After days of hand-wringing in Boston Public Schools, the sudden announcement Friday that schools would be closed for six weeks because of the spiraling coronavirus pandemic landed with a thud across the city.
“All of our mouths dropped open when we saw the length of time," said Latoya Gayle, who was working from home when she heard the news break on TV. “We were like, six weeks? That’s a long time.”
The decision announced Friday night by Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius means schools will be closed for a stretch of spring nearly as long as summer break. Though schools are open Monday, when the system’s 54,000 students can gather their things, they will close Tuesday through April 27, leaving an already anxious city with an entirely new worry: How are parents going to get any work done in the next month and a half?
“For the most part, a lot of us don’t have backup child care,” said Jessica Bruno, a South End mother who had tapped her 15-year-old nephew to watch her 6-year-old son on Monday. She has no plan beyond that.
“Six weeks is a bit much,” Bruno said, who wondered why the city didn’t close for two weeks, then reassess the situation. “Even three weeks to me is a bit much.”
Gayle, meanwhile, was deeply frustrated that so little guidance had been offered by political leaders. As of Saturday morning, not a single phone call or e-mail had come from the school district, she said. (Walsh promised more information on Sunday.)
She has “a plan for the next two weeks,” she said, when her two teenagers’ charter school is closed and they can care for her 4-year-old.
But after that?
“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” said Gayle, the executive director of Boston School Finder, a nonprofit that helps parents select their children’s schools.
"We need something from way up high to say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to handle this as a commonwealth’,” Gayle added.
The disruption will undoubtedly hit hardest the district’s low-income parents and guardians, for whom telecommuting and paid leave may not be an option. Almost three-fourths of Boston’s public school students are economically disadvantaged, relying on aid from the state for food, health care, or additional cash to make ends meet, according to district data.
Epidemiologists also have argued about the effectiveness of closing schools, especially at this stage in the pandemic, when the virus has already spread through the community. According to recommendations released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data shows short to medium school closures, lasting two to four weeks, “do not impact” the epidemic curve of the outbreak or other health care measures, like the number of hospitalizations.
Although closures of eight to 20 weeks may have some impact, according to the CDC, other mitigation efforts, such as hand-washing and home isolation, are more effective at slowing the spread of disease.
Councilor Michelle Wu, a Boston Public School parent, acknowledged the disproportionate hardship on working-class families.
“As in nearly every case, the burdens of major changes to the system and the impacts often fall hardest on those who can least afford alternatives, so for families who depend on the Boston Public Schools for food access and for a safe place for kids during the day while parents or guardians are earning income, this is tremendously disruptive,” Wu said.
But she said conversations are ongoing between the city and nonprofit providers to ensure families have support and resources during the closure.
“The big picture is that every action taken now to slow the spread of the virus is painful and difficult,” Wu said. But, she added, "We do know that taking these actions early results in saving lives down the line.”
The district’s decision to shut down the schools came amid pressure from some teachers, parents, and union leaders to take action as schools across swaths of the suburbs shuttered for two weeks.
On Thursday, teachers launched an online petition urging the mayor to close schools, libraries, and city offices Monday and guarantee pay to all city workers. Now, they’re worried that they’re still expected to be in the schools Wednesday through Friday for planning purposes.
“I find that irresponsible,” said Allison Doherty, a BPS parent and teacher at Fenway High School, who launched another online petition Saturday calling for teachers to work remotely.
If she’s forced to go to work for three days in a row, Doherty said, she’ll have to ask her parents for help with child care.
But her parents are in their 70s and have preexisting conditions, she said; they’re the type of vulnerable people that social distancing measures are designed to protect from the virus.
“My parents are crucial in our lives and for me to bring something to them or for my kids to bring something to them is terrifying,” Doherty said.
And some Boston Public School parents are questioning why the decision was made so late on Friday and students are still expected to come to school on Monday.
“I don’t see the point of bringing them in Monday," said Beliza Moriarty, a Lower Mills mother. "What if Monday’s the date where it really outbreaks?”
Still, others were relieved to have clarity.
“Like a lot of parents, we were just looking for consistent, across-the-board policy to come down rather than a piecemeal step-by-step, drip approach,” said Adam Marks, a Jamaica Plain father of two. “Now we know exactly what’s happening.”
Jamaica Plain parents are so interconnected, he said, that they were already brainstorming activities. Another parent launched a Facebook page giving pointers and providing structure for temporary homeschooling.
But nobody is calling for in-person meet-ups, Marks noted.
“This is not playdate time. This is no time to have a party. You need to be really, really careful,” he said.
“It’s kind of weird because when there’s like a natural disaster, an earthquake or something, people come together and help people out," Marks added. "This is sort of this weird area where you want to help — but you have to help from 6 feet away.”
Councilor Julia Mejia is confident that people will find new ways to help — and that this situation will deliver some blessings in disguise.
“What an amazing opportunity we have to restore how communities used to be,” she said.
“I just feel like this coronavirus, even though it’s disrupting our lives, it’s presenting us with an opportunity to really build our own social capital and recognize that we’re all in this together,” she said.