Students in Boston will likely attend school in-person a couple of days a week this fall on a rotating basis. On the days they didn’t attend brick-and-mortar classes, they would learn from home, said Tammy Pust, a senior adviser to Boston’s superintendent of schools.
“This is not a final plan,” Pust told School Committee members Wednesday evening. “We don’t know what the virus is going to do.”
The decision will ultimately be in the hands of Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.
Boston school officials have started to reveal their thinking even as the state has cautioned districts about making any reopening decisions before August so school leaders can take into account the number of COVID infections in the area. Boston is the latest district to signal it’s leaning toward a so-called hybrid approach, alternating between more traditional classroom lessons and remote learning.
Under the hybrid plan, students would attend school in person Mondays and Tuesdays or Thursdays and Fridays. When they weren’t in school, students would be following lessons online from home. Everyone would learn remotely on Wednesdays. Teachers would be expected to teach the students in front of them and the ones logging in remotely.
Teachers and administrators surveyed by the district earlier this month raised concerns about how teachers would simultaneously teach these two groups.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult for teachers to help kids in front of them to keep their masks on and teach students who are online,” said committee member Michael O’Neill in Wednesday’s meeting.
Ruby Reyes, the director of Boston’s Education Justice Alliance, called it “unrealistic” to ask teachers to work this way and urged the district to provide them more training. “It is unfair to expect students to learn in this way, as well.”
Pust acknowledged it will be a “huge lift.” But she added, “It is a huge lift for these students not to have an education. It falls on us as adults to make this happen. And that’s why I truly believe our teachers will and can.”
Students in special education might have the opportunity to attend school four or five days a week, because their classes are often small and will allow students and teachers to keep 6 feet apart. (Boston has chosen 6 feet as its standard for social distancing, rather than the state’s minimum of 3 feet.)
High schools might consider rotating students each week, rather than every two days.
Parents would be given the option to send siblings to school on the same days. “Parents shouldn’t have to choose between their kids and having a job,” said Pust.
If infection rates rise in Boston, the district will have to be ready to “turn on a dime” and enact its plan for fully remote learning, said Pust. It’s unlikely, however, to move in the other direction and enact an all in-person plan.
Boston, like school districts across the state, is scrambling to figure out how the fall semester will work after the state abruptly shuttered school buildings in March amid the pandemic. Governor Charlie Baker has encouraged communities to bring as many students as possible back into school buildings and the state has been gradually releasing guidelines for how to do so.
The challenge is great. According to state guidelines for in-person instruction, students, starting in the second grade, and all adults will need to wear masks; desks will likely face forward, ideally 6 feet apart but not less than 3 feet; and students will likely eat breakfast and lunch in their classrooms.
The complexity of transportation in Boston has made the fully in-person option nearly impossible without investing in scores of new buses, said Pust.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that only one child occupy each row of seats on a bus to maintain social distancing. Typically, Boston’s buses have carried at least two children per row. “We can only put 50 percent of our students on our buses,” said Pust.
The Boston Teachers Union, which has made its own recommendations for reopening schools, quickly came out against the tentative district plan. The union has indicated it would like to go slower.
“We had no input into the first draft of this plan,” union president Jessica Tang wrote in a message to members. “Unsurprisingly, it is totally out of touch with reality and what will be needed to safely, thoughtfully, and equitably reopen schools under a realistic timeline.”
The union, along with two statewide teachers’ unions, has called for devoting more time to professional development, learning health protocols, and planning. “The typical district professional development allotment at the start of the school year is wholly inadequate in the context of our current crisis,” reads the proposal from the Boston Teachers’ Union, Massachusetts Teachers’ Association, and American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts.
The union also wants time to meet with parents and students one-on-one before heading back to the classroom to prepare them for the new rules of social distancing and wearing masks and check whether students need computers. Only after these two phases, should educators begin teaching.
Districts should designate educators for either remote or in-person teaching, “but not both,” according to the union. Teachers assigned to work from home “should include those in at-risk categories” and “those with pressing child care responsibilities.”
Schools should “upgrade or repair” their windows and heating and cooling systems and “establish baseline protocols for daily maintenance and cleaning,” the union said.
District officials have also identified the poor condition of many Boston buildings as a hurdle to safely reopening schools. Many of Boston’s 135 school buildings were built before World War I and have been neglected for decades. School maintenance staff will audit every classroom to “ensure there’s airflow” and that all windows open, said Pust.
Teachers, parents, and School Committee members expressed skepticism.
Charlestown High School teacher Matthew Ruggiero pointed out that he doesn’t have a window in his classroom. “I’m deeply concerned that we are working from a draft removed from the experience of people who work in school buildings.”
“Why are you guys waiting until now?” asked Jessica Tahiraj, a parent of two students in Boston elementary schools, who wants students to return to class but worries about her children wearing masks in hot classrooms. “There’s really not enough time to fix these systems.”
Pust said the district will get the school buildings ready by Sept. 10. “What is the alternative?” she asked. “We can’t make the decision that no one gets their second grade year ... because the windows don’t open.”