It was mid-August. The playgrounds of Brookline, Massachusetts, had finally reopened, and so the news spread fast. Sharon Abramowitz had resigned from the school committee. If a lab wanted to manufacture a school committee member to help the 7,800-student Brookline School District through the COVID crisis, it probably would’ve ended up with Abramowitz. The sociologist-anthropologist-epidemiologist had studied Ebola, written interagency guidelines about what community engagement should look like during a crisis, and, after the district shut down in March, spent 40 hours a week in volunteer meetings on Zoom trying to make a safe reopening feasible. But now she was moving full time to her second home in Vermont.
As summer turned into fall, the school district was melting down. Parents largely wanted their kids learning in person, but it looked like Brookline wasn’t going to pull it off, even though the wealthy town just outside of Boston probably has the highest infectious-disease-expert-per-capita rate in the country. Abramowitz was fed up. “Sorry to be all UNICEF about it,” Abramowitz, who does work for UNICEF, said when we spoke in September, “but education is a fundamental human right for all children.”
School didn’t partially open for grades K–2 until mid-October, after multiple delays and last-minute alterations to the plan. The holdup was largely due, it seemed, to teacher concerns about safety. Meanwhile, local parents—the expert on indoor ventilation from Harvard, the infectious disease epidemiologist from Boston University—wrote public reports and op-eds loudly making the case for school reopenings. Brookline’s School Committee, which is a nine-person group of elected volunteers who oversee the budget, strategy, union negotiations, and superintendent hiring for the district, had arranged for several volunteer COVID expert advisory panels. These panel members would essentially act as free consultants for the district, helping it navigate new and strange problems like remote learning, the social and emotional challenges of COVID, and, most importantly, how best to prevent the spread of the disease inside schools. “Those would have been big bills,” the school committee’s chair, Suzanne Federspiel, told me. “These are people who have big hourly rates.”
The idea was for teachers and administrators to work with these experts, many of them also Brookline parents. But the Brookline Educators Union refused to let its members participate. Crucially, the reopening debate was happening alongside a contentious union contract negotiation that had already been simmering for years.
“Teachers do not need to be sitting on a panel with a scientist, getting convinced to shut up and go with their position,” longtime union president and former Brookline High teacher Jessica Wender-Shubow told me recently. (She drew a distinction between individual teachers being asked to participate, which she didn’t support, and the union as a union getting an invitation—which didn’t happen.) She believed that parents didn’t understand the logistical realities of teaching, and the impossibility of getting perfect adherence from even the most perfect children. Brookline parents, she said, “are in in the business of ventilation and spacing. They decide what transmissibility looks like. They say the children are safe. But there are debates about that.”
The rest of the students, from third grade on up, returned in phases to Brookline’s school buildings for hybrid learning starting at the end of October. And then on Nov. 3—Election Day, and the day after the last group of students returned to in-person learning—the teachers went on strike. It was only for a day, and the kids weren’t scheduled to be there anyway; it was a professional development day for teachers. But the message was clear: The union wasn’t happy with the way reopening was going.
This fall, school reopening became a flashpoint, especially in blue America. The same public health experts who warned of the pandemic and had advocated closing everything in March made it increasingly clear that reopening schools was—if case counts were low, if testing were available, if buildings could be ventilated—a manageable risk, at least before it got cold and another wave of the virus hit. Reporting in places like the New Yorker showed how remote learning was likely to be a disaster for low-income students. Meanwhile, many teachers and labor allies were skeptical about the safety of reopening. States were facing budget crunches, Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos were advocating for blanket reopenings while refusing to provide funding or help, and states like Iowa and Georgia had refused to mandate masks in high schools.
But if there was any place that could do in-person learning safely, surely it was Brookline. The town was well resourced and civic-minded, and the state of Massachusetts had kept counts relatively low and hired a giant corps of contact tracers. The parents—at least a significant chunk of them—wanted it. (In Brookline, as everywhere, there were parents who were publicly leery about in-person schooling, but the ones clamoring for in-person learning seemed to be the loudest parental demographic.) And then there were those expert panels, which rivaled the state’s advisory board, especially Panel 4—“Public Health, Safety and Logistics.”
