What are the Boston Public Schools going to do about reopening?
The time for provisional plans and study is quickly evaporating. One day, in the very near future, someone is going to have to make an actual, honest-to-God decision.
Across Massachusetts, school districts are choosing to hit pause on in-person school in September. Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, Malden, and Lynn are among the districts that have decided schools won’t reopen in person for most students, though many of those districts are making exceptions for some very young students or those with special needs.
Like so much related to this pandemic, there are no easy answers. Large-scale remote learning will pose a huge hardship for many families, starting with those who are already disadvantaged. It’s not surprising that many parents are clamoring for schools to reopen. As everyone is painfully being reminded, a big chunk of our economy is predicated on kids going to school.
On the other hand, Boston experimented with remote learning this spring — and the results were alarming. Though the district made a big show of delivering Chromebooks to thousands of students — and making sure their homes were equipped with Wi-Fi — city figures showed that as many as 20 percent of students became “virtual dropouts,” who seldom, if ever, logged on.
Many believe that hybrid learning — in which teachers will be expected to instruct students sitting in front of them and students online at the same time — will be a disaster as well, combining the worst of both worlds.
The Boston Teachers Union has come out strongly against most in-person instruction this fall.
“It is absolutely absurd and unsafe, and unrealistic,” BTU president Jessica Tang told me, referring to bringing students back in September.
Tang readily admits that there are huge concerns about the impact of keeping schools closed for young students and those with special needs.
“Those concerns absolutely weigh heavily on us,” Tang said. “But the alternative is people dying. It’s the kind of decision with no good answer. It’s a lose-lose either way.”
The district’s decision-making process has bordered on inscrutable. As things stand, it is considering both in-person and hybrid learning, with different plans for different schools. The planning is hugely complicated by transportation issues. Getting thousands of students a day to school on socially distanced buses will not be easy, and probably precludes any school operating five days a week.
The biggest complication, of course, is the progress of the virus itself. After weeks of relative success, the numbers of infections in Massachusetts are once again worrisome. Plans that feel workable now could look different three weeks from now.
Governor Charlie Baker insists that the data does not support the notion that schools across the state cannot reopen in person. But at the same time, the data has led him to threaten rolling back reopening plans. So it’s no wonder that his assurances don’t feel particularly reassuring.
The BPS is facing a Friday deadline to file its plans with the state. The decision rests, ultimately, with Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who will make it while consulting with both the school system and the Public Health Commission.
I think the choice is clear, and there’s nothing to be gained by further dithering. The BPS cannot reopen for in-person classes on Sept. 10. No one can make a persuasive argument that it would be safe for students, teachers, or school personnel. And if schools cannot open safely, they can’t reopen.
That’s going to be a bitter pill to swallow for many people. It is going to present a real hardship for many families. I don’t pretend that any of this is going to be easy. No one prepared to spend 2020 fighting off the modern version of the Plague. But here we are.
School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius spent part of Saturday in a long Zoom session with various players who want to know what‘s going to happen. She stressed that no decisions have been made yet.
But the time for no decisions is quickly passing. And the right decision is clear.