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Pittsfield Teachers Union Say City Blindsided Educators With In-Person Education Return Vote

A long brick building sits beyond a green lawn and trees with a rotunda with a gold spire rising above it
Josh Landes
Pittsfield High School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Last week, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts school committee unanimously voted for a phased return to in-person education to begin today — the first time since COVID-19 concerns forced a move to remote learning in November. But United Educators of Pittsfield, the city’s teachers’ union, says the decision came out of nowhere and was not made in consultation with school district employees. Union President Melissa Campbell tells WAMC that the move violates an agreement with the city’s teachers signed in November. She says vital safeguards from COVID-19 are still not in place.

CAMPBELL: The biggest frustration is that we had no indication or communication from the school board, or the school committee that they were going to take this action. So we've been in weekly meetings since probably June, you know, coming up with an agreement on safe return for students, for staff. Every week, we have a meeting: one hour, three hours. And we were in talks with them to bring back our CVTE students. We were waiting for a proposal for them, from them, excuse me, regarding the special ed population and special needs kids coming back. And rather than giving us a proposal, they just took a vote. So we were pretty stunned that this is the path they took, because we had no warning, no indication from anyone.

WAMC: Given that you're on the front line of this decision, and the folks actually going back into the school buildings, what does that feel like?

It's concerning that there wasn't a conversation. Like I said, we were waiting for the proposal, we were going to meet with our special ed teachers to see what were the safety, health and safety protocols that they felt they needed, given, you know, the current numbers. Now, the good news is our numbers in Pittsfield are going down. But at the time, they were well about 5%, which is, you know, is a concerning level. And the numbers and metrics that we've agreed upon, we've been talking about all fall. Our agreement was signed at the end of November. So there's this sense that the numbers that we chose came from the summer, but we really have been talking about them for a long time. So there certainly are concerned in many of the teachers that are coming back for special populations are in very close contact with students. So you know, a lot of them can't wear a mask, they might be autistic, or have some medical condition that wouldn't allow them to wear a mask. So what are the, what are we giving our teachers. And the district has been saying they're going to provide that, but at the same time, there was no conversation as to what's the best way to bring these kids back because a lot of them rely on structure and routine. We're bringing them back next week, and then we go on vacation for February break. So now their routines broken up again.

What would have to be in place from your perspective to make a decision like that seem like less of a blind side?

Well, the conversation that we were promised, that would have helped. We were told two weeks prior that the district was working on a proposal to bring those special populations back. The following week, they said the proposal is not sound. We'll have it next week. We were going to have, take that proposal, speak to the educators involved to, you know, see if there's anything that was missed, what else did they need. That conversation never happened? The school committee took a vote.

So at this point, what are the United Educators of Pittsfield asking from the city?

Well, first, we're asking that they abide by the signed agreement that we, you know, signed at the end of November. And if changes need to be made, that it's a negotiated conversation that would follow, you know, contract law.

As far as statewide conversations, the UEP is part of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Have you had conversations with leaders on the state level about this decision?

Of course. Yeah. It's concerning. I think there are a couple districts that have done this where they've actually violated their signed agreement without, you know, negotiation. Or I think the mayor had said that negotiations had stalled. But I'm curious as to what, where that came from, as we meet every week, and school committee members have not been present recently and the mayor certainly has never been part of the conversation. So I'm not sure where, where the “our talks have stalled” came from.

The Pittsfield school committee said in a statement after the vote: “Taking into consideration Pittsfield’s distinct characteristics, the potential risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the potential damage associated with the educational, social, and emotional well-being of youngsters, the Pittsfield Public Schools anticipate a safe return to an in-person education model.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.