Its members broadcast their weekly meetings on Zoom from June onward, and its proclamations were treated with Fauci-like reverence within the community and by the administration. One co-chair was a big-firm lawyer who worked on compliance for hospitals and health care systems. The other was the deputy director of the emergency preparedness program at the Harvard School of Public Health. Speaking of Harvard, the panel also included: a scientist who studied “how pathogens and other microbial communities interact with the human immune and nervous systems,” a doctor (and Obama administration veteran) who taught health policy and economics there, and another whose work focused on “the development and evaluation of novel diagnostic tests for infectious diseases.” There was a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases. An ICU pulmonologist. An infectious diseases epidemiologist. A nurse manager. A professor who developed training programs to implement community health access strategies. The air-quality expert who was quoted in countless news stories about the pandemic was an informal adviser. This was the Brookline Olympics.
And yet for all that credentialing, when the 1,000 or so Brookline educators went on strike in November, it appeared to be an implicit response to Panel 4’s expert advice. Panel 4 had recently advised that 6 feet of distancing might be revisited in certain specific circumstances, especially given new science that showed the disease was less transmissible in younger children. Soon thereafter, the school district had refused to put language permanently guaranteeing 6 feet of distance into the union contract that was under (protracted) negotiation. “Six feet is just a proxy for how many people are in the classroom,” said Eric Colburn, a ninth grade English teacher who has worked in the district for 18 years. “I could easily be convinced it should be less in some cases, but I certainly think my union should be involved in making that decision.”
On the Brookline schools’ Facebook group, the comments read like a church going through a schism. “I trust teachers to teach, and scientists to guide us on science,” wrote one person, capturing a common view among parents. “[T]he point is that teachers aren’t being heard, all I hear is how amazing panel 4 is, I get it, a collection of brilliant minds working diligently on the matter,” shot back another Brookline resident. “If you all trust your teachers so much open up your ears and listen to what they are telling everyone,” that commenter added. Wender-Shubow, in our conversation this past September, took pains to say that Panel 4 had the best intentions. But, she said, “what they don’t know is how you teach children.” Their expertise stopped at the schoolhouse door. These kinds of fights, she said, “were happening everywhere, with a group of privileged white parents who are extremely skilled at promoting their position. They are squeaky wheels who know how to operate within civil society.”
When COVID came to Brookline, it didn’t pit virus-denying Trump supporters against pro-mask blue staters. It instead exposed and heightened the dysfunction and conflict in a place where everyone was theoretically on the same team. Suddenly, phrases that united the anti-Trump coalition, like “listening to science,” “focusing on the children,” “prioritizing essential workers,” and “trusting the experts,” hardened into battle cries in an internecine fight. In Brookline, nearly all the liberal-enclave-specific political fault lines of the past decade—expensive housing, radicalized public sector union leadership, overeager promises of education reform, mobile wealth, and heightened concerns about racial equity—cracked open. And it was all happening in public, over Zoom, where the town’s heated Thursday night school committee meetings quickly became must-see TV, if you could make it through all four hours. The whole thing could only be diagnosed, in that community’s collective clinical opinion, as a shitshow.
There are Brooklines all over the country, but none is quite so Brookline as the actual Brookline. Some people move there for the short T commute, for the walkable tree-lined streets, the tweedy grace of the old Victorians. They move there to be shocked and horrified that a whole 12 percent of their neighbors voted for Trump—how could that happen here, in Brookline? They move there to be involved in civic life, to live life in a helicopter democracy, where all official business is conducted via town meeting and all the town legislators are volunteers.* Brookline (population 60,000) is a town of doctors and academics, of credentialed idealists who love to marry their passion for change to deliverables.* Where there is money, it is often from biotech—even the sharks have Ph.Ds. It is the second-most-educated place in the country, behind only Bethesda, Maryland.
Research has shown that home values are $205,000 higher in places with high-scoring schools. In Brookline, a single-family house rarely goes for anything under $1.5 million. The town even seems to pride itself on how much people stretch to live there; the city’s website highlights that half of all renters and more than a quarter of residents pay more than 30 percent of their income in housing, which is generally considered financially imprudent. But this isn’t spending on a watch or a car. This is spending on your child’s future.
As a class, Brookline parents might be summed up as: people who can and will fluently cite to you the data about how a child’s socioeconomic circumstances and parents’ educational background actually matter more for their achievement in the long term than the specifics of their schooling. And yet they still can’t stop themselves from trying to maximize their own kid’s shot. Because, mostly, people move to Brookline for the schools.
