Ending weeks of uncertainty for parents and teachers, city officials said Friday that students in the Boston Public Schools would start the school year at home next month, but could return to classrooms in waves by grade level and by need in October and November.
Boston joins about 30 percent of districts statewide in reopening schools remotely this fall. The decision comes as the Boston Teachers Union and other unions statewide have been aggressively pushing to keep classrooms closed.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius had been resisting union pressure for weeks and issued a second draft of a school reopening plan less than a week ago that emphasized giving parents a choice on whether they wanted their children to start the school year part-time in-person or full-time remote.
But in the end, union advocacy appeared to influence the final school reopening plan.
“Many of our teachers and staff have real concerns and we need to continue to listen to those concerns,” Walsh said at a City Hall press conference Friday, flanked by Cassellius and Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang.
The mayor also emphasized that parents were split on the issue. The school system, he said, had received about 8,000 responses from a questionnaire distributed on Thursday asking families how they wanted to start the new year. The results were about evenly divided between full-time remote and part-time in-person.
In an interview, Tang said she was glad the school system would begin the year remotely and would gradually bring students back to classrooms in phases.
“It’s a much more reasonable timeline,” she said. “We still have a lot more work to do and we will continue to work with the district and the city to get the details right.”
Safety fueled the hesitancy of teachers in returning to classrooms, from concerns over poor ventilation in decades-old school buildings to the health conditions of many union members or their families. About two-thirds of educators indicated in a recent union survey that they or someone in their household were at high risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms.
Some of the details to be worked out include whether teachers should have to teach from their classrooms when all students are doing remote learning. And when students return part time to classes split in half to ensure social distancing, it is not clear whether teachers will have to deliver lessons simultaneously to students in-person and at home.
The new plan calls for all students to begin remote learning classes on Sept. 21. Then, depending on the course of the pandemic, some students with high needs would be the first to return to classrooms on Oct. 1 and might attend school two or more days a week.
From there, schools would begin opening up to all other students under a hybrid model in which some would attend classes on Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday. All other days would be remote.
Preschoolers and kindergartners would report to school the week of Oct. 15. Students in grades 1-3 would follow the week of Oct. 22. The next crop of students would come in November: grades 4-8 the week of Nov. 5, and grades 9-12 the week of Nov. 16.
Parents will have the right to opt their children out of in-person learning.
“I want to reiterate and I want to be very clear that any BPS family can opt in or opt out of the hybrid model,” Cassellius said. “But we also know that some of our students are more vulnerable than others, and some of our students need in-person instruction more than others.”
Parents had mixed reactions.
“It’s disappointing,” said Roxi Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council. “I think it’s a disservice to our students who have not had any school services since March.”
She also expressed concern that school officials have not yet determined which high-need students would be able to return first and which ones would be eligible for additional days of in-person instruction.
Harold Rouse said his 11-year-old daughter, a rising fifth grader at Lila G. Frederick Middle School in Dorchester, misses her classmates and her school, but he said the remote-only start option is the best way to open the school year. He doesn’t know if he’ll send her back.
“If it’s safe to do so, then I will,’' he said. “If the coronavirus numbers keep going up, they should keep the remote learning.”
The course of the virus remains unpredictable in Boston, which experienced a slight uptick in cases this summer, and disease experts suspect the city could experience more cases when college students begin returning in the next few weeks.
As of Wednesday, the portion of COVID-19 tests coming back positive over the last 14 days was about 2.1 percent. But rates vary considerably by neighborhood. East Boston had the highest weekly positivity rate, 7.9 percent, as of Aug. 10, the most recent data broken down by ZIP code. Positivity rates are considered a key metric in gauging virus spread.
Walsh said if the city’s overall rate of residents testing positive for COVID-19 jumps above 4 percent, schools will remain closed. It is unclear if the school system would make any separate decisions by neighborhood, a complicated calculus because many students go to school outside their neighborhood.
Michael Loconto, chairman of the Boston School Committee, threw his support behind the plan and said he liked that it established a clear timeline for getting students back into classrooms — if the pandemic permits.
“We want to make sure students are getting educated and not falling behind because of the pandemic,” he said in an interview. “We all worry about that.”
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who has been urging the school system to start remotely, said she was pleased classrooms would remain closed initially.
“What is most critical now is ensuring remote learning is provided equitably to all students for as long as they’re out of the classroom,” she said in a statement. “That not only means ensuring families are equipped with internet access and technology, but also places for students to go whose parents are essential workers or are working outside the home.”
But she also expressed disappointment that the city has not yet identified child-care seats for families who will need them.
Councilor Lydia Edwards, whose district includes East Boston, said she would not feel comfortable with schools reopening in that neighborhood until COVID-19 cases decrease there. She also wondered whether the district needed more than two weeks between each phase of students returning to classrooms to ensure no clusters of COVID-19 cases were taking root.
“I appreciate that these are unprecedented times but that’s why being cautious is a good thing,” Edwards said in a phone interview.
Councilor Michelle Wu said she was relieved by the all-remote start and phased reopening, but criticized what she said were “weeks of delay” in unveiling the district’s plan for the fall.
“Today we’re scrambling to make arrangements with just a month to go before classes start — exactly what all were advocating to avoid,” she said in a statement.
Meghan Irons, Danny McDonald, and Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.