BOSTON — Teachers unions are calling for a remote start to the school year, citing rising levels of COVID-19 transmission in the state.
On Monday, the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers said its board has voted to push for remote learning to delay a return of students to classrooms in September.
"We miss our students terribly, and we all wish we could be back in the classroom with them," said Beth Kontos, the union's president. "But it's become clear in the last few weeks that an in-person return to schools would unacceptably put the health and safety of our students, their families and educators at risk."
The union, which represents about 23,000 teachers, cited the state's rising transmission rates, which have increased slightly in recent weeks, as reason for the remote start. It also pointed to delays in obtaining COVID-19 test results and a "lack of adequate ventilation and space for social distancing in school buildings."
The move followed similar calls by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which represents about 110,000 educators, as well as local teachers unions.
The recently formed North of Boston Educator Action Network, a coalition of local teachers unions, called for the development of a "high-quality" remote learning system until schools are deemed to be safe for students, staff and teachers.
"Faced with a pandemic that is actively spreading to children, teens and adults, we know that it is not safe to return to in-person learning at this time," the group said in a statement. "As educators, we cannot risk a premature return to in-person learning that will result in educators and students with their families getting sick and dying."
Last week, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley gave districts up to two weeks to delay the start of school to prepare for returning students. Districts must begin the academic year no later than Sept. 16.
Under the state's reopening guidelines, students in the second grade and up — as well as teachers, staff and other adults — will be required to wear masks and maintain physical distance in school buildings. Desks should be facing one direction and a minimum of three feet apart, ideally six feet apart.
Riley has told school administrators to prepare three sets of plans for the fall: A full return to in-person classrooms, a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, and fully remote learning. Districts are required to submit final plans to the state by Monday.
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the union pressure and concerns about a resurgence of the virus in the fall have "shifted the sands" in the debate about bringing students back to class.
"We're at a tipping point right now," he said. "Districts that were thinking about the hybrid model or some fashion of bringing kids back in person are now uncertain about whether they will be able to do that."
Gov. Charlie Baker closed schools in March to prevent spread of the coronavirus, sending districts scrambling to devise ways for students to learn from home.
The abrupt shift from classrooms to the living room exposed a technological divide, with many districts lacking the ability to set up virtual classrooms. Many students in low-income communities do not have internet access or home computers.
MTA President Merrie Najimy said the Baker administration and the Legislature need to spend more money on upgrading remote learning systems before the fall.
“The state has had six months to deal with the problems with remote learning,” she said. "They got computers into the hands of families but they never solved the problem of connectivity.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.