For decades, Brookline had a reputation as a place where the excellence of its schools was driven by the freedom it afforded teachers to experiment, to be imaginative, to mentor one another; the district had piloted innovative, creative programs that were replicated nationwide. The school committee tends to reflect the values of the community itself. For a long time, all was simpatico.
But in the past decade, things began to change. The school committee began to attract members who were invested—professionally—in a specific brand of more standardized, outcome-based educational philosophy that had become fashionable on the Harvard MBA circuit. They worked for Bain affiliates, they believed in a certain kind of data, and they wanted to change the world. Wender-Shubow said the group reminded her of “that book Winners Take All,” which is Anand Giridharadas’ jeremiad against elite do-gooders who don’t understand that their best intentions are making things worse. She also compared the approach to the Toyota system of management, applied to children’s learning. The vibe, she said, was “We’re smarter than you. We are the experts. We’re rich. We are connected. You’re just a kindergarten teacher. So you leave it to us to figure this out.”
Wender-Shubow, who was dressed in a Bernie Sanders T-shirt when we Zoomed, suggested that I prepare for our call by reading an interview she’d given to the socialist journal Jacobin in 2017, where she situated contract negotiations within a broader context: “The struggle is pointing to the possibility of a full-scale political realignment in Brookline along a gender- and race-inflected fault line of class.” She had graduated from Brookline High School in the 1970s. But now, she lived in what she told me was a “working-class community” of Jamaica Plain, over the town border in Boston.
The district changed its approach to literacy, to one with a formalized curriculum with benchmark assessments. It poured money into initiatives to promote data and accountability, on consultants, on racial and equity training, on changing the school’s disciplinary programs into a restorative justice program in the wake of #MeToo. New scheduling software meant that children’s days became hyperscheduled, as if their days were chunked into billable hours, with lunch at oddly specific times like 11:16 a.m. Children were discouraged, according to parents, to read above their grade level (though not all teachers adhered to the directive). One administrator obsessed with literacy metrics reportedly said at a school committee meeting that she didn’t see any inherent value in poetry.
These changes weren’t entirely unique to Brookline. When the Common Core was rolled out in 2010, it launched a national trend toward standardization. But Brookline thought of itself as different, in part because its educators had always had so much freedom. Teachers found the changes constricting, insulting, and often ineffective. This all meant the end of playtime, of spending a long time on something sort of random but engaging. Teachers came to her, Wender-Shubow said, and told her, “You know, I can’t do my soil unit because it’s messy. We create mud and we look at the changes in how fluid affects it. We used to do this for two hours. … And they said, sorry, no play, no soil unit.” (For her part, she believed this new kind of educational strategy was effectively creating a “new proletariat” and teaching kids “how to be in a call center.”)
In Brookline, this new top-down style was rolled out alongside an emphasis on equity and closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged students, particularly Black ones. Just about 10 percent of the district’s students are poor, and 6 percent are Black (though about 45 percent are nonwhite, and a third of the district’s students learned another language before English). To some parents, this shift in focus appeared to be more about soothing the collective conscience of Brookliners than it was about the reality of the district. These parents, said Wender-Shubow, complained that the district was too focused on “the bottom, on converging toward the middle.” In other words, no one was against working to close an achievement gap, but they questioned why that had to dictate the district’s entire strategy. (Many Brookliners I spoke to declined to go on the record, saying some version of the following: This was a complicated situation in a small community, and having their name attached to any comment would only serve to inflame tensions, something they didn’t want to do since children were involved.)
Last year, 19 of Brookline’s kindergarten teachers wrote a letter decrying the end of “play-based learning” that sent ripples through the community: “It is now common to hear their little voices announce to us, ‘I don’t know how to read,’ ‘I hate reading,’ ‘I hate school,’ ‘I am not good at anything.’ This is our greatest concern,” they wrote.
This attracted the attention of WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti, a Brookline parent and a bona fide public radio celebrity who hosts the show On Point. (Think Terry Gross, but for people who also care about science.) She co-wrote an open letter to the school committee in support of the kindergarten teachers: “We are concerned that classroom teachers, who work directly with our students and know them well, are finding that district mandated programs may be diminishing our children’s love of learning, and damaging their socio-emotional wellbeing.”
