Coalition to Safely Reopen Schools Citing Serious Occupational Health Concerns to Be Addressed Prior to Allowing Schools to Open for In-Person Learning

In response to the statewide push to reopen schools for in-person education, the recently formed Coalition to Safely Reopen Schools, has issued its position statement citing a number of issues that need to be addressed to ensure that schools can be reopened without jeopardizing the health and safety of students, staff, or the communities schools serve. As a result of that analysis, the Coalition is calling for a phased approach to reopening, with no in-person learning unless and until those issues are resolved.

The Coalition is a statewide collaboration of school nurses, teachers, parents, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, librarians, school support staff, janitorial staff, labor, occupational health and community advocates, who came together to provide a frontline perspective and concrete medically-informed recommendations for what is needed to safely reopen for in-person learning. The group complements and builds on a number of other position statements issued by local and national teachers associations, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, as well as expert analysis and reports provided by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership and the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. It also relies on the perspective of school nurses from throughout the state, who are responsible for the health and well-being of students and every member of the school staff, all of whom will be placing their own well-being and that of their families and communities at risk as a result of reopening during this unprecedented pandemic.

“This process represents one of the most consequential decisions our communities and our state will make as our state and nation construe to grapple with a pandemic that is still surging across the nation, showing signs of a second wave in our state, with the threat of the flu season looming,” said Patty Comeau, RN, a member of the Coalition, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and a school nurse in Methuen. “In confronting this challenge a safe, scientifically guided, well planned, adequately funded and appropriately resourced process must be the priority for all involved, as the stakes couldn’t be higher and the outcome of our decisions truly have life and death consequences.”

The statement also highlights the need to keep equity as the central focus of reopening in order to address the needs of families, and communities; particularly Black, Latino and those residents of disadvantaged communities across the Commonwealth, who have been hardest hit by the pandemic, and whose communities often lack the funding and school infrastructure to support a safe reopening at this time.

The position statement addresses 16 different areas of concern that need to be considered and addressed appropriately to ensure a safe reopening of schools for in-person learning, including:

•Proper ventilation and circulation of air;

•Assessing community resources for alternative school settings;

•Ensuring proper social distancing;

•Standardization and availability of PPE for all staff and students

•Resources and infrastructure to support hand hygiene and mask wearing;

•Safe cleaning practices;

•Addressing the health and safety of students with special needs;

•Access to rapid testing;

•Clear guidelines for contact tracing;

•Appropriate school nurse staffing;

•Space to isolate and monitor suspected or positive cases;

•Resources for safe transportation of students;

•Safe re-entry into school protocols;

•Comprehensive education and training of staff prior to reopening;

•Disparities in access to in-person learning;

•Preserving school staff pay and benefits. 

The position statement clearly describes each specific area of concern as well as how each must be addressed to ensure a safe reopening. After completing this review, the Coalition position statement concludes:

“In light of all the issues we have presented, the current lack of funding appropriated to address these issues, and the increased need for staff, PPE, testing and other resources to implement a safe reopening, at this time; we don’t believe our State is ready to pursue in-person learning safely. And until these issues are resolved, it is also not safe to have staff stationed in these schools to conduct remote learning for students.”

The Coalition calls for the state and school districts to reopen for remote learning, while taking the time to develop comprehensive plans with the infrastructure, protocols, staffing, funding and training “to safely institute in-person learning that we all know our students deserve.”

The organizations that have endorsed the document to date include: American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, Massachusetts Association for the Chemically Injured, Massachusetts Coalition for Safety and Health, Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, Massachusetts Nurses Association, Massachusetts Teachers Association and Service Employees International Union Local 888.

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