Editorial: Boston schools need ‘go remote’ option

Regular readers of this space know that we’ve generally given city and state leaders high marks for their response to the Covid-19 crisis. We still do. It’s not easy to stay ahead of this shape-shifting plague that confounds scientists and makes adapting real-time public policy a tricky business.

This week brought encouraging news. Education officials wisely extended the mandate for mask-wearing in schools across Massachusetts through Feb. 28. And Gov. Baker announced that 26 million new rapid test kits will be bought and distributed to K-12 schools and child care centers, which should help keep more kids in classrooms.

But when it comes to school districts and the question of remote learning, it just doesn’t make sense to apply a “one size fits all approach” across the state. That has been made abundantly clear this week in Boston, which is struggling to keep teachers and kids safe in classroom settings that — in many cases— are antiquated and unfit for learning, particularly during extreme weather. Add to that a surging positivity rate— which spiked by 10 percent in Boston over the last week— and you have a recipe for chaos.

That is why Mayor Wu’s assessment of the current state policy on public schools – it requires in-person attendance and does not allow for a remote option – is spot-on. School districts like ours that are juggling large populations of needy students and a surge in Covid-related absences among staff should have the flexibility to rotate in remote learning days or weeks.

Gov. Baker and his team have been adamant that the state should keep its in-person-only policy in place, telling a legislative committee on Tuesday that the narrative that schools “aren’t safe is just not based on any data.

“It’s just not,” the governor added. “And I’m not going to let people perpetuate this idea that schools aren’t safe, because they are and it’s been proven not just in Massachusetts but in the US and around the world for the better part of a year and a half.”

But whether or not schools are unsafe due to virus transmissions, certainly it’s not ideal for kids and teachers to have to contend with staff shortages that are compromising the capacity of individual schools to offer suitable instruction and safety measures. There were a reported 1,202 BPS staff members absent on Monday, according to the mayor, who has said that closings – like the one prompted by extreme cold on Tuesday – would be a “last resort because of the impact on so many families.”

And whether or not everyone agrees on the perils to kids’ health, clearly there is a huge uptick in transmissions happening that can put parents and faculty at risk. Data released by state education officials over the weekend reveal that there were 51,000 new cases of the virus reported among students and staff over the last two weeks, a sharp boost that does not yet even reflect what has happened since classes resumed for most students on Jan. 5.

The governor is correct that it’s in the best interest of everyone when students are learning in classrooms. But in the face of a still-rampaging pandemic and the attrition of our teaching staff, it would be best to give districts like Boston the flexibility they need to make sensible decisions day-to-day, week-to-week until this latest sweep of the coronavirus eases up.

Many private schools and employers have employed that common-sense lever. Our school district should be afforded the same option.

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