In her role as a parent, Chakrabarti began to attend school committee meetings—they were open to the public, but few parents attended—and wrote detailed emails about the proceedings that quickly became Brookline samizdat.
Her magnum opus was an 8,500-word data- and chart-drenched investigation on the recent diminishment of the elementary school science and social studies curriculum. (The intensity was not out of character for her: Chakrabarti once gave an interview in which she said, in response to a question about what people might not know about her, that her release from the stresses of the world was a yearslong project to strip-sand and refinish every door in her condo, in advance of methodically polishing all of the doors’ brass fittings.)
The teachers’ frustration at the school district’s new direction bled into union negotiations, which became knock-down, drag-out battles. A coalition formed: The teachers’ union teamed up with a group of self-described progressive parents and community activists to slowly change the makeup of the school committee and thus the direction of the district. The school committee and administration started to turn over; it was messy, but it was progress, the coalition of parents and teachers believed. Abramowitz’s election in particular represented a key victory—she had unseated the previous chair, and came in guns blazing for change.
But then something funny happened. The progressive-alliance board members, now that they had formal managerial power, became—according to accounts from both sides—The Man. It could take a year to wrangle over a single union contract, and negotiations, if anything, got even more contentious, filled with state labor board complaints and work actions from the teachers’ side.
And so it happened that, when COVID hit, not only was there a contract up for renewal, but teachers felt that they were still dealing with the fallout from the time a bunch of different parents had decided they were the experts on what should happen inside the schools. “If trust [from teachers] had been where we’d like it to be,” said Suzanne Federspiel, the school committee chair, “this whole pandemic thing might have been a little easier.”
The spring had been difficult for schools everywhere, of course, but in Brookline, resentments on all sides boiled over fast. The district had failed to act on a Cassandra letter about the pandemic that Abramowitz sent in February, which would have given it more time to prepare. (Brookline has an interim superintendent who did not reply to my requests to talk; a different interim superintendent was in place last spring, following the resignation of the turnaround specialist.) Like most places, when Brookline went remote in March, the district assumed it might be for just a couple of weeks; in a bit of a panic, the district obligated teachers to a 20-hour workweek with no specific markers for instructional content. Some teachers went above and beyond (one person told me that union members had been pressured not to do extra hours, however, in order to not show up their colleagues who might be able to give less time), but it had really been luck of the draw. In at least a few cases, according to parents, individual students had only received 30 minutes of teacher time a week. Parents were mad; teachers, untrained in remote learning and asked to adjust on the fly to unprecedented circumstances, weren’t happy with the results either.
At the end of May and beginning of June, a parents’ group held two forums, titled “Understanding the Moment,” moderated by Chakrabarti. In classically NPR tones, she welcomed attendees, who had logged in to watch her query members of the school committee on budget cuts and COVID fallout. “What I wanted to say, first of all, is to the more than 1,000 people watching this already: Thank you so much for taking the time to join us this evening. … There’s a lot going on in this town. There’s a lot going on in this country. And all of it is painful and difficult and hard,” she intoned, as if teeing up a pledge drive—which, in a way, she was. The school committee asked the town to reach out to state and federal legislators and “tell them to raise your taxes.”
Brookline is an urbanized suburb and, as such, has a greater than typical share of parking meter, restaurant, hotel, and retail income for a suburb. (Crucially, it also happens to have what may be the single highest volume retail marijuana store in the country.) All of that virtually zeroed out in the early months of the pandemic. A Reagan-era Massachusetts law limits the degree to which education can be funded by real estate taxes, and so in May, town officials came to the school committee and asked them to cut $6.3 million from its operating budget, fast! The school pink-slipped hundreds of teachers. Last-hired, first-fired, went the treasured union rule, and thus the district’s recent efforts to diversify the teaching staff ended up backfiring: Just as the wave of protests after the George Floyd killing swept the country, liberal Brookline found itself in the difficult position of navigating a public relations disaster—the mass firing of teachers, a significant chunk of whom were nonwhite.
It was a temporary measure, the school committee said—and that turned out to be true, since virtually all the educators were soon rehired—but the teachers union turned the PR mess into a strategic advantage. The controversy was covered by the Washington Post, and students staged a rally in support of rehiring the teachers. Community members protested with signs that suggested cutting administrators—whom they named—rather than educators. (“$top the bleeding. Fire Mary Ellen and Matt.”) Brookline parents were back on the teachers’ side, at least for the moment.
