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OPINION

What’s the plan to get Boston’s virtual dropouts back to school?

At least 10,000 students aren’t registering to log in. The city and the state need to find them quickly.

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda CasselliusNic Antaya for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

Between the coronavirus pandemic and the switch to remote learning to deal with it, the kids are not all right in Boston public schools. In fact, thousands of them are missing in action.

At least 10,000 Boston students have not registered as logging into class since at least May 4, the Globe reports. That means nearly 20 percent of the district’s students could be virtual dropouts, representing one-quarter of the system’s Black and Latino students and 21 percent of white students.

Yet there’s official resistance to admitting that reality. In a recent Zoom interview with the Globe’s editorial board — which took place three days before that Globe report on presumed dropouts — Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius insisted the remote learning challenge essentially came down to 115 students out of 53,000 who “do not have Chromebooks or we have not been able to make contact with.” Meanwhile, the district’s strategic plan is moving forward, said Cassellius.

If so, it’s moving forward minus a big chunk of the BPS student body.

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Besides killing nursing home residents, Blacks, and Latinos, COVID-19 also yanked back the curtain on a great divide between haves and have-nots in every aspect of American life — including education. Private schools and wealthy suburban districts adjusted quickly to the abrupt switch to remote learning, while urban districts continue to struggle.

In the long run, will these revelations trigger reform, or just the usual resignation to the status quo? With a new outrage every day — a police officer in Minneapolis pressing his knee into the neck of a Black man who goes limp and unconscious, and later dies, or a white woman in Central Park calling police to say she is being threatened by a Black man who asked her to leash her dog — it’s harder to get outraged over longstanding insidious inequities in our schools.

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The state was finally going to address some of the inequities in Boston when the coronavirus struck. In March, Cassellius and state Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley signed a nine-page “memorandum of understanding,” which memorialized a commitment to more state involvement with Boston on a wide range of reforms, including graduation requirements, improved education for English-language learners, and more staff diversity. Calling the agreement “a gift” and “a partnership," Cassellius said in her interview with the editorial board, "I’m not afraid of accountability. I don’t feel threatened by the state coming in.” Meanwhile, Cassellius, who took the Boston job a year ago, is rightly calling on Governor Charlie Baker to stand by the state’s commitment to a new funding formula that puts more money into districts based on income and on the percentage of English-language learners and students with special needs.

Yet Cassellius has also shied away from acknowledging the true extent of the challenges to the system presented by remote learning. Getting straight talk from her about attendance has been a sore point with Boston City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Kim Janey. During her Globe meeting, Cassellius was also vague about those numbers and attributed reporting issues to the difficulty of migrating data to a new system. She needs to be more transparent.

The superintendent said that a summer school plan is still in the works, but there’s uncertainty over reopening plans for the fall. “Remote learning will be with us for a while,” said Cassellius.

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With an understanding that the switch to remote learning was difficult for everyone, what’s the plan to get those virtual dropouts back in?

“We’re working to find a more meaningful way to engage our students,” said Mayor Marty Walsh, when asked about the troubling attendance statistics and what they mean for the future. “But it’s really, really complicated. The reality is that 4,500 of our students are homeless, 21 percent have disabilities, and 72 percent are economically disadvantaged.”

That has been the reality in Boston for a long time. The new post-pandemic reality is even tougher. Each one of those missing students needs to be accounted for and brought back into the system.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.