. But most importantly, we--when we are one union, united in solidarity--have the power to give, or withhold, our consent to the conditions under which we work. This is what the district risks losing: our consent. If they do, they're lost, because we--not the School Committee, not the central administration, not the Mayor's office, are the central figures, the key players, in our schools, in the Newton Public Schools. One way labor has traditionally withheld its consent is to go on strike. But by consent, I mean something deeper: our very willingness to do what we do, our love for what we do, our pride in what we do, our joy in what we do, our personal stake in what we do. Without that, the School Committee and central administration can manage us, but they cannot lead us. If we withdraw our consent, their schools become hollow places. And they know they risk this. If this School Committee and this central administration want our consent, want us to choose to be in the buildings with our students, want to sustain a culture in which we offer our consent, then they must do the following: 1. They must negotiate in good faith at the bargaining table. They must recognize that we are equal partners, with an equal stake in the well being of Newton's students, and a right to advocate for our own safety. They must respect and welcome our perspective. And they must give that perspective place of pride even though we do not have the same legal means to constrain the district that DESE does, or certain advocacy groups do. 2. They must negotiate to agreement, and they must give up the idea that they must retain managerial prerogative to make whatever changes they see fit unilaterally, absent our consent. To hold to this will be to lose our consent at a deeper level, through slow erosion. And to lose our consent is the surest path to rigidity and inflexibility on our parts. The School Committee and central administration must give up managing us if they wish to lead with us. 3. They must reach agreement with us on a new tentative agreement before the winter break, and the School Committee must vote yes on that agreement. 4. They must acknowledge that have a fundamental responsibility to keep our members safe, that of all the boxes they must put an 'X' in during this crisis, that is the most important. In return, we must acknowledge that we have a fundamental obligation to teach our students in person when this is possible.

Two critical safety issues remain outstanding: heating and ventilation in the buildings, and surveillance testing.

HVAC. The district began the repairs, testing and balancing of the HVAC systems late, and completing this work is taking longer than it should. But since the district began this work, it has proceeded in earnest and with a clear sense of urgency. Although it is taking longer than planned, and probably costing more than hoped, that work must continue with the same urgency with which it began, and it must continue in full transparency. The district finally began publishing the promised dashboards of the results of testing and balancing work this week. You can see those results here. They must publish dashboards for the remaining buildings asap. As the work goes forward, wherever a room is not meeting regulatory standards for sufficient fresh air, mitigation must happen immediately. No one should be teaching or learning in inadequately ventilated spaces during a pandemic. The district must get this work done. Surveillance Testing: We are pleased that David Fleishman has announced a surveillance testing program. But the terms of that program must be negotiated with the NTA. It cannot be a program intended to placate the NTA and the public; it must be grounded in science, robust both in terms of the number of tests and the ease of compliance. And for the record: once a month surveillance testing is not surveillance testing: it is a waste of money. The NTA has been consulting and collaborating with a group of scientists (and Newton residents) associated with the Broad Institute, the Safer Teachers, Safer Students K12 Back to School Testing Collaborative." This is the collaborative working with a number of area districts, including Wellesley, Watertown, Somerville and Brookline. We will bring what we learn from our work with this group to our negotiations with the School Committee, and expect that, in the spirit of good faith bargaining, they will listen. What we already know is that Newton is well behind its peer districts, and well behind where it needs to be to protect our members if they are to remain in the buildings during this current surge. If the district wants to actually protect us, and not merely appease us, then Newton must catch up. Meanwhile, Newton must assure that those members who are at highest risk receive initial priority: members who live with a household member who is at high risk, members who work with students with high needs, members who come into contact with large numbers of students and adults, and members who work in multiple buildings. 5. Finally, they must acknowledge that there could come a time when, even with the most rigorous efforts to keep schools safe, they cannot remain open--that the risks are too high, and that these risks fall inordinately on staff. And they must give us a voice in these decisions--one that weighs far more heavily than Jeff Riley's or Charlie Baker's, whose basic advice is-keep schools open no matter what. It is our safety that is at stake. We must have a voice in determining when the risks to that safety are too great. We must be trusted to have that voice, trusted to know that Newton must weigh the decision of when to close a school or the system against its enormous obligation to keep children in school.


Last week, I wrote in this EBulletin that the leave policy the Newton Public Schools was offering for members who were not granted a remote teaching accommodation if they were living with a household member at high risk was "in its current form, one of the more generous accommodation/leave policies in the state." I have some regrets about writing that, not because it isn't true in at least one sense: The policy provides more extensive benefits than policies in most other district. But the thing about collective bargaining is this: to the extent that the parties reach mutual agreement, both parties can afford to be generous. The members of the NTA--you--are extraordinarily generous--you give so much of yourselves and sacrifice much from your personal lives in order to do so. Your students and their families know this, and recognize this. We need the School Committee to do the same. When you give so generously, you have a right to expect that it will be appreciated, and reciprocated. And there are many ways to measure what that means. A leave policy that allows you take a leave and to receive some pay and continued health insurance benefits to avoid putting your family at danger might be far less important to our members than being able to work in safety. Schools are only as safe as we make them. The members of the NTA have been working extraordinarily hard to make their buildings safe, to uphold the "four pillars." Our students have been also been remarkable in their willingness to uphold those same pillars. It is far past time for the School Committee to come forward and acknowledge our generosity, our sacrifice, our fear, and our extraordinary courage in the face of that fear.

"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." Please take care and stay well. Mike


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