The second community forum Chakrabarti hosted in the wake of the budget cuts was a discussion with Wender-Shubow. Chakrabarti was careful to clarify that she was there in her capacity as a parent, not as a journalist. Still, her line of questioning for Wender-Shubow quickly went full Frost-Nixon. She turned the conversation from pink slips toward the looming question of what COVID learning would look like in the fall—and to the way the teachers union was working (or not) with the school committee and administration.
Chakrabarti read a comment from an educator who wanted to compromise and return to school but felt that the union was stopping that. (Ongoing negotiations for the teachers’ contract had, inevitably, become tied up with discussions over health and safety standards during COVID as well as the budget-crunch triage.) With investigative rigor, Chakrabarti grilled Wender-Shubow on why a meeting for the negotiations subcommittee had fallen off the school committee’s public calendar at the very last minute—had the union simply refused to participate?
Wender-Shubow danced. They hadn’t been invited, she first said. (She later told me she felt ambushed.) Figuring out the budget crisis, she said, wasn’t the union’s responsibility. The conversation shifted to Panel 4. Wender-Shubow argued that teachers would have merely been “tokens” if they’d participated in this advisory panel, even though they were invited. She went on to say that she considered the COVID learning task forces “a distraction” and an “interruption” to the larger work of bargaining. The state’s union had its own health and safety panel that she could look to, Wender-Shubow told me later, and its members had OSHA and industrial safety experience.
Chakrabarti read a letter she’d obtained, addressed to members of the teachers union, that seemed to describe something like a half-strike. Union members were asked to refrain, starting immediately, from parent-teacher conferences and student progress reports, from entering school buildings to do anything but retrieve belongings, from making a video for kindergarteners, from “any other newly added task.” Chakrabarti paused: “What is unreasonable about making a video for 5-year-olds?” In other words, was the union, essentially, using the COVID crisis as a bargaining tactic in its larger battle with the district?
The past decade has seen public sector unions take it on the chin, particularly in Republican-run states. Teachers especially feel increasingly embattled, with good reason. As a rule, they work too much, earn too little, and don’t get enough credit for doing an increasingly complicated job. Classrooms are simultaneously underresourced and oversurveilled by policymakers and administrations with little hands-on educational experience. Unions have, in turn, taken more dramatic work actions. Strikes and walkouts have gone from rare to increasingly common.
COVID has exacerbated these tensions. Like others, the Brookline Educators Union has emphasized health and safety, but teachers all over the country say that hybrid teaching—which requires double the planning, needs increased administrative work, and can involve supervising kids at home and in a classroom at the same time—is unsustainable and a path to burnout.
Abramowitz, who co-chaired the committee on remote learning before stepping down in August, suggested that the teachers union wasted a golden opportunity to negotiate from the position of being essential first responders during a public health emergency: “That comes with money. That comes with benefits. That comes with protections.”
Or maybe a better standard was in the humanitarian world. “There’s a core ethical principle called the responsibility to protect, which is about organizations having a primary responsibility to protect their own personnel,” said Abramowitz. “What’s very clear is that many teachers are distrustful because they have been in deeply unsafe situations for a very long time.” Teachers are asked to deal with school shootings, violent children, aggressive adults, poverty, online bullying—a host of complex social problems that aren’t part of their job description, she said. “Educators are so abandoned, they no longer trust in their own system to protect them. In Brookline, they are questioning whether or not core educational functions should be delivered even in conditions, as in Brookline, where public health risks are being highly, highly mitigated.”
Colburn, the ninth grade teacher, pointed out that other members of the white-collar professional class—which teachers consider themselves to be, rather than first responders—weren’t exactly lining up to do in-person work. Or even, say, letting a friend inside their house to use the bathroom. Besides, “no one is offering us hazard pay.” Colburn and I happened to speak on the afternoon when the mayor of New York City suddenly announced that his district would shut down (elementary schools have since reopened), and there was general outcry over the idea that restaurants and gyms would meanwhile stay open. “Maybe in an ideal world it would be the reverse,” said Colburn, “but one of the reasons it’s not is that teachers are for the most part unionized. That’s hard for people. It makes them think that unions are bad. It makes me think service workers should be unionized.”
