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THE GREAT DIVIDE

To Boston parents, treatment of most vulnerable students underscores district’s poor planning, communication

Superintendent says reopening schools in a pandemic is “extremely complex”

Mason DePina turned away from the computer as he stims, a self-soothing behavior that is also referred to as self-stimulatory behavior. His mother, Liz Gomes, said he had stopped much of his stimming before the pandemic but after COVID-19 shut everything down, he has reverted back to his old habits.
Mason DePina turned away from the computer as he stims, a self-soothing behavior that is also referred to as self-stimulatory behavior. His mother, Liz Gomes, said he had stopped much of his stimming before the pandemic but after COVID-19 shut everything down, he has reverted back to his old habits.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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When school officials abruptly sent home Boston’s high needs students with no word on the next steps, it was the latest example of what many parents and other critics say is weak and often confusing planning by the state’s largest school district.

“They didn’t even send us home with materials to use [with] our kids,” said parent Liz Gomes. She has struggled to know how to help her 17-year-old son, who has autism, move forward with his learning since schools closed their doors Oct. 21. “They knew we were headed for a second shutdown in the fall. And they did not prepare for the second wave.”

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Mason DePina worked in a Zoom class.
Mason DePina worked in a Zoom class.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The 2,000-plus who had returned in person for the first three weeks of October included many of those with severe special needs, students still learning English, and homeless students.

“There should have been something in place” for these students, said Roxann Harvey, chair of the city’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council. “You can’t just suddenly close our schools and say . . . we’ll have to think of something else. Everyone knew the [COVID-19] numbers would rise again.”

Fears of a repeat experience are starting to resurface as district officials prepare to bring back a far smaller number of high needs students for in-person instruction Monday. Parents say there is little communication coming from the district about which students will be prioritized for in-person instruction, or how long the next attempt to return to a normal schedule will last.

“We just want some assurances this won’t happen again,” said Mike Colanti, whose daughter has Down syndrome and is in the small group of students slated to return — again — this month. “At a certain point, this isn’t unprecedented anymore. It is our new reality. Let us collectively come up with an innovative plan that will carry us through this."

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Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the district has had to juggle many, sometimes competing, needs and priorities, including families' wishes, teachers union demands, facilities assessments, and ever-changing information about virus rates. “It’s a very large district and is extremely complex,” Cassellius said. “There’s transportation, food, nutrition, facility upgrades that need to happen, we’re having supply issues. . . . It’s been a challenging pandemic situation to try to manage and to work through.”

From many parents’ perspectives, however, those challenges have manifested as last-minute planning and insufficient communication.

At the end of July, Boston’s school system announced “tentative” plans to bring back all students part time. If there was enough space, special education students might be able to attend school in person more full time, under the plan.

Teachers, advocates, and parents questioned the district’s ability to pull off such an ambitious scheme, given the work necessary to improve buildings and the logistics of transporting students. Parents and students began to make plans based on the idea that that all children might be coming back part time.

Yet less than a month later, when plans were due to the state, the district didn’t solidify plans for a return, angering many critics who thought educators and families needed time to prepare for the new teaching model and social distancing requirements. “Every day the district delays this decision, we lose an opportunity to prepare our students for success,” City Councilor Andrea Campbell said at the time.

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A week later, in late August, Boston school officials announced that all students would start remotely on Sept. 21 — 11 days later than planned.

At that point, district officials said they would first bring back “high needs” students in an initial wave beginning Oct. 1. But over the next few weeks, their definition of “high needs” changed several times, leaving families uncertain — until the eleventh hour, in some instances — of whether their children would be eligible for in-person learning in October.

The district ultimately settled on students with special needs, some English learners newer to the language and country, homeless students, and those in foster care.

At first, district officials suggested some of the high needs students would only be eligible for two days a week of in-person instruction, and then shifted in early September to four days, if the school had the space. In the end, some of the students came back two days a week, and others four.

The high needs students finally returned to in-person instruction as planned on Oct. 1. But the coronavirus positivity rate in Boston rose steadily over the month. At the time, there was confusion about the the exact rate that would trigger a closure, with many teachers expecting in-person instruction to end when the rate hit 4 percent early in October. Yet the district chose to keep schools open.

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The teachers union then sued the school district and city in an attempt to close the schools. The school district won. And some parents thought in-person school — for high needs students, at least — would continue indefinitely.

Cassellius said the district was caught off-guard by the positivity rate. “There was a plan," she said. But "we weren’t expecting such a quick rise in the rate. So it required us to quickly shift to a different model.”

That model was to send all students home — at least temporarily. Many parents and students learned late on Oct. 21 that children wouldn’t be going to school the next day. Parents had to scramble to find child care.

Mattapan mother Xiomara Garcia said she doesn’t understand why the district didn’t make arrangements for special education services in students' homes or at community centers.

“The plan was a failure, and now parents don’t have any options,” said Garcia, speaking in Spanish. Her ninth-grade son has attention deficit disorder and receives help with reading. He wasn’t able to use his in-person spot, because he’s responsible for his little brother while Garcia works as a home health care aide.

“The virus has been with us for eight months," she said. "There has been time to think this through.”

When schools were open in October, as many as 2,600 students were attending classes at least two days a week.

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Now, Cassellius looks to open schools for a drastically smaller number of those students — fewer than 200 of what officials are now describing as the “highest needs” students, all of them with disabilities — and raising concerns about the scores of kids that will be excluded from the new definition.

The new plan calls for resuming in-person instruction Monday at four schools for students with disabilities: the Carter School, the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the McKinley schools, and the Henderson K-12 Inclusion School.

Parent Liz Gomes, whose 17-year-old with autism was not among those invited back, said she was disappointed to learn the district is working to bring back only a small number of special education students. “When it comes to disability, you can’t pick and choose like that. It’s all or nothing," she said.

Liz Gomes's son, Mason DePina, pushes off against the wall as he stims.
Liz Gomes's son, Mason DePina, pushes off against the wall as he stims. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, criticized the inclusion of the Henderson on the list. It’s a school "where parents are lawyers or have lawyers,” said Reyes. "It shouldn’t just be these schools.” The Henderson enrolls significantly more white students than the district average and fewer economically disadvantaged students.

Cassellius dismissed accusations that the district is bowing to pressure from connected parents and said the Henderson was chosen because of its large size and specialized programs that serve students with “very high complex needs” such as blindness or students who are nonverbal. “The school was ready . . . the school leader was saying she’s ready to take back their kids,” Cassellius said.

Reyes and others have also questioned the “prioritization” of special education students in the plan to bring back a drastically reduced number of students. Students with disabilities have clearly defined federal protections, and she worries the district isn’t focused enough on homeless children or English learners.

Parent Claritza Rodriguez has both a seventh-grade English learner and a fifth-grade special needs student who briefly attended school in person in October. She said both of her children have trouble learning remotely and are regressing. Neither would be eligible to return under the new plan.

“They need to be in school,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t understand why the district would only bring back some of the high needs students.”

Cassellius said she’s focusing first on students whose disabilities make it virtually impossible to learn remotely. After that, the district’s task force on high-needs students will determine which groups will come back next. She’s already in conversations with other principals who are “ready” to come back, she said.



Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.