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School districts aim to aid at-risk students with remote learning increasingly likely this fall

Many Massachusetts school districts are still hoping to start the school year with at least some in-class education, especially for their most vulnerable students.
Many Massachusetts school districts are still hoping to start the school year with at least some in-class education, especially for their most vulnerable students.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

With the number of coronavirus cases climbing, and teachers unions rallying around a remote start to the school year, some Massachusetts school districts are holding out hope for a “hybrid” approach to reopening next month that would allow at least the most academically vulnerable students to return part-time to classrooms.

Directed by state education officials to prioritize in-person instruction for these students — children with disabilities, those still learning English, and others disproportionately affected by the school shutdown in the spring — many districts have drafted plans that carve out classroom time for those groups, and for their youngest learners, first.

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In Cambridge, students in grades 4 through 12 will start the year remotely, while children in lower grades, those with disabilities, and some English learners will have the option to attend in person. In Lowell, families can choose between full-time online and full-time in-person school; if too many elect in-person, seats will be awarded in a lottery that prioritizes students with special needs, English learners, and low-income children, among others. In Newton, too, a proposed hybrid model grants extra access to the neediest kids, giving most five days a week in school, versus just two for other students.

“For many families — however painful it is to return to remote school — they can do it,” said Dr. Helen Jenkins, an assistant professor of biostatistics at Boston University and the mother of two Cambridge students. “We always have a moral obligation to help the most vulnerable children and families, but in a pandemic, that need is heightened.”

In some districts guided by that philosophy, surging caseloads have already knocked their plans off course. In Chelsea, where 40 percent of students are English learners and 60 percent are poor, school officials had hoped to offer a full-time, in-school option for the youngest students and those with disabilities. But on Thursday, with the positive test rate for the virus near 5 percent in the city, Chelsea’s superintendent announced she will recommend a remote-only start for all students.

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“Right now, stopping the spread of the virus and keeping everyone in our community safe is of utmost importance,” Dr. Almi Abeyta wrote in a letter to families.

Worcester, too, has shifted course in recent days. Superintendent Maureen Binienda also now plans to recommend remote learning for the first 10 weeks, with the possibility that the highest-needs students could spend some time in school. Under a hybrid plan previously favored, most of the district’s 25,000 students would have gone to school at least two days a week, with twice as much time in school offered to those with academic, developmental, or emotional challenges and English learners.

The caution shown in Chelsea and Worcester comes at a moment of growing concern about the pandemic’s resurgence. Governor Charlie Baker announced plans on Friday to step up enforcement of public health regulations in an effort to prevent an upswing. But Baker rejected the idea that school should start online statewide in Massachusetts, saying the science does not support that approach.

State officials have pressed school districts in recent weeks to return as many students to school as possible, and a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education said last week that 80 percent of school districts seemed to be leaning toward a hybrid model for the fall, based on initial planning. But remote-only options have gained some momentum, with Lynn, Somerville, and Springfield among those deciding to keep students home for now.

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By Friday, district officials must tell the state which approach they will take: remote-only, in-person school, or some combination. The deadline for submitting plans was extended to give local school officials more time to flesh out details and make adjustments, after absorbing hours of feedback from selectmen, teachers, and parents at online meetings that stretched into the wee hours in many towns last week.

Most reopening plans include timetables for reassessing conditions later in the fall, when districts may increase or decrease time in school. School leaders have been less transparent about another possible cause for plan revisions: Most still need to negotiate agreements with teachers, who have grave concerns about health and safety.

Some who began the summer determined to get students back in classrooms changed their minds as safety challenges grew clearer. Malden School Committee member Adam Weldai had his mind set on a hybrid model, but by last week, he was ready to join his committee’s unanimous vote in favor of a remote start to the school year.

“Once you start looking at the nitty-gritty logistics of desk placement in classrooms, or how to get students in and out of buildings safely, you realize that as much as we want to be, we’re not ready,” he said.

