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Amid shutdown, BPS, teachers union negotiate over online learning

Cleopatra Garrett, a Boston substitute teacher, loaded up her car with student work packets for the Mildred School this week. With the help of City Year volunteers, BPS teachers and others helped deliver the materials to families.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston school officials and the city teachers union have yet to agree on how to conduct online learning during the six-week shutdown of the school system, even as school staffers have been delivering 20,000 Chromebook computers to students with much fanfare.

Talks over online learning began Thursday — albeit virtually instead of in person — and are expected to resume Friday, according to the Boston Teachers Union, which provided members an update Thursday night.

But the union and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius have come to one key understanding: Students will not receive any formal grades for supplemental online learning assignments and attendance will not be taken, although they noted that could change if the school closure extends beyond April 27.


“We know it has been a very challenging week and are very aware there has been a lack of both consistency and clarity on expectations school to school as we move from our classrooms to a dependence on technology this week,” according to the update. “We are also aware some of the plans are quite unsustainable and that everyone is entering this work with different levels of experience with remote tools.”

The lack of clarity comes as the approximately 54,000 students were dismissed from classes Monday with widely varying expectations for how they would continue to learn amid the city’s broad-scale effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The union has previously said that some schools are expecting students to complete daily graded assignments while other schools are emphasizing the work is voluntary and are providing fewer assignments.

Talks so far between the union and the Boston Public School officials appear to be cordial and productive. Earlier this week, for instance, the union’s president, Jessica Tang, and Cassellius issued a joint letter outlining some general areas of agreement.

“We know that remote learning is a new experience for many educators, students, and families,” Tang and Cassellius wrote in their letter. “Even so,​ we are seeing the incredible creativity, resourcefulness, commitment, and professionalism from educators across the city as you all have been going above and beyond to get ready to support our students going forward.​ This is especially incredible as each of us is doing the best we can to get ourselves and our loved ones prepared and safe for what lies ahead. We do not expect that everyone will be an expert from day one, but we do expect that everyone will give it a shot, learn, and improve as we go along.”


The two stressed their top priorities are “to do the best we can to keep our students loved, safe, and learning, while ensuring that they stay connected to caring adults from school and to each other.”

In that regard, union and school officials agree that teachers and administrators should be encouraging students to go online as much as possible to continue with their learning. The school department has an arrangement with Google Classroom. They also agree every student should have contact at least once a week from a teacher or administrator who can provide additional learning resources or help.

“During this period, we are not attempting to replicate everything that happens in school,” Tang and Cassellius wrote, emphasizing they wanted all students regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds to have equitable access to all learning opportunities.

They also noted whatever we provide for general education students must be provided and offered to special-education students and English learners with appropriate modifications or accommodation.


Lots of other questions about the closures loom, including implications on the length of academic ranking periods and school year, final course grades, and graduation requirements. Some murky areas go beyond the school system, such as state action on what to do with MCAS testing and activities related to the college admission process.

Tang said in an interview Friday that union members are concerned that the lack of clear expectations about online learning — in a city where many students lack Internet connections at home — will exacerbate educational inequities and widen achievement gaps.

“We are in a very unchartered territory,” she said. “There are so many issues to work out and so many questions. And we want to get this resolved by the end of this weekend.”

Tang said some schools are being unreasonable in what they are asking teachers to do, such as sitting six hours a day in front of their computers so they are available any time a student logs in. All the while, she noted, some teachers are also monitoring the well-being and learning of their own children at home.

BPS did not comment further on the ongoing talks Friday.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis.