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The Education Issue

METCO schools are at the intersection of the pandemic and racism

Schools everywhere are struggling to keep students safe from COVID-19, while also trying to counter bias. Boston’s METCO program is at the heart of both efforts.

A METCO school bus outside Bedford High School on the first day of school in September.
A METCO school bus outside Bedford High School on the first day of school in September.Webb Chappell/for The Boston Globe

In normal times, Janai Carrington wakes at 5 a.m., quickly pulls back her hair in a ponytail with a scrunchie, and brushes her teeth. She skips breakfast and by 5:25 is in her mom’s silver Honda Accord being shuttled to a nearby bus stop in Dorchester. There the 15-year-old boards a bus for a roughly 90-minute trip to Bedford High School, along with a few dozen other teens from Boston neighborhoods.

But these are not normal times, and Carrington wasn’t on the bus when school started September 16. True, it was a Wednesday, designated by her district as a day when all students attend school virtually.

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The sophomore also isn’t on the bus on her two in-person days at the high school, either. Instead, her mother, Jessica Castro, has rearranged her work schedule to drive her daughter to school on Mondays and Thursdays. That gives Carrington almost an extra hour of sleep, plus she avoids the long bus ride, during which she would now have to wear a mask. Because Carrington has asthma, it was simply too risky and uncomfortable to take the bus, then spend six more masked hours in school, her mother says, adding, “I’m as nervous as every parent, with COVID being an issue.”

But choosing to let her daughter go to school also reveals Castro’s distrust of remote learning. She believes that when Bedford went completely virtual in March, it compromised the learning experience for students. Let down in the spring, she chose the hybrid learning option for this school year.

Castro’s risk calculus reflects the turmoil and tough decisions teachers, school administrators, and parents around the state — and the country — are facing as schools reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. For her and for her daughter, the equation is compounded by another preexisting social scourge: racism.

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Janai Carrington in a classroom at Bedford High School, which the Boston resident attends via the METCO program.
Janai Carrington in a classroom at Bedford High School, which the Boston resident attends via the METCO program.Webb Chappell/for The Boston Globe

Carrington’s bus ride to school was especially long because she commutes from Dorchester to Bedford as part of METCO, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, a voluntary one-way school desegregation program. The METCO program was created in 1966 to increase educational opportunities for Black (and later Latino, Asian, and Native American) students from the city and simultaneously expose white suburban students to more racial diversity. It now sits at the intersection of COVID-19 and racial injustice.

Last year METCO sent roughly 3,100 students from all grade levels, mostly Black and Latino children, to 33 predominantly white suburban school systems. These students are likely to have felt the most personal impact from the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis officer in May, and by similar tragedies. Though young people of all backgrounds have been galvanized into action.

Meanwhile, the widespread harm caused by COVID-19, including job loss, has affected Black and Latino people disproportionately, with higher infection and death rates per capita. The unequal impact is continuing into the school year. Surveys taken this summer found that in districts with METCO students, those students, along with other Black, Latino, and Asian students living in those districts, picked full remote learning over hybrid learning at higher rates than white students. In suburban school systems, at least a third of METCO families wanted the remote option, compared with one-fifth overall. The racial divide was even wider in Boston, with more than half of Black, Asian, and Latino students wanting remote learning, compared with 27 percent of white students.

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Carrington, who is Black and Puerto Rican, says Floyd’s killing created a bigger desire in her to speak out. It also helped her understand what her parents had been telling her for years, that for a Black person, “It wasn’t only going to be safe and unicorns and rainbows.” In June, she donned all black clothing and carried a Black Lives Matter sign as her mother marched alongside her in Franklin Park to protest police brutality and Floyd’s death.

“It felt like a fever dream,” Carrington says. “It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever witnessed. You saw every single color in the world there, every sexuality . . . We were all fighting for the same thing.”

Floyd’s death also moved Parris Murdaugh, a Black seventh-grader and METCO student in Bedford, who is equally determined to find a way to speak up more about race issues this school year. “I’m really appalled at the world, at how people are treating Black people,” Murdaugh says.

