With agreement set on safety measures, BPS preps for opening

Nick Lind, a teacher at Mildred Ave. K-8, sits at a desk behind a new classroom camera. Katie Trojano photo

With a stakeholders agreement on safety measures in place, the Boston public schools will reopen for remote learning next Monday (Sept. 21) with the expectation that certain groups of students may be back in classrooms for in-person learning as early as October.

The online opening is on pace, according to BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who led reporters on a tour of two schools in Dorchester and Mattapan last Wednesday, pointing out both new technology and the protective barriers that are being installed as teachers attend to final preparations for greeting their students.

A final agreement on reopening measures was reached last Thursday after weeks of negotiation between BPS officials and the Boston Teachers Union (BTU). Key components of the memorandum include a facilities walk-through with health and safety teams, alternative work options for high-risk educators, random Covid testing for five percent of BTU membership weekly, technology and laptops for paraprofessionals by Sept. 21, and a waiver allowing all BTU members to bring any school-aged children in grades K-12 to school with them for any fully remote learning times if they cannot find child care.

Students prioritized for classroom learning will include some English Language (EL) learners; those with disabilities in inclusion classrooms with high needs; children experiencing homelessness; those in the care of the Department of Children and Families; and students who attend special education public day schools.

One group (B) will begin on Oct. 1 and 2 (Thurs./Fri.); and a second group (A) will begin on October 5 and 6 (Mon./Tues.). On Oct. 12, special education public day students are scheduled for a transition to in-person learning four days a week.

In a press conference on Thursday, Mayor Walsh thanked the teachers for working on the agreement, the result of months of work between the Boston School Department, Cassellius, and BTU President Jessica Tang. “The focus of this framework is ensuring the safety for everyone in our schools,” he said.

IMG_9593.jpgSuperintendent Cassellius, left, chats with Mather School principal Marcia Riddick, above. Katie Trojano photo

Teachers were back in school buildings last week participating in professional development and family engagement sessions.

“It has been an all-hands-on deck approach to getting our schools ready for our kids and I just couldn’t be more proud of the incredible work that has been done,” Cassellius told reporters outside of the Mildred Avenue K-8 school in Mattapan. “I can’t tell you the number of people who have stepped up to ensure that we are opening our doors safely.”

Sept. 10 was supposed to be the first day of class for all BPS students, she noted.

“Typically, the mayor is with us and there are lots of high fives and hugs. But we all know that today we’re living in a different reality, a new normal. We’ve worked all summer and through the spring to get ready for this moment,” the superintendent said.

Walsh reported last week that the city has seen a new low in its Covid-19 positive test rate — 1.7 percent positive rate, down by 2.3 and 2.7 percent from two previous weeks.

“This was good news for us in being able to have more of our students in our buildings,” said Cassellius. “We continue to watch these numbers closely over the next several weeks to do all we can as a school community so that we can open our doors to our children and staff.”

After surveying parents on their preferred return method over the summer, Cassellius said that, overall, BPS families were essentially split in their responses.

“About 50 percent of our families are saying they want to come back in person and about 50 percent want to be in remote learning,” she said. “But I do think as the confidence builds, that families will come in. They will see that facilities are ready and they’ll want to have their children back in schools.”

IMG_4471.jpgPat Trophy points out safety measures. Katie Trojano photo

During the tour, officials showed how schools are equipped with plexiglass dividers and vinyl separators as well as electrostatic sprayers, commonly known as foggers, that will be used to infect surfaces in school buildings every Wednesday, Saturday, and any time school officials deem cleaning necessary within a classroom or large space.

Each classroom will also be equipped with a large bottle of disinfectant spray and the district has ordered 150,000 reusable and 2 million disposable masks. The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) has reviewed and approved the daily sanitizing protocols that BPS has put in place.

Markings on stairwells and hallways promote one-way streams of foot traffic and multi-lingual signage reminding students to socially distance and wash their hands appear on walls all around the schools.

“Hopefully, students will help us make more signage that is student friendly and help participate in building the sense of community and safety that they want to be in,” said Cassellius.

To enhance ventilation, classroom doors will be propped open. Cassellius noted that district officials worked with Boston Fire Chief Jack Dempsey on safety guidelines.

“Thanks to Commissioner Dempsey for some flexibility [to allow] having these doors open so that air can flow in and out,” she said.

In facilities that don’t have HVAC ventilation systems, windows will be open year-round. Of the system’s 123 schools, about 35 are equipped with an operational HVAC system.

“Each of our 123 buildings is very different and complex; that’s why this has been such a difficult time,” Cassellius said at the Mildred Avenue school. “Right now, we’re at one of our newer facilities that has an HVAC system and other more modern features—larger classrooms, gyms, and teacher spaces, and the sizes of classrooms are more uniform.

“We are also going beyond state guidance and we’ve purchased over 3,000 fans,” she said.

The school district’s plumbing division has evaluated and repaired 2,200 bathrooms and repaired or replaced 7,000 windows. At the Mather School atop Meetinghouse Hill, 36 windows have been repaired to improve ventilation, said Samuel DePina, chief operations officer for BPS.

“The BPS plan meets or exceeds DESE guidelines,” added Pat Brophy, the city’s chief of operations who explained that while the state requires each classroom to have a minimum of one operational window, BPS has ensured that multiple windows will be open.

A total of $14 million has been spent to repair and maintain buildings since the closure last spring, added Brophy.

Cassellius said that parents and teachers will have an opportunity to walk through buildings in the coming weeks while noting that teachers are currently learning how to involve families more strategically and navigate new technology that is helpful for virtual instruction.

“Educators will spend at least the next two weeks of professional development learning those new platforms and developing the new systems for how we can work both remotely and in the hybrid forms,” she said.

“Public health information guides our decision making and we are only going to bring our students and staff back into our buildings if it is safe to do so,” she said. “But what we know about the coronavirus is that it does rapidly evolve and that we have to be nimble and flexible in order to meet the many complex needs of our facilities and our students.”