Boston officials, gearing up for a six-week shutdown of public schools to combat the spread of the coronavirus, said Sunday the district will provide laptop computers for students who need them for remote learning and will offer daily packaged meals at dozens of sites across the city for families in need.
But many questions remained unanswered about the closure, which begins Tuesday: How and when will students make up the school days they are missing? Will MCAS testing take place? What about graduation?
City officials said the shutdown, which will affect 54,000 students and about 10,000 teachers and staff, is necessary to keep people apart and prevent the virus from spreading. At a news conference, Mayor Martin J. Walsh stressed that the situation is evolving and many details are still being worked out.
“This is a time for shared sacrifice," he said.
It’s a sacrifice that will be shared widely. On Sunday night, Governor Charlie Baker announced a statewide school shutdown for three weeks, starting Tuesday.
With the exception of the Eliot School in the North End, where there was a presumptive positive case of Covid-19 in a nonstudent member of the community, and the McKinley schools in the South End, where another nonstudent was being tested, Boston schools will be open tomorrow for students to gather their belongings and for teachers to share learning materials. After that, they aren’t expected to reopen until April 27.
Boston Public Schools purchased 20,000 Chromebooks last week to supplement the roughly 35,000 it already owns, and will distribute them to every child who needs one, said Mark Racine, BPS chief information officer. The goal is to equip every student in grades 3 through 12 with a computer.
The Chromebooks will be available for students to pick up by appointment at neighborhood schools; only a few pickups will be scheduled at a time to avoid crowds. Handouts for remote learning activities will be provided to students Monday, and other educational resources will be set up online through Google Classroom.
This virtual learning time won’t be counted as official school days, however, but is instead an effort to avoid the “summer slide” that can happen when students are out of school for a long period.
Comcast is offering two months of free high-speed Internet for all BPS families who need it, and major cellphone carriers are providing unlimited high-speed data for the next two months, Racine said. Most cellphone and Internet companies have also said they will not disconnect service for unpaid bills over the next two months, in the event that parents are out of work.
“We’re very prepared and ready to go,” Racine said. “But it’s a very, very quick turnaround.”
Many parents and teachers say closing for six weeks was the right thing to do, but they’re anxious about what it means for their kids and their families.
“Are they even going back this year? Is everybody repeating a grade next year? Will there be any learning at all this year?,” asked Elizabeth Medeiros, a mother of three in Dorchester.
Medeiros worries that her son — an eighth-grader at Boston Latin School who is struggling in algebra — will fall further behind. He was getting extra help at school and outside tutoring. “How will I fill that gap?,” she asked.
BPS must consider more than just education for its students, nearly three-quarters of whom are economically disadvantaged and rely on aid from the state for food, health care, or money to make ends meet.
The city is talking to child-care providers and employers to assess the needs of working parents who can’t be home with children who are out of school.
Prepackaged meals will be available for families at dozens of locations Monday through Friday from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., and the city is partnering with several community organizations to provide free meals to school-aged children around the city.
Among these partners is the YMCA of Greater Boston, which is closing its fitness centers and pools starting Monday and will focus on taking care of young people.
“Today, we are being asked to make a choice,” YMCA president James O’Shanna Morton wrote in an e-mail to members on Saturday. “Either we close our branches entirely in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus or we feed and care for children while taking the calculated risk that we can protect them from exposure to the virus. We cannot stand by and permit children to go hungry or to be traumatized by their lack of options.”
Morton asked Y members to consider continuing to pay their dues to help with the effort.
The Boston Teachers Union is organizing a volunteer corps of its members to help out with child care and meal delivery.
Older students especially are worried about how the long closure will affect their future. Students near graduation will get access to advanced placement and SAT materials, Walsh said, but the closure could have wider implications.
How will they pass AP exams in May when they haven’t had time to prepare? How will college recruiters see them if sports have been canceled? Will the hiatus affect a student’s grades and lead colleges to revoke their acceptance letters?
That last concern looms large for Nicole Melo, a senior at Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers in the Fenway who hopes to attend Lesley University. “I’m so close to having all A’s,” Melo said.
Furthermore, her favorite class — anatomy and physiology — won’t be the same online, she said, because students won’t be able to do the same hands-on experiments.
Students shouldn’t expect to receive the same class experience they would receive in school, teachers say. So far there’s been little guidance about expectations for teaching during the extended break, said Fenway High School teacher Adriana Costache.
“There’s no way you can switch teaching like that on a dime,” said Costache, who teaches math and science.
”The best that we can do is keep kids engaged and connected to the school community and hopefully some learning will happen during this time.”
But some schools have tried to communicate a sense of obligation around school assignments during the break.
“These are not like snow days and your learning cannot stop during this time away from school,” read a message to parents from Matt Holzer, the head of Boston Green Academy, in Brighton. “These assignments will count towards grades when school resumes.”
For parent David Venter, the message raised more questions.
“They’re telling us everything is going to go on as normal, but does that mean they’re going to take the MCAS in two weeks?,” asked Venter, whose son is a sophomore at Boston Green Academy.
Waiving the state’s annual standardized test would require state and federal approval.
Beyond learning, parents and teachers worry about the mental health of young people when they don’t have the structure and attention they get in school.
Melo, 17, said she doesn’t know how she’ll spend her time out of school. She might look for another job, but worries no one is hiring right now.
“I’m still going to go out,” she said. “I’m going to hit the mall later. I can’t be inside all the time.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston. Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.