It’s been two months since the Boston Public Schools shut down to fight the spread of the coronavirus, forcing students and teachers to switch abruptly to online learning instead. But questions still swirl around how remote learning is unfolding. How many students remain totally or partially disengaged from remote platforms? How badly is distance learning exacerbating preexisting achievement gaps in the largest district in the state? And just how deep is the digital divide among Boston families?
Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell wants to know. Campbell, whose district includes Mattapan and Dorchester, has been pushing the school system to disclose key figures, such as the number of Boston kids who have full access to Internet service and a computer vs. those who don’t; the attendance rates in remote classrooms at each BPS school; and the assignment completion rates per school, among other specific data points. Campbell and Councilor Kim Janey passed a resolution last month urging BPS to provide the Boston City Council with those figures on a weekly basis.
So far, she has gotten no answers from the BPS central office — and political pushback for having the nerve to ask how well the school district is serving the city’s kids. Campbell brought up her data request during a City Council hearing last week with Boston schools superintendent Brenda Cassellius. “I’m learning about various concerns around who got Chromebooks and who didn’t . . . from people outside of our system — people in the schools, on the ground, but none of this from central office,” Campbell told Cassellius. “It feels like the district is in a black box and I’m fighting to learn information.”
To date, Campbell has not received the detailed metrics she’s been asking for, according to her office. And yet, BPS did respond to a data request from the Globe editorial board. In a statement, the district said there is “consistent communication with the City Council through a daily conference call hosted by the Mayor and his staff.“
The schools began the second phase of remote learning on May 4, after an agreement with the teachers union was finalized that detailed working conditions and established clear attendance guidelines. In the first week of May, the district said, the average daily attendance of remote learning was 83 percent. To date, the school system has handed out 31,379 Chromebooks and more than 2,600 Wi-Fi hotspots. Through an ongoing family survey, available in 10 languages, BPS has learned that the biggest need for parents and students during this time is academic and financial support. Only 45 percent of families have filled out the survey.
But it’s unclear where the gaps are. Back in March, the district stated its goal to equip every student in grades 3 through 12 with a computer. BPS said they continue to distribute Chromebooks upon request but it’s unknown how many students don’t have a computer at home. And more school-level attendance data should be disclosed to identify any schools that might be lagging.
Instead, Campbell’s efforts earned her the contempt of the Boston Teachers Union, which recently targeted Campbell in two issues of its weekly newsletter. “Teachers are working hard every day to ensure students are getting the resources and attention they need,” the newsletter read. “Unfortunately, some are trying to reduce and minimize those efforts, leveraging oversimplified and incomplete data in the name of ‘accountability and compliance.’” The BTU said that Campbell has made public statements “related to the number of Google Classroom logins that others then took to mean that teachers were not showing up every day to teach.” The union argued that those statements “have caused confusion among the public and other policymakers. Statements like these, even if well-intentioned, have caused additional and often-superfluous protocols to be implemented.“
But this isn’t about assigning blame or singling out teachers; it’s about holding the district accountable in the face of an enormous crisis that will, without a doubt, have a tremendous impact on our most vulnerable children. Of course, we can’t ignore that teachers themselves are juggling their own challenges as well — and most are going above and beyond what’s required to make sure students remain engaged during this period of distance education.
Lest we forget, the perennial story of BPS is a story of two districts: the haves and the have-nots. Campbell’s request for data is perfectly in line with her duties as the elected voice of some of the most vulnerable parts of the city, where families were already “living the inequities in our education system” even pre-coronavirus, as she put it during last week’s hearing. That she is fighting tooth and nail to get information her constituents have a right to know is unacceptable.
During the pandemic, the public has been rallying around leaders who speak the truth and address people honestly. The superintendent can take a page from that playbook. If you share the data, whatever it may reveal, the public will come along. But right now, we don’t know the full scope of the challenges some families are facing. Putting a spotlight on the problems is only going to help Boston students — that should be the only focus.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.