Let me be unambiguous: teachers, students, parents, and elected officials all want the same thing. We all want to return to school buildings in a safe way. We all understand that students benefit from building relationships with peers and teachers, and we also understand the mental health challenges that come from quarantine.
So how did we get here, with so much anger, frustration, and fear? Let’s track the events that brought us to where we are now. My hope is to clear up some misconceptions along the way.
In late July, teachers received a survey asking whether they would prefer to teach remotely. From this, the district should have been able to build a very good idea of their staffing situation for the fall. Keep this in mind when, later, the district blames staffing as the reason why their initial proposal fell apart.
During the summer months, the teachers developed a plan for a safe, phased return that included testing for staff and students, requirements for safe buildings, and a commitment to equity for all of our students. This plan was finished before the district’s. The district was unresponsive to questions and did not incorporate the plan, instead developing a plan entirely internally.
Next, your mayor lied to you. So many parents and students I’ve spoken with believed the mayor’s claim that the plan was developed in concert with the teachers. On the contrary, teachers were ignored.
We can call the district’s proposal a “plan” only in the most liberal use of the word. The initial proposal, which included a hybrid option and the Distance Learning Academy (DLA) did not even pretend to have details. Incredibly, in the survey parents filled out, the DLA option specifically stated that the details were still in development.
The district sent a survey to parents with the expectation that they commit to one option or another within four days. Parents were expected to commit to one of these options with no details and many unanswered questions. This put many families in an impossible position.
Similarly, teachers were required to fill out a survey which gave them options only between able and unable, with narrow caveats that excluded situations such as a teacher caring for an at-risk relative, but not living with them, or living in the same condominium, but not the same apartment. If teachers selected unable, they were informed that they had an additional three days to provide proof from a doctor.
The oft-repeated claim that 85% of parents chose hybrid for their high school students is a lovely example of a failure of data interpretation that I might very well use in my teaching going forward. Among the respondents to the parent survey are presumably three categories of people:
1) Those who did not need details or complete information to know that they would prefer hybrid regardless of the details, of which there were few for hybrid and none for the DLA.
2) Those who did not need details or complete information to know that they would prefer remote regardless of the details, of which there were few for hybrid and none for the DLA.
3) Those who felt that they did not have enough information to make an informed decision, but were forced by the district to make one anyway.
Among Category 3, I have spoken with parents and students that:
- Only chose hybrid because it guaranteed Newton teachers, whereas the DLA did not
- Only chose hybrid because the DLA had no details
- Only chose hybrid because they feared that if the district transitioned from a split model to entirely hybrid, their child would remain separated in the DLA
- Only chose hybrid because they believed that the district (teachers included) had evidence that it was safe
- Only chose hybrid because they did not understand that the distance learning that would take place in the fall is substantially different from the crisis-mode, no-preparation distance learning that took place in the spring
- Only chose one of the options because they mistakenly believed they had all the relevant information, but subsequently said, “If I had known X, I would’ve chosen differently.”
- Only chose hybrid because they believed that teachers supported the option
- Only chose hybrid because they wishfully just wanted everything to go back to normal
- Only chose hybrid because they believed that it would provide a greater degree of social interaction for students than it actually would (no labs, no small group discussions, etc – one day a week of socially distant time where the student is in the same room as other students, but that’s about it)
At the recent School Committee meetings, Newton was told that around 95% of teachers would need to be able to return in order to make their proposed DLA/Hybrid model work. If the district knew this before sending out the survey, it was deeply irresponsible to ask families to commit to one of two options without first ensuring they had the resources to offer those options. If the district did not know before sending out the survey, then, along with the depressing lack of detail in their proposals, this is yet another example of the district not performing due diligence.
Aside from the multiple problems with the district’s process and the horrible position they put teachers and families in, it would appear that METCO families were an afterthought. The initial proposals, as presented, were deeply inequitable; the School Committee proved this was the case in a recent meetings when they revealed that METCO families and BIPOC families disproportionately chose to enroll in DLA (which was not guaranteed to have Newton teachers, remember), creating a “separate but equal” educational institution.
For all Newton’s talk of anti-racism advocacy, this is what institutionalized, systemic racism looks like.
The district’s actions up until this point perfectly positioned them for their next step: blaming teachers for their failures.
Despite a petition by students with over 1,000 signatures, despite a barrage of questions begging for a plan for testing for the virus, and despite having the proposal’s inequities pointed out to them by their own School Committee members, none of these were the reasons presented to the community for the shift this week from the original proposal to the current proposal.
Instead, the reason given for the change was “staffing.”
This in and of itself is an admission of failure by the NPS administration; they admit that they put forward a proposal entirely predicated on staffing without first checking the staffing. However, the bigger problem lies in framing this as the teachers’ fault. It’s not hard to draw a line from this presentation to misinformed claims by members of the community such as:
“Teachers don’t want to work.”
