The Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council is asking Mayor Linda Tyer to explore using CARES Act funding to invest in COVID-19 related safety measures. Some teachers and students have already returned to in-person education.
After a move to remote education in mid-November due to a spike in community COVID-19 cases, Tyer prioritized returning city students to in-person education from the beginning of 2021, naming it her top priority in an early January interview with WAMC.
“The number one thing we want to accomplish here is to get our schools open, so kids can go back to school," she told WAMC. "We know how important it is for their social emotional wellbeing and their academic accomplishments to be in school, and that has to be the top priority for this entire community.”
But a late January vote by the city’s school committee to begin a phased-in return to hybrid, in-person education on February 1st led to outcry from teachers. United Educators Of Pittsfield President Melissa Campbell told WAMC the union was blindsided, with critical questions around safety measures unanswered.
“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.”
On Monday, the UEP filed an Unfair Labor Practice Charge with the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations against the Pittsfield school committee, charging them with acting in bad faith and demanding a return to remote learning.
Tuesday night, pressure on the Tyer administration continued at the city council meeting. A petition jointly filed by Ward 5 councilor Patrick Kavey and Ward 6 councilor Dina Guiel Lampiasi called on the city to use federal CARES Act funding to install new air filtration units in school buildings.
“With what we’re dealing with, with a highly contagious virus which is spread primarily through respiratory droplets comprised of smaller droplets and particles that can remain suspended in the air over long distances and multiple feet and also over extended periods of time over multiple hours, I think that we should have implemented this already before we allowed our vocational and special education departments to go back,” said Kavey.
He contrasted Pittsfield’s failure to address those safety issues with the city of Northampton.
“While they were still closed – they’re still not in-person, they haven’t done hybrid learning yet – how they in their 2020 reopening plan made a promise and have already met that promise to increase ventilation in their buildings, to increase air quality and make all of their buildings, whether they were a school or administration offices, safer for returning students and staff,” said the councilor.
Ward 1 councilor Helen Moon said she’s heard concerns from constituents about the city’s return to in-person education.
“My friends own small businesses and are reopening their businesses, and they’re also installing air filtration – so this is an ongoing process that’s happening and we’re encouraging it to happen in our small businesses, so I think it’s appropriate for us to do it for our schools as well,” said Moon.
The estimated cost for the installation of air filtration units based on the Northampton and Holyoke school districts was around a million dollars. Pittsfield has almost $3 million in CARES Act funding remaining.
Tyer was pressed to detail preparations the city made before sending students and teachers back to in-person education.
“There have been actions taken within our school buildings regarding to air filtration," said the mayor. "I was not prepared to get into a detailed response this evening, but I would be happy to do that in writing to all of you so that the information that you have is accurate.”
In the meantime, Pittsfield’s phased return to in-person education will see the remainder of its over 5,000 students back in buildings by February 22nd.