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Boston schools brace for bumpy start, from 20,000 late Chromebooks to sliding enrollment

Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius in a classroom at Mather Elementary School during a walkthrough in Dorchester.
Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius in a classroom at Mather Elementary School during a walkthrough in Dorchester.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius is warning that the reopening of schools this fall will be rocky amid the coronavirus pandemic, noting the school system is still waiting for 20,000 Chromebooks and grappling with a decline in enrollment.

“We do anticipate that this could be a little bumpier start than we typically have but we have been trying to mitigate every single bump as best as we can, knowing that we join all other urban districts across this nation . . . in doing something that we have never done before,” Cassellius told the School Committee at its first meeting of the school year Wednesday night.

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School openings in Boston often come with annoying glitches, most notably when scores of tardy buses frustrate students, parents, and teachers. But the pandemic has brought even more complexity to the first day, potentially making this coming Monday unlike any other experienced by the school district since the days when court-ordered busing caused emotions and racism to flare across the city.

Students, who began learning at home in March when the virus forced a three-month closure of schools statewide, will be logging into their classes remotely again instead of entering school buildings. The system then plans to embark on an elaborate phased-in return to classrooms over the course of two months, beginning on Oct. 1, that will have many students alternating days of in-person learning with remote instruction.

Potential complications seemingly lurk around every corner. Bus routes are still being finalized and the district has not yet reached agreement with drivers and monitors on safety measures. Work to repair or replace 7,000 windows to ensure every classroom has at least one that can open has just begun, while air quality tests are not slated to be completed until Oct. 1. And in-person learning schedules for students with disabilities and language barriers are still being crafted.

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Meanwhile, East Boston’s weekly positivity rate, while declining, is still at 6.4 percent — a rate that would warrant school closures under state guidelines if East Boston were an independent system. The positivity rates in parts of Dorchester and Roxbury have nudged above 4 percent. (The overall city rate is 1.6 percent.)

A spike in COVID-19 cases could cause delays in reopening school buildings. Mayor Martin J. Walsh has said that classrooms won’t open if the city’s overall rate hits 4 percent. Officials have not called for school closures in specific neighborhoods if COVID-19 rates are notably higher than citywide closures.

“It’s a herculean task in any year to reopen our schools, but certainly this year with all of the concerns presented by COVID . . . and all the other social unrest we have going on in our country and our city,” said Michael Loconto, School Committee chair. “We have our work cut out for us.”

A number of parents and teachers Wednesday night urged the School Committee to adopt a stricter standard for reopening school buildings, imploring them to keep all of them closed until all neighborhoods have weekly positivity rates below 4 percent in recognition that students crisscross the city to get to school.

“Time is running out and we need your help,” said Michelle Carroll, an East Boston middle school teacher. “This issue is serious, life or death.”

Online learning will be a central component to all instruction. When students begin returning in October, in-person instruction will only be part time — mostly two days a week — and the rest of the learning will be done remotely. Students who are uncomfortable with in-person learning can do all their classes on the Internet, and can switch between all-remote and a hybrid schedule throughout the pandemic pending the district’s approval and whether classrooms are open.

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As of Thursday, the school system still had not heard from parents of approximately 12,000 students about whether they want their children to return to classrooms or continue with only remote learning. The district has placed these students, representing more than 20 percent of the district’s enrollment, in the hybrid model for now and is planning for bus service if they are eligible, while they continue efforts to reach parents about their preferences.

It remains unclear how many students could be without a computer when classes begin. That’s because Boston, like many other districts nationwide, is caught in the middle of trade or supply-line issues with China that are creating widespread shortages and delivery delays of Chromebooks.

School officials said their vendor has said the devices should arrive within the next two weeks, but the district might not get all of them right away because so many districts are waiting for late orders. Thousands of Chromebooks, however, have already been received and the school system has been distributing them.

Many students who received them last school year might need replacements because they are now broken. There could also be additional students who never received one last year.

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The school system is expecting to welcome about 5,000 fewer students than it did four years ago, a steady decline that officials indicated has sped up amid the pandemic. The steepest declines are in the elementary grades.

“We believe this is primarily due to COVID,” said Monica Roberts, chief of student, family, and community advancement.

As of now, BPS is expecting to have about 54,000 students on opening day, but that number is likely to drop by the time the district does its annual head count for state and federal aid programs on Oct. 1, based on past enrollment trends. That’s because each year the district sheds students during the first month of school as officials learn of those who have moved away or registered at another local school.

Michael O’Neill, a School Committee member, urged Cassellius and her team to launch a concerted effort to keep students in the district and to not use the pandemic as a reason not to try, adding that he doesn’t want BPS to “just kind of shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Oh well, if we are losing students we are losing students.’ "

“I want to make sure we are being proactive about this and not just letting students go,” he said.

Roberts assured O’Neill that the district is doing all it can to keep students and to enroll new ones, noting that the district has been advertising in newspapers and on radio stations that aim to serve specific communities of color or various linguistic groups to make sure all families know how to register their children.

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The back-to-school report included some positive developments. The school system has filled about 95 percent of its open positions, with more than half going to people of color, and is launching a new Ethnic Studies program in partnership with the Boston Teachers Union and UMass Boston.

Over the course of more than two hours of testimony, teachers frequently raised concerns about poor ventilation systems and other safety issues, such as the wisdom of teaching students in their classrooms — while all are wearing masks — simultaneously with those learning at home, and inefficient training.

“We’re not ready to open on Monday,” said Antonietta Brownell, a teacher who raised concerns about late supply orders.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, accused the central offices and school leaders of failing to honor aspects of their reopening agreement, which the School Committee formally approved Wednesday night, such as devising creative solutions or schedules for teachers at high risk. She expressed frustration, saying the district is not providing schools and teachers with enough resources and thoughtful planning to ensure a successful school year.

“We’ve got to do better,” she said.


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