On a video conference call with area officials and a local scientist several days ago, a crucial question surfaced, one now racing through the minds of parents and teachers statewide as they ride out a global pandemic that has kept them home bound:
Should schools in Massachusetts stay closed for the rest of the year?
“It was very clear,''said Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, who was on the call, part of a virtual conference to update Massachusetts mayors on the pandemic. ”That is the most prudent and ... logical step to ensure that we don’t spike a new wave of transmission."
So far, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has committed only to keep schools closed until May 4, but the unrelenting COVID-19 crisis has prompted governors in other states to cancel school for the rest of the academic year.
On Thursday, Michigan became the latest state to close all K-12 school buildings this year, following Georgia and eight others, including Vermont, Virginia, and Oklahoma, according to Education Week’s recent tally. At least four other states have recommended either closings for the year or “until further notice,” including California, whose schools chief Tony Thurmond is recommending that the state’s public schools plan to provide distance learning to students through the end of their school year.
Keeping schools closed in Massachusetts would be painful, wiping out one third of the academic year and disrupting learning statewide. Though teachers have turned to online instruction as a substitute, the results so far have been mixed at best, and it’s far from clear how much remedial instruction students would need when they finally do return.
For low-income students who rely on schools for learning and meals, the issue is especially fraught. For many, school was not only a place of learning, but a refuge. And not all of them have easy access to the Internet for online learning.
So far, Baker has taken an incremental approach, extending school closings by one week from his original announcement. The governor, along with Education Secretary James Peyser and Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, are weighing a number of factors before making a decision, officials said, though they have yet to provide details. Part of the challenge is the complexity of the school districts across the state and a myriad other challenges.
At a press briefing last Wednesday, Baker said his focus will be on ensuring students continue to learn during the crisis, adding that he doesn’t want this period to turn into an early summer break. The school year usually ends in mid-June.
"The big conversations we’re having right now with our colleagues in education are about what are we going to do to make sure kids actually learn something between now and the end of the year,'' Baker said. “I think it would be a shame if for the next three or four months — whether the kids go back to school sometime in May or not — they don’t spend any time developing any more knowledge than they had when they got sent home.”
On Friday, a spokeswoman for Peyser said the administration “is not considering extending school closures beyond May 4 at this time.”
Colleen Quinn, the spokeswoman, said the department released recommendations to school districts on remote learning and support for students last week and is working to help schools implement those strategies.
Mayors and superintendents said they will follow guidance from the governor and the experts on school closings, though some clearly believe schools should stay closed during the pandemic. Ultimately, the decision is up to individual cities and towns — not the state.
"The growing consensus is we should be ethical and clear to the people we are representing and to everyone in the Commonwealth and say, ‘Look, it is highly unlikely that we can get back to school,' " Curtatone said, “and just make that decision now as we’ve seen other states do, so that families and school districts can prepare.”
Curtatone leads the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, which includes chief executive officers and town administrators from municipalities in the urban core of Greater Boston. The group had pressed the governor last month to issue his stay-at-home advisory, including closing schools. On Sunday, March 29, they held a virtual conference that included expert presentations on the predictive modeling on the virus, Curtatone said.
The mayor said that it would be tragic if everyone rushes back to what they think is normal, then all the sacrifice they made by staying home and keeping themselves safe would have been in vain.
"We will be risking loss of life and greater harm to our economy and really a continuous disruption of our lives,” Curtatone said. "We should just be planning in every smart way. ... We appreciate the governor’s extension of school being closed to the end of April and beginning of May, but it’s pretty clear that’s not going to be possible to go back to school this year.”
Superintendent Jon Sills of Bedford said he will also follow the lead of the public health experts, governor, and scientists. But he said he believes it is likely “that we won’t open again” before the end of the school year.
“That’s just because I’m following the modeling that’s being provided publicly,'' Sills said in an interview. "It’s hard to imagine that it’ll be safe for school to be in session again in May or June. I hope that is not the case. This is a really difficult period for our families.”
Bedford was among six school districts that made the sober and difficult decision in early March to close schools ahead of the state. In a public letter, the superintendents — in Arlington, Bedford, Belmont, Burlington, Lexington, and Winchester — said they made the decision partly because “of a greater number of presumptive positive cases in the area.”
In Boston, which has 125 public schools, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said her administration will continue to assess with the city and state the “safest timeline to return to school."
“Our goal is to provide the necessary resources and support to students to ensure they continue learning at home while school is closed, and to welcome students back to the classroom as soon as it is safe to do so,'' Cassellius said in a statement.
Closing schools would have a ripple effect on parents who are now trying to grapple with how to structure a day of learning for their children at home while also juggling jobs and other responsibilities.
Antonietta Brownell said she has heard rumblings that the Boston elementary school her two young boys attend might not reopen this year. Though nothing about any closure has been said officially, the thought of it worries Brownell.
"Right now it’s just getting worse and worse,'' said Brownell, who teaches at the Conley Elementary School.
She said it is difficult managing her children while also trying to teach remotely. They run into all sorts of logistical challenges, such as a workable schedule for Zoom classes and meetings. Just recently, she had to exit a Zoom meeting of her own to set up her boys for a Zoom check-in with their teachers.
“I don’t know how sustainable it is,” she said. "I mean, right now we’re in week three. I don’t know if I can make it for like two more months.”
Dacia Morales is also worried, though the South End mother stressed she wants school children to be safe from the virus. But now that her 11-year-old daughter, Elianna, is home full time, it has been tough to keep her focused on her school work.
"All this online stuff, I can’t do that,'' said Morales, who works part time at a clinic and goes to school part time. “It’s difficult. She doesn’t really want to wake up to do her work.”
Elianna, a fifth-grader at the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in the North End, is also missing the social and emotional connection she had with her peers. She fears much of that will be lost if she doesn’t return to school this year.
"I would be really sad'' if school closes for the year, said Elianna. “I need to be at school. I love my teachers. I just love my school.”