In Massachusetts, the teachers unions have taken a particularly strong stance across the board during the COVID era, pushing for remote learning protections for its teachers until, essentially, their safety can be guaranteed by a vaccine. (Naturally, the president of Moderna also lives in Brookline.) In Newton, Brookline’s neighbor, teachers voted no confidence in their superintendent in early September, as they did in in Andover, where the state labor relations board ruled that teachers were effectively engaged in an illegal strike by refusing to enter school buildings because they feared for their safety during the COVID crisis. In fact, the Massachusetts Teachers Association wrote a letter encouraging all school districts to take the same hard line until the state reached what the Boston Globe described as “unspecified public health benchmarks.”
These tactics weren’t entirely universal. The union leadership of Quincy called the MTA statement a “shockingly vague” rationale for a strike. The tony Boston suburb Wellesley had a COVID-era operating agreement with its teachers union by September, happily displayed on the school district’s website.
In Brookline, the union’s previous agreement with the school district technically expired on Sept. 1 (though a new one wasn’t resolved by that date), which means that COVID has loomed over all its negotiations, and the negotiations in turn have loomed over all COVID safety discussions. The district’s initial plans for overall hybrid learning were heavily guided by air-quality and spacing standards suggested by Panel 4, but after a contentious school committee meeting and several hundred emails a day from teachers and their supporters suggesting to the school committee that in-person learning would jeopardize educators’ lives, the plan changed to something called “RemotePlus.”
At first, only kindergartners (and a handful of students in other grades who needed in-person learning, for various reasons) would attend in person. Other grades would return later, to give more time to get classrooms up to the new air-filtration standards. Parents could opt in—at several points throughout the year—to a Remote Academy that suddenly had to be staffed in parallel to the regular schools, with its own set of principals and teachers (680 students are enrolled). The opening of the school year was delayed, which meant precious outdoor, pre–flu season time was slipping away.
This didn’t seem to please the parents of Brookline. Many of them were, after all, people with options. Despite all the talk of equity during the spring, one of the main results of COVID seemed to be that those who could afford it were paying for extra instruction. One Brookliner I talked to was bidding on a house in Wellesley. (She didn’t like the “tennis bracelet feel” of the town, but she did like the organized school system.) Other parents wanted to stay in the inner ring, walkable to the hospitals, but they didn’t need to stay in the schools. And spots in private schools were opening up.
Parents fought to get into Backbay Montessori and Chestnut Hill. St. Mary’s, the local Catholic school, attracted attention after it invested in COVID infrastructure, HVAC air filters and outdoor learning tents being the baptismal water and tabernacle of 2020. Temple Ohabei Shalom, which runs a popular preschool, started a kindergarten program, one that would “allow for the play-based, emergent curriculum model that we believe is developmentally appropriate for young children,” surely a subtle reference to the Brookline kindergarten controversy.
Parents who kept their kids in the school district, meanwhile, seemed increasingly desperate to exert some kind of control over the uncontrollable. (Both the virus and the teachers union counted as the uncontrollable.) Brigades of volunteer parents spent their weekend in the school buildings, measuring the number of inches in each classroom and helping test the air quality to prove it was suitable for reopening.
Local dads with advanced degrees who weren’t on Panel 4 took to Facebook. (“I could give you the names of all the people who seem to have nothing to do all day but attack the union on Facebook and treat us like we have ulterior motives,” Wender-Shubow told me.)
One Brookliner marked 9/11 by posting an article that linked school closings to depression and suicide. Another parent posted photos of rainbow signs he seemed to have printed that read “Education is essential. Open our schools!” Someone else proposed “an educator-parent unity committee.” (It seemed unlikely that what Brookline needed was another committee.)
Meanwhile, the union argued that bringing children back to school could “generate some trauma that our community is clearly committed to lessening,” Wender-Shubow said in an August school committee meeting. Teachers are “deeply concerned about having to rebuff students who reach out to them physically.” And, of course, there was the health and safety of educators. A few days before school started, parents and students doing remote learning were asked to come by the buildings to pick up their materials, one parent told me. Teachers had lined the outside of the buildings with signs that explained their fears for the year—including dying. For the elementary-age children walking by, it was terrifying—even traumatic—to imagine being responsible for a teacher’s death.
