Debate intensifies on BPS ‘hybrid’ plan vs. full remote learning for fall

Families got their first look at how a “hybrid” re-opening for Boston Public Schools could look next month when school officials publicly released their draft plan on Monday, a week before a deadline set by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary Secondary Education (DESE).

“Going back to school this year will not feel normal. But we do know one thing: We want to come to it with an asset lens and not a deficit lens,” BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a virtual press conference Wednesday afternoon.

“We’re still putting some more meat on the bones as we talk to our teacher work groups that have been working since July to go more deeply into the issues and protocol.”

According to the draft plan, BPS will offer hybrid and remote learning options next year. The hybrid model will be available to all students and will split participating students into four alternating sections — groups A, B, C, and D.

The current plan calls for families to choose in late August which model their children will participate in and whether or not they will need school bus transportation.

Groups “A” and “B” would rotate into classrooms, with students in group “A” learning in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, and those in group “B” cycling in on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays would be reserved for sanitation to prevent the spread of germs between groups A and B. Students with special needs and ESL learners would make up group “C,” and online-only learners are characterized as group “D.”

All students will begin remote classes on Sept. 11, according to the plan, and in-person learning would be phased in by grade level.

“We don’t yet have the answers to whether we will or will not phase-in because right now we are still looking at the science. Exactly when we should have students back in the building and at what grade levels, has yet to be determined,” Cassellius said.

Tammy Pust, senior advisor to the superintendent, said the plan was a compilation of BPS’s “best thoughts” thus far to provide guidance on how to best meet challenges.

“There are some public health ‘guardrails’ that all planning must be done within,” said Tammy Pust, BPS senior advisor. “That includes social distancing, everyone wearing masks, and only one student is permitted per bench per bus.”

Pust called the transportation limitations “huge.”

“That has lots of ramifications, it affects everything else. It really would not be logistically possible for us to get all 55,000 students into school with those guidelines.”

Under state guidelines, food is not to be served to students in groups, and school staff will have to follow strict sanitation protocols for busses, buildings, and develop plans detailing how school nurses should respond to symptomatic children or anyone exposed to someone with the virus.

Pust said that BPS is in “daily contact” with the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) and that no final decisions have been made.

“We will not bring anyone back to our school buildings this fall until such times we are assured by the BPHC that we can do so safely. The decision is not going to be made until we have finished all listening sessions but this plan is out because we want feedback,” she said.

“We understand that the hybrid we’ve proposed in our plan is not perfect, but it is the best plan we’ve got so far which is why we are out with it now.”

The plan was also aired in a virtual School Committee meeting Wednesday night, during which dozens of parents and teachers submitted public testimony in opposition of any sort of physical return to schools.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said that educators don’t find the plan “realistic.”

“While there are aspects of BPS’s reopening plan that we find encouraging and that we agree with, we don’t think the plan is tenable or realistic,” Tang said during the Boston School Committee Meeting.

“The main areas where we disagree are on the misguided simultaneous hybrid approach and the feasibility of accomplishing the goals set forth within the timeline provided, especially if COVID-19 data continues trending in the wrong direction as it has recently.”

A sampling of city councillors also participated in the public comment session. At-Large City Councillor Julia Mejia said she strongly opposed a hybrid return model.

“I’m in strong opposition of the hybrid model, and I’m really concerned about the lack of engagement,” she testified.
Citywide Councillor Michelle Wu said she was “frustrated” with the uncertainty of the plan.

“I 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,” she said.

“It doesn’t help to provide certainty to simply say ‘science will drive the decision’ when there’s no transparency about how infection data might drive decisions beyond deferring to the Boston Public Health Commission.”

“The draft plan holds up health and wellness as a core value, but shifts the responsibilities onto families. No virus testing provided or even required by the district, no contract tracing, no water available to students during the day trying to address the needs for social distancing on busses by cutting the number of families eligible for bus service.”

