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Boston’s latest school reopening plan emphasizes parent choice, but only if the virus allows it

The Boston Public Schools decided to keep options open, except for their decision to not do a full return.
The Boston Public Schools decided to keep options open, except for their decision to not do a full return.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Boston school officials want to give parents choice in how their children will learn this fall, but that largely hinges on whether COVID-19 infection rates will remain low enough for classrooms to reopen, according to the school system’s latest reopening plan, released on Saturday.

“There is no one solution that will work best for every student, every family, or every person who works with Boston Public Schools,” the plan states. “Recognizing and respecting that fact, the BPS Reopening Plan provides several learning model options for families to choose from in order to best meet the educational needs of their children.”

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School officials released their plan one day after filing the 87-page document with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. All districts statewide were required to file their school reopening plans with the department by Friday. Districts had to develop three plans for the state — a full return, full remote, and a mix of in-person and remote learning.

The state wanted districts to indicate which of the three models they intended to implement next month, but districts were not required to make a choice. The Boston Public Schools decided to keep options open, except for their decision to not do a full return.

Officials stressed they will use science in deciding whether to bring students back inside buildings when the year begins or whether all students start remotely — the latter removing parental choice from the reopening equation.

Some city councilors on Saturday expressed frustration that school officials filed their plan with the state without making a firm decision on how they would reopen schools.

“I remain shocked and disappointed that we still do not have a decision on reopening, but instead have an 80-page document with no decisive plan,” said Councilor Andrea Campbell, who favors starting remotely. “Every day the district delays this decision, we lose an opportunity to prepare our students for success and our community loses confidence that this school year will be safe and successful. Students and parents need a decision to plan their schedules [and] teachers to plan their classes.”

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Councilor Michelle Wu, who also favors a remote start, said she is worried school officials might be giving parents a false sense that they have a choice when a good chance exists that school officials will decide to open the year remotely.

COVID infection rates, she notes, vary widely across the city and she questioned how the district will be able to figure out in a month’s time how to rotate two groups of students through 125 schools when the district can’t even get bus routes right every year.

Generating bus routes this year will be even more complicated because new state rules allow only one student per seat, which could leave Boston without enough buses.

“It continues to be a very confusing plan that is not fleshed out,” Wu said, making it difficult for parents to even make a choice. “The most important thing is to have a stable predictable start to the school year.”

In a statement Saturday, Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius stressed the need for the district to be deliberate.

“I understand the urgency and appreciate the patience of our families and educators as we work to finalize our reopening plan to ensure it is thorough, thoughtful, and responsive to our community, and allows time for our families and staff to adequately prepare for a safe and successful school year,” she said.

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The reopening is largely complicated by varying rates of COVID-19 infection rates across the neighborhoods in the city, where the overall rate has been ticking up.

According to the most recent weekly testing rates available on the Boston Public Health Commission’s website, the city’s overall weekly rate was 2.8 percent as of Aug. 3, up from 2.1 percent the prior week.

East Boston had the highest rate of any neighborhood, at 8.8 percent, followed by the Dorchester zip codes of 02121 and 02125 at 5.4 percent, and the Dorchester zip codes of 02122 and 02124 at 4.1 percent.

Boston’s COVID-19 infection rates, according to new state criteria for reopening schools, puts the city in a “yellow” zone, meaning school officials should strive for a part-time return of students and implement remote-only learning for all students in extenuating circumstances. Boston is planning for both.

Here’s what students and parents can expect under each of the learning model options, designed to offer 6.5 hours of daily instruction:

Fully remote: Students would do all coursework at home five days a week while remaining enrolled at their current school. Students would be taught remotely by teachers at their schools. At various points in the year, students would have the opportunity to return to classrooms.

Hybrid No. 1: Classrooms of students would be divided into two groups. Half would report to classrooms on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other half on Thursdays and Fridays. Students would learn remotely on days when they are not in classrooms. The district would try to schedule siblings for in-person learning on the same days.

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Hybrid No. 2: This option is designed for students with significant learning needs who often require one-on-one support, such as children with disabilities or those who are learning the English language. These students will have the opportunity to learn inside school buildings three or four days a week, depending upon their needs and space availability.

Families should receive surveys this week asking which model they prefer.

School officials are aiming to start classes on Sept. 21, pending state approval to convert seven instructional days into teacher training days. Preschoolers and kindergartners would begin on Sept. 23.

The school system is pushing ahead with the hope of reopening its classrooms as the Boston Teachers Union has urged to keep buildings closed.

The union says its members won’t return to buildings — plagued with ventilation problems and other issues — until the city can prove they are safe and a COVID-19 vaccine has been implemented.

Jessica Tang, the union’s president, said Saturday that the plan is an improvement over an earlier draft, but many issues remain unresolved.

“Most importantly, the district needs to immediately announce that we will be returning remotely first, with a phased-in return for students most in need of in-person services,” Tang said. “The decision is long overdue and parents, students and educators need to be able to plan and prepare for the restart. We hope to continue to work with the city and district to get this restart done well and provide the highest quality education possible during this pandemic.”

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James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.