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Families, leaders in special education protest Boston Public Schools' plan

Maddison Brown 4, and Michael Lee, 9, attend a rally by special-needs students, supporters, and families outside Boston Public Schools' central office in Roxbury. The protesters say the district needs to prioritize high-needs students who can't learn remotely.
Maddison Brown 4, and Michael Lee, 9, attend a rally by special-needs students, supporters, and families outside Boston Public Schools' central office in Roxbury. The protesters say the district needs to prioritize high-needs students who can't learn remotely.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Families, educators, and students in Boston Public Schools' special education programs held a protest Thursday against the district’s reopening plan, saying the district is not offering these students enough in-person learning.

The protest, just 10 days before the first day of school, came amid widespread anxiety and frustration among families of students with disabilities who say they still don’t know how many days a week, or when, their children will be allowed to attend school this fall. Organizers estimated that about 100 people attended the protest.

Families say many of these students struggled most to learn remotely during the spring and should be prioritized for four days a week of in-person instruction.

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But the district’s latest plan calls for students with the highest needs to return to schools Oct. 1 for two days a week. Those who attend schools of all high-needs students will be able to return for four days a week on Oct. 12. The rest of the district’s 11,000 special-education students must wait to learn whether they will be able to receive more than two days of weekly in-person school until after the district accommodates all other students wanting to learn in-person.

Karina Paulino-Pena, whose son has Down syndrome and attends Blackstone Elementary School, said last spring he struggled to sit still in front of a computer for more than 15 minutes and couldn’t concentrate or respond to the teacher’s questions.

“Of three therapies that he has to do for 30 minutes every week, he only managed to do one," she said in Spanish in a statement. “I did not see any positive results for him in terms of his learning.”

In response to the rally, the district said it was balancing the needs of all students and prioritizing its most vulnerable students.

“BPS has respected family choice and prioritized our most vulnerable students in our plans for a phased-in, opt-in hybrid learning model,” the district said in a statement. “BPS recognizes that all students benefit from enriching classroom learning, and we are committed to providing our students, particularly our students with the highest needs, with as many days of in-person learning as we can, as permitted by public health information, transportation planning and space.”

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Advocates decried the lack of clarity coming from the district itself.

On Thursday morning, the Bay State Banner published an op-ed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius that contradicted the district’s website.

“We are prioritizing high-needs special education students by giving them the option of in-person learning up to four days per week, starting Oct. 1,” the op-ed said. “This is the right thing to do.”

But district spokesman Xavier Andrews told the Globe later Thursday that the op-ed needed clarification and the plan on the BPS website was accurate: No students would return to schools for four days a week until Oct. 12, when the special-education day schools — the four McKinley schools, the Carter School, and the Horace Mann School for the Deaf — would reopen for four days a week. Other special-education students will transition to four days a week on a “date to be determined ... based on classroom capacity and transportation timeline," the plan states.

The rally, which was sponsored by 12 groups, including the Boston Special Education Parents Advisory Council, the Boston Teachers Union, Massachusetts Advocates for Children, and the Boston Education Justice Alliance, took place outside the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury.

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The groups said the district should much more aggressively utilize its 35 school buildings with up-to-date ventilation systems to bring back special education students first and for most of the school week.

“Equity calls for prioritizing our highest-needs students,” said union president Jessica Tang. “BTU educators deeply want to be able to provide in-person services for our highest-needs students in buildings that are safe.”

Elizabeth Banks said her son, who has a muscle disease and attends Josiah Quincy School, needs to receive his physical and occupational therapy in person.

“Virtual therapy is not doing anything for his body," Banks said. "The teachers have done what they can, but the district is not making sure things are happening for him.”

Students, their families, and supporters protest outside Boston Public Schools' headquarters on Thursday.
Students, their families, and supporters protest outside Boston Public Schools' headquarters on Thursday.Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Left to right: Orlando Polanco, 10, and Jensel Cosme, 10, fifth graders at the Blackstone Elementary School, join the protests.
Left to right: Orlando Polanco, 10, and Jensel Cosme, 10, fifth graders at the Blackstone Elementary School, join the protests.Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Children at the protest open umbrellas on the rainy Thursday.
Children at the protest open umbrellas on the rainy Thursday.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.