The morning of Sept. 16 dawned sunny. The kindergarteners and a small group of students with specific needs for in-person instruction went back, but Brookline parent and Harvard ventilation expert Joseph Allen tweeted: “It’s my kids’ first day of school. It’s remote. We failed. Me, you, administrators, government, CDC, WHO, parents, media, businesses … ALL of us. Inexcusable that our country did not do everything in its power to prioritize schools.” (Since June, Allen has written and co-written several op-eds on schools, including “Listen to the Science and Reopen Schools.”)
The parents I spoke to with children in remote school generally found it to be much improved in contrast with the spring. But some cases of COVID had been reported in the school community, and there was a minicluster at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where lots of parents worked. A chill was in the air. More parents on Facebook seemed worried about the safety of in-school learning. Was that Godzilla looming maskless over the Brookline Booksmith? The case counts in Boston kept rising.
When the rest of Brookline’s children finally began their phased return to hybrid in-person learning in late October, it seemed like a sign that Panel 4’s counsel continued to preside. But the return wasn’t entirely smooth. The administration changed schedules on parents and teachers with little notice, leaving everyone scrambling for child care and irritated by the lack of communication. A group of sixth grade teachers at one school sent a newsletter to parents warning them not to expect much of hybrid learning compared with remote learning, detailing all the ways it was inferior and more difficult. (“In an effort to be candid, the 6th grade teaching team is fearful that in our transition to hybrid, families may grow frustrated with us and see us as the source of the challenges their children face. Please remember that we are trying our best AND we are speaking up against the structural changes that are contributing to the decrease in quality of your child/ren’s education and our ability to do our jobs,” they summarized.)
Colburn, the teacher, told me he had been dreading the year—it seemed like COVID restrictions would make it difficult to connect with the kids, the thing he loved the most about his work—but had been pleasantly surprised. Overall, the complicated ballet of hybrid learning was worse for most children than full remote, he said, but for kids who had been struggling for whatever set of reasons, he said, having some in-person time was invaluable.
Wender-Shubow even reported that negotiations had improved. That is, until the 6-foot language in the proposed contract changed late in October. Teachers lined up outside the schools in the mornings for drop-off, holding signs that read “Safer at Six Feet”—and then, the strike. (Not long afterward, Joseph Allen, the parent and ventilation expert, published an op-ed that argued 3 feet of distance in schools could be enough.)
I called Wender-Shubow a few days after the strike in November to ask what the fallout had been. She was still waiting, she said, to find out. The 6-foot language had been the proximate cause of the strike—it could have long-term implications about class size, obviously—but more broadly, Wender-Shubow was still focused on what she saw as the communitywide devaluation of her teachers’ expertise. (Panel 4 did consistently seek the input of teachers, and several individual educators ended up speaking to the group on their weekly Zooms, in a more informal way.)
There were people in the union, she said, who didn’t think the single-day strike had been aggressive enough. She was frustrated by the risks posed by lunch and by adolescents who walked around maskless in groups all over Brookline, by how long it took the union to get a clear answer on how the district was contact tracing, by staffing issues. (The district has budget for extra educators but has had difficulty filling the jobs.) Her new effort was a petition for pool testing, like what Wellesley has, funded by a private community group that supports the public schools.
The longer things dragged on, the more it seemed like the damage would linger past this year. The Brookline schools have been bleeding enrollment: By November, 11 percent of students (or about 800) had left the district, compared with just 4 percent statewide. Some of that might be international parents on fellowships who had trouble with COVID-era visas, but that’s a high-enough number that it signals flight. And, of course, fewer students will mean less money and, eventually, fewer resources for the teachers.
By early December, it looked like things might be reaching a détente. The school committee and the union had agreed to a contract, pending ratification. The teachers had won a guarantee on the 6-foot question; any changes to the policy would need a formal vote. But Panel 4 had won a victory of kinds too. Although two of the four markers the group had originally identified as triggers for a district shutdown had been exceeded—community case counts in both Brookline and greater Boston—there was no evidence of in-school transmission. The measures they’d recommended had worked. The schools, it appeared, would stay open.
Abramowitz, meanwhile, is looking toward the next academic year. She’ll be far from Brookline—at least physically. The University of Hong Kong recruited her for a job, studying, in part, the way communities respond to pandemics.
Correction, Dec. 18, 2020: This piece originally implied that Rep. Joe Kennedy III lives in Brookline. He actually lives in a nearby suburb. This piece also mischaracterized all town officials as volunteers. In fact, only the town meeting members are volunteers.
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