No decision has been made yet for Boston Public Schools, the state’s largest district, where more than 50,000 students anxiously await word. In a draft proposal, BPS officials sought to prioritize some of the district’s most at-risk students, students with disabilities and those who lack English fluency, who could learn inside classrooms four days a week, twice as often as most students, under a proposed hybrid plan.

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But that design is contingent on the availability of staffing and space among the district’s 125 schools, which could result in vastly different learning opportunities for students with similar learning challenges simply because they attend different schools. Meanwhile, pressure from the Boston Teachers Union to keep school online has mounted.

In Lawrence, the proposed hybrid plan prioritizes students learning English, special-education students, and those in alternative high schools, who could attend school four or five days a week, versus two days for grade-schoolers. In an acknowledgment of the needs of younger learners, who have a harder time learning online — and may be less likely to spread the virus — prekindergarten and kindergarten students would attend school every day, in half-day shifts. Mainstream high school students would do something similar, attending school either in the morning or afternoon, but would learn online the rest of the day.

Even if the city does grant students time in classrooms, Lenin Roa doesn’t plan to send his children. Though Roa’s three elementary school students had wildly inconsistent experiences with remote learning in the spring, he still thinks Lawrence needs to focus on the health of the community, and is lobbying officials not to open schools.

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“It’s going to be crazy if they reopen,” said Roa, who thinks children would not wear their masks consistently, and might bring home the virus. “They’ll have to shut down the schools in two weeks.”

Roa has asthma and diabetes, and his mother, who lives with them, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “Until we get a vaccine, and until we see death rates for the state going down dramatically, we shouldn’t send kids back to school,” he said.

In Gloucester, where the School Committee will vote on a plan for reopening on Wednesday, Ariane Wolff has the same concerns. Fearing for her own safety and that of her father, who is at high risk for coronavirus complications, she intends to keep her 13-year-old son home for eighth grade and enroll him in the district’s remote-only program.

“It’s madness,” Wolff said. “There seems to be increasingly in the public discourse this acceptance that you go back to school, then there’s a COVID case or more, and you shut down again. Why are we accepting the possibility of death or permanent organ damage for anyone?”

Echoing the concerns of some public health experts, she cited the unintended effects of hybrid reopening plans, which — because they limit students’ time in school — will drive many working parents to seek other types of child care for the hours when their children aren’t in school.

Jenkins, from BU, agrees that hybrid plans may carry risk. “The more contacts we have, the more opportunities the virus has to spread,” she said.

Among the various hybrid models, she said those where students alternate weeks in school buildings with weeks spent learning at home — as has been proposed in Lexington — may be somewhat safer than those where students attend school on alternating days, as approved in Plymouth, because the longer periods at home allow more time for virus symptoms to show up.

But in some communities, parents protested the week-on, week-off model because it makes it harder to find outside day care.

In Newton, as in many places, educators clinging to hopes of a hybrid approach say they want students to bond with their new teachers in person, especially given that schools may have to shut down later.

“With safety being paramount, if we can get students in school for part of the day, particularly at the start of the school year so they can connect to their teachers, we would really like to do that,” Superintendent David Fleishman said.

He has proposed a split schedule where half a school’s students learn in classrooms in the morning and the other half receive remote instruction in the afternoon. That way, teachers can focus solely on one group. Students with disabilities, English learners, and those struggling academically would attend school every day, while the rest go two days a week.

The Newton teachers’ union is outraged by the plan, which it said involves high school students regularly mixing with about 120 other students, endangering teachers and families. The union has urged an all-online start to the year.

“They’re trying to reproduce everything we do in a normal school day,” said Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association. “Safety has been pushed to the sidelines.”

The disagreement reflects a statewide reality: Hybrid plans approved by local school committees, no matter how well-considered or creative, may quickly unravel in negotiations with teachers who do not feel safe returning to classrooms.

That may not dissuade parents disappointed by their town’s remote-only plans from gazing enviously at hybrid models in neighboring districts. But it is reality, said Weldai, the Malden School Committee member.

“Everything you see online right now is aspirational,” he said.

Felicia Gans and James Vaznis of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.


Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe. Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com. Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.