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Boston Public Schools superintendent says no final decision yet regarding district’s reopening

Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.
Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

No final decision has been made regarding the reopening of Boston Public Schools next month with the COVID-19 pandemic still looming, the district’s superintendent told city councilors late Wednesday afternoon, amid concerns from lawmakers, teachers, and students about the safety of in-person teaching this fall.

In a virtual council meeting, Brenda Cassellius said that although the models for reopening the district’s 125 schools are science-driven, none of them are perfect, and that whatever option the district chooses, it may change. A reopening draft for schools is due to be submitted to the state by Friday.

“No final decision has yet been made about what type of model we will have. We will submit that on Friday,” she said. “Science is going to drive this decision.”

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Summer cleaning is complete in 120 of 125 school buildings in the district, said Cassellius, and more than 157,000 reusable masks have been ordered, which would be about two masks for every teacher and student.

”If public health says that it’s safe to do so, then we would start in the hybrid model, and we have still yet to determine what that looks like,” she said.

State authorities required the district to submit three models: one that accounted for a fully remote learning experience, a hybrid model that blended in-person tutelage and remote learning, and lastly, one that accounted for all in-person learning. Cassellius told councilors that BPS has already ruled out the all in-person option, saying that the district’s facilities and transportation infrastructure would not be able to handle that.

In a slide presentation, Cassellius indicated that teachers would report to school on Sept. 8 and students would start on Sept. 21.

City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said the challenge of reopening schools in the middle of the coronavrus crisis is something that “has never been attempted in our lifetimes.”

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He said the district presented a plan this month that has no mandatory testing, no contact tracing, and no method of identifying asymptomatic carriers. He said there are many outstanding questions that he hoped would be answered during the hearing.

“As written, this plan acknowledges in itself that it is unsafe,” he said.

He was not the only one to voice apprehension.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, is concerned with the air quality and ventilation in school buildings, among other things. The union, she said, also continues to be troubled by the timeline for reopening. She didn’t think the “simultaneous hybrid approach” was “tenable or realistic.”

”This is really a life-or-death decision,” said Tang.

Jonathan Haines, a Boston Public Schools nurse, explained what he would tell a parent or student who asked him if the schools were safe to reopen.

“It would be my duty as a nurse to place the health of my patient above all else and answer, ‘No,’ ” he said.

Khymani James, a BPS senior and a member of the Boston Student Advisory Council, had a bevy of questions. They ranged from how work would be graded, to standards for teachers doing virtual instruction, to meeting the needs of students with individualized education plans who require in-person learning.

“How will we know if a student has or hasn’t contracted the virus in school buildings since so many young people are asymptomatic?” James asked.

In an interview before Wednesday’s meeting, City Councilor Julia Mejia expressed frustration that the city has not yet released its final plans, saying parents — many of whom will have to decide between teaching their kids or working — need time to prepare.

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She recognized and agreed with the safety concerns that teachers and parents have raised with bringing kids back to school in a hybrid setting, and said the city needs to look at remote learning. But she said that must also be done in a way that provides resources for students, so they are not left at home on their own. That could include opening up neighborhood engagement centers, or creating pods for children to have a place to go to and seek assistance when they are not in schools.

“The fact that we still don’t know what we’re doing is beyond me,” she said. “We’ve known about this since March, and now we’re still scrambling in August.”

She added, “It’s about academics, it’s about the social and emotional well-being of kids, and the city has an opportunity to utilize its resources to support families and kids during this second wave of remote learning.”

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, at a news briefing outside City Hall earlier Wednesday, acknowledged that “many people are anxious about the decision” which he indicated would be guided by science and data.

He said authorities have ordered more than 5,000 pieces of Plexiglass to be installed in school and that the district will provide nurses’ rooms with “properly ventilated spaces” in schools.

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Walsh referenced a growing achievement gap, particularly for Black and Latino students. “I’m concerned that if we don’t have the remote learning or the in-person learning right, that achievement gap is going to continue to grow,” said Walsh.

He said he was troubled by the effect that being physically out of a school building for half a year would have on students.

“It’s complicated. I would love to be all in-person five days a week. I think many people would, but we know that we can’t,” said Walsh.

Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.