School plan in limbo as debate on safety flares

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

After calls for extensions from multiple school districts, DESE on Monday announced they’ve pushed back the deadline for school districts in the commonwealth to submit final reopening plans from Monday, Aug. 10 to Friday, Aug. 14. 

“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,” said BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius in a virtual press conference last Wednesday.

She added: “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 plan, BPS will offer hybrid and remote learning options. 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 plan calls for families to choose in late August which model their children will participate in and decide whether or not they will need bus transportation to get to school. 

Groups “A” and “B” would rotate into classrooms, with students in group “A” learning in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, and 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 group “D.” 

On Friday, the BTU released a proposal calling on the city to plan for a fully remote school reopening with a phased-in return to in-person learning once all safety protocols are in place. The proposal, called “Creating the Schools Our Students Deserve: Aspirations, Proposals, and Priorities of the Boston Teachers Union for a Safe Restart,” says that Boston educators have joined with The American Federation of Teachers and the Massachusetts Teachers Association in opposition of any return to in-person learning until the districts show that community transmission of COVID-19 is under control in the region; the presence of a public health infrastructure to support effective disease testing, surveillance, tracing and isolation in schools; access to remote work assignments for all staff who are at high risk or live with someone who is high risk, and that in-person teaching is a voluntary choice; and that the district and school have funded a series of safeguards and protocols dealing with distancing, face coverings, personal protective equipment and other issues. 

All students will begin classes remotely on Sept. 11, according to BPS’s draft plan, and in-person learning would be phased in by grade level –depending. “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. Who and when we should have students back in the building and at what grade levels that still 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 meet the numerous challenges in reopening.  

“There are some public health ‘guardrails’ that all planning must be done within,” she said, “including social distancing, everyone wearing masks, and only one student permitted per bench per bus.”

Pust called the transportation limitations “huge, with lots of ramifications. Think of it as dominoes. 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 have to follow strict sanitation protocols for buses and buildings and develop plans for how school nurses 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 aired in a virtual School Committee meeting last 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 at the meeting that “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. 

“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.” 

City councillors also participated in the public comment session.  At-Large Councillor Julia Mejia said she was “in strong opposition of the hybrid model, and I’m really concerned about the lack of engagement. And Citywide Councillor Michelle Wu said 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.

“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.”

She added: “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 buses by cutting the number of families eligible for bus service.

“I have yet to hear from one constituent who believes that the hop-scotch model is achievable,” Wu said. 

At-Large Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George highlighted some specific issues with the draft plan in her comments, 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,” said the former BPS teacher who also urged BPS to find better ways to 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, saying:

 “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.”

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

“We have been respectfully urging the district to move toward a full-remote reopening to begin 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,” she said. “The Sept. 10 start is “completely unrealistic; a delayed start is better than a disastrous start.” 

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley on Friday said that Massachusetts schools should start the coming academic year remotely. Pressley, in a statement, said schools “are not equipped with the resources, equipment, classroom facilities and staff necessary to safely reopen for in person courses.” She said the coming weeks should be used “to plan for equitable remote learning scenarios while we work to stabilize the public health crisis and get our schools the resources and support they would need to safely open.” 

According to the district’s plan, teachers would be required to track all attendance, conduct assessments, monitor student learning, and give students letter grades.

Cassellius said that all teachers will receive professional development guidance. 

“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,” she said. “We will be looking to teachers and academic leaders within the district to provide professional development as well as any new tech tools and safety protocols.” 

As of now, BPS has no plans to conduct testing or contact tracing for families and students. 

“We don’t currently have plans for testing,” Cassellius said. “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.” 

She added that the district is “looking at a number of options for air quality and identifying spaces within schools where it is not adequate right now. 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 we’re doing that actively during the summer,” she added. 

Providing PPE for staff and students will account for approximately 3.5 percent [between $30 million and $50 million] of the district’s budget, Cassellius noted, saying the “budget is absolutely an issue for us.” 

When asked about possible cuts, Cassellius said she wasn’t quite sure what could be affected at this point. “We don’t have [estimates], 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 
The district will not be cutting any arts, physical education, or social-emotional learning programs, despite the tight budget, she said.

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

As to how many staff members might retire early or opt not to return to schools, she said, “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.

“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 said that 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....We have to balance what we know as community spread but when it is at the right level to come back to school.”

State House News Service reports contributed to this article.