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Boston eyes return to in-person instruction at four schools

A social distancing classroom at the Mildred Avenue K-8 in Mattapan, photographed in September. The Mildred Avenue K-8 school is not one of the schools slated to bring students back next week.
A social distancing classroom at the Mildred Avenue K-8 in Mattapan, photographed in September. The Mildred Avenue K-8 school is not one of the schools slated to bring students back next week.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Students at four Boston public schools focused on students with disabilities will have the opportunity to return to brick-and-mortar classrooms starting Monday under a new plan that has yet to win sign-off from the teachers union, according to a district spokesman.

The schools are among those serving high-needs students that district officials abruptly closed on Oct. 21 when the coronavirus positivity rate in the city rocketed to 5.7 percent.

The district had been trying to negotiate a new agreement with the Boston Teachers Union to reopen the four schools jointly, according to Jonathan Palumbo, the district spokesman. But the two sides failed to hammer out a deal and the district has decided to move forward unilaterally, at least for now. School leaders are “in close contact with their staff to plan for Monday,” Palumbo said.

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In a statement, union president Jessica Tang said teachers believe safe, in-person learning is essential, “particularly for high-needs students unable to access remote learning. The question is whether BPS will take the steps necessary, as outlined by educators and families, to make in-person instruction as safe and as high-quality as possible for our students with the greatest needs.”

The union, Tang added, is still in conversations with the city, and hoping to strike a deal before Monday.

The schools slated to reopen include the Carter School, a program in the South End for students with severe cognitive delays, physical handicaps, and complex medical conditions; the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; the McKinley schools, which serve students with emotional impairments; and the Henderson K-12 Inclusion School, a coveted program where special education students learn side-by-side with non-disabled peers. (At the Henderson, only students with severe disabilities will be eligible to return.)

All told, around 200 students have signaled they will return, according to Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.

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“This has been very heart-wrenching to not be open for our students, in particular, our highest needs students,” Cassellius said in an interview last week, before deciding to move forward without a union agreement. “It has been very challenging for them to thrive. ... And so there’s an urgency to getting our students back in school as soon as it is absolutely safe to do so.”

The four schools represent a small subset of the “high-needs” students the district was educating in person during the first three weeks of October. Boston had invited more than 11,500 students — including those with disabilities, students at the early stages of learning English, homeless students, and children in foster care. About 3,380 said they planned to attend, and as many as 1,300 had been showing up each for in-person instruction.

Some families and advocates are concerned the district has now scaled back its efforts too far. “It’s not enough,” said Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council. “If those (four) schools are safe, why can’t we open the others?”

Cassellius said a task force on high-needs students is working on plans to bring back more students, beyond the four schools, while also taking seriously health and safety risks from the virus. “We are working with a very high-need population and we want our kids back in school as soon as possible,” she said. “But we are living through a pandemic. And safety is first."

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Cassellius said the district had agreed to provide air purifiers and medical grade masks for staff working inside schools with students. The district also agreed to regularly test the air inside classrooms. (Palumbo said the district would still provide these safety measures.)

“What we have ... a growing positivity rate within the community,” said Cassellius. “We are taking measures that would then mitigate any of that coming into our schools.”

The district will communicate plans to families of the students at the four schools today and tomorrow, according to Palumbo.


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