She added: “I have yet to hear from one constituent who believes that the hop-scotch model is achievable.”

At-Large Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George highlighted some specific issues with the draft plan in her testimony, and underscored issues around 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,” said Essaibi-George, who worked as a BPS teacher before entering politics.

She also urged BPS to better address ways to ensure adequate staffing levels, cleaning of buildings and buses, availability of space to school nurses, and appropriate ventilation in schools.

District 4 Councillor Andrea Campbell released a statement on Thursday calling for a “fully remote” start to the start year with a phased-in approach to in-person learning.

“Boston Public Schools should start this school year remotely,” Campbell said. “BPS is not ready to safely and effectively achieve a hybrid plan in a way that ensures the safety and health of students, teachers, and staff, and equitably delivers a high-quality education for our students.”

The BTU is looking for more details around transportation, public health and how the BPS facilities plan will maintain CDC requirements.

“Currently, we have been respectfully urging the district to move toward a full-remote reopening to being the school year and a phased in return to any voluntary in person learning only when all safety protocols are in place and fully verified,” said Tang.

“The Sept. 10 start is “completely unrealistic,” she added. “A delayed start is better than a disastrous start.”
According to the district’s plan, teachers would be required to track all attendance and student learning, conduct assessments, and give students letter grades.

According to the draft plan, all teachers would receive professional development.

“It is absolutely essential that our teachers get professional development and there isn’t going to be any magic number because our teachers come at all different levels here,” said Cassellius, “We will be looking to teachers and academic leaders within the distinct to provide professional development as well as any new tech tools and safety protocols.”

BPS has no plans to conduct testing or contact tracing for families and students. “We don't currently have plans for testing,” said Cassellius. “We are instead going to provide parents with a list of things they should check and nurses will have protocols for how to identify and treat children that are not well.”

The superintendent added that the district is weighing several options to enhance air quality and provide proper ventilation in schools.

“We’re looking at a number of options for air quality and identifying spaces within schools where it is not adequate right now, so we are just marking those as unusable spaces. We’re looking at all types of different technologies and renovations that would need to happen in order to open up school buildings for classrooms,” she said.

“We had a number of windows that were identified that needed to be fixed or replaced, and doing that actively during the summer.”

Providing PPE for staff and students will account for approximately 3.5 percent of the district’s budget.

“Budget is absolutely an issue for us, we know that this is going to be somewhere around 3.5 percent of our budget which is about $30-50 million dollars,” she said.

When asked about possible cuts, Cassellius wasn’t quite sure exactly what could be affected at this point. “We don’t have [estimates for cuts], but we are going to continue to look at staffing patterns, procurement patterns, our supplies and what we can take off the table or keep on,” she said.

She added that the district would not be cutting any arts, physical education, or social-emotional learning programs, despite working on a tight budget.

“There will be an emphasis on social-emotional learning especially in the first month back. Social workers and mental health teams will be available in order to provide wrap-around services for our children,” said Cassellius.

The district is still “at the table” with union partners in trying to gauge how many staff members might retire early or opt not to return to schools.

“We will be asking teachers potentially about whether they want to come back or not, we are at the table right now with union partners to try to see if we can get a better understanding of whether they are coming back or not,” said Cassellius.

“We also understand that some members may retire early and that might affect our staffing. Right now, we are on track for staffing and hiring and we are feeling cautiously optimistic, but also understanding that there is a level of fear out there for our staff, so we’ll just continue to monitor it as we go into the next school year.”

Cassellius told reporters that while she understands families’ concerns around returning to in-person learning, students will have to go back “at some point.”

“I understand the concern out there in the community and we all understand the complex nature of this decision. We are watching closely to see what's happening with the numbers and making sure we aren’t getting too far ahead of ourselves,” she said.

“But at some point, we know we will go back and we will have to be in a hybrid model. We may be in this situation for a while and, at some point, we do need to have our children back in school. We have to balance what we know as community spread but when it is at the right level to come back to school.”