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Even in union-free charter schools, leaders are embracing a virtual start to the school year

Jessie Mae Leger worked on a touchless hand sanitizer dispenser in a classroom at Boston Preparatory Charter School in Boston. The former high school cafeteria was converted into a classroom to allow for social distancing.
Jessie Mae Leger worked on a touchless hand sanitizer dispenser in a classroom at Boston Preparatory Charter School in Boston. The former high school cafeteria was converted into a classroom to allow for social distancing.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

As teachers unions statewide continue their push to keep classrooms closed this fall, another sector of public education, largely free of unionized teachers, has also jumped onto the remote learning wave: charter schools.

All 15 of Boston’s independently run charter schools have decided with little public fanfare to start classes in cyberspace — a broad consensus that suggests the reluctance to reopen classrooms this fall goes well beyond teachers union agendas. Only City on a Hill Charter School in Roxbury has unionized teachers.

Some charter leaders who initially were hoping to kick off school with a mix of in-person and remote learning said they have noticed increasing hesitation about reopening classrooms in their surveys and virtual town hall meetings.

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Much of the unease, they said, was due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases in some neighborhoods, apprehension about older students riding the MBTA, and uncertainty about how COVID-19 affects children.

“I think at the end of the day, the safety of our students, families, and staff has to come first,” said Kate Scott, executive director of Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester. “I know the numbers in Massachusetts are not the same as in Arizona and Florida, but some hyperlocal issues remain and things will probably get worse when college students come back.”

Temperature checked kiosks are will be located at each entrance at Boston Preparatory Charter School in Boston.
Temperature checked kiosks are will be located at each entrance at Boston Preparatory Charter School in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Scott added there were no good options for reopening school this fall — education can’t exist the way it did before March as long as the pandemic is around — but she added schools have a great opportunity to reinvent education, and the best first step is to create a robust virtual schooling experience for students and teachers.

Several Boston charter schools are planning to implement what they call “remote-plus,” in which they intend to reopen some classrooms to serve high-needs students. All are planning to give students learning remotely assignments they can do offline, such as hands-on projects or community service.

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The charters are also stressing the need to provide students time for healing. A few, like Neighborhood House, are working to bring students back for outdoor activities — masks on and socially distant — so they can build stronger relationships with their new classmates and teachers and have a safe place to talk through issues.

High school director of operations Vanessa Shiu moved a whiteboard through a hallway at Boston Preparatory Charter School.
High school director of operations Vanessa Shiu moved a whiteboard through a hallway at Boston Preparatory Charter School.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Conservatory Lab Charter School in Dorchester is planning a two-week in-person orientation, before switching over to remote learning, so students can pick up musical instruments, learn the technology platforms they will be using, and create bonds with one another.

Some charter schools also needed time before opening classrooms to figure out transportation. Typically, the Boston Public Schools provide buses, but with physical distancing, it’s unclear if the district will have enough buses or when they might be available.

Going remote was a difficult decision for charter leaders, who are keenly aware of the harm prolonged school closures could cause their students, academically and emotionally. Boston charters overwhelmingly enroll students who are Black or Latino, many of whom live in poverty, and the pandemic is threatening to widen achievement gaps between them and their Asian and white peers.

Desks are stored in the gymnasium at Boston Preparatory Charter School.
Desks are stored in the gymnasium at Boston Preparatory Charter School.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

But concern over safety in the age of the coronavirus also runs high in many of their students’ neighborhoods and communities. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted people of color, and many charter students live in neighborhoods with high rates of residents testing positive for the virus, such as East Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan.

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Meanwhile, many students are still grappling with the fallout from the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others, while they also feel growing urgency to combat racism — making in-person schooling an ideal place to tackle both as a community.

Arianna Constant-Patton, an incoming senior at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester, embodies many of the conflicting feelings students have about returning to classrooms amid the twin pandemics of coronavirus and racism.

“I feel like I’m treading water in the middle of a river and I can’t see the waterfall in front of me,” she said. “It’s not good.”

Jessie Mae Leger worked on a touchless hand sanitizer dispenser in a classroom at Boston Preparatory Charter School.
Jessie Mae Leger worked on a touchless hand sanitizer dispenser in a classroom at Boston Preparatory Charter School.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

She said she is frustrated that classrooms won’t be reopening. She’s nervous about navigating the final stages of applying for college from home — a process already disrupted by the cancellation of SATs and campus tours — and how online schooling will affect the quality of her classes, her grades, and her patience, given they will have a full day of Zoom classes.

Yet the idea of returning to classrooms makes her uncomfortable, because she lives with her grandmother and doesn’t want to contract COVID-19 and transmit it to her. She also questions whether she could tolerate wearing a mask all day in school and how it would impede class discussions, especially when everyone is 6 feet apart.

Knowing the high stakes for their students, charter schools finalized their reopening plans earlier this month and at the end of July so they could refocus their energies on getting instruction humming by opening day.

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Charters also are using this time to prepare for the eventual return of students to classrooms part time, hopefully sometime this fall, an effort that requires safety modifications to facilities, more adjustments to teaching, and potentially securing alternative transportation.

“We want to make sure teachers have the time to develop the lessons they are going to deliver in a virtual world that will be inspiring to kids,” said Shanna Varón, executive director at Boston Collegiate, stressing she doesn’t want students sitting in front of computers all day.

Technology manager Juan DeJesus prepared Chromebook for students in the technology department at Boston Preparatory Charter School.
Technology manager Juan DeJesus prepared Chromebook for students in the technology department at Boston Preparatory Charter School.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Some city councilors, like Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu, had urged the Boston Public Schools to wrap up their reopening plans early so they could focus on implementation.

But instead Mayor Martin J. Walsh and school officials, who want to reopen classrooms, spent much of August engaged in a public battle with the Boston Teachers Union, which pushed for a remote start.

On Friday, city leaders announced at a City Hall press conference that schools would begin remotely.

Across the city on Friday, the independently run Boston Preparatory Charter School in Hyde Park was immersed in preparing for the new year. Staff were programming student laptops, teachers were inventorying science equipment, and construction workers were tearing down walls to create “supersize” classrooms for social distancing.

“What we are continuing to work on with our community is increasing the comfort to open in a hybrid manner,” said Sharon Liszanckie, the school’s executive director.

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Liszanckie said she hopes to bring students back to classrooms a few weeks into the school year. Until then, the school will go strong with remote learning, she said. Students will take six Zoom classes a day, receive two targeted academic interventions, and will have access to online clubs and virtual office hours with teachers.

Other charter schools are also crafting virtual schedules that mirror a regular school day.

Still, some parents wish classrooms would just reopen.

“To be honest, remote learning when they first put it together was rough,” said Natalie Branch-Lewis, whose 13-year-old daughter is an incoming eighth-grader at Boston Prep. ”My daughter was like, ‘I don’t have to get up and go to school.’ She would sit there and turn off the Zoom camera.”

While her daughter was looking forward to returning to classrooms and socializing with friends, Branch-Lewis said she understands why Boston Prep decided to stay remote, noting the school did a good job communicating with families this summer, and she likes that they have developed a detailed plan.

Varón, of Boston Collegiate, vowed online learning this fall will be more vibrant than the hastily arranged remote learning of the spring.

“My great hope is that at the end of the school year we will feel grateful that we were pushed to do great things because of the crisis we are in,” said Varón, who added it won’t be easy as the pandemic drags on.




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