FRAMINGHAM – Framingham Superintendent of Schools Bob Tremblay has responded to a Framingham Teachers Association January 26 letter sent to him and the School Committee on what “must” take place for members to return to school buildings.
“After nearly 100 hours of bargaining in good faith with the FTA prior to the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, non-stop facility improvements in excess of $3M with weekly updates provided to the FTA and public, and regular and frequent discussions with FTA membership at the administrative task force and subcommittee levels to work through programmatic planning with multiple Q&A documents provided to all FPS staff, we have worked together throughout this process and have a detailed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) approved by the FTA membership, School Committee, and FPS. At this point we cannot accommodate unilateral demands that change the terms of the MOA, however we continue to engage in weekly meetings, whether it is privately between you and myself, level-specific meetings with the Office of Teaching and Learning, and countless meetings between the District Human Resources Office and FTA members to address safety concerns, medical and childcare accommodations, and other requests or concerns,” wrote the Superintendent in a letter back to the union tonight, January 28.
“While I understand the Association’s advocacy and encourage clarifying questions, the implementation of the MOA and the success of our District will only be effective when we work together, collaborating on new ways to better support staff and the education needs of our community’s children, many of whom have not seen the inside of a school since March 2020, or not at all as is the case for our Kindergartners. All of our efforts have been around a single goal: provide the best educational experience for our students while working to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among our school community,” wrote Supt. Tremblay.
“The motions you bring forth from the FTA membership meeting on January 25, 2021, where “a majority of the attendees who voted supported motions to include the following items in a list of required safety measures that must be in place prior to staff returning to buildings,” have either been addressed in previous communications or are an adaptation of MOA language. In some instances, the motions are simply not allowed by state directive or possibly even threaten an illegal denial of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in accordance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973,” wrote Tremblay.
“The District recognizes the stress, fear, and uncertainty this pandemic has and continues to cause and the ever-changing guidance and plans at the federal, state, and local levels for education. Yet what the FPS leadership team and I have never wavered from is our commitment to be transparent and work with you to the best of our collective ability to find balance during this massive challenge of providing in person learning at the lowest risk possible to our staff and students,” wrote Supt. Tremblay.
“The District has decided to respond in detail to each point raised by the FTA as part of our continued effort to work together, communicate effectively, and to do all we can to balance these member requests with the provisions of the MOA, our own directives and enabling statutes, and our mission to support equitably the students and families of our District. Since the points raised in the letter that was sent to the School Committee and me have been made public and provided to the media, it stands to reason that the responses should similarly be made publicly available to ensure clear and consistent communication to all. As such, I am sending this response to you with a copy to FPS-All and the media as the questions and responses and embedded links are relevant to everyone in our organization and community,” wrote Tremblay tonight, January 28.
1. 4% positivity rate and 10 or fewer daily cases
While the Framingham Board of Health recommended metrics previously included a recommended percentage of community positivity at 4% or less and 10 or fewer daily cases, these were not the only considerations. As stated publicly and in writing at the time by the Framingham Department of Public Health, specifically cited on pages 11 and 12 in the link provided above, these metrics are subject to change when the context of the pandemic changes.
Through the lived experience in school districts across the Commonwealth and following consultation with the Framingham Department of Public Health, it was determined that COVID-19 testing of students in school has proven to be a much more reliable indicator than the sole reliance upon community health metrics. More specifically, COVID-19 testing has proven to be a key factor and risk reduction measure to getting students back to school in communities where percentages of positivity and daily new COVID cases are higher than recommended community targets. Even without 100% participation in pooled testing, this is still a proven risk reduction measure as evidenced by school districts already participating in this program. More specific detailed information can be found here, including guiding documents, presentations, recorded webinar meetings, and video testimonials from school districts who are living this experience firsthand.
2. FTA and FPS work together to establish metrics that would warrant a return to remote learning
The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) provides that: Movement(s) from one phase of instruction (i.e. Phase I: Full Remote to Phase II: In Person Return for Highest Special Needs Students to Phase III: High Needs Students to Phase IV: Hybrid to Phase V: Full In-Person) in either direction will be determined in collaboration with the Framingham Department of Public Health and by utilizing community infection rate metrics and additional guidance as provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. All decision-making to date has been done in cooperation with both the Framingham
Department of Public Health and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as agreed upon in the MOA. As this memo was adopted by the Framingham Department of Public Health, we also closely follow the DESE/DPH guidance on when to close classrooms, schools, and Districts.
