Photo: The logo of the Belmont Education Association
In the past year as the Belmont School District has been adapting long-standing standards of learning and teaching in response to a once-in-a-century pandemic, one group consciously quiet during that time has been the teachers and staff and their labor representative, the Belmont Education Association.
As the School Committee and district administration has been the face of the ever-changing strategies to mitigate COVID-19 in Belmont’s six schools while keeping learning a priority, teachers have been in the background, only rarely breaking their vow of silence as parents and students began questioning educators and the BEA for being perceived as obstacles to the return of students to the classroom.
But in a response to a series of questions – they can be found at the bottom of the article – from the Belmontonian, the union issued a statement addressed the reasons behind its approach to teaching in a time of pandemic and discussing its view on key issues facing teachers and the union moving forward.
The Belmont Education Association statement:
A year ago, the Belmont Public Schools and the Belmont Education Association entered into a collaborative process to address issues related to instruction during a pandemic. Health & Safety, Social-Emotional Well-being, and Academic Engagement were our shared priorities for remote and then hybrid learning. Belmont’s options were limited as we faced the lean resources of space and personnel to operate safely in person. As educators, lacking statewide guidance, certainty, and evolving recommendations, we worked through interest-based conversations for eight months to effectively make decisions. This changed in November when we entered into formal bargaining. Formal bargaining forced us to work through all the issues in a tight timeframe with little opportunity to understand our myriad and changing interests and priorities and no chance to pilot our ideas.
As a union, our approach has always been to increase transparency and partner with the community to support our students. Our requests for open bargaining (inviting all community members to attend negotiations) are consistently rejected, so we sought other opportunities to connect with parents through PTOs and community forums. Transparency and mutual understanding are important for all constituent groups moving forward. We are committed to an approach that includes all community members in a conversation about what is best for the Belmont Public Schools.
At times it’s tempting to see the union as one person, but in reality, it is the school employees – union members whom parents see every day – who are the decision-makers. Members actively guide and determine our positions. We have expanded transparency and improved internal conversations by including ever more teachers, administrators, administrative assistants, and professional aides in bargaining. We understand that this has not been the same experience for parents. In retrospect, we should have included members of the Belmont School Committee and parent community in our Joint Labor-Management Committee meetings.
Moving forward, we will continue to prioritize CDC guidance for ventilation, correct use of masks, and physical distancing (at least six feet) as the most important mitigation measures for in-person learning. Surveillance testing and vaccines are also essential considerations as we expand in-person learning. We remain committed to our students and each other’s Health & Safety, Social-Emotional Well-being, and Academic Engagement.
Questions submitted to the Belmont Education Association
1. The CDC has stated “K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely.” When will the BEA consider Belmont schools “safe” for full-time in-school learning? Is it when all the measures in the CDC roadmap or some other matrix to reopening schools are met? Why is it taking so long to reach these goals?
2. How important is teachers’ vaccination to meeting the level of a “safe” workplace?
3. Are attempts to reduce the six-foot social distance requirement a “deal-breaker”?
4. The school district has created a working group – the Return to In-Person Learning Group – to make recommendations and a plan to bring all students back to school full-time. Is this the correct approach to take or would the BEA accept a more direct, faster approach from the superintendent or school committee to open schools?
5. The level of animus with some parents/residents towards the BEA and some teachers have reached a level last seen when teachers called a work action in 1995. “Why does the BEA have so much power”, “The town should follow science and not the union” and “There needs to be a lockout of the teachers union” are just a few comments on a popular Facebook page. Those parents believe the BEA is the chief impediment to full-time, in-school learning in the district, either by slow-walking negotiations or being overly cautious. 1). What misconceptions do these parents have of the union’s position/power in returning students to school full-time? 2. Do you believe it was the right approach to remain silent to the public – not on negotiations with the school committee but on general views of teaching during a pandemic? 3). Do you believe that the BEA will need to reach out to parents/residents to work towards improving the relationship it had pre-pandemic?