BALTIMORE TEACHERS UNION (BTU) RE-OPENING CAMPAIGN: #SAFENOTSILENCED
More than any other issue, BTU leadership is hearing from members questions, concerns, and ideas about school reopening. The issue is deeply complicated by interlocking injustices.
In March, congress allocated 13.5 billion dollars for K-12 schools but the true cost of “safely reopening schools this fall is estimated to be between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion.”
State and local governments claim they do not have resources to meet the massive needs of public schools (though they certainly could be doing more and their proposed cuts are harmful and unnecessary).
The increased costs of running public schools during a pandemic are placed on top of the already existing decades of racist federal policy, unconstitutional underfunding from the state, and abysmal contributions at the city level. We didn’t have running water, functioning HVAC systems, proper staffing levels, technology, and cleaning materials before this crisis, and this exacerbates the challenge of reopening for Baltimore City in particular.
Working families with young children are being forced back to work before schools can open safely, the government is choosing to create impossible choices between their lives and their livelihood. We need to work in solidarity with families demanding a jobs guarantee whether or not they can return to physical work. Where remote work isn’t possible, caregivers should receive unemployment or paid leave for the duration of school closures.
The BTU’s response to reopening, #SafeNotSilenced, recognizes that we have three main ways to confront this challenge:
at the bargaining table,
through workstreams and feedback with the district’s engagement events, and
through organizing students, families, BTU members, and community to ensure our demands are met
What can the Baltimore Teachers Union legally bargain over?
We’ve heard from members what a safe reopening means to them. Some of the things members want can be put across the bargaining table as a proposal, but some of the things members want aren’t things the BTU is allowed to bargain for. We cannot bargain over the decision around HOW to reopen schools, that authority rests with district leadership and the school board. We can bargain over the effects of the reopening on employees. Our issues are bigger than the bargaining table. It is important to note that just because a decision is not bargainable does not mean that we are powerless to impact the decision. If we want something that is not bargainable, we will have to organize and mobilize students, families, community members and BTU members to push district leadership to accept our requests and demands.
President Brown issued a demand for bargaining over effects of school closing and school reopening, and those negotiations will begin Monday, July 13, 2020. The scope of these negotiations will cover a variety of proposals that were developed in collaboration with the American Federation of Teachers-Maryland (AFT-MD) and AFT National. Importantly, since the district is still in the process of determining nearly every aspect of what the 2020-2021 school year will look like, BTU leadership cannot provide a comprehensive list of every position we will take.
We will fight for the safety of students and staff at every turn. It is our position that City Schools need to open virtually in the fall in order to protect human life, period. Only when the public health data demonstrates consistent, significant, and long term downward trends, school facilities and public transportation are safe, the necessary resources and PPE have been procured, and the procedures and protocols have been fully worked out THEN we can consider shifting to a hybrid model. Some of our demands during negotiations to move us towards this eventual possibility will include:
- Testing and cleaning protocols that meet or exceed CDC standards
- Fully staffed free child daycare centers for school employees based in schools
- Sufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and training on how to effectively use PPE
- Hazard duty pay for Paraprofessionals and School Related Personnel (PSRPs) and teachers who complete work in higher risk physical environments
- Supplying all PSRPs and teachers with the requisite technology to complete their duties during distant learning, including laptops, tablets, high speed internet, and professional development for utilizing technology and new learning platforms
- Revised emergency operation plans that ensure safety for all, including health screenings, disinfection protocols, procedures during fire drills, lockdown protocols, bomb threats or other civil unrest protocols, protocols for technology outages and threats, a protocol for the response to the death of a student or staff member, and other scenarios in the district’s existing emergency preparedness plan, which currently does not include any pandemic response
- The development of a robust contact tracing program
- Supply of materials necessary for supporting healthy hygiene behaviors in class and throughout school buildings
- Protocols that establish clear limits on time employees can be made to work when engaged in distance learning, including, but not limited to, time spent synchronously and asynchronously teaching, in meetings, and making phone calls to families
- Beginning school virtually and when safe, provide all employees the choice of continuing to work in either an all virtual environment or returning to work in school buildings; no one should be forced to work in potentially unsafe environments
- Securing medical accommodations for employees who are high risk or have high risk family members
- Continual inspection and upkeep of the standards set in the protocols above
- Restricted access to school sites
- Health screening protocols and PPE for any visitor permitted in school buildings
- Class size maximums based on social distancing guidelines
- Supplies necessary for students to work independently without shared materials
- Repetitive cleaning and disinfecting of the physical space in line with earlier established procedures
- Police-free solutions for student behaviors that violate social distancing
- Special PPE, protections, training, procedures and hazard pay for Home and Hospital employees subject to unique circumstances
- Standard protocols when positive COVID-19 cases are identified
- Policies that protect employees’ sick leave
- Air circulation assessments of each building along with policies to ensure proper air circulation is guaranteed in any space that is being occupied by students or staff
- Installation of HEPA filters and/or UV filters that are proven to reduce or eliminate airborne transmission
- If attendance drops due to higher rates of school refusal or if in-person attendance becomes optional due to medically fragile students or family members, have a system in place for school-employed mental health professionals to check in with students and families while COVID-19 may still be a threat and after the immediate threat subsides.