A classroom at Bedford’s John Glenn Middle School arranged for social distancing.
A classroom at Bedford’s John Glenn Middle School arranged for social distancing.Webb Chappell/for The Boston Globe

Bedford’s schools are reopening in an atmosphere where students around the country are demanding that their schools become a part of the national examination of racism in institutions. Throughout the summer, students of color, including some in METCO programs, created social media posts and threads about racism they have experienced in school and elsewhere. Some, collaborating with white peers, urged their schools to broaden the curriculum as part of the #DiversifyOurNarrative movement created by a pair of Stanford University students.

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Over the summer, Bedford High rising senior Liz Henning, who is white, collected more than 1,200 signatures on a petition to promote the Diversify Our Narrative approach at the school. She formed a group of 11 students, including Carrington, to work on the effort. Henning said she believed many of her peers — especially white ones — were not talking enough about the country’s racial turmoil or even grasping it.

After Floyd’s death, she attended a protest in Bedford run by high school students and alumni, carrying a homemade cardboard sign with a Black Power symbol flanked by “Say their names” and “George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and More.”

“Earlier in high school, I did stand with Black Lives Matter, but didn’t fully understand it,” says the 17-year-old Henning. She plans to once again lobby for more teaching about race as part of history and other subjects as school begins. Carrington hopes the effort leads to something. “It should just be more in our education all around,” she says, adding, “I never really learned about slavery in that much depth.”

Both students are also looking to school for something that used to be so mundane and now seems extraordinary — seeing other teens. Carrington hopes that seeing friends again, something she’s barely done since the shutdown in March, will help ease her feelings of living in isolation. Still, in an environment where students get to school just before class begins and enter an extremely controlled world — masks required, students facing front, and everyone keeping 6 feet apart to mitigate COVID-19 spread — she wonders how kids will come together. “I can imagine we’re not really going to have those times in our day where we can connect to each other,” says Carrington, who was used to getting to school early and chatting with friends at the “periodic table,” named because it shows the elements. But there will be no gathering at the table this fall. “It will be tricky,” Carrington sighs.

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Socializing will indeed be tricky for students, says Kevin Tracey, the principal of John Glenn Middle School in Bedford. During the summer, he thought about the activities he could no longer do when school resumed, including opening the gym every morning at 6:45 a.m. for pickup basketball and acting as referee for the games.

“Losing the morning basketball piece, that’s going to really stink,” he says. “That’s what gets me here at 6:30 in the morning, and I’m ready to rock.” It was unclear to him for much of the summer just how far he would go. On August 3, he sent out a 22-minute video message to parents offering both information on fast-changing reopening plans and a reality check for those hoping to see full-time, in-person schooling.

Kevin Tracey, principal of Bedford’s John Glenn Middle School.
Kevin Tracey, principal of Bedford’s John Glenn Middle School.Webb Chappell/for The Boston Globe

In that video, he sat in his backyard as he emphasized the importance of taking care of students' and families' social and emotional needs first. “In the springtime, we had a lot of families suffering in silence,” he said. “We’ve had kids who were hospitalized. We’ve had families who have lost family members. This has been something on a scale we’ve never seen before.”

Tracey may open the gym at some point this fall, but “I don’t want to push my luck early on,” he says. He will try other ways to connect students, including a virtual schoolwide town hall on Wednesdays, when all of the school’s 608 students are remote. “It’s trying to find in some way a normalization of what we’re doing here,” he says, “so kids feel comfortable and kids feel safe.”

The social and emotional well-being of students is a heightened concern for school administrators. The pandemic “is baggage for everybody,” says Barbara Hamilton, METCO director at Lexington public schools, and president of the METCO Directors' Association. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the summer’s racial unrest means METCO students “are coming with additional baggage,” she says. “What they’re coming with is a greater awareness and rawness of where their country is at right now in regard to inequities and racism.”