“Teachers are essential employees; force them to go in.”
“Could you fire some teachers? Newton taxpayers are getting ignored.”
“100% union victory without a shot fired… Teachers will collect full pay and benefits from home for the foreseeable future.”
The claims by the School Committee and the NPS administration led to members of the Newton community to believe that teachers usurped their will because they simply don’t want to return to the buildings. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
First, it was impossible for teachers to usurp anyone’s will because the NPS administration has ignored our input for months and continues to do so.
Second, teachers would never push for a proposal that would help to protect high school teachers and students while forsaking younger students alongside elementary, ELL, pre-K, and special educators.
Third, what these individuals have claimed is the “will of the community” is predicated on faulty data, thanks again to the lack of planning by NPS administration and the School Committee.
The School Committee approved the new plan, and here’s where we are today:
1) Citizens of Newton are furious because of the catastrophic handling of planning by the School Committee and NPS administration. Many, based on incomplete information, misinformation, or outright lies, have misdirected that anger toward teachers.
2) Teachers feel unheard, unvalued, and betrayed by our own superintendent. We’re forced to take time away from real work to write things like this to defend ourselves from incompetence by the School Committee and the NPS administration.
3) Students will suffer the results of a ramshackle plan made up at the 11th hour, worsening an already bad situation.
The School Committee and superintendent have sown division and uncertainty due to their failure to listen and plan ahead. Everyone understands that the pandemic is a challenging situation, but “listening to people who know stuff” and “not tossing an unfinished plan into the community a month before school starts” are not high bars to meet, and yet they have failed to meet them in spectacular fashion. The NPS administration has failed in their duty to serve our students, and the School Committee has failed in their duty to oversee the superintendent.
Here are the three biggest reasons why the current plan is still unsafe for students and teachers:
1) It lacks surveillance testing. Without surveillance testing, any infection will spread quickly and easily. Newton’s low (but rising for three months) COVID numbers are meaningless when one infected student can spread to countless others because of a lack of testing. You have been told that we cannot do this because it is too expensive. This is another lie. Surrounding districts, including Wellesley and Brookline, are doing this, and Newton has the opportunity to work with Wellesley Hospital to test all students and faculty at least once a week.
2) There is no independent HVAC review. Despite NPS insisting that the HVAC is safe, Newton teachers have worked in these buildings for years, and have good reason to be skeptical of this claim. After the failure of NPS administration on so many fronts, skepticism should not just be understandable, but shared by families. We would love to be proven wrong! But it is certainly better to be safe than dead.
3) With neither of these measures in place, elementary, ELL, pre-K, and special educators are expected to return to the buildings, unfairly risking their health and the health of their students while guaranteeing the safety of high school teachers and students.
Whether you are a parent, teacher, student, or simply a citizen of Newton, this should concern you.
You should be concerned at the appalling lack of communication, lack of transparency, and lack of planning by the superintendent and your elected officials.
You should be concerned that Newton is taking unnecessary risks to students’ and teachers’ health by choosing not to engage in surveillance testing or assure the functionality of the district’s ventilation.
You should be concerned that members of the School Committee nearly adjourned their meeting last night without approving their own plan, but believing they had, because they didn’t understand their own procedures.
You should be concerned that members of the School Committee have often treated the student representatives in a patronizing, disdainful way.
You should be concerned that your elected officials and the NPS administration have lied to you and avoided answering your questions in public forums.
You should be concerned that instead of doing their jobs, your elected officials and the NPS administration have cast the blame for this disaster on teachers, despite not listening to a word we said.
You should be concerned that your elected officials and the NPS administration never once mentioned to you the Newton Teacher Association’s comprehensive plan, which was ready and complete even before the district’s was.
You should be concerned that members of your community, despite boasting of progressive, anti-racist policies, endorsed a policy that would discriminate against METCO and BIPOC students.
You should be concerned that members of your community voiced concerns about METCO students bringing infection into the district, but somehow “forgot” that predominantly white Newton teachers commute in from over 100 other communities, and would seem far likelier to bring infection.
You should not be concerned that teachers will not do their very best job to ensure that your children will receive the best education possible, just like they always have.
Today is Friday, August 28, 2020, and we have been informed that Monday, August 31 is the first day back for teachers. Yet, as simply the latest in a long line of examples from this summer, we do not know what we are supposed to do on Monday or, in fact, any day next week. Like your students, we do not have our schedules – not for a lack of effort from our excellent schedulers, but because the NPS administration has forced these schedulers to do in two weeks what usually takes three months.
We teachers share your frustration and your anger, Newton. We need to work together to hold the public officials responsible for this debacle accountable, and we need to work together to make this radically different school year work. You deserve better.
The teachers are not the ones who have failed you – your public officials are.
Mathematics & Physics
Newton South High School