Two Chelsea High Students Participate in Press Conference about School Re-Openings

Special to the Record

Chelsea High School students Victoria Stutto and Katy Ochoa participated in a virtual press conference hosted by the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance on Sept. 3, joining other students and parents from cities across Massachusetts in sharing their concerns about the possibility of unsafe school re-openings and expressing their hopes and fears about remote learning in school this fall.

“We all know that returning to school in the fall in person will be very dangerous due to the number of Covid-19 cases,” said Stutto, a senior at Chelsea High School. “If we cannot return to school in the fall in person, we should at least ensure remote learning is the best it can possibly be, and that we are meeting the needs of the students during this time. Schools need to be able to look at students on a case-by-case basis. Schools cannot generalize a solution for all students since each case and situation is different.”

Ochoa also delivered remarks during the press conference.

“Chelsea and many surrounding cities are facing the effects of gentrification, causing higher rates of rent. This is a grave issue during the pandemic due to the fact that people are either being laid off or given less hours; therefore, they may not be earning enough money to make ends meet,” said Ochoa, a senior at Chelsea High School. “This means that many kids are now being relied upon to get a job and help bring in finances in order to make rent, pay for food, and other basic necessities. We suggest that there should be a person in the school who is appointed for these special situations. Students can reach out to this person and express their problems and their needs for remote learning.”

The Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, a coalition of students, parents, educators, community and union members who support universal, free public education, also released the following position statement calling for health and safety criteria to be met before in-person learning resumes, and for an increased focus on creating a stable remote learning experience for students:

Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance

Statement on School and College Reopening

The Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance believes strongly that classroom education and in-person learning are irreplaceable. All of us — students of all ages, parents and guardians, educators and staff — want to return to our schools and colleges. But it must be done safely. We do not accept the argument that our lives, and those of our families, are worth risking because remote learning is a challenge. We cannot accept the illness and death that we know will occur if we reopen schools and colleges without the necessary safeguards.

We can’t talk about reopening without understanding how we got in this situation. The structural racism in Massachusetts’s education funding system caused years of chronic underfunding of predominantly Black and Brown schools, resulting in school buildings with limited space for social distancing, inadequate ventilation and air circulation, inconsistent access to hot water, and numerous other safety issues. Our public colleges and universities, which have seen deep budget cuts over the past few decades, face similar challenges with their physical infrastructure.

Fixing these longstanding problems requires money, but throughout the COVID-19 crisis, our state and federal governments have failed to make the investments in equipment, infrastructure, and personnel necessary to reopen public schools and colleges safely. Our government — and our entire society — spent the summer focused more on restarting leisure activity and reopening businesses than on making the tough choices necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Now, in the absence of state and federal leadership, local governments and individual families face a set of decisions with no good answers. COVID-19 testing is plagued by lengthy delays or high costs, while the state has no formal process to track or report outbreaks in our schools and colleges.

The state is now pushing local communities to rely almost entirely on local transmission levels to determine their K-12 reopening plans. But the coronavirus does not pay attention to municipal borders, and an outbreak in one city or town will quickly spread to others. Many educators and staff work in one school district, while their children attend school in another. Moreover, the state’s push ignores the real concerns that students, families, and educators have about physical facilities, air quality, testing, and tracing. While our public colleges have largely made the responsible decision to start the semester with remote learning, many communities in Massachusetts are worried as thousands of private college students return to campus from COVID-19 hot spots across the country.

It’s clear that our public schools and colleges should begin the year with remote learning, and only resume in-person learning on a phased-in basis, with the students who need it the most prioritized, once the following health and safety criteria are met:

• Indoor air quality in schools and colleges must meet appropriate standards to prevent airborne transmission of the coronavirus.

• School and college buildings must be configured to ensure 6-foot physical distancing at all times, to provide adequate space for nurses to isolate potentially infected students, and to ensure access to hand-washing facilities with consistent 100°F water and soap.

• Schools must provide all necessary safety protections, including face coverings for all students and staff, adequate personal protective equipment for all staff, and resources and staffing to clean and sanitize facilities.

• Community transmission of COVID-19 must be under control in the region.

• Free, rapid, and reliable on-site COVID-19 testing and contact tracing must be available to students, educators, staff, and vulnerable family members, including effective multilingual outreach to the families of students who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

• The state must establish a formal tracking and reporting mechanism for positive cases among students, educators, and staff including prompt and regular public disclosure.

• Educators, students, families, and community partners must be included in the reopening planning process.

In the meantime, we need to make sure remote learning works better by ensuring that all students and families have the appropriate technology, internet access, multilingual tech assistance, and curriculums developed at the local and school level to meet student’s needs. We must do more to make sure our students have a stable remote learning experience by ensuring housing and food security, giving their parents emergency paid sick days, ceasing ICE detentions and deportations, and taking other steps that MEJA has been calling for since this spring.

Meeting the health and safety criteria necessary to reopen school safely will not just happen with additional time. It will require our state government to step up and provide both leadership and adequate funding. It will require our state and local leaders to truly listen to the voices of students, families, educators, and community partners, not view them as an obstacle. If we put the great minds and the great wealth of Massachusetts together, we can get COVID-19 transmission under control, establish best-in-the-nation public health infrastructure, make our school buildings safe, and reopen our schools and colleges safely. We can do this if we do it together.

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