Whenever a school bus passed Mae Colanti’s West Roxbury house early Thursday morning, the 4-year-old smiled, shouting gleefully, “Big bus!”
She knew that those big buses signaled a long-awaited return to school buildings, for her and hundreds of the city’s schoolchildren.
Across Boston, teachers and administrators welcomed back about 3,500 of the district’s more than 50,000 students, often with balloons, applause, and elbow-bumping.
The students, like Mae, who has Down syndrome and has attended school since age 3, were prioritized for in-person learning because of their high needs, including complex disabilities, homelessness, limited background in English, interrupted education, or involvement with child protective services.
Despite all of the fanfare, the return to in-person instruction could be short-lived. The city’s key metric guiding school reopenings — the positivity rate, the percentage of COVID-19 tests that return positive — ticked up from 2.2 percent to 3.5 percent this week. That’s just shy of the 4 percent threshold the city has set for closing schools.
Thursday’s reopening of buildings came two weeks after classes started online for all of the district’s students, and marked the first time that any Boston public schools offered in-person instruction since the coronavirus pandemic closed schools in March.
“We’ll pretend everything is normal,” said Mae’s father, Michael Colanti. He and his wife, Cristina, were overjoyed for Mae to return at long last. Remote learning had been nearly impossible for the child because of her age and disability, and they had noticed her regressing. Mae had learned to use sign language or words to express boredom or frustration, for instance, but resorted over the last six months to grunting, pointing, or screaming.
By 8 a.m., the bus hadn’t arrived to take Mae to the Henderson Inclusion School. But the family wasn’t about to let that stop them. Cristina drove Mae directly there.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the schools were ready to open Thursday, although many crucial items arrived at the last minute, including stores of cleaning supplies, ventilation equipment, and surgical masks. The delays mostly resulted from global supply chain issues as school districts worldwide clamored for the same items.
Already, a growing number of Boston’s neighborhoods have positivity rates above the 4 percent threshold: East Boston, Mattapan, Hyde Park, Dorchester, Roslindale, South Boston, and Allston/Brighton. State data puts Boston in the “red zone,” meaning after three weeks it should close schools, according to state guidance. (The three-week delay gives communities time to make sure spikes in cases aren’t just a temporary blip.) A district spokesman said the city wouldn’t wait three weeks to close schools if the citywide positivity rate reaches 4 percent — likely shutting them down much sooner.
Speaking at the David A. Ellis Elementary School in Roxbury, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said it had been 16 weeks since the the city had seen such a large increase in its positivity rate and attributed the increase mostly to college students.
“We’re keeping close eyes on the data,” Walsh said. “It would be a shame if we have to not move into the next phase. It would be a really big disappointment for our kids and our city.”
Walsh added that he would continue to take a “very cautious approach,” as he sees his job primarily to “keep people safe and alive, quite honestly.”
Pressed on why the district did not start in-person schooling sooner, when the positivity rates were lower, district spokesman Xavier Andrews said the schools needed time to prepare and ensure safety.
“We felt all along that this hybrid model that we announced in August is the safe, responsible way to bring our students back into our school buildings," Andrews said.
The high-needs students who returned Thursday will start with two days a week and (if positivity rates stay low enough) will all have the option to learn four days a week starting Oct. 13, said Cassellius. The rest of the students who have chosen the district’s hybrid model — about half chose to learn remotely only — will be phased in for two days each week of in-person learning with the youngest students starting in late October, all elementary students by early November, and middle and high school students by late November.
Students interviewed Thursday morning mostly seemed happy to be part of the first wave of returnees. “I’m not very nervous, and a little excited,” said Edward Velazquez, 10, as he walked with his mother toward the Ellis School, near a caravan of television news crews. “I thought school was boring, but then when I got home and I had nothing else to do, I missed school.”
The students went to their regularly assigned schools, so most of the district’s 120 buildings had some kind of instruction happening — albeit with much lower numbers of students.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers' Union, grew teary-eyed at the sight of schoolchildren as she visited the Ellis School alongside Walsh and Cassellius on Thursday. “It’s been very emotional because everyone is so exhausted and working so hard to prepare for this moment,” she said.
Tang added that most of the district’s buildings have at least some classrooms that meet minimal safety standards. But she worries about accommodating much larger numbers of students later in the fall, particularly as cold weather makes it harder to open the windows for ventilation.
Only 37 schools have modern air-ventilation systems, and the union had called for those schools to host students prioritized for in-person learning. A union report last week also found that only 28 out of 105 schools inspected were fully prepared with cleaning supplies, hand-washing stations, and other key safety measures.
But the district has repaired and modified windows, placed fans, and made other changes to create safe areas in every building so that students could return to their previously assigned schools, officials said.
Cassellius said she barely slept as the logistical nightmare of planning the schools' reopening and contingency plans unfolded. The supply chain issues became her biggest challenge, she said, but thankfully much of the gear arrived in time.
“It’s been like planning for a family reunion in your house and you have an old house that you need to get ready for more members and extended family than you anticipated and not enough room,” Cassellius said.
She added that temperature checks and other safety measures for bus drivers prompted delays in transportation for some students (the likely reason that Mae Colanti’s bus never arrived).
Teachers interviewed Thursday morning were mostly as excited as the kids — although in some cases that was tempered by safety concerns. At the William Ellery Channing School in Hyde Park, autism specialist Mica Lawrence parked her car and donned her colorful cloth mask.
“I miss my kids, but I’m just a little concerned because Boston’s [cases are] on the rise and the kids are coming from different neighborhoods into the building," Lawrence said.
Henry Nguyen, who teaches English as a second language at the Channing School, waited outside the large brick building to greet students.
“The most difficult thing is we miss our kids,” he said. “We didn’t become teachers to teach on Zoom.”
A car pulled up and Eli Kelley, 5, got out. His mother, Diana Rodriguez, smiled as her boyfriend, Manny Estremera, slung a giant blue backpack over the boy’s shoulders.
“Come on, big boy,” Estremera said. “You look ready!”
Rodriguez said she was so happy her son could now attend school in person.
“He needs that structure,” she said. “The remote learning is good, but it’s not the same. And it’s a smaller class, so I’m not as concerned with the corona.”
They walked Eli to the front doors, where teachers applauded him and said, “Welcome!"
The mother hugged and kissed her son.
She got in her car, hoping he enjoyed his school day back in the building. If virus rates continue to tick upward, it might be one of very few.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.