- Ensuring specialized instructional support personnel (e.g, school counselors, school psychologists, speech language pathologists) have adequate spaces to conduct confidential sessions while maintaining social distancing requirements.
District leadership has divided their planning efforts into 16 different “workstreams” which will contribute to an overall reopening plan. The District’s reopening plan will be presented to the school board on July 28, 2020 at 5PM before being sent to Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). Union leadership pushed hard to be able to appoint a BTU representative onto each workstream:
Our appointees were mandated to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) before participating in this work, though they are able to communicate to union leadership what they’re learning (union leadership had to sign similar NDAs). While district leadership refused the BTU’s push to also include families, students and community members onto these vital decision making bodies, we are in frequent communication with these stakeholders in order to communicate their wants and needs to our appointees on the workstreams.
Proposal and Workstreams Are Nice But What Will We Demand, and What Are You Prepared to do to Back it Up?
At the end of the day, we can only do so much at the bargaining table and by giving input in workstreams. There are some decisions that are solely up to the district leadership and the school board. North Avenue “chiefs” have indicated in town halls a strong preference towards a hybrid model of in person learning, distance learning, and an opt-in option for families to enroll their children into a fully online academy. It’s clear from what little we’ve seen that the district’s preference so far, hybrid model plans, are insufficient to do schooling in a way that protects human life. There is a lack of any national or statewide testing, tracing, and isolation programs; there is a growing risk of a second wave of infection; limited district resources, and insufficient planning has taken place to start school inside of school buildings in less than 50 days.
Let’s be clear, opening in the fall under a hybrid model is a choice, and one that does not need to be made. Baltimore City Public Schools leadership did not create our deeply segregated and underfunded school system, but school leadership does have the power to make decisions that acknowledge the reality of our failed government policy from the federal, state and local levels. There is no mandate to reopen schools in person, and district leadership has not requested additional funds for full or additional staffing or a waiver of the 180 instructional days. We maintain that while in-person learning (when executed properly with the proper resources) is superior to online learning. However, unnecessarily and hastily reopening schools puts the entire City Schools and Baltimore City community at risk, while disproportionately threatening illness and death on Black and Brown students, families, community members and employees.
We must be prepared for a potential outcome where the board chooses to move forward with in-person learning in the fall despite not having the proper PPE and protocols in place. If that occurs, what are we – the union – prepared to do to save our lives and those of our students, their families and community members? Language matters here. People within and outside of the BTU are asking the question, “What is the union going to do?” The 63 people who are elected officers and staff are not the union, the 7,000 teachers, clinicians, paraprofessionals and staff are the union. These 7,000 (in conjunction with students, families, and community members) are the only force powerful enough to confront the challenge ahead of us. Dramatic action may be required. We may have to engage in actions beyond issuing a public statement, negotiations, and advocating at board meetings with board comments. So the answer to the question “what is the union going to do?” will be determined by the 7,000, not any one person.
Organizing for Our Demands
Our chances of having a safe reopening of schools will be dependent on successfully uniting with BCPSS students, families and community members that are not in BTU. Solidarity is a term for putting that unity into action by using our time, talents, energy and resources to benefit the directly impacted (educators, students, families, and the communities of Baltimore City) by this crisis.
Solidarity means action, and that can mean letter writing, protests, public comment at the school board meeting, attending events hosted by other unions and community groups, volunteering, donating, wearing a t-shirt, using a hashtag, participating in a hunger strike, implementing work to rule, car caravans, public speeches, satirical performances, attending funerals, posting bail, boycotts, nonviolent obstruction, and much, much more.
All of these options are on the table, and as a union we need to have honest conversations about how much risk members are willing to take.
Members are already talking, planning, and taking action. That should and must continue but if you want to get involved and aren’t sure how to start, here are three things you can do:
Plan to attend the July 28th school board meeting. Recruit students who are willing to give public testimony, and send their names to Corey Gaber at firstname.lastname@example.org to help coordinate testimony and sign up for public comment. Email your ideas and concerns to the school board.
Attend the district’s town halls, focus groups, and apply to be interviewed 1-1. Each member needs to be as educated as possible and we need as many member voices as possible amplified in these spaces.
If you are a caregiver to a BCPSS student or a Baltimore City community member, consider applying to the Parent and Community Advisory Board, which advises the district leadership. Encourage your students and their families to do all of the above actions.
Email Tishea Lester at email@example.com if you are committed to taking action.
Remember, when we fight, we win. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or concerns.