TWO SEPARATE ANNOUNCEMENTS from the Baker administration last week underscore the total absence of a comprehensive statewide back-to-school plan that protects students, their families, and educators.
On Thursday, Baker announced that the state will deploy COVID testing “SWAT teams” to schools with virus outbreaks – but only after COVID-19 transmission has already occurred within a school. Amid week-long delays to obtain test results, local communities are being left to fend for themselves, and being told to wait for an outbreak to happen before the state will step in to help them.
On Friday, the state released new guidelines calling for educators in districts using remote learning to teach from their classrooms. If a local community has determined that it is unsafe for students to return to their classrooms due to high levels of COVID-19 transmission, inadequate building ventilation, or other health and safety concerns, it is certainly not safe for educators to return to the same classrooms to teach.
Families in Massachusetts do not live their daily lives within the borders of one community. As restrictions on work and travel have been lifted, people who live in relatively low-risk North Andover, for example, travel to high-risk Lawrence for work. Some Fall River teachers live in Rhode Island, but are exempt from the latest quarantine restrictions for citizens of the Ocean State. The real-life experience of thousands of children from two-household families is that Mom lives in one town and Dad lives in another.
This virus doesn’t respect borders and we need to stop acting like the state’s color-coded map is a substitute for what the science tells us – it’s dangerous to bring students and educators who may be asymptomatic carriers of an airborne virus back to buildings with inadequate ventilation. And it’s especially irresponsible to do so without a comprehensive testing regimen in place.
Let’s be clear. Teachers want to get back to teaching. It’s what we love. And we know that in-person classroom instruction is best. But ignoring these problems and forcing educators and students into the classroom before it is safe will only result in outbreaks that set us back. Instead of pushing school districts to open prematurely, Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration should focus on removing two of the biggest obstacles to safe in-person learning: the lack of rapid virus testing, and inadequate indoor air quality.
Our cities and towns need comprehensive testing programs that can prevent asymptomatic students and staff from walking into school and spreading the virus to others. Common sense tells me that we probably don’t need this level of regular testing in every single community. But in high- and moderate-risk communities, free, rapid, and reliable on-site COVID-19 testing needs to be available to students, educators, staff, and vulnerable family members on a regular basis, so we can identify and stop potential outbreaks before dozens of children and adults are sick, not after.
Additionally, we need to ensure that indoor air quality in school buildings meets appropriate standards to prevent airborne transmission of the coronavirus – before any students or educators return. Many of the communities that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus have aging school buildings that have been plagued by ventilation issues for years, and lack the financial means to upgrade those buildings to meet the public health demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If we can provide rapid on-site testing and ensure adequate indoor air quality in our school buildings, a safe return to in-person learning could be possible as long as the transmission rate in a community is low. It’s time for Baker to stop dismissing valid safety concerns, and show some leadership in solving these problems so we can get our kids back to school safely.
Beth Kontos is the president of American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which represents more than 23,000 public school employees, higher education faculty, and staff, and public librarians across the state.