Letter to the editors: WPS parents frustrated with reopening plan

September 3, 2020

Dear Mr. Gekopi and Dr. Lussier,

We are the parents of Wellesley Public Schools (“WPS”) elementary school children and children with special education needs. We write in response to the stance of the Wellesley Educators Association (“WEA”) regarding full time remote instruction until certain requests are satisfied, despite the fact that COVID-19 is at all-time low rates in Wellesley and throughout Massachusetts. This letter will address (i) our frustrations with the situation, including the new tentative agreement, (ii) why we need our elementary schools and special needs children to return to school in person, not just in a hybrid model, but full time, and (iii) a plea to the WEA and its members to work with WPS to make this right.

Our Frustrations

We are disappointed with the WEA’s elevation of fear over science at the expense of our children. We understand why the teachers are concerned for their safety and empathize with the desire to keep yourselves and your families healthy. At-risk teachers should be permitted to work remotely, and those reporting in-person need to teach in classrooms that are safe. But our understanding is that all of the WPS buildings, even the oldest buildings, have exceeded DESE standards for a safe return. Rather than focusing on what realistic measures could have been taken earlier this summer to make everyone feel safer returning in person, the WEA instead chose to fall in lockstep with the Massachusetts Teachers Association and other state unions, who have made a concerted effort to exacerbate teachers’ fears and ignore the recommendations of scientists and doctors.

Although the recently announced “tentative” agreement between WPS and WEA plans for the hybrid model to begin on October 1, that agreement remains exceedingly vague and appears to be contingent on the viral testing program, which is expensive and unfunded as of yet, and could face delays in its implementation given that it is a pilot program. The vast majority of other towns in New England that have agreed to return in person do not have a testing program in place. We hope the testing program in Wellesley will succeed, and we are going to make pledges to try to ensure it gets funded. But if it does not succeed, it is not clear if the WEA will ever agree to in-person teaching, absent the total elimination of COVID-19, as it has not
proposed any metrics for when it believes in-person learning will be safe. So here we are, the week when our children were initially supposed to start school, with no idea of when they will be back in the classroom.

Elementary Schools and Special Needs Students Need to Return In Person

Many of us were disappointed when the Reopening Plan proposed a one-size-fits-all hybrid model for all age groups. We were even more disappointed when the hybrid program was delayed. Pursuant to the new tentative agreement, it is our understanding that even if the viral testing plan is put into place, all students will go back in the hybrid model. We believe it is safe for children to go back full time in person now, but especially if the testing plan is implemented.

Neither full remote nor the hybrid model are the right solution for many of us. Children in kindergarten through second or third grade, along with special needs students, are incapable of being educated remotely. Period. Everyone is sweeping this under the rug—from the Reopening Advisory Committee, to the School Committee, to the WPS administration, to the WEA. We believe the teachers will do their best to make remote learning better this fall. But we parents, who witnessed our children struggling last spring, know it will not work. Young children and special needs children do not have the attention span, ability, or motivation to learn remotely and complete asynchronous assignments at home. We are worried that our young children will suffer long-term academic repercussions if in-person school is further delayed.

In both the full remote and hybrid models, children in kindergarten through at least third or fourth grade, and special needs students, will need a parent or tutor sitting next to them for the entire school day, guiding them through the assignments. Parents who work full time are faced with either quitting their jobs or hiring a tutor for seven hours per day. Children whose parents cannot afford a tutor or stay-at-home parent will essentially miss out on an entire year of education. The disparity in achievement gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines that remote learning will exacerbate is heartbreaking. How can it be acceptable to put families in this position, when the rates of COVID-19 are so low in this area? The low risk of spreading
COVID-19 in the classroom in Massachusetts at this time is significantly outweighed by the serious harms caused by remote learning.

WEA, You Hold The Power—Please Help Fix This Situation

When the WEA pushes an agenda on behalf of the teachers that comes at the expense of our children and public school system, something is wrong. Please listen to the scientific data and make decisions based on that, rather than fear. Camps, daycares, and schools in Europe have been operating with no significant outbreaks. Isolated cases of infection are dealt with quickly and successfully before others have become infected. The Wellesley Board of Health believes it is safe for our children and low-risk teachers to go back to school in person full time with these low infection rates. Reputable articles by scientists and doctors, including several recent New England Journal of Medicine articles – one just published this week – have drawn the same conclusion for states like Massachusetts. The science shows that children under 10 are less likely to get sick from the virus and less likely to spread it to adults. Given that this is the age group of children who cannot learn well remotely, and given the low infection rates in Massachusetts currently, the WEA needs to reconsider its position.

While we ideally want children in all grades to return in person, if that is not possible initially, then prioritize bringing back the youngest children in grades K-2 or K-3 and special education students regardless of whether the viral testing plan is implemented. These children need to be in school in person full time. Use space in the newest and safest school buildings for these age groups. Remote learning is detrimental for older children and teenagers as well. If reopening schools for the youngest students is successful and infection rates continue to be low, the older grades can be phased in gradually. This model has already been adopted in a number of communities. And if the testing plan is implemented and is successful, we should be bringing back all students full time, not remaining in the hybrid model all year. But you hold the power, WEA and WPS. We parents do not. Work together and make it happen, because it is the right thing to do. For the sake of our children, the public school system, and our community.

Respectfully,
140 Wellesley Families

cc Wellesley School Committee
Wellesley Town Committee Advisory Board
Wellesley Selectman’s Office
Wellesley Board of Health
Reopening Advisory Committee
WPS Elementary School Principals
WPS Director of Special Education
Governor Baker
Commissioner Riley
Massachusetts Teachers Association