On the morning of Wednesday, September 16th, exactly 6 months after school buildings were initially closed for Covid-19, students in my school district began returning for in-person learning.
Just a few hours earlier, our teacher union overwhelmingly supported a vote of no confidence in our school committee, and even considered work stoppage. (I was surprised to learn that it is illegal for public sector employees to go on strike in Massachusetts. The last time our district did this was in 2007, when 14-month long contract negotiations about health insurance coverage broke down. The strike lasted 4 days. Our union was fined $100,000.)
The short version of why these votes were held is that many members were concerned about the air exchange rates in some of our buildings. These fears were intensified when a teacher at an elementary school tested positive for coronavirus during professional development days before the return of students. Weeks before, during our in-person summer school program, two other teachers had also tested positive, and their classes were forced to move online.
Administration has thus far refused to have an independent, third party evaluator assess our ventilation systems, and MTA’s review of our in-house report suggested that there was inadequate information to make a determination about the safety of the buildings — our district’s report was 8 pages long while a neighboring district’s was 23. Truthfully, I don’t need a detailed analysis to tell me that the air quality in some of the buildings is most likely pretty poor. You don’t need to read an accident report when you are looking straight at the car wreck.
My school moved into a new building in June 2019, right at the tail end of that school year. It cost the city and state close to $60 million. Features include a kiln in the art room, water bottle refilling stations, and privacy glass walls that are activated with the touch of a button. (I try not to dwell on the fact that one of the reasons they had been installed is because utilizing them is part of our active shooter protocol.)
Prior to relocating, though, we had been occupying a building that was constructed in 1927, and it felt like it. Large areas of the walls were missing paint or had giant cracks. Because it was built long before ADA laws were enacted, there were no elevators or ramps, making it a challenge for our students with physical disabilities to independently move through the building. The whole school only had 2 staff bathrooms, and both had locks that needed to be very carefully negotiated with to ensure their functionality. Kids had recess in the semi-finished lot where teachers parked their cars. There were rumors that the entire thing was covered in asbestos.
But the most salient memories I have of that building were of my dark, phone-less office, which was more often oppressively hot than not. It had no windows or any other means of ventilation. I brought in three fans for the small space, but all they did was push around the warm, stale air. “Miss, it’s just too hot,” my students would complain, their bodies flopped in an open posture on the chairs. “I can’t even think.” I didn’t blame them. How we expected students to learn and produce work in this environment is beyond me.
During our union meeting, which had more than 600 members Zoom-ing in, our rep exhorted us to think of the collective, our “brothers and sisters.” That was the strength and very purpose of being in a union. He tried framing the question in a variety of ways. When he asked, “Do you feel comfortable reporting to work on Wednesday?” each person was only required to think about their own wellbeing. “Would you feel comfortable reporting to the worst building tomorrow?” he followed up. It’s too hard to determine which building that is, the group decided, and in any case, we couldn’t definitively say whether or not we would be comfortable going to a building we had never been to. In the end, members decided against work stoppage, with about 60% of voters saying they felt comfortable reporting to work as scheduled.
The parallel between our union vote and voting in general political elections is obvious. Each member has 1 equally-weighted vote. The outcome of the vote affects us all, but it does not affect us all equally. Some of us are working in buildings that are more than a century old, while others are in buildings that are equipped with smart boards and dimmer lights. At the start of the school year, most educators had the option of working from home full-time and faced no additional risk of Covid-19 exposure. Some came into the building a couple of days a week and had some potential for exposure. A small percentage of staff were required to be in school 5 days a week with high needs students who have more difficulty following social distancing and mask guidelines.
If I were to make a decision based solely on how safe I felt in our new, modern building, I would have voted that I wanted to return to school. During this pandemic, there are many jobs that can seamlessly transition online, but special education is not one of them. Most of our students thrive on multi-sensory, hands-on learning and scaffolded instruction, both of which are tough to implement in virtual sessions. And I’d missed playing board games with my students and hearing their jokes that had no punchlines and seeing them wave to me as they made their way to the cafeteria for lunch.
But I remembered my old building. I remembered closing and locking my door during my lunch break and peeling off as many layers as I could for a brief respite from the stifling heat. I remembered the times I uncapped my chapstick only to find that it had melted down into a gloopy, semi-liquid state. I remembered what it felt like the moment I stepped out of the building at the end of the day, when I could finally deeply inhale a breath of air.