At a press conference this morning, Mayor Martin Walsh announced that Boston Public Schools will be pausing the school reopening plan in response to recent upticks in COVID positive rates across the city, pushing back the earliest possible start date from October 15 to October 22.
Chief of Health & Human Services Marty Martinez noted that the city is still testing an average of around 1800 individuals per day, but in the last week saw the average number of positive tests increase from 65.6 to 73 positive tests per day.
“We continue to see increased COVID activity week over week, and this small increase has also spread into some different neighborhoods,” said Martinez. “In the last week, Hyde Park saw an increase; Dorchester, which had gone up, remained level; and East Boston has seen a small decrease.”
The city’s positive rate is now at 4.1%, the first time it has surpassed 4% since early June. With the rate over the city’s 4% threshold, which Walsh noted was a “conservative threshold,” the mayor said his administration believes it is “prudent at this time to pause the school reopening plan” and remain in Phase 2. Last week, some high-risk students whose families opted-in returned to in-person learning and other BPS-provided services. The next phase, which would see K0-K3 kindergarten students begin a hybrid model, is now on hold until at least October 22.
“We will reevaluate where we are based on the data we see between now and then,” said the mayor.
Walsh defended the decision to keep high-need students in schools, noting that kids with disabilities that require in-person support, those who need English language support, and students experiencing homelessness or in DCF all depend on the services provided in a school environment.
“For many of these students, not being in school presents a risk that cannot be mitigated the way the risk of COVID can be,” said Walsh. “There’s too much at stake for our young people.”
BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said she noticed “the energy of excitement of students” who returned last week, noting, “they missed their friends and teachers.” Only about 1300 students on average returned to school last week, a figure that Cassellius said was lower than the amount they were anticipating. But having that option is important for families who know their children need in-person learning, she said.
“They need this added support and critical services we provide for them, and they need the caring adults that love them.”
Roxann Harvey, Chair of the Special Education Advisory Council, spoke to the progress students have seen in just their first week back at school and cautioned against halting that momentum.
“It was almost like seeing different children, to see the way they are opening up and using their social skills,” she said. “We are seeing a change and we know in-person services need to remain.”
City Councillor at-large Annissa Essaibi-George, a longtime advocate for ending family homelessness, announced that she worked with Walsh to secure $1.8 million in funding to support students experiencing homelessness and create new resources for them at the school level.
“In recent years we identified 5,000 students in the city who are experiencing homelessness, and the economic impact of this pandemic has only magnified that number,” said Essaibi-George. “Being in the classroom with trusted teachers and support staff is where they are at home, and where they find safety.”
Walsh ended his comments by addressing a video that surfaced earlier in the week of a Black man who was confronted by ICE agents while jogging on VFW Parkway in West Roxbury. Walsh called the video “disturbing to watch” and “unacceptable in so many ways,” and added he had a conversation with the man in the video and is demanding answers from federal agencies.
While responding to series of questions regarding the uptick in COVID rates, Walsh urged Bostonians to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing, and criticized the White House for hosting a spreader event last week in the Rose Garden, which he called “probably the biggest breach of national security in the history of our country.
“It shows you no one is immune to the spread of the coronavirus,” said Walsh. “Whether it’s in the Rose Garden at the White House or in your backyard in Dorchester or wherever, you’re not immune to it.”