ANDOVER, Mass. — They brought beach chairs, umbrellas, sun hats and cold drinks. But this was no end-of-summer celebration outside the Andover Middle School.
“I would call it a protest,” said Matthew Bach, president of the Andover Education Association, which represents teachers in town. “I would call it in some ways a civil action.”
The protest came on the first day of school for teachers in Andover, Aug. 31, the first of nine professional days before students report back in mid-September. Bach said the superintendent wanted teachers to work inside school buildings but without a guarantee, in the union’s estimation, that those buildings are safe.
“There’s a variety of conditions that have to be met including proper ventilation, air circulation, indoor air quality, proper protective equipment, training, water that reaches one-hundred-degree temperature, functioning sinks,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “There isn’t a global agreement on the variety of factors yet that have to be put in place in Andover.”
School administrators dispute that.
“Today’s actions by the Andover Education Association shows a disregard for our families and students who have confidence in the district’s work to ensure our buildings are safe for our students and staff,” District Spokesperson Nicole Kieser said in a statement.
During Monday’s School Committee meeting, Andover School officials say, under the Massachusetts law, public employees, being the school teachers shall not condone in a strike or slow down services.
School committee meeting officials took legal action, voting unanimously 5-0 to allow the district’s legal counsel to petition the state’s department of labor relations, after they say 45% of the district’s teachers union membership failed to report to work in-person.
“The law is very specific about what happens when there is a withholding of work. This track has already identified that people did not participate in critical work that needed to be done today,” said one school committee member.
Bach said work didn’t stop, it just moved outside.
And Andover educators did come prepared to work outside. They purchased hotspots, brought in a generator, even portable toilets. But Bach said the administration played hardball with his members, first not allowing the toilets.
“They shut down our power generator that was powering the WiFi, then they told us we were locked out of the building,” Bach said.
That meant no place nearby to use the bathroom. Bach also acknowledged a rumor the district planned to dock teachers a day’s pay.
“Educators are showing up to do their work in the parking lot,” Najimy said, “And now they’re being retaliated against by the superintendent.”
Najimy said these last-minute disputes are not unique to Andover and are emblematic of a larger issue statewide.
“This is a colossal failure of leadership from the state,” she said. “The governor should have called for a virtual start to the beginning of the school year and have us focus on creating one plan to get kids back into the building eventually, safely.”
Najimy also had harsh words for Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.
“The commissioner has wasted our time over the summer creating three possible models for returning to school. And it’s really distracted us from getting back to the buildings safely and as soon as possible,” she said.
Andover is set to go back using a hybrid model. But parent Beth Humberd collected signatures from more than 200 parents hopeful that will eventually morph into regular, full-time school. School officials said Monday’s training is the foundation for what’s to come in the following days for the district’s hybrid learning.
“What we feel like we’re trying to be is a voice for our children,” Humberd said. “Many parents that have signed this letter and have been advocating just like we have are just frankly sad and frustrated. This has been a tough time for everybody. It’s a really tough time for working families.”
“There were a number of furniture pieces that needed to be tagged for custodians and moved out to storage in order to create that 6 feet apart,” said a school committee member.
Teachers say the administration is not working with them.
“The governor is telling every other businessperson, every other employee, every other institution if you can work remotely you should work remotely,” said Bach.
The MTA says this is part of a larger problem that’s affecting many districts.
“This is a colossal failure of leadership from the state the governor should have called for a virtual start to the beginning of the school year and have us focus on creating one plan,” said Najimy.
According to the school committee they will continue their bargaining with the teachers. Professional development is scheduled to continue tomorrow.
The first day of school for students is scheduled for September 16th.
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