Teachers’ return to classroom depends on good air quality

Sep 20, 2020

All of Wareham’s teachers will be working in the school buildings, even while students learn from home -- as soon as they know it is safe to do so.

The Wareham Education Association teachers’ union had that mandate pushed back until at least September 22, pending the satisfactory completion of air quality tests.

The schools have long had overdue maintenance projects on the ventilation systems, but didn’t have the funds to complete the work until some extra coronavirus-aid related funding came in.

All the ductwork has been sanitized, reported Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood at the September 17 School Committee meeting, and everything that needs to be repaired has been or is in the process of being repaired and replaced.

A company conducted air quality tests in every classroom and office over the last week, and Shaver-Hood said that based on preliminary feedback from the technician testing the air, she would be surprised if there were any issues.

A larger HVAC project at the high school will take about eight or nine weeks to complete, as it is more extensive and involves hiring a crane to put equipment on the roof. 

“We’re just hoping that [the work] gets done in time and we have time to be confident that we are going into a building that is safe, and that the students will be safe,” said union president Deanna Semple.

Semple said that the union and district reached the air quality test compromise after hours of discussion. The district wanted to mandate that every teacher should teach from their classroom, which the union felt was an unnecessary safety risk, especially because the functioning of the HVAC system was unknown. 

Asked why having teachers in the classroom was such a priority for the district, Semple said that during negotiations, the district alluded to an “instance or two” of teachers appearing not to be working during contractual times, and that, therefore, staff need to be in the buildings for the district to keep an eye on them.

Semple pointed out that the district could have spoken to the teachers that appeared not to be working rather than making a decision that could put all staff at risk. She added that the district did not give specific guidance about mandated online hours of instruction, and that many staff worked at varying hours to accommodate the schedules of their students and students’ caregivers.  

The district’s mandate is in line with state guidelines. State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said that having teachers in classrooms would provide a sense of familiarity for students and allow administrators to more easily monitor teachers’ work. The guidance was met with immediate backlash from the state teachers union.

Once the air quality tests come back with good results, teachers will return to buildings the next day.