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Boston schools’ remote start draws mix of praise, ire from parents

Merline Sylvain-Williams (left) huddled under an umbrella with her ninth grade daughter, Jahnae Williams (center top), son Jaheer Williams, a rising first-grader, and family member Kini Udovicki (right), a Cambridge school counselor, at a State House rally Wednesday held by the American Federation of Teachers.
Merline Sylvain-Williams (left) huddled under an umbrella with her ninth grade daughter, Jahnae Williams (center top), son Jaheer Williams, a rising first-grader, and family member Kini Udovicki (right), a Cambridge school counselor, at a State House rally Wednesday held by the American Federation of Teachers.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The question that had plagued anxious Boston parents all summer was finally answered Friday: Boston Public School children won’t go back to classrooms until October at the earliest, the city announced.

The decision was met with relief, anger, criticism, and praise by parents, reflecting the wide range of different and sometimes conflicting feelings about how and whether to open classrooms in a city where some neighborhoods are still struggling to contain coronavirus outbreaks.

Many parents of color, whose communities have been hit hardest by the pandemic, were relieved by the city’s cautious approach. But others feared being unable to afford child care that would allow them to work, and worried their children would lose out on crucial learning and social skills.

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“It’s safer this way,” said Joann Castillo, a Dorchester mother whose sons, 13 and 14, will attend John McCormack Middle School and Margarita Muñiz Academy. “I’d rather have my kids home and deal with the situation than send them to school and then they get sick, and regret it after.”

But others were angry, and considering alternatives.

Brooke Nichols, a Boston University professor of infectious diseases, said she was considering pulling her children out of BPS — a growing trend statewide among many public school parents with means. Her son is slated to enter first grade at Maurice J. Tobin K-8 School in Roxbury and her daughter starts prekindergarten this year.

She said the school district should have taken advantage of Boston’s low levels of coronavirus and the weather and held classes starting in August or September in outdoor spaces, especially for younger children who can’t learn remotely. Instead, she said, Boston’s planned in-person start dates coincide with the second wave of coronavirus local epidemiologists expect due to more mingling indoors, where transmission occurs more easily.

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While the district is right to emphasize face masks and social distancing, she said, it is ignoring other key COVID-19 facts. Young children especially are at low risk, and everyone’s risks fall when virus rates are as low as Boston’s now, she said.

Remote learning, she said, doesn’t work for young children like her own unless a caregiver is able to help all day: “What’s expected of parents — we’re supposed to quit our jobs?”

Still, several Boston parents said they were pleased to know that school will start remotely, saying it is the safest of the alternatives presented so far, and that it gives them greater clarity about what to expect in the fall.

Iris Hart, whose son Wayne has autism and attends the Burke High School in Dorchester, said her fears about in-person learning in the middle of a pandemic have been relieved.

“I’ve been hoping for remote learning until everyone gets tested,” Hart said. “I want it to be that you can’t come back unless you have been vaccinated and cleared. I [was] having a hard time with putting children in the classroom together because it only takes one person to expose an entire building.”

Reginald St. Brice, whose daughter is entering the seventh grade at the Dr. Martin Luther King K-8 School in Dorchester, said he agreed with the district’s plan: “They are just trying to find a way to make sure the kids are safe. I’ll roll with them.”

If things get worse with the pandemic, St. Brice said he doesn’t plan to send his daughter back to school.

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“She’s scared already to go,’' said St. Brice, who is Black. ‘”She’s afraid to catch it.”

People of color have borne the brunt of the pandemic. In Boston, Black people account for 25 percent of residents, but 36 percent of coronavirus cases. And Latino people make up 19 percent of the city, but 29 percent of cases.

Travis Marshall, whose two children are in the first and fourth grade at the Phineas Bates School in Roslindale, said he would feel more comfortable sending his kids back to school if the state provided regular coronavirus testing for students and staff. Until then, he feels better about remote learning, though he knows his children would love to study alongside their friends again.

“They miss school, but I also understand that they don’t quite understand what the reality is either, especially my first-grader,” Marshall said. “So we are planning to keep them remote — just to see what’s going on.”

Louisa Blue, whose two youngest children, ages 5 and 6, attend the Blackstone Elementary School in the South End, said teaching young children to keep 6 feet of distance from one another has been a challenge. But for now, remote learning has worked OK for her family. Blue, a nurse, has been furloughed and is home. Being close in age, the children have similar schoolwork and their teachers have kept in close touch.

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“I’m glad that [district officials] are doing remote for now to try to keep the kids safe,’' she said. “I think the best thing is for them to be home.”


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.