WOBURN - The School Committee and Woburn Teachers Association (WTA) leadership reached modified contract terms that paves the way for partial return of pupils to the classroom later this month.

During a meeting last night in the Joyce MIddle School, School Committee Chair Ellen Crowley Ellen Crowley revealed that she and WTA officials had executed the agreement last Friday. The understanding between both sides was reached just days before teachers returned to work earlier this week.

"As you've all been informed, the Woburn School Committee and WTA entered into a memorandum of agreement (MOA). I signed it with the teachers' association on Sept. 4," said Crowley. "This was a huge, enormous achievement during this time. The goal was always to make Woburn Public Schools as safe as possible for our schools, kids, and staff."

The modified contract terms was the last major obstacle standing in the way of Woburn's proposed hybrid school reopening plan, which will see many teachers returning to their classrooms and conducting in-person instruction four days a week on Sept. 21.

Over the summer, a large number of educators, including WTA Co-President Barbara Locke, had expressed skepticism around the notion that schools could safely reopen in a manner that protected teachers from potential exposure to COVID-19.

Since that time, school officials have enacted some preventive safeguards that extend beyond DESE COVID-19 protocols, such as requirement that all students wear masks while in school facilities regardless of their age.

Central office administrators also last month tweaked their in-person learning schedule to eliminate classroom sessions after lunchtime. Worried that too many students would be unmasking in cafeterias and other large-capacity school venues — thus increasing potential exposure to the pathogen — Superintendent Dr. Matthew Crowley and others will instead send all children home at lunchtime for afternoon remote learning sessions.

According to Crowley, the MOA also includes a requirement that school managers meet at least once a week with staff to address any new safety concerns. The new contract language also shortens the window for principals to act upon initial grievance complaints filed by teachers who believe the contract accord is not being followed.

"The memorandum of understanding really just echoes some protocols regarding safety. One of the main points is that management and labor will meet weekly to discuss any safety issues that might arise," the School Committee chair explained last night.

The MOA was also needed in light of the drastic changes in work conditions required in the post COVID-19 era, when teachers will also providing lesson plans and instruction for at-home or virtual-based learning sessions.

Because the entire concept of virtual learning is new — teachers were first forced to experiment with the format after schools were closed in March — school officials have been scrambling in recent months to create the programming.

According to the superintendent, in light of the enormity of that exercise, WTA leaders voiced a number of valid concerns about how a modified remote learning program will function for the 2020-2021 school year.

"The Woburn Public Schools are built to be an in-person learning environment, so we've been working on building three separate [learning settings] at the same time. It's been incredibly taxing" said Crowley, referencing the district's modified in-person program, partial remote program, and full-time virtual academies.

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