Emails give a deeper look at negotiations between Concord schools, educators’ union over in-person learning

Monitor Staff
Published: 11/21/2020 4:28:21 PM
Modified: 11/21/2020 4:28:06 PM

At a Concord School Board meeting in August, weeks before the school year started, board members unanimously upended the superintendent’s recommendation and the expectation of families that the year would begin with in-person classes when coronavirus cases were low.

After a marathon meeting, the board chose to start the year going fully remote with just a few exceptions, like teens enrolled at the technical center and some special education students. Among school districts in the region, Concord stood out.

Behind the scenes, the Concord Education Association had been objecting to in-person learning all summer, even days before the vote, worried that it wasn’t safe to return.

“All of our teachers truly want to be back in school with their students, but many believe that even with untested safeguards in place, the real danger exists, that a student or staff member will contract COVID-19,” reads a letter from union reps, sent to board members Aug. 1. “For this reason, the CEA is not in support of any in person teaching at this time.”

Concord Education Association President Michael Macri asked interim Superintendent Kathleen Murphy in July to assure him that if schools opened at the end of the summer, no students or staff would become infected with COVID-19. He worried the district was moving ahead with plans to reopen and threatened to go public with his complaints that the union wasn’t consulted.

“This can only lead me to believe that we were sold a bill of rotten eggs when we met last Wednesday,” Macri emailed Murphy. “The CEA will be forced to take our concerns to the Monitor, parent groups, and the board.”

“Let’s talk today,” Murphy wrote in response.

It is now November and cases are on the rise in Merrimack County. Health officials have established there is “substantial” community spread. Concord community members are again questioning whether students should be in school or learning remotely.

This month, the board was faced with what to do if teachers and students traveled over Thanksgiving break had to quarantine upon their return. After hearing passionate testimony from groups of parents who prefer one option over the other, the divided board eventually settled on a type of compromise – deciding to keep schools hybrid between Thanksgiving and winter break, with the exception of two weeks of remote learning in January.

Last week, those plans changed again with Murphy citing the number of teachers who say they are now planning to travel and then quarantine after Thanksgiving break. As a result, there will not be enough employees at the middle or high school to support hybrid learning, Murphy said.

Email exchanges from March to September obtained by the Monitor through a right-to-know request, show a behind-the-scenes look at how contentious it can be when trying to decide how best to teach children during a pandemic. Faced with so many uncertainties over staff and student safety, yet legally required to deliver an adequate education, superintendents and school boards can find themselves in a no-win situation.

“If I hear someone say we shouldn’t go back because of these reasons, I believe it sincerely. If I hear someone say we should go back for these reasons, I believe that sincerely,” board member Tom Croteau said at an instructional committee meeting Nov. 10. “As an educator, I’ve always been able to fix most things. And in this situation, particularly, we can’t.”

The push from the teachers’ union to begin remotely in the fall was a summer-long effort, email exchanges between CEA leaders and district officials show.

Emails reveal that at times the two parties were agreeable, expressing mutual understanding and sympathy about the tough decisions that lay ahead.

At other times, frustration was evident, and the union occasionally butted heads with the district, especially on issues of representation – determining who would be present in the meetings, helping to make decisions about the fall.

“All the reports from members throughout the district indicate that administrators have, behind the scenes, created various scenarios of what the start of the school year will look like without CEA input,” Macri wrote to Murphy on July 16. “The CEA’s current position remains that we will not support the reopening of schools in real time or hybrid models for the very reason.”

The letter that was sent to the Concord School Board on Aug. 1 was from Macri, CEA rep. Kimberly Bleier and Concord Educational Assistants Association rep. Jessica Jordan. The letter outlined safety concerns that the groups had about bringing teachers back to buildings in September, and cited a survey of teachers in July where over half of the 300 respondents said they were not comfortable returning to school in September for in-person teaching.

“Some of our staff are at greater risk due to their pre-existing health conditions,” the letter read. “Other staff have family members, including children, with compromising medical conditions, and are unwilling to risk in-person instruction. Many staff members have zero or few childcare options and would be unable to provide coverage for their child on the days they are not in school.”

Several school board members replied to the letter.

“This is a phenomenal letter. I love the partnership. Please know you all have my full support,” Chuck Crush wrote.

On Aug. 6, the Concord School Board voted unanimously to begin school in a remote model.

The union continued to express safety concerns in September, as Murphy began to prepare to switch to a hybrid model.

On Sept. 3, Macri sent the board an email with concerns from teachers who wrote anonymously, saying they were not ready to move to hybrid, and that they didn’t feel safe in schools. Some cited in-person professional development and freshman orientation days that made them feel unsafe.

“Repeated violations of COVID protocols were observed repeatedly by many staff,” one anonymous teacher wrote. “This included many adults with masks improperly worn and/or ill-fitting, adults not keeping distance in hallways, adults not allowing others to pass at a safe distance when stopping for conversation in halls, adults not following the one way staircases, and main office personnel unmasked and with only very small sneeze shields.”

The second time around, the school board followed Murphy’s recommendation. On Sept. 8, the first day of school in the remote model, the school board voted 8-0 to switch to a hybrid model in October.

The district’s tough decision-making is far from over as COVID continues to spread.

On Nov. 10, Macri told the school board that an informal CEA survey of teachers said 78% wanted to go remote for the holidays, but Macri said he wasn’t sure as to the accuracy of the polling data because of the limited sample size. Most of the teachers at Broken Ground School want to stay in hybrid, he said.

“I think the CEA membership is probably split somewhere down the middle,” Macri told the board during their public meeting. “But I think whatever you decide, we will make it work, we will work with you and we will figure it out.”

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