School systems need to respond to the growing awareness of students, including white ones, Hamilton says. “We want to see people seize this opportunity of awareness and not make it a one-and-done thing.”

Carrington’s mother, Castro, says she has confidence in Bedford schools, given the longtime work of the just retired superintendent, Jon Sills. Sills' many initiatives — to increase diversity in hiring and improve achievement of Black and Latino students — include creating the Tenacity Challenge in 2012. The annual scholarship competition features teams of students of color from urban and suburban schools. Carrington has participated since middle school.

Sills retired as superintendent in late June but stayed on in Bedford through August to help develop plans for reopening. He’s also been co-facilitating a program for new superintendents. “We’re focusing on how not to lose sight of these equity, antiracist issues in the midst of the craziness of COVID,” he says in a Zoom interview. “Part of what [teachers and administrators] need to be prepared for is some very difficult conversations as kids make more public their dissatisfaction.”

A challenge for teachers will be helping students feel safe, regardless of their stances, says Wendy Tanahashi-Works, a teacher at Bedford’s John Glenn Middle School. She adds that school systems also have to make it OK for teachers to broach the topic.

Teachers and school leaders, says Akil Mondesir, Bedford’s METCO director, should take their cues from students. Early in the school year, Mondesir plans to schedule an online forum for METCO middle and high school students to tell their stories to faculty. "My message to the teachers would be, ‘Listen first,’ " says Mondesir, who graduated from Bedford schools through METCO. For many METCO students, Floyd’s death is all too raw and reminds them of their own experiences with racism. “If they’re not able to express themselves and express their stories, it’s going to fester . . . and destroy the person from the inside out. Being able to have that opportunity to say their story is so therapeutic. You may not be able to change everyone’s opinion, but you may be able to touch one person and have them understand,” he says.

Akil Mondesir, Bedford Public School’s METCO director.
Akil Mondesir, Bedford Public School’s METCO director.Webb Chappell/for The Boston Globe

Schools have to account for broader family concerns, too. Mondesir, whose 12-year-old daughter is a METCO seventh-grader in Bedford, is a case in point. His 68-year-old father, who lives with him in their Roxbury home, was recently diagnosed with cancer, and Mondesir is hypersensitive about not infecting him. He takes every precaution he can to protect his father, such as showering after he comes home before touching anything in the house.

Raised primarily by his grandmother in Roxbury when he went to Bedford schools, Mondesir also knows that many of the students he works with live with grandparents now. Families, including his own, have had to sort out whether it was worth the risk to send their children or keep them at home for remote learning. The METCO director met with bus drivers and was reassured about safety measures, including keeping windows cracked open and spreading students out so only siblings sit together. The usual bus ride to Bedford for METCO students will be shorter because they will not all go to school on the same two days.

While Castro chose hybrid for her daughter Janai, who has mild asthma, Parris Murdaugh’s mother, Shareka Murdaugh, picked remote because of the 12-year-old’s severe bouts of asthma in the summer. Murdaugh, a single parent who works as a personal care assistant for senior citizens, plans to check in by phone on Parris’s remote learning during the day, and to stop at home on breaks. Her daughter wanted to do the hybrid program, partly because she prefers school in person and worries about falling behind, but understands her mother’s decision to keep her home. “I want to [go to school], but just don’t want to get sick,” she says. “Kids could be more of carriers of COVID.”

Juli Thomas-Arbaje, a seventh-grader and daughter of METCO president Milly Arbaje-Thomas, in her bedroom space for online school.
Juli Thomas-Arbaje, a seventh-grader and daughter of METCO president Milly Arbaje-Thomas, in her bedroom space for online school.Webb Chappell/for The Boston Globe

Milly Arbaje-Thomas, METCO Inc.'s president and CEO, and her husband, a principal of two high schools in the Boston system, also picked full remote learning for their two daughters. Gaby is a sophomore at Boston Latin School, and Juli a METCO seventh-grader in Brookline schools. Juli has mild asthma, while Arbaje-Thomas herself has had breast cancer, putting her at high risk if she were exposed to COVID-19.

