Jaffrey-Rindge teachers’ union, district at odds over return to in-person learning

  • Conant High School Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 2/10/2021 7:16:50 PM

Nearly 80 percent of the Jaffrey-Rindge teachers’ union disagrees with the district’s recent decision to return to an in-person model four days a week.

Jaffrey-Rindge Education Association President Mark Haley said in a recent interview with the Ledger-Transcript that a survey of the 110 teachers, counselors and nurses that are members of the union, 79 percent disagreed with the decision to return to in-person learning on Jan. 19.

“The JREA is, as a group, not pleased with the return to school plan we have enacted,” Haley said. “We feel we are unsafe and that our students are unsafe.”

In a separate recent poll of teachers done by the union, 46 members said they would be seeking employment in alternate districts related directly to the district’s handling of COVID-19.

The main issue, Haley said, is that community spread hasn’t improved since the decision was made to enter a period of remote learning in November.

“If it was bad enough then to go remote, why is it OK now? And that’s a question we just haven’t gotten an answer to,” Haley said.

Haley said teachers want to have students in-person too, and are aware that remote learning has been difficult for many families. He said he’s heard many “heart-wrenching” stories from families with frustrated learners or parents struggling to balance work and school when their children are learning from home.

But student learning conditions are the staff’s working conditions, Haley said – students learning in person means the majority of staff are teaching in person, and staff have reported feeling unsafe doing so.

The JREA has contacted the district, seeking to open impact bargaining on the teachers’ Memorandum of Agreement, based on what Haley described as changes to expectations for teachers since the start of the school year.

Superintendent Reuben Duncan recommended the School Board support returning to in-person learning on Jan. 19, and said there were several factors in that decision – COVID-19 cases in the community were a factor, but there were other things that weighed in that decision. Among them, he said, was an anticipated lack of staff, due to travel quarantine and other factors.

He said there was also a “sudden shift” in the number of COVID-19 cases in the community that was concerning.

And, he said, the district was seeing increasing evidence that remote learning wasn’t suitable for all learners. The district saw the number of unexcused absences soar under remote learning, for example. Since returning to in-person learning on Jan. 19, those students have largely returned to attending classes regularly, Duncan said.

“We need to look at the health and well-being of all individuals,” Duncan said.

Duncan said the administration and School Board are not disregarding the seriousness of COVID-19. The district has implemented social distancing protocols that call for a full six feet of distance and mask wearing at all times except designated breaks, and also installed air purifiers throughout the district that have been proven effective at trapping the COVID-19 virus.

Duncan also pointed to studies that show in-person transmission of the virus is not very high.

“There’s always elements to these studies that are different to our circumstances, but most are indicating schools that have put into place certain practices will likely show little to no transmission within the school community,” Duncan said. “Our data has shown that to be true, and we don’t have any data that contradicts those findings.”

While individuals within the school district have reported positive cases of the virus, Duncan said, there don’t appear to be cases of transmission traced back to the school environment, and there have been no “clusters” – multiple cases traced back to a single source. 

A call for greater communication

Haley said one issue is creating anxiety in teachers, and that’s how and when they are communicated with regarding possible exposure to the virus.

The issue is a complex one, as student and staff privacy as it relates to medical information are protected by federal law, and what the district is allowed to share is limited, Duncan said.

Still, Haley said, there’s a need for greater clarity and more information.

“In the spirit of keeping people safe, more communication is important,” Haley said.

He said that communication is beneficial both ways, preventing rumors and stress.

The district currently informs everyone within the district when there’s a confirmed positive case within a school building, and contact tracing is done to make sure anyone with close contact for an extended period of time – 10 minutes or more – is notified of a potential exposure, Duncan said. The district uses seating charts and security footage, among other measures, to determine who may have had contact with the student or staff member who tested positive. Sometimes, the district will move ahead with those measures in the case of a “likely” positive, but not confirmed case, as well.

Teachers still have concerns about communication.

Haley said because of those privacy laws, a teacher isn’t always asked directly if they’ve had more than 10 minutes of close contact with a student of staff member who has tested positive. There have also been instances where a student is quarantining, but has not been tested for the virus, and Haley said that causes unease. A student performing a quarantine due to travel, and a student quarantining because a member of their family has tested positive have varying levels of risk, Haley said. But teachers aren’t always notified that a student is quarantining, or the reason.

“There does come a point that for peace of mind, teachers should know,” Haley said.

District Communications Coordinator Nicholas Handy said the district has followed recommended guidelines as provided by the state regarding notifications.

Moving forward

The JREA has asked to reopen negotiations over the district’s Memorandum of Agreement over the impacts of the district’s reopening framework.

The current agreement outlines multiple points, including requiring teachers notify the district upon receiving a required quarantine or positive test, and their use of leave time related to Coronavirus quarantines.

Notably, the agreement also includes the district’s noticing responsibilities when there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 in either a district employee, student or member of the community that has been in the building. In the case of a confirmed COVID-19 case, the district must notify parents, staff and the union president by the end of the day.

The MOA also lays out cleaning and sanitization protocols, use of sick leave and waivers of sick leave for teachers who have contracted or are ordered to quarantine due to COVID-19.

Duncan said the JREA has notified the district of intent to reopen negotiations on the Memorandum of Agreement, and that request has been forwarded to the School Board.

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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