The head of the Haverhill teachers union says he's encouraged by a new plan to push off the start of school a few more weeks, but that he still has concerns about school buildings and whether they will be ready to safely accept students and staff.
Anthony Parolisi, president of the Haverhill Education Association, said his members are not trying to push for more delays if they are unnecessary. They do however, want assurances that all buildings are safe, that protocols are in place in the event of an outbreak of the coronavirus and that community spread is under control before bringing large numbers of people together.
"We want safety procedures to be in place to limit exposure, especially for our specialist teachers like art, music and physical education, as they see every student that goes to any particular school," he said. "For example, a middle school math teacher would normally see about 80 kids and a social studies teacher might see 150, while an art or physical education teacher might see 180 students every day and over 900 in a week."
Parolisi said the original return-to-school plan approved by the School Committee last month was to gradually bring students into classrooms starting Sept. 16. This plan was for students who chose to learn under a hybrid model of two days in-person and three days remotely.
But at last week's School Committee meeting, the plan changed.
Now, instead of starting that transition Sept. 16, students will instead start Oct. 5. By Oct. 16, every hybrid learning student will attend two days per week in person, Parolisi said.
At the last School Committee meeting, Superintendent Margaret Marotta said school officials are awaiting more information from a consulting firm about the air quality in school buildings before a full return by students.
Marotta said the firm is still studying how effective ventilation is in classrooms and other parts of buildings.
School Committeewoman Maura Ryan-Ciardiello agreed that delaying the start of school may be the safest approach.
"Ventilation is still an issue in some schools and there are other needs too," she said. "There's still more work to be done and questions to be answered so why rush a return?"
Parolisi said that to delay the return of students to school is the right thing to do.
"We are pleased with that, but we still think all staff and students should be tested (for COVID-19) before returning to the buildings," he said. "We know that testing will help keep us safe."
He said his union is waiting to receive a report from Marotta on air quality for every room in every school building.
"We don't know what repairs still need to be made and we want to see the assessment report for every building and every classroom," he said.
Parolisi said teachers were scheduled to begin working remotely on Sept. 1, and from Sept. 2 to 4 will have the option of working remotely or in school buildings.
"The district's position is for all staff to report Sept. 8, in person, while our position is that if the buildings aren't safe and we don't have an agreement in place for safety protocols, as a union we have a responsibility and obligation to protect the health and safety of our members," he said. "If the district insists we work in the buildings, we may report but not enter the buildings. We could log in from our cars and do our work from the outside."
Parolisi noted that his 900 members come from 107 communities across three states and that community spread could impact Haverhill's school community. Less than half of his members live in Haverhill, he said.
"We have dozens of members who would be forced to commute from known hot-spots," he said. "Several of those communities are in the yellow and in the red zones on the governor's scale, so community spread is a concern for that reason."
Assistant Superintendent Michael Pfifferling said a contractor working on ventilation systems in schools will put a notice in all classrooms after work is done. The work, however, will be simply to certify COVID-19 safety related to ventilation — not to signify a deep-clean or total overhaul, he said.
“They are not certifying that a building is safe or that a classroom is safe,’’ Pfifferling said. “They’re certifying that the air quality meets ASHRAE (American Society of Heating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) guidelines for COVID-19.”