TEWKSBURY — The Tewksbury Teachers Association held a virtual forum last week with more than 70 participants to discuss the contract bargaining process and answer questions from parents about school reopening.
The meeting was run by TTA vice president Julie Taggart, a second grade teacher at the Heath Brook School. Taggart lives in town and her kids went to Tewksbury Public Schools:
“I’m not coming at this just from the angle of a teacher,” she said. “I’m coming at it from the angle of a parent and a taxpayer.”
She also introduced several other TTA members from schools across the district. Members stressed that teachers want to get back in front of students and will be on board for whatever the district decides to do; however, the TTA’s main goal is health and safety for both teachers and students.
Taggart explained that the TTA is made up of 350 teachers and paraprofessionals, and that the union is required by Massachusetts state law to sign a memorandum of agreement with the district outlining salaries, teacher work hours, preparation time, and more.
“Any time our working conditions change, we are required to bargain a new MOA,” said Taggart.
The TTA is required to bargain, or work out the details of an MOA for each of the three pandemic learning plans: in-person, hybrid, and remote.
Taggart presented a timeline of the bargaining process over the past four months. In May, TTA president Josh Bilodeau asked Superintendent Chris Malone to form a joint labor/management task force for school reopening.
According to the TTA, Malone agreed to form the task force but asked to wait on guidance from the CDC and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, a move Taggart called “very reasonable”; DESE released reopening guidelines on June 25, mandating districts to submit three plans for return to school.
On July 15, 2020, the TTA presented the district with a demand to bargain, the formal opening of the process; the TTA and the district held two bargaining meetings in the remainder of July. In the third bargaining meeting on Aug. 4, the TTA proposed a remote learning plan in writing.
“We’ve done a lot of research and we do feel that [remote] is the safest,” said Taggart.
The Tewksbury School Committee voted on Aug. 6 in favor of a hybrid reopening plan for the start of school. The district then submitted a proposal for a hybrid plan at the fourth bargaining meeting; the TTA wrote a counterproposal for the next meeting (Taggart noted that countering proposals are a common part of the bargaining process).
On Aug. 18, the TTA bargaining team met to review the district’s counterproposal; however, the district had not sent one at that time.
Taggart said that the TTA is bargaining in good faith with the district, and as such did not share any of the written proposals and counter proposals between the two parties.
“I expect that the district is being sincere and honest with their intentions,” she explained.
However, the TTA highlighted major areas of importance in terms of a safe return to school. Taggart said the TTA will go back to school without an MOA, but “we will continue to work on it until it’s done.”
She noted that very few districts in the state have signed an MOA with their teacher unions and wanted to dispel the notion that Tewksbury is unique in this regard or that the TTA is “impeding” a return to school.
She also wanted to combat misinformation and explained that contrary to rumors, the TTA is not lobbying for the cancellation of MCAS or the removal of school resource officers; these areas fall under the control of DESE, and so the TTA has no influence.
One of the most important issues is safety. The TTA wants personal protective equipment to be provided for students and staff, including plexiglass shields for small group work and clothing covering for teachers working with high risk students, as well as hand sanitizer, handwashing stations, and regular bathroom cleanings.
The TTA also emphasized a need for consistent testing of teachers and students before returning to school, daily health screenings, and clear guidelines and protocols for what to do when someone is sick or has to take an extended quarantine period.
Members discussed the district’s proposed half-day schedules for hybrid learning, where on an in-person learning day, a cohort of students would spend about four hours in the school, go home for lunch, and continue the day with remote learning.
“Lunch is probably going to be the most dangerous part of the school day,” said Taggart, as students will have increased exposure while eating without masks.
Remote afternoons could provide more flexibility with synchronous teaching for specialists (art, music, etc.), leaving the in-person hours for main subject teachers. Members acknowledged that the half-day model presents challenges to childcare for working parents.
The TTA is also asking for a data-driven approach to reentry metrics and wants a positive test rate of below two percent for a sustained two week period before shifting to a hybrid or full in-person return. The current positive test rate in Massachusetts is 1.4 percent, and though the TTA would rather have the Tewksbury number, that data is harder to get.
Governor Charlie Baker recently announced testing support for K-12 districts across the state.
The TTA also has concerns with air and ventilation in buildings related to fan usage, air circulation, and room temperature. Taggart thanked the district for completing a ventilation evaluation with a third party and said that after extensive research by district science teachers, the TTA would be recommending MERV-13 filtration or a HEPA system for buildings.
Several teachers gave testimonials about the quality of air in the buildings at different temperatures and noted that the better the conditions, the more comfortable students will be wearing their masks.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association recently negotiated a 10-day professional development period before the start of school for teachers; the TTA would like to use this time to do training which covers remote learning, trauma-sensitive teaching, social/emotional learning, anti-bias training, and health and safety protocols.
Middle school teacher Jon DiPrima noted this training will remain useful long after the pandemic as an investment. The TTA is also pushing for equity in technology for all students and staff.
The TTA feels the 10 days should also be used for student/family outreach to meet families either remotely or in-person, and for prep time for hybrid teaching readiness. Taggart said teachers asked to shift their curriculum plans to move the skills that are easiest to teach to the beginning of the year, but were told that would not be possible.
Teacher Lisa Zullo said it is important staff be in charge of professional development because “we know how to help your children.”
Several teachers also emphasized remote learning in the fall will look very different from crisis remote learning which happened in the spring thanks to changes in the state’s online teaching restrictions. The TTA believes teachers should have extra prep time for online lessons, and paraprofessionals and aides should play an “actual, dignified role” in helping students and families.
Taggart also addressed the district’s Remote Learning Academy for students who can’t attend school in a hybrid or in-person model. The TTA strongly believes the RLA must be staffed by Tewksbury teachers because they already know the curriculum and have relationships with students, and “teachers and students with health risks or family health risks can continue to work remotely while continuing to be part of the TPS family.”
The TTA raised concerns with synchronous learning, specifically privacy issues for both teachers and students. Taggart noted that teachers providing technical support to students takes time away from learning; teachers may also be able to tape lessons for students who need to access lessons after school hours with their parents.
Members also said they were hurt by allegations that the TTA is impeding the process.
“We have been as transparent and forthcoming as possible,” said Taggart. “Our hope is to move forward in a professional manner.”
Taggart encouraged parents to reach out to district administrators and School Committee members with concerns as constituents.
“We are thinking about all the what-ifs,” she said. “They are working really hard right now, but so are we.”
The TTA is committed to a safe and successful return to school, she said, but acknowledged that the situation’s uncertainty will require intensive planning. The TTA is planning to hold more parent forums in the coming weeks.
“We’re not going to turn our backs on your kids,” said Taggart, “but we do have things to work out.”