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In virtual space, students slip through Boston schools’ fingers

A Boston Public Schools employee went door to door in Roxbury to hand out laptops to students on March 19.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Students on the edge were bound to drift away

In “Remote classes leave students disconnected: Thousands in Boston schools not logging in” (Page A1, May 24), Bianca Vázquez Toness details how technical and language challenges keep students from continuing school online.

But in underprivileged high schools, there are students who, with online teaching, have disappeared for a different reason: motivational challenges.

They are the kids who, by their sophomore year, have decided that school is not for them. From that point, some treat school as a lark. More just gradually tune out.

So long as they were in school, there was a chance they could be reengaged. But the closure of schools offers permanent escape. Absent a capable, persuasive parent and a calm home, or an exceptionally caring and attentive teacher, these students won’t show up online.


Boston data, according to the article, show at least 20 percent of all students now absent, not logging into online classes or homework. For high school students, truancy is surely worse. Some may be rescued by heroic teachers like the one in the article. But most teachers are just good people — few are heroes.

Online work could enrich school learning. It isn't replacing it, and can't.

Byron Stookey

Brattleboro, Vt.

The writer is a retired New York City high school teacher.

Students are not ‘dropping out’ — we’re letting them fall

Having taught in Boston for 20 years, I was appalled by your article, whose online headline reads, “One in five Boston public school children may be virtual dropouts.” Framing our young people as “dropouts” wrongly blames them and not the equity issues that are making online learning impossible.

Our students have been dropped into incredibly challenging situations. The loss of families’ income means there is no money for Internet access, smartphone service, or food. Many students are spending their days securing food for their families and caring for young children while their parents work or are quarantined with COVID-19.


Our young people have been dropped into an increase in the domestic violence that accompanies any catastrophe. They are spending their time and energy surviving unsafe situations, protecting themselves and their siblings.

That some students still can’t get a Chromebook does not make them dropouts. The problems lie elsewhere.

On top of all of this, we are telling our young people that their education is the key to their success, when it will not protect them from an angry white man with a gun.

Our students are not dropping out — we are letting them fall. The work of creating a city in which all children go to bed fed, secure, and safe each night rests on our shoulders. Let’s take responsibility, as adults, and get to work addressing the inequities our young people face.

Lisa Graustein


No substitute, not even virtually, for adult presence

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell has been a voice crying in the wilderness regarding attendance and compliance with virtual learning in the city’s school system, asking for facts and figures from a Boston system that has not been entirely forthcoming.

May the Globe’s report that at least 10,000 students have not appeared in the virtual classroom this month serve to find her a listening ear.

The virtual classroom was a long shot from the beginning. Elementary and middle school children need the presence of an actual person to guide them as they learn. True, they can ramble down paths to pursue what calls to them, as espoused by Montessori and Waldorf schools, but even these schools call for a facilitator in the room.


A classroom lacking this is what we all remember would happen if ever a teacher left the room for any length of time. The children who are plugging away on their computers at home usually are those with a parental presence (more compelling than the best virtual teacher can be), not necessarily actively engaged but hovering nearby.

Through no one’s fault, a home situation is not always optimum for this setup. Not every home can be turned into the little one-room virtual schoolhouse, which some, at the beginning of school closings, touted as a dream that could and would come true. What Councilor Campbell is asking, essentially for all school systems, is whether the dream has become a reality and to what extent.

The difference between the adult and the child is that one requires the other’s help. It is the very nature of the relationship, and the heart of nature.

Joan Pendleton

North Andover

‘Dropout’ is the wrong label to use

Two pieces this week described Boston public school students as “virtual dropouts” (“Remote classes leave students disconnected” by Bianca Vázquez Toness, Page A1, May 24; “What’s the plan to get Boston’s virtual dropouts back to school?” by Joan Vennochi, Opinion, May 28). This term implies choice. Even pre-pandemic, students did not “drop out” of our schools. Systemic inequality created conditions that pushed kids out.


When we call young people “dropouts,” it’s coded language. The underlying premise of victim-blaming is there if you listen for it.

In the context of a pandemic, everything from inadequate technology to food insecurity to health crises rains down on the heads of youth. Kids aren’t “dropping out.” They are shut out because we live in a profoundly inequitable society that has never put their needs first.

Labeling kids as young as 4 or 5 as dropouts sends a message that, on some level, we have given up on a subset of our youth. No matter what we say after that, our language shifts the onus onto our youth for not engaging.

In a week in which racial violence and racialized language have had deadly effects, being intentional about the language we use to describe students in a school district that is predominantly composed of students of color is more important than ever.

Neema Avashia

Jamaica Plain

José Valenzuela


Avashia is a civics teacher and Valenzuela is a history teacher in the Boston Public Schools.

It’s about human connections, not computerized data

When Joan Vennochi asks what the plan is “to get those virtual dropouts back in,” she conflates log-in data with attendance and engagement. The data omit elementary students who use platforms like SeeSaw instead of Google Classroom. They omit students like mine, who join our Zooms from a link I text directly to their phones 10 minutes before class. The data imply that students “dropped out” when in fact they may be connecting despite huge obstacles.


Some surely are disconnected, but it’s not because only “private schools and wealthy suburban districts adjusted quickly to the abrupt switch.” The Boston Public Schools leapt to action, distributing Chromebooks and food, and helping families find scattered-site shelters and permanent housing. Our teachers still made the same makeshift classroom backgrounds for our videos, held class meetings, and rewrote curriculum, without taking weeks off like other districts.

What’s the plan, Vennochi wants to know? Step one: Stop labeling kids “dropouts.” Step two: Rely on human connections instead of computerized data. The key to reengaging with the students who truly have become disconnected from school is through recognizing their humanity as our own.

Melanie Allen

Hyde Park

The writer teaches sixth- through eighth-grade English humanities at the Rafael Hernández K-8 School, and is the mother of students in first and third grade at the Franklin D. Roosevelt K-8 School.