Teachers’ Union Votes ‘No Confidence’ in Haverhill School Committee, Wins Backing from Two

Haverhill School Committee members appear perplexed by gifts of “uncompensated time” delivered by union members last December. (Courtesy photograph.)

This is a developing story.

The union representing teachers and other education-related professionals Friday night voted “no confidence” in the Haverhill School Committee for its 5-2 vote last week to return certain students to the classroom Jan. 4.

Haverhill School Committee member Toni Sapienza-Donais. (Courtesy photograph.)

Haverhill Education Association’s Action Team and Executive Board took the vote during an emergency meeting Friday night. Within hours, nearly 300 members had signed on to the measure and immediately won the backing of School Committee members Toni Sapienza-Donais and Maura L. Ryan-Ciardiello—the two that opposed the early return.

“At a time where the city positivity rate hit 10.9%, City Hall has shut down and School Committee meetings remain remote the message is clear that risking the lives of staff and students is not a top priority of this committee and that is unacceptable to me,” Sapienza-Donais wrote in an email to union members. “The amount of confusion that has been created by administration and the committee between starting dates and opening options borders on ridiculous. The anxiety and stress created by these inconsistences is embarrassing to me as a committee member,” she added.

Union leaders said the School Committee could earn back confidence by touring classrooms and understanding the concerns.

“Although we have taken this vote of no confidence, that confidence is not permanently lost, because we believe that if this School Committee was more familiar with what actually goes on in our buildings and what educators face on a daily basis, they would have voted for full remote schooling,” the statement read.

Sapienza-Donais said she and Ryan-Ciardiello will not be taking the tour since they “already ‘get it.’”

Before the union vote, the School Committee announced Friday afternoon its intent to have a “Remote Special Meeting” on Tuesday, Dec. 29, at 7 p.m. to discuss “Returning Students to the Classroom.”

School Committee members voted 5-2 last Tuesday to have students in kindergarten through fifth grade and those identified as high needs to return to hybrid learning Jan. 4. Members also voted 6-1 to allow basketball and hockey with Mayor James J. Fiorentini as the only no vote.

Besides teachers, the union represents education support professionals, clerical workers and security guards.

Here is the full text of the union letter, informing the School Committee of the vote of no confidence.

HEA Votes No Confidence In Haverhill School Committee

This letter is to address the recent decision made by the School Committee on December 15th. After hearing claims that the safety of all students and staff are priorities to these members, it was decided that all K-5 students and those categorized as high needs (Cohort C) would return to school on January 4th. We do not feel that this decision reflects these priorities. It is important to note that as bad as the numbers are now, the historical data shows that between January 1st and 14th they are all but guaranteed to be worse. We are therefore taking this vote to demonstrate that we collectively agree that the Haverhill School Committee has failed to take the safety of the educators, service providers, and students into account based on their decision.

The staff that the School Committee is forcing back in during this time will be the staff who regularly face the riskiest work environments, even during non-COVID times, while you continue to meet remotely and city hall remains shut down. Specifically, in your sub-separate and therapeutic programs (i.e. TEACH, Greenleaf), as well as all preschool classrooms, educators and service providers are faced with multiple students who are unable to properly wear a mask or socially distance due to the nature of their disabilities or age. In some rooms, this is every student, including teenagers who we know carry nearly the same COVID transmission-related risks as adults. Given the needs of these students, such as support with personal care and feeding as well as hand-holding in order to get around, social distancing for staff working in these programs is impossible, and all staff are considered close contacts if one student has a COVID exposure. It was said by this School Committee that these safety concerns would be remedied with proper PPE and fidelity to protocols. However, it is simply impossible to sustain teaching and meet expectations with unstable room temperatures and while wearing the proper PPE without overheating. It’s obvious to us that no member of this School Committee has attempted to conduct a lesson in a KN95 mask.

The message from this is clear: we can either follow social distance guidelines and withhold from our students an adequate education, or we can teach students remotely and use our expertise, teamwork, and collaboration to provide the most appropriate education that remote learning will offer while avoiding risking the lives of those that educate and care for these students.

The shuffling back and forth between remote and hybrid creates a great amount of confusion for the students, impeding their ability to learn. Some students (e.g. ELLs, homeless students, etc) are placed into classrooms with 1-2 other students, or into rooms they may not be familiar with, and are monitored by staff who may or may not be familiar to them. These inconsistencies are creating an unstable learning environment, and causing a good portion of these students to exhibit anxiety, depression, and stress. With our positivity rate being over 5% for 4 consecutive weeks, now at 10.9% and climbing, a clear standard or metric for when it is safe to return to a hybrid model or remain fully remote needs to be developed and instituted as a district. This will allow appropriate planning (e.g., child care, work packets, etc.) for educators and parents/guardians.

Although we have taken this vote of no confidence, that confidence is not permanently lost, because we believe that if this School Committee was more familiar with what actually goes on in our buildings and what educators face on a daily basis, they would have voted for full remote schooling. Therefore, we invite the members of the School Committee, before the holiday break, to take a brief tour of each building that holds students who will be returning on January 4th. This is the only way you will be able to make an informed decision on the 29th. If you don’t feel safe completing a tour in our building at this time, how could you in good conscience place others into a situation where you yourselves feel unsafe. This includes all therapeutic programs and sub-separate classrooms (including Moody, TEACH, and Greenleaf). Ask yourselves not just, “Is this the best way to teach?” but also, “Is it safe?” We then ask that you meet and reevaluate your decision to continue with the hybrid learning model for elementary level and high needs students. We ask that you regain our trust by following the CDC guidelines for travel and err on the side of caution. Until the above actions are taken, however, we feel that you are putting our lives in danger. Therefore, we, the general membership of the Haverhill Education Association, declare no confidence in the Haverhill School Committee.

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