After another jump in Boston’s coronavirus positivity rate, the city’s public school district said it has canceled in-person instruction for thousands of high-needs students — the only group to return to school buildings so far this fall — starting Thursday.
The cancellation affects about 2,600 students, including those with disabilities, students still learning English, and children living in foster care, who had resumed in-person instruction part time at the start of October. It will also likely further delay the return of many other students, who have been learning remotely since the academic year began Sept. 21. About 51,200 students are enrolled in Boston Public Schools this year.
Across the city, several families responded with anguish. “I learn more when I’m in school,” said José Maldonado, 18, speaking in Spanish. Maldonado, who attends Boston International Newcomers Academy in Dorchester, had been going in person two days a week this month. “We want to get through school quickly. . . . Missing a year affects us a lot."
Boston’s positivity rate rose to 5.7 percent for the week ending Oct. 17, jumping up from 4.4 percent the week prior and 4.1 percent the week before that. It was the largest one-week increase city officials had seen in a while and the highest positivity rate in Boston since late May, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said.
“Unfortunately, today was difficult because I would love to see these kids [in school],” Walsh said Wednesday. “They’re thriving in school, and they love to be there, but the health and safety of our residents and our students are the number one priority right now, especially our most vulnerable.”
When the city’s seven-day positivity rate falls below 5 percent for two consecutive weeks, students with high needs will be allowed to opt into in-person learning again, city officials said. When the rate is below 4 percent for two consecutive weeks, BPS plans to resume its phased-in return, starting with its youngest students.
Even at that point, all families would be allowed to continue opting into remote-only instruction.
Boston officials and the Boston Teachers Union previously agreed that exceeding a 4 percent rate would trigger a full school closure, but school officials have prioritized keeping high-needs students in school in recent weeks.
State leaders, including Governor Charlie Baker, have pushed for local school districts to bring students back in person whenever possible, pointing to weekly virus data that have shown fears of super-spreading in schools to be “somewhat unfounded,” Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said Tuesday.
The state Department of Health also urged school districts on Wednesday to remain open to students — as long as there remains no evidence of virus transmission in schools. The agency plans to update its metric this week to begin identifying when a municipality’s positive cases and high-risk designation have been significantly impacted by a cluster in a long-term care facility, higher education institution, or correctional facility, as opposed to community spread, which could affect K-12 schools.
In Boston, officials reported 10 cases among students and staff within the first two weeks of October, but there has been no evidence of virus spread within schools.
Across the country, other large school districts are moving slowly to expand access to in-person instruction. In New York City, officials have closed schools only in neighborhoods where the virus is spiking, and in Los Angeles, schools remain closed but have been allowed to offer limited, small-group gatherings for some students.
For many families, Wednesday’s news was another blow in months of upheaval and disappointment.
“I’m going to learn less [this year],” Maldonado said, looking ahead at the stretch of remote learning to come. He came to Boston a year ago from Honduras and is still learning English. “But what option do I have?”
Edith Bazile, a former BPS educator and Boston public school graduate, has been trying to transition her 8-year-old granddaughter, Lily, into a Boston public school since last school year. But she wants full-time, in-person instruction for Lily, and hasn’t been able to get clarity this month on whether the child is even eligible for the part-time instruction that’s been available for many high-needs students this month.
Lily, who has autism, has been attending a private school in Randolph where she can get 40 hours a week of in-person services. But she is aging out of that school, and if the family can’t get her in-person services through BPS soon — which appears increasingly unlikely — they’re considering enrolling her in METCO, a voluntary desegregation program that allows students of color from Boston to attend suburban districts.
“I feel bad for parents who don’t have an alternative like we do,” said Bazile, who is also a former president of the Black Educators' Alliance of Massachusetts. “We’re looking at a pandemic that’s not going to go away for maybe six months to a year, and you can’t have children out that long. The consequences will be devastating.”
Bazile has also been frustrated by the lack of communication from the district about what in-person time her granddaughter is eligible for.
“They haven’t offered anything to us,” she said. “We’re just so confused.”
They aren’t the only ones.
Lucy Perez, a Dorchester mother, hadn’t heard that Boston leaders last week delayed the start of in-person instruction for pre-kindergartners through third-graders until at least Oct. 29 — a delay that could now be even longer. She thought her 7-year-old twins were still supposed to start in-person school on Thursday at Blackstone Elementary School.
Perez was devastated to learn her sons couldn’t attend school this week. Her unemployment checks recently stopped coming in. She’s working a part-time day-care job to keep the family from being evicted, and her baby sitter isn’t available on Thursdays or Fridays.
“I feel terrible and worried,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “What can I do? I have bills and rent to pay. As a responsible mother, I can’t leave the kids alone. For me, this news has been like a bath with ice water.”
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said she’s “heartbroken" to have to return to all-remote learning, especially for the high-needs students, “many of whom are nonverbal and unable to use technology in the home,” she said in a statement.
She also urged the community to follow public health guidance and work to bring citywide infection rates down.
“We need your help,” she said. "Our children are depending on all of us.”
Cassellius and the Boston Teachers Union, which supported the district’s decision on Wednesday, promised to work together to continue helping the highest-needs students.
“Parents deserve as much predictability as possible for the next set of scenarios, and we think there is an opportunity by working together – and with educators and families having a voice at the table – for the system to achieve more predictability for students, families and educators,” the union wrote in a statement.
In her West Roxbury home, Cristina Colanti started crying Wednesday when she heard the news. Her daughter, Mae, 4, who has Down syndrome, can’t learn remotely due to her age and disability, she said, and she fears her daughter’s language skills and behavior will regress, as they did in the spring.
“This is really unfair to parents and educators,” Colanti said. “We were given less than 24 hours to figure out child care. We don’t have people who can just drop what they’re doing and watch our children.”
Naomi Martin and Bianca Vázquez Toness of the Globe staff contributed to this story.