With Boston’s coronavirus positivity rate rising to 4.1 percent, city officials announced Wednesday that they will delay the start of in-person learning for the next phase of students who were slated to return on Oct. 15, but will continue in-person classes for those who already have come back.
Students in the next group — prekindergartners and kindergartners — will now start no sooner than Oct. 22, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said. City officials will reevaluate the data before that date to determine whether it is safe for students to begin in-person instruction then.
“I understand the importance of having school for our young people,” Walsh said.
Boston Public Schools started the year on Sept. 21 with remote-only instruction and brought back the first students for in-person learning a week ago, on Oct. 1. Those included only students with high needs, such as severe disabilities, limited English background, and those facing homelessness or involvement with child protective services.
The delay of in-person learning came amid the news Wednesday that the city hit a 4.1 percent positivity rate for the week of Sept. 27 to Oct. 3, according to the Public Health Commission. Boston officials and the Boston Teachers Union previously agreed that a 4 percent rate would trigger a full school closure.
Union leaders said Wednesday that because of the news, in-person instruction will be optional for Boston’s educators, an assertion that the district officials dispute. Up until the resumption of in-person instruction last week, teachers were not required to work from their schools. But over the last week, many educators of high needs students had been required to come in.
In an e-mail to educators and staff Wednesday, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius wrote that any staff members who provide services for high-needs students will be expected to continue reporting to school buildings on Thursday.
The teachers union said it will not object if educators choose to continue working from school buildings. But Jessica Tang, president of the union, said there are more educators being sent into school buildings than is necessary for students. She called for “immediate adjustments” to lower the number of nonessential staff members inside school buildings, writing in a statement that the current approach could “needlessly put thousands of staff and students in harm’s way.”
“We are advocating to BPS that we work together to ensure staffing is designed and aligned in ways that minimizes the safety risk to students, educators, and the community,” she wrote.
Daily in-person attendance has been about 1,300 students over the last week, according to a spokesman for the district. That’s significantly lower than projections: About 6,700 students were signed up to return over the last week.
“For many of these students, not being in school presents a risk that cannot be mitigated the way that the risk of COVID can be,” Walsh said. “The risk of moving backwards, that is very difficult to recover from.”
Boston public schools are “safe and ready” to bring students back, Cassellius said Wednesday,adding that remaining open for the high-needs students is a top priority.
“Six months is a long time for students to be out of school and this wasn’t just any six months,” Cassellius said. “It was and continues to be a difficult time for all of us, but this impact is not felt the same for all of us.”
Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Public Schools Special Education Parents Advisory Council, described in-person learning as a necessity for many high-needs students, including her own two children with disabilities.
“This opportunity to be back in school has changed our children,” she said. “Just seeing them start to open up in just these two days of being in school, it’s almost like seeing different children.”
Boston officials plan to keep the rest of the phased-in return to learning the same. Grades 1-3 are expected to return on Oct. 22 and Oct. 26; grades 4-8 are expected to return on Nov. 5 and Nov. 9; and grades 9-12 are expected to return on Nov. 16 and Nov. 19.
Walsh said the city will continue to use the 4 percent threshold to determine whether in-person learning needs to be further delayed.
One East Boston mother, Jordan Zimmermann, had planned to have her 4-year-old daughter, Sydney, return to a prekindergarten classroom at East Boston Early Education Center next week.
The spring was “a big mess,” she said, and heading into this academic year, she and her husband considered quitting one of their jobs to help Sydney with her online classes. They hired a nanny instead.
“We’re privileged in that way. . . . We’re able to disconnect from it a little bit because we have help,” Zimmermann said.
But, she said, not all families have had the assistance she has had in recent weeks, and many are relying on in-person school.
While she trusts the metrics that city officials have chosen to determine when students can return to in-person classes, Zimmermann’s also frustrated by the overall response to the rising coronavirus cases in Massachusetts.
She said she wants to know why schools — rather than restaurants and other businesses — are the first institutions asked to close when cases begin surging, instead of limiting indoor dining, for instance.
If communities don’t make significant changes to control the spread of the coronavirus now, Zimmermann said, it could make it even more challenging for students to go back at all.
“It’s kind of hard to watch us wait for it to happen,” Zimmermann said. “And I think the longer they delay it, the more we’re going to be in flu season and then holidays when people are going to be gathering more, so it just becomes less likely I think that they’ll get to go back.”