Boston school officials said on Wednesday they may not pursue a one-size-fits-all strategy for the fall reopening, a move that could result in some schools beginning the year with all students learning remotely while most other schools could teach students in-person and remotely simultaneously.
The variation reflects the inherent difficulties of crafting a reopening plan in a district with 125 schools. Some middle and high schools are woefully underenrolled, while many elementary schools and the city’s three exam schools don’t have much space to spare, which is creating challenges in creating 6 feet of social distancing among students.
School officials said no schools will have all students return full time at once, but they remain undecided on whether to implement a hybrid or fully remote model for the start of the school year. Whatever plan is selected, schools would need permission if their leaders feel they need to deviate from the plan developed by the district, which is expected to be a rare circumstance.
The details are part of the school system’s latest version of its reopening plan, which was presented to the School Committee Wednesday night. Officials are aiming to have classes begin on the first scheduled day of the school year, Sept. 10, but that hinges on whether COVID-19 infection rates are low enough across the city and its neighborhoods to allow for a safe return to classes.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said it has been difficult crafting the plan, given the uncertainties about the virus. A final call on returning to classrooms probably won’t be made until right before the school year begins and will be done in consultation with Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the Boston Public Health Commission.
Should classrooms open up, parents would have the right to keep their children at home full time and learn remotely.
“It has weighed on all of us, and I understand the concern out there in the community — we all do,” she said, stressing that safety is the district’s top priority. “We are watching closely what is happening with the numbers and making sure we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves in these plans.”
School officials will be soliciting public input over the next few weeks, and individual schools will submit plans to the school system on the hybrid and remote learning plans by Aug. 21.
The Boston debate over reopening comes as other school systems around the state and country are deciding how to provide an education amid the pandemic. Chicago public schools, for example, are expected to endorse an all-remote approach to start the school year. Locally, Somerville and a few others have announced they will start classes on a remote-only basis this fall.
The Boston decision could be complicated by the return of scores of college students to the city from across the nation, including states hit hard by the pandemic. Boston Public Schools students in grades 7-12 rely heavily on the MBTA to get to and from school — as do many college students who live off campus.
“I do worry about the exposure of children on the T and what that means for our kids,” said School Committee Vice Chair Alexandra Oliver-Dávila.
COVID-19 infection rates vary tremendously across Boston neighborhoods, according to the Boston Public Health Commission. For instance, the weekly positive testing rate at the end of July was 5.8 percent in Mattapan, 4 percent in East Boston, and less than 1 percent in Jamaica Plain. The overall city rate was 1.7 percent. Black and Latino residents had higher infection rates than other racial groups.
Citing the disparity, School Committee member Lorna Rivera said Wednesday night that she supports a remote learning plan for all.
The school system is facing growing pressure from teachers, parents, and some elected officials to begin the school year with only remote learning.
On Wednesday night, City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who represents a swath of the city that includes Mattapan, called on school officials to start the school year remotely.
“BPS is not ready to safely and effectively achieve a hybrid plan in a way that ensures the safety and health of students, teachers, and staff, and equitably delivers a high-quality education for our students,” she said in a statement.
City Councilor Julia Mejia told the School Committee she strongly opposed the hybrid model as currently drafted. City Councilor Michelle Wu urged school officials to remove the hybrid plan from the table. Each city councilor said the plan didn’t go far enough to prioritize in-classroom learning for students with the most significant educational needs, such as those with disabilities.
“It’s frustrating we are presented with such a narrow, unrealistic option when there are so many ideas and resources in the communities to make this work,” Wu said in an interview before the meeting. “Fundamentally, we have been lacking the opportunity to engage community members in a meaningful way to shape these plans.”
The Boston Teachers Union also announced on Wednesday its executive board has joined other teacher unions statewide in passing a resolution calling for the school year to begin with remote-only instruction and that members will refuse to enter school buildings until the state and district can ensure a safe learning environment.
“It is clear to us at this point, that the district is NOT ready to start hybrid in-person education in September,” the union said in an e-mail to members. “It is critical that we take the limited time, energy and resources we have to vastly improve remote learning — the one model in which we know everyone will likely have to participate to some extent no matter what.”
In an interview, Jessica Tang, the union’s president, said, “Teachers want to go back. Nothing can replace in person teaching. But this plan is not the phased-in approach we have been pushing for that would keep people safe.”
The resolution’s approval followed a union survey released last week that revealed three-quarters of members favored starting the year remotely and two-thirds said they were at high risk for a severe COVID-19 infection or live with someone who is.
A return to in-person classes could occur in waves, starting with students in grades 1-8. High schoolers and preschoolers would follow, but it remains unclear how many days or weeks could separate their returns. School officials may also offer fewer younger students busing by possibly expanding the walk zone for students in grades 1-5 from 1 mile to 1.5 miles because state guidelines call for only one student per seat on school buses.
High schools have, perhaps, the biggest headache, trying to schedule hundreds of classes — a process that typically begins in the spring or earlier — and now complicated by trying to split individual classes in half or thirds to accommodate in-person socially distant learning. Class sizes in Boston top off at 31 students, and many older buildings have undersized classrooms.
Cassellius said she expects only a few schools would do only remote learning, if all others are doing a mix of in-person and remote learning. Unique circumstances most likely would include severe space constraints.
“I don’t think a one-size-fits all will work for everybody due to constraints around our facilities,” Cassellius said during a media briefing. “So I do think there will be some exceptions to a hybrid model — if we do have a hybrid model.”
School officials conceded in the revised plan the “hybrid model is not perfect.”
Dozens of parents, teachers, students, and other community members testified at the School Committee, held remotely on Zoom. Comments tended to lean against the hybrid plan.
”For me the hybrid option is out of the question,” said Yrmaris Matias, a parent at Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury. “Our schools are not prepared for the massive impact of these changes.”
Anne Mosley, another Boston school parent, said a few weeks ago she favored a hybrid approach, but concerns over her daughter’s safety in attending classes has caused her to change her mind. She urged officials to put the hybrid plan on hold.
”It’s getting real,” she said. “Let us go back remotely and perfect this draft.”
Danielle Tierney, who has a son with significant disabilities, said he is regressing at home, where he’s not receiving all his required services. She said a hybrid model doesn’t go far enough and questioned school officials about why they are not offering in-person instruction for students with disabilities five days a week, deeming it an essential service.
“Shouldn’t they open [the schools] for the most vulnerable in emergency cases?” she asked.
“Given that all of our school facilities are different, it is likely that there will be some variation in how schools safely welcome back students this fall,” the report stated. “We will continue to work in partnership with school leaders to define these guardrails and plan for the safe reopening of all of our schools.”