“I feel safer as a parent if my kids are just at home. I don’t trust that social distancing is going to happen. I don’t trust all of the public spaces,” she says. “The winter is coming, and people inevitably will continue to get sick.”

Schools are reopening at a time when Massachusetts is seeing much lower incidences of COVID-19 than in the spring. Still, Mondesir and other METCO directors fear a repeat of problems that occurred last spring when schools shut down abruptly, especially interrupting the availability of food for students on free or reduced lunch programs. METCO students cannot easily get to locations near their schools to pick up meals, so for several weeks Mondesir drove from Roxbury to a Bedford food pantry once a week to pick up meals for 30 METCO families, delivering them to each family’s front door. Eventually, Bedford’s school bus service filled a bus with groceries and met him at a drop-off point in Boston, to reduce his time spent driving.

Mondesir’s ready to do the same again if needed. "It’s not a job description. It’s, ‘You want to make sure your parents, the kids, everybody is OK,’ " he says.

Some fear the pandemic will increase racism while exacerbating inequities for students of color and from low-income families. Witness what was discussed on August 14 at a Newton School Committee meeting held over Zoom, where Newton Public Schools Superintendent David Fleishman noted a connection between the virus and an uptick in racist incidents in the community.

Fleishman said Asian and Black families had expressed concern in the spring about their children being blamed for COVID-19 cases. And with the school year about to begin, some white parents in Newton had expressed fear that “students in our METCO program will pose risks to their classrooms and teachers because of higher COVID rates in some Boston neighborhoods,” he says. “To me that is very worrisome, very troubling. Lumping our METCO students into a group with unfounded assumptions is deeply inaccurate. During these very challenging times, it’s really important that all of us stand up and call out racism.”

But as district administrators described the latest reopening plan, some School Committee members asked whether the school district itself might hurt METCO students. The plan at that point was to dismiss students at 12:30 p.m., then have students finish their school day at home. How could Boston-based students get home in time for their afternoon classes? Also, school system surveys showed that Asian, Black, and Latino students were choosing remote learning in higher numbers than white students. School Committee member Tamika Olszewski said it was as if the school system were creating a two-tiered system — in-person for primarily white students, and remote learning for students of color. She voted against the plan, which was approved by the School Committee 7 to 2.

Newton would shift course within less than two weeks, saying on August 25 it would delay the start of in-person learning to later in the fall. To help address potential inequities, both its high schools would be fully remote. Concern for METCO students was a factor, Fleishman says.

Bedford, too, has equity concerns. Philip Conrad, the new superintendent, sent a letter to parents August 28 expressing dismay that some parents were soliciting Bedford teachers for what he called “privilege pods.” While he later apologized for the term, he says he remains worried about furthering inequities for families who could not afford private tutors.

School systems must do better than they did in the spring — for all students, but especially for METCO students, says Malcolm Cawthorne, Brookline High’s METCO coordinator, and a social studies teacher at the school. He blames himself for the school’s METCO students underperforming their peers in the spring, saying he was too slow in getting computers, food, and other help to METCO families.

Brookline High is fully remote again this fall, and Cawthorne and his staff are more prepared for problems. Before the first day, he and his staff called family of each of the school’s METCO students, and asked them to fill out a form about their needs. He also planned drop-in Zoom meetings for parents. And he continues to reach out about racial trauma, sending a letter on August 27 in response to a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooting Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back. In it he urged parents to persist in fighting to remove hurdles to their kids' success. “I think one of the lessons least taught in history is ... the persistence of people of color within the United States,” he wrote.

Janai Carrington’s mother is on alert, ready to switch her daughter to fully remote learning if necessary. She acknowledges that she has many open questions, including the effect of college students' return to Boston. “I think we’re going in blind,” Castro says of herself and other parents. “We’re all hoping for the best.”

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Linda K. Wertheimer, author of Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance and a former Globe education editor, is a 2020-2021 Spencer Fellow in education journalism at Columbia University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.