Boston plan for school return still unresolved

Mayor Martin Walsh addressed the media during a Back-to-School event held outside the Kroc Community Center on Dudley Street on Tuesday, Aug. 18. BPS Superintendent Brena Cassellius is shown, right. Katie Trojano photo

Walsh: 'We'll make the right decision'

With school districts across the city and state readying for a return to instruction early next month — either in-person, remotely, or via a mix of the two—Boston remained in a holding pattern this week after seeking state approval to put off the beginning of classes until later in September.

On Tuesday, Mayor Martin Walsh and BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, in a joint appearance at a back-to-school supply drive event at the Kroc Community Center on Dudley Street in Dorchester, said that the start of the academic year will “look different” for the district’s 57,000-plus students. Neither would say if the district will choose a fully remote or hybrid return to learning. 

“The one thing I want people and parents to know is that until a decision is made— as far as if we’re going to have in-person learning— parents all have the option to opt out,” said Walsh.

Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang last week said that her group was “calling on BPS to plan for a fully remote reopening to begin the school year, and a phased-in return to in-person learning,” adding, “we should learn from other instruction [that] are now dealing with multiple COVID-19 outbreaks.”

The mayor declined to give a firm time frame on when the city would decide on a reopening model.  He said he “appreciates” the calls for a remote return, but added: “We’re not seeking these large spikes that we’ve seen in other parts of the country. But we’re monitoring this on a daily basis and we’re going to make the right decision.

“If everything shows that we can’t do in-person learning in September, we’re not going to. I’m not going to put students and teachers in harm’s way.” 

BPS officials released their 87-page reopening plan last Saturday after filing it with the Massachusetts Department of Secondary Education (DESE.) The state required all districts to outline a plan for three different reopening models — full remote, in-person, or a hybrid mix. The districts were not required to make decisions on which model they plan to use. 

BPS made some changes in its plans after releasing a first draft plan on Aug. 3 and included two options for a hybrid return. It also asked the state for a waiver to start school on Mon., Sept. 21, while holding off until Sept. 23 for preschoolers and kindergartners.

Cassellius told reporters that teachers would receive training if a hybrid model did proceed. “We have days that will be at the front end for teachers to do professional development and get the learning that they need,” she said. “I understand and acknowledge as a former teacher how difficult I think it will be for them when they first get in the classroom.

“There will be some strain and stress, but I do think that we have a resilient teacher core and I think they will dig in and that we’ll be stronger because of it.” 

In the district’s remote plan, students would remain enrolled in their current schools and learn from home five days a week. 

In the first hybrid option, classrooms would be divided and students in group “A” would cycle into school on Mondays and Tuesdays and group “B” on Thursdays and Fridays. All facilities would be closed for cleaning on Wednesdays and all students would learn remotely when not in the classroom. 

The second hybrid option would support children with learning disabilities and English Language Learners (ELL) who might need one-on-one time with educators. These students would have the option to learn in-person three or four days a week depending on their needs. 

Several city councillors expressed concerns when the plan was released over the weekend. 

At-Large Councillor Michelle Wu has joined BTU members in calling for a fully remote reopening. She said the plan was not fully “fleshed out ” and that she “felt quite frustrated that a little over a month away from the start of school we are still facing the same type of uncertainty that we faced at the very beginning of the shutdown.”  

Councillor Andrea Campbell of District 4 has also called for a “fully remote” return to school for Boston students, and said she was frustrated that a final decision has not been made. 

“We still don’t have a decision on BPS reopening but instead an 80-plus page doc with no decisive plan,” Campbell tweeted on Saturday. “I absolutely think the year should begin remotely, and every day the district delays this decision, we lose opportunities to prepare our students for success.”

At-Large Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George highlighted some specific issues with the draft plan in her comments at school committee meetings and council hearings in the past few weeks, particularly the feasibility of staff teaching online and in-person simultaneously. 

“It would result in poor learning environments for both the students in the classroom and learning online. I strongly urge you to not have teachers using the simultaneous model,” the former BPS teacher said. 

When asked on Tuesday how he would respond to city councillors who say that the plan still isn’t specific enough, Walsh said: “The plan is very specific and we’re going to continue to update the plan as we move forward. This should not be political. This isn’t about a future race; it’s about our kids and their future. It is not the time to play politics when it comes to opening schools and it’s not the time to gain political points by running for higher office.

“We should be working together and talking about how we can open schools— if we can open schools. Those decisions should be made collectively, and they shouldn’t be done through Tweets,” said the mayor.

The Massachusetts Teachers Associations and the American Federation of Teachers of Massachusetts have both called for schools to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by keeping their buildings closed for now and starting classes remotely.

BPS noted that as of Aug. 14, the city qualifies as “yellow” within the state’s three-tiered guideline, meaning that Boston’s average daily cases per 10,000 is between 4 and 8, meeting th state’s threshold for a hybrid or remote model. The color-coded metric is measured as a 14-day rolling average that the DPH reports weekly.

“There is no one solution that will work best for every student, every family, or every person who works with Boston Public Schools. Recognizing and respecting that fact, the BPS Reopening Plan provides several learning model options for families to choose in order to best meet the educational needs of their children,” officials wrote. 

Each model outlined in the district’s plan would offer students 6.5 hours of instruction. Families will be sent surveys later this month so they can choose a plan and indicate whether or not their child will need bus transportation. 

More than 70 percent of the 371 public school districts who had reported their reopening approaches as of Monday are planning hybrid or fully in-person learning models for the upcoming school year, with the remaining 30 percent poised to resume remote education fulltime, Gov. Baker said on Tuesday.

He described himself as “encouraged” that so many districts are planning to resume in-person learning. “Students have been away from their classrooms and their teachers and peers since March,” Baker said. “Since then, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about COVID and have put together guidelines to allow for a productive and safe learning environment that adapts to the challenges that come with COVID-19.”

Material from State House News Service reports was used in this story.