3. All educators who can and wish to do so must be vaccinated, with first priority going to Phase 1 and 2 educators
As a school district, we do not control vaccines or their distribution in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I provided the most recent update from DESE Commissioner Riley on the vaccine rollout to all FPS staff on January 27, 2021. The Massachusetts Association
of School Superintendents (MASS), on behalf of all Superintendents and their school districts, has requested that Governor Baker prioritize educational staff for the next distribution of the COVID-19 vaccination. A copy of that communication is linked here. In addition, the FPS COVID Team has been working with the City’s Department of Public Health and neighboring school communities to offer a regional clinic for educators in February or as soon as the vaccine becomes available. We support and encourage the Commonwealth to prioritize staff, including bus drivers, and we strongly encourage all staff to receive the vaccine, and have a local plan in place in partnership with the Department of Public Health to promote the benefits and administer the vaccines to all who are eligible and willing as soon as possible.
4. Mandatory mask wearing for all (except where medically unable), as stated in the MOA
As outlined in the MOA (page 4 and multiple other references) and in the Staff Plan for COVID-19 (page 7 and multiple other references), we have mutually and successfully bargained over mask related requirements, and as a District have gone beyond the DESE recommendations to require masks for all ages. The District will continue to enforce the use of face coverings for all students and staff as we all know how important this proven risk-mitigation effort is to the health of our community.
5. Mandatory pool testing for students and educators. If families do not consent to pool testing, their children may continue learning remotely.
As provided in a recent District communication, the District maintains that a combination of facility safety upgrades, personal protective equipment (PPE), physical/social distancing, regular (weekly) COVID testing, and the introduction of a vaccine will be exactly what is needed to return to school confidently.
According to DESE’s pool testing process, we cannot mandate testing for students. We also cannot exclude students from school. Many of our Phase I and Phase II students have significant sensory issues and their families have already contacted the COVID Team with concerns and questions about the nature of the testing. We nonetheless strongly recommend students participate and are working on multiple communications to plan for the logistics of the testing and ways to encourage participation.
We also cannot mandate testing for staff, yet we are encouraged by your statement and would like to understand how the FTA plans to urge its membership to consistently take advantage of this opportunity we have set up for your use. The District has expanded its offering of COVID-19 PCR testing to ALL FPS staff as we prepare for staff re-entry into our school buildings on February 1, 2021. In addition, hours this week have been extended into evenings to provide greater access.
As an additional risk reduction measure, we are extending COVID-19 PCR testing to all students returning in Phases I and II. Consent information will be provided to families of Phase I & Phase II students in the coming days. PCR testing for students will shift to pooled testing once that is rolled out with the return of students in Phases III & IV.
The District in coordination with the Department of Public Health holds that pooled testing is a key element to the start of the hybrid model for students in Phases III and IV. The District attended informational webinars on Tuesday January 12, 2021 and Friday, January 22, 2021 and submitted the required paperwork to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on January 27, 2021. The DESE has scheduled an additional informational webinar on Friday, January 29, 2021. Once the DESE has reviewed our submission, they will advise on a start date for pooled testing in the Framingham Public Schools. More information and a firm start date for the return of students in Phases III and IV is forthcoming as soon as we receive it.
6. Educators have the ability to telework while quarantining, assuming they are well enough to do so. A classroom supervisor could monitor the students in person. Allowing educators to continue working during a quarantine would provide consistency for student learning.
As of this communication, 135 of the 142 teleworking requests have been processed due to either Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requests and/or childcare needs. The ones that could not be accommodated resulted due to District obligations (i.e. services provided under IEPs). As you likely know, under the ADA an employer is not required to make an accommodation if doing so imposes an “undue hardship” on the employer, which is defined as “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense.” As such, an employer is not required to hire additional staff to support a person seeking an accommodation. And yet FPS has been hiring, onboarding, and training additional staff to support and accommodate individuals with ADA needs; in fact, we have hired 57 Classroom Supervisors and will continue to engage in proactive hiring. We will also continue to do our best to meet the needs of our staff, but we cannot allow an entire workforce to telework unless we just stay remote and we cannot hire an entire new workforce to come into work so the workforce whom we are paying fully stay home.
As a reminder, during negotiations the School Committee on September 4, 2020 offered the FTA similar language to what is requested here, but it was rejected. While we agree that continuity and consistency for students is a shared goal and that if at all possible Unit A teachers could have the option to work remotely during a quarantine resulting from school-based exposure, the reality remains that staffing continues to be a concern. As noted above, it is our first priority to try to accommodate those in need of ADA accommodations with the support of Classroom Supervisors or internal coverage where possible; as such, we cannot commit to every staff absence resulting in a teleworking opportunity.
As indicated on many occasions, we will continue to do all we can to accommodate our staff by measures such as the offsite childcare offering and Classroom Supervisor hiring process previously noted which extend well beyond any of our existing agreements as a showing of care, concern, and respect for our dedicated staff. We believe that through district-initiated efforts like these that we will be able to preserve those important relationships between our students and their teachers and support professionals.